Latif Murji is attending college for free for the next four years. Thanks to his extensive scholarship research and a lot of hard work, Murji has earned CAD $96 000 in scholarships, including the prestigious CAD $70 000 TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Outstanding Community Leadership. He was one of 20 students from among 4 000 applicants selected for the scholarship, which honours outstanding community leadership.
Each year, companies and charities offer more than $2 billion in private scholarships to students for filling out some paperwork, writing an essay or two and occasionally being interviewed in person or over the phone. In addition to being an attractive form of education financing – since unlike loans, scholarships do not have to be repaid – the awarding of a scholarship is in itself a prestigious form of recognition. The National Postsecondary Student Aid study indicates that since 2007, US students at four-year colleges have represented over 70 per cent of scholarship recipients (with 1 in 8 students receiving scholarships worth $2 000 or more). The number can be even higher if students know how to research well for such opportunities.
The truth is that many scholarships go unfulfilled each year because students fail to identify and apply for them. It is important that students research early and well, and apply for as many scholarships as possible to increase their chances. Applications for merit-based scholarships can be filled out on the basis of aptitude or performance in areas such as academics, leadership, voluntary work, as well as extracurricular activities such as art, theatre, sports, and music. (There are even scholarships for being left-handed, one's height, ancestry, or gender!)
Here are a few things to keep in mind while searching for scholarships.
Start early with a strong resume
Before you start your scholarship search, begin with a strong resume and keep updating and strengthening it in the high school years with achievements in your areas of strength. Have peers, teachers, or people in the field of your choice look it over for you, and incorporate their feedback.
The best time to apply for a scholarship or grant is in your senior years of high school, to meet the early or mid-fall application deadlines. Don't wait for acceptance into a programme before starting your search and don't be disheartened if you are unsuccessful in some of your applications. There are many opportunities out there.
Success in his scholarship search did not come easily to Murji, but he persevered. “After getting rejected, I just worked harder,” Murji explains. He advises students to be through in their scholarship searches, start early by using the summer before their third and fourth years of high school, and be ready to face rejection. He also recommends having great reference letters and allowing referees enough time to write their letters.
Be thorough in your search and watch out for scams
The largest amount of financial aid comes from federal, state, and institutional entities. Financial aid offices can help students locate scholarships, grants, and loans suitable for them.
Afsha Hussaini, a student at the Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta, tapped into the right resource when she applied for and won the Gates Millennium Scholarship. Designed to provide opportunities for outstanding minority students, the scholarship fulfils the unmet financial needs of the recipient to attend the school of their choice. To qualify, students must demonstrate academic excellence and leadership through community service or other extracurricular activities.
Learn to identify legitimate scholarship search sites online and seek the assistance of student aid offices in identifying credible ones. Be wary of sites that ask for a fee, personal information or disguise an advertisement as a potential scholarship – most legitimate sites offer free searches. A list of reputable scholarship sites is provided in the gray box of this article.
FinAid, a financial aid website for students, maintains a section on scholarship scams.
Increase your chances by rounding out your activities
Being a good and level-headed student is important, but so is having a well-rounded portfolio of extracurricular activities.
Murji had a 93% average in high school while also being actively involved in his school and community. He was a director of a committee for Personal Social Responsibility, Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, on the Executive Board of the Bethune Environmental Action Team (BEAT), co-founder of an improvisational comedy troupe dedicated to educating young students about positive high school experiences, and has been active in the Ismaili Volunteer Corps since he was eight years old.
Hussaini, too is a well-rounded student, which made her an attractive candidate for the scholarship she won. She was involved with the President's Volunteer Service Award, i-CERV (an Ismaili community youth service organisation), the Beta Club, the National Honours Society, and was president of her student council.
Aliza Moledina is a student at the University of Western Ontario who received the Millennium Excellence Award at the provincial level (CAD $20 500) and the Johnson Scholarship (CAD $1 500) for her high academic standing – a 95% grade average – and her many extracurricular activities.
“I believe that I was chosen not only because of these activities, but also because I described my passion for service and acknowledged the great impact that these activities have had on my own personal growth,” says Moledina.
In high school, Moledina was the chairperson of Model United Nations, and a member of the United Cultures Club, Peer Help Centre and Amnesty International. She was chosen as External Relations Manager for Impact – a non-profit organisation that promotes entrepreneurship and leadership among Canadian youth – and volunteered for the Canadian Cancer Society and the Queensway Carleton Hospital. She has also worked on several political campaigns.
A member of the Ismaili Volunteer Corps, Moledina was appointed a Big Sister. She co-organised a community environmental initiative that facilitated the clean-up of Ottawa's Elizabeth Manley Park (a CIVIC initiative). Last summer, she travelled to Kenya with Free the Children and helped build a school in the rural village of Salabwek.
Apply for multiple scholarships
During your search, do not discount smaller scholarships. When added up, multiple small awards can prove to be quite beneficial.
“The hardest part for me was gathering all the required materials,” says Moledina. Scholarship applications may require many reference letters, officially signed copies of transcripts, essays, and other documentation.
“My advice is to make a plan and set dates so that you have a schedule of what date you want to complete each component by,” she adds. “And apply for a scholarship even if you think you won't receive it – it's always worth a shot!”
Polish your writing skills
Essay writing is a big deterrent for some students. In fact many scholarships that require essays receive very fewer applicants. Use that to your advantage, and apply for such opportunities. Remember to get your essays reviewed and proofread.
Hussaini attributes her success to the fact that she brought her accomplishments to life and wrote about how those encounters affected her. “I was able to speak through my essays,” she says. “Also, I had a good recommendation completed by someone who knew my work experience on a very personal level.”
Hussaini advises students not to avoid scholarships that require essay writing. “Once you are in college and facing financial pressures, you will always remember that writing these essays took a few hours, but the benefits of writing them truly pays off,” she says.