How to get a university scholarship: six tips for success

It pays to start looking early and widely for financial support

(Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

(Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

A university education doesn’t come cheap, and earning income through scholarships is one way to help cover the costs. Lori Nolt, director of student awards and financial aid at the University of Victoria, shares tips on maximizing your potential.

1. Do your research early
Some scholarships are awarded as part of the general university admission process, while others need to be applied for directly. Deadlines vary from school to school and program to program, Nolt says, often in the spring (such as at UVic), but some as early as December. She recommends starting as early as possible—even in Grade 11—on researching what’s out there and when you need to apply so you’re organized when you enter a typically busy final year of high school. “Do your research, find out what you’re eligible to apply for, arrange them by deadline and put those deadlines on your calendar,” she suggests, “then work toward those deadlines.”

MORE: The Maclean’s Guide to Getting In to University or College

2. Cast a wide net
High school guidance counsellors and university databases are obvious places to find scholarships, but they’re not the only ones. Other common sources of funding are local businesses such as credit unions and parents’ places of work or professional organizations they’re members of. A good old-fashioned internet search is another tool, she adds, but be careful to filter for potential scams. “If somebody’s saying you have to pay to apply,” she says, “it’s probably not something you want to go near.”

3. Keep your options open
Scholarship deadlines may come sooner than offers of admission or acceptance deadlines, so it’s a good idea to apply for awards at multiple schools, just in case. “If you’ve applied to more than one institution, look at scholarships at each and apply as if you were going to that school,” Nolt recommends. “If your plans change at the last minute and you end up going to your number-three school, you want to make sure you haven’t missed any opportunities for free money.”

4. Pay attention to detail
Just as important as picking scholarships you’re eligible for is making sure you supply everything required to be considered. Dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s, and in any essay questions, “be really clear that you understand what they’re looking for.” Similarly, Nolt adds, check for spelling and grammar before submitting, and apply with time to spare. “There’s nothing worse than having a student call us at 4:30 on a Friday—when the deadline is 4:30 on that Friday—and say, ‘I’m having trouble uploading,’ ” she says. “Allow yourself enough time.”

5. Choose referees wisely
“Students don’t always see the letters [of recommendation] we receive,” Nolt points out, since often they must be submitted directly to the selection committee. “If the letter doesn’t show that the referee knew the student very well or support the things the student said in their essay, it can be really detrimental to their scholarship application.” Pick referees who know you in a way that is relevant to the scholarship—a volleyball coach for a sports award, for instance—and explain to them what you’re applying for. And avoid asking aunts or cousins to help, Nolt cautions. “I’m always surprised at the number of students who choose family members to write letters of reference.”

6. Tailor your materials
Applying for scholarships is a lot like applying for jobs. Just as you shouldn’t send the same generic cover letter to multiple potential employers, you should create new application materials for each award. “You don’t want a one-size-fits-all essay you’re going to submit with all forms,” Nolt says. “If they’re wanting to reward you for your 4-H experience, talk about your 4-H experience. It’s about making sure you understand who they’re looking for, and then demonstrating in your essay how you meet their criteria and why you’re the best candidate for their scholarship.”

7. Highlight your strengths
While academic merit is the primary criterion, awards committees are looking for well-rounded students, too—and it’s not just about a resumé that checks all the boxes. Usually there’s a point system used to score applications, Nolt says, and longer-term activities tend to have more weight than one-offs. She reminds students not to discount things they do that might seem banal but actually reveal responsibility and maturity. “I was recently reading applications from students who were really involved in 4-H,” she says. “They forgot to mention they were also responsible for getting up in the morning and making sure the cows were milked.”


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