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A guide to scholarships, awards and applications

By Rob Taylor

When I was in school at both the University of Toronto and Ryerson, I didn't receive a cent of scholarship money. I did receive an honorarium for being president of the student residence council at U of T Scarborough. And I did receive some money from the Millennium Scholarship Fund, but that was more loan relief than a scholarship - I had to be in debt to get the money, and it was applied directly to my OSAP debt. While it was nice to have less OSAP to pay back, having some actual cash would have been nice too.

The reason I didn't receive any scholarships was two-fold. First, I wasn't a brilliant enough student to be automatically chosen to receive a scholarship. I got by with high Bs and the occasional low A until my last year at Ryerson, when I seemed to hit As pretty much across the board - and then it was too late to get a scholarship. The second reason I didn't get any scholarships was that I was ill-informed. This was partially due to the limited resources available to me and partly due to my own laziness. When I was in high school, there was no World Wide Web, and "Internet" was a funny-sounding word my uncle used occasionally. I wasn't all that close to my guidance counsellor, and I wasn't even thinking beyond the summer when I applied to university.

I didn't apply for any scholarships. Hell, I didn't even look for any scholarships - I thought scholarships were for football players going to school in the States.

So why am I now writing an article to help students get scholarships?

A part of my duties as Senior Editor at EDge Interactive is overseeing the content of a family of Web sites which includes SchoolFinder.com, MySchool101.com and ScholarshipsCanada.com.

Part of what I do is to look after a large database of scholarships: well over 60,000 individual awards, awarded by over 300 organizations across Canada. Each year we compile all of the scholarships in our database that are for students who are already in or who are going into the first year of college or university and publish them in the ScholarshipsCanada.com Entrance Awards Directory.

So basically, I am a guy who has read, written and edited information on thousands of different scholarships. I've also talked to hundreds of students about helping them with their scholarship searches and written several articles published on our site and in the Directory dealing with scholarships, grants and loans.

What I hope this article will do is fill you in on the things I've seen and heard in the hunt for scholarships so you will be better armed than I was.

Know your armoury

It's important to know what you have in the way of strengths. The majority of scholarships are still based on grades, but some administrators are starting to look for other attributes in students as well. To know what you can get from a scholarship, you have to first know what you have in the way of assets.

Do you:

  • Participate in any extracurricular activities?
  • Participate in school events?
  • Get involved in sporting events?
  • Help out in your community at all?
  • Work on student council?
  • Volunteer anywhere?
Have you ever:
  • Been in a play?
  • Worked on a farm?
  • Run for office?
  • Been on an exchange program?
  • Grown vegetables?
  • Written a play?
You get the idea. Anything that makes you different from the other students applying for scholarships is important. I recommend sitting down with your family and thinking about it. Make a list. You might even want to run through your days. Something that seems routine to you might be extraordinary to someone else.

I'd also recommend talking to your guidance counsellor about how to approach your search for scholarships. It's their job to help you get ready for post-secondary education and they're good at it.

Know what your resources are

You should start your search for scholarships, and indeed all money for schooling, close to home.

Does the company or organization you or your parents work for offer any scholarships? It's been my experience that some companies offer scholarships to employees or children of employees and choose not to advertise outside the company. I don't know where to recommend checking with companies, because each one is different, but you might want to check with your or your parent's boss or HR to see if they know anything about any scholarships.

Similarly, do you or your parents belong to a union or an employee organization? Some unions are reluctant to post information about scholarships anywhere except internally, since their scholarships are open only to members or children of members. Check with your or your parent's union rep or their office.

Are you or any members of your family veterans or children of veterans? Veteran organizations give out a good chunk of scholarships. Maybe your parents belong to a lodge or a club that has a scholarship for members or children of members.

Look into the activities you are involved with. Make a list of possible sources of money to go after, like work or a club.

Sometimes high schools offer awards or have specific scholarships associated with them. Generally speaking, the guidance office or the principal will have information on these programs.

Statistics to back up what I've just written

So to prove that I learned something from my professors and instructors, and let me back up what I've said in the last two sections with some facts.

Of the 7,363 individual scholarships listed in the 2004 ScholarshipsCanada.com Entrance Awards directory there are:

  • 17 that require some kind of agricultural involvement;
  • 262 that require athletic involvement;
  • 631 that require some sort of extracurricular activity;
  • 615 that require some sort of leadership role;
  • 1115 that require school or community service;
  • 80 that require the student to have a general disability;
And there are many more qualifications beyond just grades.

