How to Fund a University Education
For many students, paying for a university education is a non-trivial task.
There are several ways you can pay for your education, five of them being scholarships, bursaries, grants, loans, and work. I will explain each of the listed in this post.
Table of contents
Cost of education
In my previous blog post, I wrote about the costs of university. According to Stats Canada, the average tuition in Ontario costs about $7,900, not including additional compulsory fees. And if you’re living away from home, you can expect to pay another $5,000 or more.
As you can tell, paying for university is not easy. For myself, I project my entire undergraduate experience to cost over $80,000. Through hard work and some luck, I managed to pay for my tuition and living expenses without taking a single penny from my parents. After reading this post, I hope that you can apply this knowledge into paying for your university education.
Scholarships are awarded on the basis of merit, whether it’s academics, leadership, volunteering, or other types of achievement. They can range from a few hundred bucks to the coveted full-ride scholarships.
Before I begin, why should you trust me? Because I’ve applied to and won multiple scholarships, helped coach others, and I’m on a scholarship selection committee. I’d also like to point out a very obvious fact: you can only win scholarships if you apply to them. This is a major key to winning scholarships.
Step 1: Gather relevant achievements and experiences
Most scholarships have certain requirements in order to apply, such as a certain GPA, exceptional leadership skills, strong volunteering experiences, etc. This step is fairly straightforward, so you should do everything you can to become a well-rounded individual with experiences to write about on your applications. Some scholarships also consider your passion for a particular topic or your future potential, so it’s not the end of the world if your resume isn’t quite there yet.
Scholarship applications often require these items:
- strong academic performance
- impactful leadership experiences
- meaningful volunteering experiences
- overcoming challenging life obstacles
- passionate and creative essay responses
- demonstrate financial need
In an ideal world, it’d be great to have the highest marks, but many scholarships only require that you meet a certain threshold. When you’re stacking up leadership and volunteer experiences, I highly recommend to value quality over quantity. It’s much more effective to portray a meaningful and impact experience than several plain, generic experiences.
Although some scholarships may specify financial need, it’s not as important or heavily weighted as the other criteria. Financial need is more relevant when applying to bursaries, grants, and loans.
Step 2: Define the type of scholarships you want to win
Finding scholarships to apply to isn’t a trivial task. You know that there are good scholarships out there, but where exactly do you find them? What type of scholarships do you want to apply to and win?
First, let me define the several types of scholarships that exist.
1. National/provincial scholarships for character, leadership, and volunteering
Category 1 scholarships require essay responses, reference letters, and often interviews. They receive the most applications and are worth the most.
2. Target group specific scholarships
Category 2 scholarships is a subset of category 1 scholarships and requires you to be part of a specific group/organization/culture/religion/etc. They’re more difficult to find than category 1, as their marketing budget is smaller. Due to less competition, they are easier to win than category 1.
3. Automatic university scholarships
Category 3 scholarships are awarded based on your GPA. Unlike the previous two categories, they do not require an application.
4. University specific scholarships
Category 4 scholarships are awarded based on strong supplemental forms or other scholarship applications.
5. Essay contest based scholarship
Category 5 scholarships require a creative essay response or story. They require a high amount of creativity. Unfortunately, responses written for category 5 scholarships cannot be easily reused for other scholarship applications. Before applying to these, it’s especially important to verify that they are legitimate.
6. “Enter your personal information and share” scholarship
Category 6 scholarships are more similar to a contest than an actual scholarship. They are well promoted on major scholarship websites. I don’t think they should be taken seriously.
7. Luck based, random draw scholarship
Category 7 scholarships are similar to category 6 scholarships, in the sense that they’re usually a waste of time.
Personally, I’ve won one category 1, a few category 2’s, one category 3, and a few category 4 scholarships. I avoid applying to category 6 or 7 scholarships. I think category 5 scholarships are interesting because they’re fun to write. This is an example of a category 5 scholarship, which asks you to write a 250 word essay on your career goals.
Obviously, it’s difficult winning a category 1 scholarship just from the sheer number of applicants. However, if you don’t apply, you’ll never have a chance to win.
I see tremendous value in category 2 and category 4 scholarships. Relatively speaking, these scholarships have far fewer applicants. To begin applying to these scholarships, I would recommend to brainstorm any groups you may belong to.
