Apply for scholarships, bursaries and grants to help pay your tuition


Scholarships, bursaries, grants and awards are often called “free money” because they provide students with interest-free funds that don’t need to be paid back.

The definition of these educational subsidies may vary with each institution, but most will provide a web page similar to this one.

Although this article provides some tips for students interested in pursing these funding options, more information can be found by consulting this article.

How do you get free money?

Know where to look

  • Your school’s financial aid office should have a database of awards both internal and external to your institution.
  • Seek out opportunities in all levels of government: municipally, provincially, and nationally.
  • Googling the name of my city along with words like “scholarship,”  “bursary” and “award” has connected me to scholarships offered by private individuals.  I have also found these opportunities by keeping newspaper articles about scholarship recipients (so that I have names of awards and dates of when they’re awarded).
  • If there are big businesses in your area that tend to be community-minded, it’s worth searching their websites for scholarship opportunities.

Know how to search

  • Limit by type of opportunity: For instance, I know that I’m not eligible for bursaries and grants, so I search for scholarships instead
  • Use key phrases: Search with key terms like “undergraduate,” “graduate,” “in final year,” “not in first year,” etc.
  • Use alternative search words: Online searches using terms like “humanities” rather than “arts” or “English” will bring up different opportunities

Keep ahead of schedule

Personally, I stay about a year ahead when searching for opportunities.  I use a calendar to indicate not only when applications are due, but also when to start looking for the current year’s application.

I constantly update my “master resumé.” Then, when I need to throw together a scholarship application, much of the work is done.   Keeping old scholarship applications also helps.

Read the instructions carefully

It’s extremely important not to include things the committees don’t want because they will not consider your application.

Take note of the details, such as whether the opportunity is for graduates or undergraduates, students from any province/country or a specific province/country, if transcripts must be official (they can get costly if you don’t need them), and whether the deadline is post-marked or has “to be received by” a specific date.

Don’t neglect your references

Your references are doing you a favour, so be courteous.

Give them as much notice as possible and as much information as you can (e.g., a copy of the application, your resumé or a list of your involvement, information on past winners, a description of the purpose of organization, etc.).  This will help them write you a better letter.  Just like with cover letters, committees can spot cut-and-pasted letters from miles away!

Finally, your referees will be pleased to hear how you did, so keep them posted and send them a thank-you note.

Make the most of the short/long answer sections

  • I have had the most success when I’m specific.  For example, I keep track of things such as the number of hours I volunteer with each agency or the amount of money raised at fundraisers I organize and incorporate this information into my answers.
  • Many sections of applications will ask applicants to simply list their involvement or state their GPA.  Since most students will have a similar academic record and level of involvement as you, the short answer sections are an important space for you to differentiate yourself.  This is the “personal branding” section.

Be resourceful

  • Check other universities’ “external scholarships” web pages. (Here’s one from Dalhousie and another from McMaster.)
  • Most businesses post profiles of past years’ winners, which can help you see what is valued by the committee.
  • Ask friends or graduates if you can see their old (winning) applications.
  • Create a network.  For instance, as I’m searching for scholarships, I send my science friends links to science scholarships.
  • See if your financial aid office provides seminars to help students write applications.  Some schools’ career services help students write graduate scholarship applications, too.

For more tips, tricks and must-dos for students heading back to school this fall, check out our Back to School series.


Photo credit: i’ll have some by dotpolka on Flickr
About the author

Elizabeth Baisley is currently studying for an Master of Arts in Political Studies at Queen's University, where she works as a teaching assistant. She recently completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Human Rights & Human Diversity at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus. Elizabeth's academic interest in the rights of marginalized populations translates into her volunteer work and extracurricular involvement in the fields of rights advocacy, immigrant settlement, literacy, health, environmental issues, and local democracy. In September 2013, she will begin her PhD in Politics at Princeton University.