Prepare ahead of time

This is probably the most important advice I can give you, and you probably already know it: prepare ahead of time.

I've read some pretty sad e-mails from students looking for help because they were not prepared. One student from the Maritimes wrote to ScholarshipsCanada.com saying that she was having to choose between leaving the power connected and the phone working. She had no money and didn't know whether she was going to be able to make rent the following month. I did some investigating and found that her school could have given her an emergency bursary. She met the qualifications for it, but she had missed the deadline by two weeks.

Even if you aren't going to start school next year, I'd recommend starting to look now. Not to apply, necessarily, but to see what's out there in the way of scholarships, grants and bursaries. See what kind of deadlines and requirements exist. It's better to know about an essay that's required for a scholarship nine months before it's due rather than finding out about it a week before.

Types of scholarships

I'm briefly going to break down the scholarships into two main categories: Automatic Consideration and Need to Apply.

Automatic Consideration means that no application is necessary to be considered for the award. These awards are generally given out to high-ranking academic students upon entrance to a school or program, or for the highest grade in a course or program after completion. There might be other factors considered, like extracurricular activities, but basically, it means no more work than applying to the school.

For Need to Apply scholarships, on the other hand, you, um, need to apply.

Who offers scholarships

Who offers scholarships? Everyone from schools, companies, charities and governments to private individuals. In our database, the majority of scholarships offered are offered by the schools themselves. Some examples of companies or organizations that offer scholarships who are not schools are:

  • Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada
  • Alexander G. Bell Association for the Deaf
  • Archives Society of Alberta
  • Associated Male Choruses of America
  • Automotive Industries Association of Canada
  • Black Business & Professional Association
  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada
  • Cameco Corporation
  • Canada Iceland Foundation
And a whole bunch more. Just try doing a search at ScholarshipsCanada.com and you'll see many others I have not included here.

Start looking on the Internet

Where do you start looking after you've gone through your local resources? The Internet. But just doing a search on a search engine, no matter how Internet-savvy you are, is just going to frustrate you. What you need to do is to use a specific database of scholarships, organized in such a way to make searching effective. I would recommend ScholarshipsCanada.com.

You can start looking right away, with no idea where you want to go to school, but I would recommend at least having an idea. As I mentioned before, most of the scholarships in our database are for students attending specific schools; having an idea of where you might go will narrow down the field a bit.

The scholarships in a database tool like ScholarshipsCanada.com will most often not be a complete explanation of everything you have to do to get the scholarships. This is because of space issues, both in the print directory and online. So if you find a scholarship in ScholarshipsCanada.com that interests you, you'll have to use that as a lead and find out more about the scholarship either by contacting the organization who offers it or by looking at their Web site or print literature.

Follow every lead

If you do find a scholarship that leads you to another piece of literature or another Web site, check it out carefully. They may have posted a new scholarship that we haven't got to yet, or they may have changed the name or the requirements of a scholarship. Scholarships are like a trail that you follow. Explore all the forks in the path before you go home.

Preparing an application

This is probably where I'm the weakest in giving advice. As I mentioned before, I have never applied for a scholarship myself, and this part of the process is one I rarely see.

BUT. From what I've learned by talking to administrators and students, and what I've applied from building résumés for jobs, (a similar process, in some ways), the most important thing is to be informed. Make sure you know everything about the award before you apply for it. Be sure they meet all the requirements. A lot of administrators who speak to me tell me that they are frustrated by the number of students who apply for awards but who do not in any way qualify for them. Or by those who may be eligible but who have forgotten some detail of their application package.

Like for a job application or a résumé, spelling, grammar and sentence structure are very important in any kind of scholarship application. Read what you write again and again. Could you say something more succinctly? If so, do it. I come from a journalistic background, so I kind of hate the elevated language a lot of people use when they are applying for jobs or scholarships. If it's done right, then it's pretty cool. But most people aren't good enough writers to do it well, and it comes off sounding awkward and weird. I'd try to keep it simple (though a couple of appropriate, elegant words are always nice). Plus, if you keep it simple, you get to say more. This is my opinion - it could depend on who your audience is.

Finally, try to think of an application letter for a scholarship the same way you would think of a letter you'd write when applying for a job. What makes you more deserving than anyone else for this award? Organize your thoughts. Take the time to figure out who will be reading the letter. If possible, address the letter to them directly. If appropriate, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope for the administrator to use to reply to you. Above all, BE POLITE. Thank them for their time in considering you for the award.

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