For example, I’m a Chinese Canadian, live in York Region, went to high school in North York, interested in technology programs, passionate about the environment, going into an engineering program, parents work at X company, belong to Y religion, volunteered for Z organization, etc.
Step 3: Find the scholarships
Compiling an exhaustive list of scholarships takes up a lot of time, but trust me it’s worth it. Here are all the methods I used to find scholarships during my senior year of high school and currently in university.
1. Major scholarship websites
The two major Canadian scholarship websites are ScholarshipCanada and Yconic. Although they claim to have thousands of awards worth hundreds of millions of dollars, take it with a grain of salt. You will quickly learn that out of these thousands of awards, maybe only 10 are matches for you. From these matches, many are in category 6 and 7, which aren’t worthwhile. If you’re lucky, there will be some scholarships in category 1 or 2 that you didn’t previously know about.
A reason why these major scholarship websites lack quality scholarships is because they charge the scholarship organizations a huge amount of money. Small scholarship organizations would prefer to spend their budget on deserving students rather than advertising costs.
As a start, I would recommend to check out these major scholarship websites. Don’t solely rely on them during your scholarship search.
2. Guidance counselors
Another good reference to find scholarships is your high school guidance office. They actively receive scholarships listings from organizations, large and small. For certain category 1 scholarships, you may need a nomination from your guidance office. It’s a great idea to schedule monthly meetings with your guidance counselor to talk about new scholarships and deadlines. Some schools and school boards also have a database of scholarships, so try to find that if you can.
3. University scholarship office
This is one of my favorite resource to find scholarships because very few people take advantage of it. You can schedule a meeting with an advisor, and they will be more than happy to help you. They usually have a database of scholarships, which you can access as a high school or university student. For future and current Waterloo students, check out this database.
There are three types of scholarships that a university provides.
First, there’s the automatically awarded scholarships that you receive for achieving a certain GPA. Second, there are major university specific scholarships that require a lengthy application. Third, there’s the smaller scholarships that require a supplementary application or a separate application. From these three types, scholarships can either be an entrance, renewable or one off.
Finally, the scholarship office compiles a list of external award opportunities, so that’s very worthwhile to check out. Here’s the list from the Waterloo Student Awards and Financial Aid office.
4. Word of mouth
Your mileage may vary for this category. What I mean by ‘word of mouth’ is hearing about scholarship success stories from your personal network of friends, family, coworkers, etc. If you know anyone who has won a scholarship, you should reach out to them for guidance.
Here’s a simple checklist of people you can ask
- your parents’ employers
- student clubs and organizations
- places you volunteered at
- sports teams
- church or other religious places
- upper year/university friends
- local community centre or library
If you don’t have a network of support yet, I’d advise you to start working towards that, as it’s super important later in life. When I was applying to scholarships in high school, I admit that my network was rather limited. I didn’t have this ‘word of mouth’ method to rely on, so I had to hustle and self learn many of these methods and build my knowledge.
5. Social media
Social media is a very underrated medium to find scholarships. To mimic the ‘word of mouth’ effect, I used social media frequently.
On Twitter, I highly recommend to follow other high school guidance and district school board accounts. Bayview Guidance’s Twitter account has some really awesome content. Other useful Twitter accounts include student life organizations, youth organizations, professional unions, university student awards office, local media outlets, etc. These accounts post about scholarships from time to time. In addition, I searched terms like ‘Canadian scholarship’ to see what people have been posting about scholarships recently.
On Facebook, I followed several scholarship related pages. Just search ‘Canada scholarships’ and follow the pages with thousands of likes. I also joined several university student groups on Facebook and once again searched for the keyword ‘scholarship’.
Finally, I followed student blogs and learned how they went through their scholarship process. I couldn’t necessarily find blogs where they posted specific scholarships to apply to, but it was invaluable learning what makes up a winning essay.
If you want to go a step beyond, you can go on LinkedIn, search for accomplished students or upper year classmates, and see what type of awards they won.
6. Google search for specific keywords
Searching for specific keywords on Google is time consuming and tedious, though very rewarding once you master it. Searching for generic terms like “scholarships in Canada” will return results for the major scholarship websites, who own the SEO for these particular queries. In order to get more effective results, you have to use several, very specific words.
For example, one time, I searched “professional engineer willowdale scholarship”. Then, I found a scholarship that I would not have found through generic searching or major scholarship websites. I applied to the scholarship and won it.
