Author’s Note: This may also apply to American high school or post-secondary institutions. However as I only have experiences with Canadian institutions I cannot comfortably speak for American ones.
I spent my final year of high school applying to as many scholarships as I could find. I was ready to move on to bigger and better places and felt that scholarships gave me greater freedom to choose which school I went to. I felt that my choices would be limited if my parents had to foot the bill, and felt guilty suggesting that I leave home when I hadn’t done much to earn the money required for this expensive option.
Fortunately, my efforts paid off: I didn’t have to pay a cent of my own money until my third year. Even then it was only to cover residence fees, as one of the scholarships I won was for full tuition to my first choice of university – the University of Toronto.
Using my personal experiences as a guide, this article will discuss what organizations offering scholarships look for in their applicants, and best practices for applications. I will then suggest some of the best places to find scholarships.
Comparing Scholarships, Bursaries and Loans
The most important distinction when examining financial aid options is the understanding of the differences between scholarships, bursaries and student loans.
Student loans are amounts of money given by banks or the government to assist students in paying for school. They must be repaid with interest upon completion of one’s schooling.
You may have heard of OSAP – The Ontario Student Assistance Program – where you can receive government funding for school. This is a great way to get funds, but is also a loan – all money you receive from the government must be repaid with interest. If you have a disability, the Bursary for Students with Disabilities is a large grant that can cover disability-related expenses while at school, such as readers, tutors, or adaptive technology. There are also some mainstream scholarships open only to those receiving OSAP.
Bursaries are financial awards which do not need to be repaid, but are specifically for those with financial need.
Scholarships are gifts of money given to students by post-secondary institutions, community groups, businesses and individuals. They do not need to be repaid, but those that require
applications (not all do) can be competitive. This article discusses the best practices for winning these awards.
Elements of a complete Scholarship Applicant
There are three main areas a group offering a scholarship looks for in their applicants: academics, community involvement, and financial need. Every group places different emphasis on one or more of these areas.
While in high school, your financial need is determined by your household income. This includes any money you make as well as your parents’ or guardians’ income. Even if your parents or guardians aren’t assisting you in paying for school, you may not necessarily qualify for bursaries or student loans if their income exceeds a certain level.
For academics, most scholarships don’t specify a particular average. However, they do expect a strong commitment to one’s studies. A B (75% in Canada) or better is a good goal to aim for. Entrance scholarships – awards automatically given by schools upon a students’ acceptance of their offer – require at least an A (85% or better) average.
Community involvement is essential for a successful scholarship application. This could involve many things – from participating in school sports teams, music ensembles or other clubs, to volunteering beyond the required 40 hours at a local place of worship or other community organization. Regular commitment, especially in a leadership role, is advised.
Where to Find Scholarships
The first place you should go as a prospective scholarship seeker is your high school guidance office. Visit them several times a week as they get scholarship notifications and applications all the time but may not announce them publicly. This is particularly important because some of the biggest ones (such as the University of Toronto’s National [full] Scholarship or the Loran Awards) can only be applied for if students are nominated by their school. This often means completing the application and having it approved by your high school’s administration well before the application deadline. I wasn’t as good about going to the guidance office for applications as I should have been, and as a result had only three days to get the U of T application together. Most of the big awards are due in the fall, as there may be interviews and other things to complete before final decisions are made, so it’s best to start looking in the first few weeks of school. Remember-new awards come in all the time, so check regularly.
There are also some websites which are great sources of scholarships. Yconic is very thorough and has the largest number in one place, but Scholarships Canada has several that the former does not. The recently-created Disability Awards is an excellent amalgamation of most disability-specific scholarships. For the greatest number of applicable awards, be sure to fill out all profiles as thoroughly as possible.
Also check community organizations. Some Lions’ Clubs, churches, the YMCA, or other religious or cultural groups have money to give. Maybe your employer, or your parents’ employer, has education funds for employees or their family members. If you’re a regular volunteer, see if the organization you work with offers scholarships or bursaries. Maybe the city in which you live or its surrounding municipality has bursaries available. It’s amazing where money can be found.
Common Elements of Scholarship Applications
The following are good things to have at the ready should a last-minute application come up. Not all scholarships require the same things, but most will ask for at least one of the following
• An official or unofficial academic transcript from your high school
• A listing of your current and recent extra-curricular activities, volunteer experiences or community involvement, with dates, names of supervisors or coaches, and their contact information
• A list of references with contact information for each
• An up-to-date resume, including any work or volunteer experiences and extra-curriculars (this is a more formal document than those referred to above and doesn’t require contact information for anyone but you)
• An essay on a variety of topics (be prepared to write about your career goals or similar)
• Proof of disability (a copy of your CNIB card or membership card in any other disability-related group, an eye report, less formulaic doctor’s letter, etc.) explaining your condition(s)
(this is only for disability-specific awards)
Your Responsibilities as an applicant
It is essential that you (and not your parents or itinerant teacher) keep track of all of your scholarship applications – the submitted ones and those still in progress.
Make sure all elements of an application have been submitted and are on time. NEVER rely on your guidance office or others to get transcripts or other things to where they need to be. They are busy people; things can and do get lost or forgotten in the shuffle. Send them yourself to prospective schools and scholarships wherever possible. This GUARANTEES it gets to where it needs to be on time. If you must use your school to send transcripts or other documents, FOLLOW UP. Don’t stop asking (politely, of course) if they’ve been sent until you get a “yes”. You don’t want to lose out on opportunities because someone forgot to put something in the mail on time.
This applies to you too: send applications in early, or if you can’t do that, pay the extra cash to get the fastest delivery time possible. Make your applications trackable so you can see if they’ve been delivered. Most of these options are only available by going to a post office to mail an application. If you’re concerned you won’t be able to get transport to one very often, try to send several applications at once.
Another crucial point is having people who can serve as referees. They may need to speak to a representative of the organization offering the scholarship over the telephone if you look like a contender for the award, or the scholarship may require them to write a reference letter up front. Finding references takes two things: people to ask and a ready list of achievements and involvement to provide to them upon request. Most will want such a list, since they’ll want to be as thorough as possible and likely don’t know every aspect of your academic standing and personal accomplishments. Good people to have on hand for references are teachers with whom you have a personal relationship or in whose classes you’ve excelled supervisors or coaches for extracurriculars both inside and outside of school, and volunteering supervisors and family friends who can give good testaments to your personal character. Family members should not serve as your referees.
It’s also vital that you know where to go to get a current transcript, and how much turn-around time is required for you to have one. At my high school it was free for current students and only took five minutes for the guidance office secretary to find and print out, but your school’s policy may differ. Some referees may want to look at these too, and many scholarships require them. It’s good to have all of this information early and readily available, as application deadlines come fast.
I hope that helps you somewhat in your quest to pay for school.