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A Guide to Scholarships, Awards and Applications

A personal look at best practices for finding and applying for awards.

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By Rob Taylor

A student works on applications for scholarships and awards.

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. 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. In fact, I didn't even look for any — I thought scholarships were for football players going to school in the States.

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. Though many scholarships are based on grades, many other administrators are looking 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 short story?

You get the idea. Anything that makes you different from other students applying for scholarships is important. Sit down with your family and think about it. Make a list. You might even want to run through your daily routine. Something that seems dull 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 close to home.

Does the company or organization you or your parents work for offer any scholarships? Some companies offer scholarships to employees or children of employees but choose not to advertise this fact outside the company. Check with your or your parents' bosses or HR departments to see if they've heard anything about scholarships.

Similarly, do you or your parents belong to a union or an employee organization? Some unions are reluctant to post information about scholarships externally, since their scholarships are open only to members or children of members. Check with your union reps or their office.

Are you or any members of your family veterans or children of veterans? Veteran's organizations often sponsor scholarships. Maybe your parents belong to a lodge or a club, too, that has a scholarship for members or their children.

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

Prepare ahead of time

This is 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 that she had to choose between paying her power bill or her phone bill. She had no money and didn't know if she was going to make rent next month. I did some investigating and found that her school offered an emergency bursary. She met the qualifications for it, but she'd missed the deadline by two weeks. The lesson is clear: act quickly.

Even if you aren't going to start school next year, start looking now. Not to apply, necessarily, but to see what's out there in the way of scholarships, grants and bursaries. See what kinds of deadlines and requirements exist. Better to know about an essay nine months before it's due than finding out about it a week before the deadline.

Types of scholarships

Scholarships break down 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 students who rank highly in academics upon entrance to a school or program. Sometimes they're given to the student with the highest grade in a course or program. There might be other factors considered, like extra-curricular activities, but basically, these awards are no more work for you than applying to the school.

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

Who offers scholarships

Who offers scholarships? Everyone from schools, companies and charities to governments and private individuals. In our database, the majority of scholarships are offered by the schools themselves, but many are not. Try searching ScholarshipsCanada.com and you'll find many more awards than you might have imagined.

Start looking on the internet

Where do you start looking after you've gone through your local resources? The internet. But just doing a quick search, no matter how tech savvy you are, is just going to frustrate you. You need a specific database of scholarships, organized to make searching effective. ScholarshipsCanada.com is the most comprehensive in Canada.

The scholarships in databases 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

The most important thing is to be informed. Make sure you know everything about the award before you apply for it. Be sure you 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 they don't qualify for. Other applicants may be eligible forget some detail of their application package.

Much like a résumé for a job application, spelling, grammar and sentence structure are important. Read what you write again and again. Could you say something more succinctly? If so, do it.

Resist the urge to indulge in "elevated" language. Write plainly, with an eye to clarity of expression. Sure, some people can make purple prose leap off the page, but consider the time and place! Try to keep your writing concise and elegant.

Finally, think of your scholarship application letter the same way you think of a cover letter for a job. What makes you more deserving than anyone else for this award? Organize your thoughts. Take the time to flearn who will read the letter. If possible, address them directly. If appropriate, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope for the administrator to use to reply to you. Above all, be polite! Thank the administrator for their time in considering you for the award.

There's lots to learn about scholarships, bursaries and awards. Luckily, the best way to learn is to dive right in and start applying. Good luck!

Modified on October 11, 2019

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