What do fashioning clothing out of duct tape and promoting harmony in your community have in common?
Both can net you a few much-needed dollars for your college or university tuition.
According to a 2010 Statistics Canada report, the percentage of students who graduate saddled with debt has risen over the past decade to 57 per cent from 49 per cent. Meanwhile, the average student debt after graduation has climbed to $18,800 from $15,200.
But what if someone told you there are millions of dollars available in scholarships and bursaries, many of which go unclaimed every year?
Read on for tips to help you secure your diploma without breaking the bank.
Do your research
Don't discount yourself based on your grades. There are scholarships available for everything from enjoying curling to being tall.
Winners of the Stuck at Prom scholarship get $5,000 for making their prom outfits out of duct tape, while the Harmony Movement hands out $1,000 to 10 students who create change in their communities.
Chris Wilkins, president of Edge Interactive, says 81 per cent of the awards on ScholarshipsCanada.com don't require an academic average, and 70 per cent don't require students to demonstrate financial need.
"There are a lot of scholarships available for students in all categories and interests," Mr. Wilkins says. "If you're interested in a trade program there are scholarships for pipe fitting and culinary arts, as well as academic pursuits like physics and biology."
Make sure you also check in with the financial awards office at the schools you're applying at to see what funding is available, and ask your parents – their workplaces might have employee scholarships.
Suzanne Tyson, president of Studentawards.com, suggests prioritizing the awards in order of interest.
"It's going to be easier for [students]to apply for something that they're passionate about and that passion will come through in the application."
"You can't win if you don't apply," Ms. Tyson says.
While this offering may seem intuitive, a financial services administrator at the University of Ottawa says plenty of bursaries at the school go unclaimed.
"There's a lot of money down here, and unfortunately it's not always easy to distribute the money with the lack of demand from the students," Norman Seguin says.
Many smaller awards go unnoticed as students scramble to seize the larger ones, but a few hundred bucks here and there can really add up, Ms. Tyson adds.
"A thousand bucks will pay for your books for a semester, or rent for a couple of months. Even $500 can be a big help around Christmas time when you have to fly home or buy your family gifts."
Peter Flynn, 21, suggests setting aside a block of time every night to apply for scholarships.
The University of Toronto law school student managed to cover all of his tuition and about half of his living costs during his undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa with scholarship money.
"There are literally hundreds of awards you can apply to," he says. "Start early, and get them out as often as you can."
Check back often
"There isn't a scholarship season," Ms. Tyson says. "Companies decide at any time of year that they want to put money out into the marketplace to help students."
There may be more scholarships available during some months than others. For instance, about 13 per cent of the awards on ScholarshipsCanada.com have an April deadline, while only one per cent are due in December.
But awards are available throughout the year, Mr. Wilkins says, so it's a good idea to keep checking back every month.
And many universities have awards available to second-, third- and fourth-year students, so keep looking for opportunities beyond your first year.
Find ways to showcase your leadership skills
It's important to recognize what you're already doing for your community, says Rehanna Devraj-Kizuk, an engineering student at the University of Toronto.
The 21-year-old Alberta native spent her time during high school volunteering at a hospital, sitting on student council and performing piano for her town, initiatives that earned her $10,000 in award money for her first year of studies.
Ms. Devraj-Kizuk says many students don't realize how much they're already involved in that showcases their leadership skills.
"Sit down and write down all of the things you've participated in over the last few years," she says. "And if it's a small list, start brainstorming things you would enjoy doing for the next year."
Get a solid reference letter
"Ask one teacher that you know fairly well to support you and write you a reference letter," Ms. Devraj-Kizuk says.
"But make sure you actually sit down with that teacher and discuss what you're into. Make sure they know who you are."
Talking about your goals and interests can help the teacher formulate a good reference that highlights your strengths and qualifies you for the kinds of opportunities that you're best suited for.
The Canadian Press