10 Tips For Winning Scholarships and Bursaries

By Roshni Thawani

Do you ever have some things you know now that you wished you knew earlier?! For me, that was definitely navigating scholarship applications and bursaries. Rest assured, I’m no genius nor have I won millions of dollars in funding my studies. However, in my final 2 years of university, I found myself with approximately $14,000 in extra aid towards school, summer internships abroad, and studies in the UK and Italy! How did I do that? I applied, and applied, and applied till someone said yes. This may sound like a daunting task, but honestly, it’s not that bad! Below I share my tips for navigating applications (scholarships, grants, and bursaries) and how you may be able to financially secure (or significantly alleviate debt) from your studies!

Tip #1) You > Grades

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Know that good grades are SOMETHING but NOT EVERYTHING. Yes, failing every class doesn’t put you in an ideal spot. However, one failure doesn’t define your degree. I repeat, one failure does NOT define your degree. I failed biology in my first year (I PROUDLY say it with confidence). That failure was feedback in disguise. Although, in my first year, that mark really coiled with my perception of my “worthiness” and “intellect”. That’s just BS. Now, while that one failure does not define my degree, if I had continued on without looking for ways to improve, that would have been on me.

So, learn about yourself and get to know your strengths and weaknesses. Determine which classes you do well in and why. It’s probably where your interests lie.

Side Tip #1a) Grades

Getting good grades is SOMETHING. So, how does one do that? I also wish I knew this early on. It’s not about how much you study, it’s about how SMART you study. This is really about planning, believing in your plan, and scheduling in breaks as if they were assignments. Breaks are CRUCIAL! Your productivity levels need to be rested and recharged, so going out with your friends once in a while or watching your favourite episode of Grey’s Anatomy IS A PRIORITY. BALANCE is a NECESSITY.

GET A CALENDAR, mark down your actual deadlines and your personal deadlines to produce the first draft that will, be a piece of work to improve. Whether this is a scholarship application, bursaries, personal statement, or an assignment for the class on 1959 of blah blah blah. Either way, there’s room for improvement. So mark it down and pick a date that gives you enough time to have 1-3 people look over it and offer advice.

Tip #2) Advice

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This brings me to tip number 2, GET ADVICE. Do you know who best knows how to win scholarships and bursaries? People who have won them. This is life advice for anything: careers, grades, specialties, etc. Knowledge is key. If you’re afraid of ‘looking dumb’ or believe asking for help is ‘dumb’, man, do I have news for you. That is dumb. You are not dumb, but that thought lacks the mindset to believe there’s people out there who encompass knowledge that could bridge the gap from where you are today to where you could be tomorrow.

From my experience, most people are more than willing to help someone who was once in their shoes. They see a little bit of themselves in you and karma is damn good to them. For those people who don’t want to help, that’s perfectly fine too. People have different priorities, and/or sometimes the timing is off — don’t take it personally.

Tip #3) Advisors

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Which brings me to tip number 3, who do you go to for advice and aid? If you’re in a school or university, you should have some sort of writing advisor, peer reviewer, or academic don who could give your application a quick glance. If you have a big brother or sister, they can help too. Then there’s sometimes mom and/or dad, depending on their education or life experiences.

Additionally, I find asking someone to review your writing helps beat procrastination because now you have made yourself accountable to someone other than you. As a bonus, the people related to the educational institution or those who have won scholarships and bursaries may also provide more information on where else you can apply for financial resources. And this domino effect is golden, my friend. Then there’s always LinkedIn — some strangers are kinder than you could ever imagine. Find someone who has the scholarship you want and offer them a cup of coffee in exchange for their advice. You never know where it could take you.

Tip #4) Golden Key

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Once you have a perfected personal statement and/or scholarship application, SAVE IT and SAVE EVERY VERSION OF IT. After you have one piece of writing that outlines your work, volunteer, grades, your financial resources, and your dreams and aspirations, you have a new key that can wiggle into many doors, amigo. This one piece of writing may need slight adjustments with respect to the title, date, and to whom it is being delivered; however, the core piece remains consistent. Email it to yourself so you always have an electronic copy handy! 

