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You don’t have to major in bagpipes – but student skills and activities can lead to often overlooked scholarships and bursaries. (Thinkstock)
You don’t have to major in bagpipes – but student skills and activities can lead to often overlooked scholarships and bursaries. (Thinkstock)

Awards

Got an unusual talent? It might be worth a scholarship Add to ...

Does your teenager play the bagpipe? Help out at your local community centre? Or excel at ringette?

Those kinds of hobbies and extra-curricular activities can make him or her eligible for any one of the thousands of grants, bursaries and awards available to Canadian students – and help defray the ever-rising costs of higher education.

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“There’s a perception among a lot of parents and students that all awards are for brainiacs,” said Suzanne Tyson, president of scholarship matching service studentawards.com, “but less than 50 per cent are actually based on grades.”

At scholarshipscanada.com, another awards database that includes university scholarships, 81 per cent of the scholarships listed do not necessarily require a high academic average, said Chris Wilkins, president and CEO of EDge Interactive, the company that owns the site.

Dispelling another common myth, he added, “And 30 per cent do not require financial need, either.”

Add to this the fact that experts say millions of scholarship and bursary dollars go unapplied for every year, and the potential advantages of checking out this source of financial aid are compelling.

“For parents who may be struggling, or don’t have the ability to finance postsecondary education, investing time with their kids to look for ways how to get their education funded makes a lot of sense,” said Scott Hannah, president of New Westminster, B.C.-based Credit Counselling Society, an organization that is itself offering three scholarships this year.

What’s more, both information and guidance are easily available on various websites, offering an alternative to student loans, part-time jobs that take away from study time, or outright penury. Studentawards.com, for example, lists scholarships and bursaries worth more than $70-million, “and that doesn’t include all of the money available directly from the universities,” Ms. Tyson said.

Scholarshipscanada.com allows members access to a similar amount. In both cases, students need to register and fill out a profile. They will then receive information on awards for which they might be eligible, along with application deadline alerts.

Other sites, meanwhile, such as canlearn.ca, as well as provincial and federal government student-aid sites, provide even more options.

Increasing numbers of Canadian postsecondary students can certainly use the help.

According to Ms. Tyson, “research shows over 70 per cent of students are showing up on campus with only $5,000 in their accounts, knowing it’s going to cost between $10,000 and $20,000 annually,” when tuition, school supplies, housing and other expenses is included. More than half, she added, will have to work while at school.

And last month, a Bank of Montreal student survey found that almost one-third of respondents “say they will have significant trouble paying their bills while at school.”

Meanwhile, students who take out loans are graduating with major debt loads, with one in five owing more than $40,000, according to BMO.

Starting early, therefore, is key, scholarship experts say. Mr. Wilkins, for example, suggested registering with an award site in Grade 10, “not because you’re going to win a scholarship,” he said, “but because you’re preparing yourself. So you’re aware of what might be out there and what you need to do.”

Because so many awards are given for community service and leadership qualities, creating a history of voluntarism is important. “And go beyond the mandatory requirements or do things that are innovative,” Ms. Tyson suggested.

While parents can register on sites such as studentawards.com on their child’s behalf, doing it together can provide some early lessons in financial literacy. When a young person begins to hone their profile, he or she starts to create “an elevator pitch,” she added, “that will help them from everything to getting into the program they want to applying for grad school and jobs.”

Don’t dismiss the small fry, either, experts say. Often those are the ones that get the least attention. “And students need to start understanding that even a $100 scholarship is going to pay for a couple of months of food,” Ms. Tyson said. “There’s no amount of scholarship money that isn’t worth applying for.”

And while many parents accompany their child to check out the campus facilities at universities and collages of choice, it is a good idea to visit the student awards office, as well as the library and gym. “If you establish a relationship with the financial aid office,” Ms. Tyson said, “they can actually help you find awards that are suitable for your profile.”

Another step parents can take is checking with their own employers. Many Canadian companies and corporations, from Tim Hortons to The Beer Store, offer scholarships to their employees’ children, and the number is growing.

Both studentawards.com and scholarshipscanada.com field calls every week from organizations that are creating new scholarships and want to know how to promote them. “We find that opportunities are being added all the time,” said Faeza Afzal, a scholarship adviser at EDge Interactive. “A lot of cultural associations, for example, offer scholarships to help young people in their community get over those financial hurdles so they can accomplish their education goals.”

Winning scholarships, moreover, brings a lot more than financial help and a stress-free learning experience for postsecondary students. Once they graduate and start looking for jobs, having garnered one or more scholarships looks great on their résumés.

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