by Ishani Nath
November 14, 2022

How to find the perfect university scholarship

You don't need the highest grades in your class or serious financial need in order to be eligible for awards. Says one expert: 'You can’t win if you don’t try.'

(Illustration by Ka Young Lee)

Going to university is exciting—and it can also be expensive. According to the 2018 Canadian University Survey Consortium survey, half of Canadian post-secondary students graduate with debt, owing an average of $28,000. Scholarships and awards can ease the financial burden of higher education, but experts estimate that $6-10 million in scholarships and awards go unclaimed each year. “There are scholarships that are uncontested or that people don’t even apply for,” says Chris Wilkins, founder of Scholarships­Canada, a website that features more than 100,000 scholarships worth over $200 million total. Wilkins says there is a misconception that students must be “brainiacs” or demonstrate financial need to be eligible for awards, but it’s often not the case. The bottom line: “You can’t win if you don’t try,” he says.

Here are some tips to set yourself up for success when applying for scholarships.

Start early

Madison Guy, founder of the online scholarships hub GrantMe, refers to Grade 12 as the “behemoth year” for scholarship applications, but says you can start preparing to apply as early as Grade 8. Participating in extracurriculars, sports teams and community groups can strengthen your profile as a scholarship candidate and increase the number of awards you are eligible for, since many organizations have affiliated scholarships.

Something else you can do in advance is start asking people for reference letters. Most scholarships require them. Guy recommends approaching a variety of individuals for letters: teachers, coaches and employers. “[They are all] going to have a different perspective and a different way of sharing your accomplishments,” she says.

How to find scholarships

Start your search close to home, Guy suggests. Personal connections such as your parents’ employers or organizations you’re involved with yourself may have scholarship opportunities. Guy notes that many school districts publish booklets that detail funding opportunities available for students in their respective areas.

Websites such as GrantMe, Scholarships­Canada, StudentAwards and Yconic are designed to help students find Canadian scholarships. Wilkins also recommends tailored Google searches using specific search terms such as “biology awards” or “life sciences awards.”

How to narrow it down

With thousands of scholarships available, it is crucial to prioritize which awards are worth your time and effort. Wilkins and Guy see a ton of interest in the $100,000 Loran Award or $70,000 TD Scholarship, and say students often overlook smaller awards. Wilkins says scholarships ranging from $500 to $2,000 can be a great opportunity because they are less competitive. He also recommends looking out for awards that are renewable, such as the De Beers Group Scholarship for Canadian Women studying in STEM fields.

Putting together your application

“Please read the requirements and the expectations,” says Logan Bright, a managing editor with Scholarships­Canada, which has been contracted to adjudicate submissions for select scholarships. Bright has read applications where, for instance, the essay does not answer the provided prompts. He also encourages the use of spell check and grammar check, as well as formatting essays into several paragraphs rather than one block of text.

One of the most common mistakes that Guy sees is students using the essay component of an application to list all of their accomplishments with no additional depth. GrantMe advises students to use the STAR (situation, task, action, result) technique—often recommended for job interviews—to describe something very specific they have experienced or achieved. “You want to choose fewer examples and use a lot more detail,” Guy says.

What to do after applying

After sending in applications, students fall into what Guy describes as the “scholarship dead zone”—waiting for replies. She suggests trying to find out roughly when the results will be announced; the information is often available on the award websites or can sometimes be gleaned from announcements from previous years. Both Guy and Wilkins compare applying for scholarships to applying for jobs and suggest that following up and thanking the organization for their time and consideration can help candidates stand out from the pack.

“There are a lot of awards out there,” says Bright. “See yourself as a scholarship winner.”

This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2022 Canadian Universities Guidebook with the headline, “Finding your scholarships.”