You can also Google search press releases of recent scholarship winners and view their profiles.
7. Student forums
On student forums, there are many high school and university students who post about their accomplishments. I recommend to go through old threads and see what type of scholarships these students have applied to or won.
8. Large corporation scholarships
Large corporations often give back to the community through empowering young people with scholarships. Brainstorm a long list of well known companies and find out if they have a scholarship program. An additional strategy is to search companies related to your industry.
For example, I’m in the tech industry and I found that Google, Microsoft and other companies all offer scholarships. Similarly, if I’m passionate about the environment, I might look to companies like Shell who wants to minimize their environmental impact.
Step 4: Evaluate the scholarships
After step 3, you should have found several scholarships to apply to. In an ideal world, you could apply to all the scholarships you found. In reality, you probably don’t have enough time to work on all of the applications.
When shortlisting your list of scholarships, consider the following:
- Do I meet all of the requirements?
- Am I a right fit for this scholarship?
- Do I have a realistic chance of winning?
- Is it worth my time?
Step 5: Gather and prepare required documents
Once you have a shortlist of scholarships, it’s critical to keep track of the scholarship’s requirements and deadline. Personally, I tracked all scholarship applications on an Excel spreadsheet.
Here are documents that are usually required:
- academic transcript
- 2-3 reference letters
- summary of your leadership roles
- high quality picture of yourself
I highly recommend to get these ready documents prepared at least one week in advance of the deadline. For reference letters, be respectful of your referees and give them at least two weeks time.
Step 6: Write scholarship applications
Since there are so many scholarships out there, it’s hard to generalize what the winning strategy is.
Here are my top 10 major 🔑’s to success:
- Follow the prompt and instructions
- Know your target audience
- Clear and concise language
- Grammar free and proofread responses
- Research the organization’s core values and relate to them
- Tell a personal, meaningful story
- Incorporate real life examples
- Highlight your results and impact
- Relate your past accomplishments to future potential
- Have fun while writing :)
Now that you have submitted your applications, patiently wait for results. Look for more scholarships, repeat the process.
Final thoughts on scholarships
As corny as this sounds, regardless of the outcome, you are a winner.
Why? Because you put in the effort to do all of this work. You’ve prepared well-written essay responses, collected reference letters, updated your resume, and learned how to find and fill out an application. These are all crucial skills to have as you grow.
The worst thing that can happen is you don’t win. In the process, you’ll learn so much about hard work and hustle. You’ll also learn how to push yourself even more.
Sometimes, all you need is a little bit of luck. Put yourself in a good situation and just hope for the best. Eventually, you’ll get lucky and win.
For the sake of keeping this blog post ‘short’, I did not discuss how to prepare for an interview. I promise I’ll write a blog post about this subject in the future.
On another note, if you’re pursuing a degree that applies technology, I encourage you to apply to the Andrew Rok Foundation Scholarship.
Disclaimer: I won the scholarship in 2014 and I’m currently on the Selection Committee.
Bursaries are awarded primarily on the basis of financial need but may include other criteria such as extracurricular involvement or leadership. Similar to scholarships, you’re not expected to repay bursaries. Bursaries are typically valued from $500 to a few thousand dollars.
From my personal experience, the best place to find bursaries is your university’s Student Awards and Financial Aid office. It’s very rare to find bursaries in other places, since they’re usually classified as scholarships with a ‘financial need’ criteria.
The process for finding and applying to bursaries is simple compared to scholarships.
Step 1: Determine if you have financial need
There are several definitions to what financial need is. If your total projected expenses are greater than your total income and savings, you have financial need.
Most bursaries require that:
- you applied to a student assistance program such as OSAP
- you demonstrate financial need
- you are enrolled in a full-time course load
Step 2: Find the bursaries
This is also a very straightforward step. The go-to place to find bursaries is your university’s Student Awards and Financial Aid (SAFA) office. For example, Waterloo SAFA nice lays out the bursaries on their website. I wouldn’t recommend to look for bursaries outside of your university, as I personally couldn’t find any.
There are three main types of bursaries for students.
1. Entrance bursary
The entrance bursary is only available to students enrolling in their first year of university. There’s a simple application, where you indicate some basic financial information. If this bursary exists at your university, the deadline is around April or May.