Tip #5) APPLY

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Once you have the magic key, the next step is to apply, apply, apply, and — you guessed it! APPLY. Now, most of the big scholarships and bursaries require letters of recommendation or “letters of support”. These golden tickets of help come from Tip #2, and that’s getting advice. For the sake of this example, imagine you are in your first year of university:

Your first paper is coming up, you’re overwhelmed by the fears high school has ingrained in you. The idea that “professors don’t care”, “you’re just a number”, and “university is hard”. It’s important to remind yourself that these statements are not the full story, they are half-truths. They are parts of the puzzle. Some professors really do care about their students. It’s more about you taking the initiative and effort to see them and find those professors who are gems in this overwhelming system. You may be a number, but, hey, $1,000,000 is also a number too. It’s about how you perceive and let that number define you.

Lastly, university was a challenge (to say the least), but not impossible to navigate. So start early, ask for advice on your “three ideas” for the next essay.

Tip #6) Passions Meet Productivity

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Another tip revolves around the core piece of the letter: volunteer, grades, part-time jobs, school clubs, and extra-curricular activities. You are basically getting paid for doing things you enjoy. So get out there and find something that sparks your energy. Just do something or something(s) you enjoy and see where it leads.

For instance, I’m really proud of my Indian background and enjoy celebrating my cultural heritage. Throughout my life, I always looked for friends who could share that with me when I found the Indian Students’ Society. Joining this school committee changed my life. It was essentially eating food and planning socials with friends. But it brought me to a space where I met my closest pals. I worked really hard in my positions because it didn’t feel like work at all. It felt as though I had projects with friends while I shared my culture with others. Then, when I went from Marketing and Promotions into a Presidency role, it felt like a natural next step. I did not seek out this opportunity as a resume booster, and I think that is very important to remember.

People can see what you’re passionate about and what you may be doing for the sake of a title.

Treat yourself and value your time enough to do things that bring you the most joy or will lead you one step closer to your goals. Also, face it, there are 168 hours in a week, about a third go to sleep (or should) — that leaves about 112 hours that you never get back.

Spend as much time as you can doing something you find passion in — this will lead to something greater. I understand everyone’s circumstances are different. I have been working part-time jobs for as long as I can remember. Although, if something is really important to you, then find the time for your PASSION PRODUCTIVE hours; whether it’s 1 – 10 that you dedicate per week/month to something you’re passionate about. These are the hours where you find your snap story memories three years later and reminisce about the experience. You served a greater purpose that brought you joy, and that is time well spent my friend.

Tip #7) Time

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Here we transition into tip #7, spending your time well. This tip tags onto the advice of a calendar. Break up your 168 hours. How I do it (which, remember, to each their own):

I set aside a certain number of hours for friends, studies, work, passion productivity, gym, applications (scholarships, bursaries, jobs, grants, internships), necessity time (meal prep/groceries/cleaning), family time, me time, and sleep time. These are the main components of my regular week, and you can start a similar routine whether you’re 8 or 18 or 80.

Every week is going to vary based on your priorities, so it’s important to know your dates as soon as possible. When it comes to scholarships and bursaries, I set aside dates and times to remind professors/supporters of the application deadline. Usually 1-2 months before the deadline seems like a good bet for recommendations. Get the yes and then follow up 2 weeks before the due date. And then a few days before. I always frame my emails or in-person check in’s like a friendly nudge. This shows your ability to take initiative while trying to work with other schedules.

Tip #8) Resources

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So what do you do when you have the core pieces? Where do you actually apply? I was directed to websites like ScholarshipsCanada and the university’s scholarship portal. These are great resources, although I found the following sources to be of best assistance:

College or School Registrar:

These are the academic gurus of your university, college, or high school. They are the people you turn to when you need to drop a course, or when family circumstances impact your studies, or when graduation confuses and worries you. These are just a few things they help with, but they definitely know where the money is AT! They actually get emails for NEW scholarships, bursaries, and grants on a regular basis. Therefore, if you check-in with them once or twice a term, chances are their inbox has something new for you! Get to know them really well because having your name and face recognized in this office can go a long way.