2. Full-time bursary
The full-time bursary is available for current university students. It requires an application containing your financial information. You may also submit supplementary information such as a summary of your extracurricular involvement and leadership.
3. Automatic bursary
You are considered for an automatic bursary from your university’s SAFA office, if you demonstrate strong financial need. An application is not required.
Step 3: Apply to bursaries
As I mentioned before, bursaries are primarily need-based. If you have financial need, you should definitely apply because the applications should only take ten minutes or less. A pro tip is to always include supplementary information even if it’s optional. That extra piece of information can help your cause significantly.
Here’s an example of a full-time bursary application. As you can see, you can apply for a general bursary or a specific one.
You should consider the following when applying:
- know the deadlines
- applied to OSAP or equivalent program
- prepare a summary of your extracurriculars and leadership
- maintain a decent GPA (some bursaries require an 80% average)
You’ll find out whether or not you received a bursary within 6 weeks of the deadline.
Final thoughts on bursaries
If you’re eligible to apply for bursaries, go for it. I applied to an entrance bursary and did not receive funding. I later applied to a full-time bursary and included a summary of my involvement. The next thing you know, I was awarded a bursary specifically reserved for a first year engineering student.
Grants & Loans
The government provides grants and grants to financially support university students. A grant is a non-repayable sum of money, whereas a loan is required to be paid back.
There are three types of loan programs: provincial/territorial, federal, and private.
Provinces and territories
Financial aid programs:
- Alberta Learning Information Service
- Manitoba Student Aid
- New Brunswick’s Student Financial Services
- Newfoundland and Labrador Student Aid
- NWT Student Financial Assistance
- Nova Scotia Student Assistance
- Ontario Student Assistance Program
- PEI Student Financial Services
- Aide financière aux études
- Saskatchewan Student Financial Assistance
- Yukon Student Financial Assistance
Financial aid programs such as OSAP have fairly standard application procedures.
If your family’s combined total income is $160,000 a year or less, you will receive the Ontario Tuition grant which provides a maximum of $1,730 per year.
Depending on your financial information, the government will also assess an amount of money to loan. If your assessed student loan exceeds a certain threshold ($7,300 for two-term academic years), then for the amount above the threshold will be turned into a grant, which you do not need to pay back. There may also be other additional grants that you’re eligible for.
For OSAP, loan repayment begins 6 months after the student ceases to be a full-time student.
Students are automatically considered for a Canada Student Loan when they apply for a provincial or territorial student loan. There are several types of Canada Student grants, which you can find here.
Private student loans
If you’ve maxed out government financial aid options, the last resort is to look into private student loans and lines of credit, which are usually not interest-free.
The final and most reliable way to pay for your university education is to work and earn an income. Getting an job not only helps your financial situation but also teaches you invaluable skills. After having several jobs, I have gained a stronger appreciation for hard work and financial independence. Furthermore, I have matured a lot and feel much more confident finding a job after graduation.
Most students work during one of these time periods:
1. Working part time prior to university
While in high school, I worked part time at an amusement park, and then interned at a digital software studio for a summer. I think it’s a great experience for students to work during high school to earn cash and gain some practical experience.
2. Working part time during university
As university students, we’re swamped with course work, so working part time during school is quite challenging. I would avoid working during school, if possible. It’s important to cherish the limited free time we have and reserve energy for academics and other activities.
3. Co-op programs or summer jobs
I’m enrolled in a co-op program, which means I have to complete six 4 month co-op terms by the time I graduate. In my first co-op term, I worked at a small startup in Waterloo. Now, in my second term, I’m working at a fin-tech company in California. I’m learning so much at work, while paying for my university expenses at the same time.
Being in a co-op program is great, but it doesn’t mean internships are guaranteed for us. Co-op students face the same challenges as regular students when looking for internships. Whether you’re a co-op student or not, I recommend to work hard and earn an internship at least once during your undergraduate career. Check out my previous blog post on applying to your first internship.
To conclude, I relied on a combination of scholarships, bursaries, grants, loans, and work to fund my university education. Now, you should have a better idea on how to fund your education. I hope I have ignited an idea in your minds or motivated you to work harder.
What you should take away from this post:
- Apply to as many scholarships and bursaries as you can, it’s worth the time.
- Be aware of the financial opportunities around you.
- Take advantage of the resources and ideas I’ve provided you