Centre for International Experience:

This is a department that served a very niche clientele like myself: an avid globe trotter. I wanted to travel so badly. I thought, “Hey, what if I can get paid to do it?”! This was the reason I went all in for the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship. It was a 90-day internship in a commonwealth country that funded my flights, accommodation, meal costs, AND I still had money left over (that I used for a school exchange to Italy :).

The QES can be a little different, depending on your internship sight. Luckily, the Canadian dollar is much stronger than the Indian Rupee. But a friend of mine went to Singapore and didn’t have the luxury of spending what would be $2 on a burger meal deal. Although, the QES was/is definitely not the only scholarship you can get for travelling, studying, and/or interning abroad!

Depending on your school’s connections, many offer international programs and funding opportunities.

Another friend of mine participated in DAAD, a scholarship that sends you to Germany. Point being, if you want to go abroad through school and get money for it, check out the office that specializes in such programming, and check EARLY. I was in my first year when I heard of the QES program. However, it wasn’t until my fourth year that I actually applied.

AGAIN: APPLY EARLY. Grades don’t define your degree and you’ll never know unless you try. So even if you doubt it, APPLY. Also, don’t leave all your eggs in one basket. There were 15 QES programs running out of my university. 10 actually made sense for my degree, so guess what? I applied to all 10! The more you apply, the more likely you are to win.

Word of Mouth:

As I mentioned above, people who have won scholarships and bursaries are often the best resource. Word of mouth is a great tool! Some friends won pretty big scholarships like the NSERC grant, the Loran scholarship, and got interviewed for the Rhodes. These are all scholarships I heard about later on that I genuinely wish I knew about earlier. You could be in high school or, if you’re a parent, try to learn about the opportunities as early as possible.

However, for the parents/guardians who may be reading this — don’t frame scholarships and bursaries as an obligation. There’s nothing I hated more than being told what I had to do. Present options, point in the right direction and learn the difference. If you want it badly enough, find a way to apply yourself! You’re never too old to learn.


Lastly, banks I can think of off the top of my head: RBC Future Launch Scholarship (I read about this on LinkedIn, another valuable tool!). Many banks run scholarship programs for high school/university students so check them all out (TD definitely has one that I wish I knew about in grade 9 or 10). 

Tip #9) Research

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This tip builds off the last, it’s really all about research. In person, online, postings around your school campus, gym or your parent/guardian’s work! Research, research, research! Also, another helpful life tool: if you want to do something to the fullest, grasp as much knowledge as you can on the subject matter. Use your calendar wisely, even if you dedicate an hour a week to actively seeking out scholarships, bursaries, or other financing opportunities. Over time, those 52 hours a year could amount to thousands of dollars (if not hundreds of thousands of dollars). You can do it. 

Tip #10) Be Yourself

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Last tip. Are you ready for this? Be yourself. Some scholarships and bursaries have interviews — my QES program did. I was nervous, scared, and thought: “I don’t feel like I’m good enough for this” and “they made a mistake”. Imposter syndrome is real, don’t fall into the cyclical cycle of self-doubt. You, as an individual, are unique because of your story, circumstances, and passions. Many components of your core pieces demonstrate who you are when you get to an interview stage.

If you’re scared, practice with a friend, colleague, or (as mentioned above) the academic gurus. Resources are available, so it’s really up to you to make the most out of what you can do.

How did I find comfort in my own story? I talked it out, I journaled, and I cared for my physical and mental well-being. So when it comes down to being asked, how do you know if you’re the right fit? You own who you are with pride. This includes your failures and successes — you own it all — because, at the end of the day, you are still human. Perfectly, imperfect.