When hunting for ways to finance his education, Newton Zheng leaves no stone unturned. In Grade 12, he applied for 33 scholarships, bursaries and other awards.
He won and accepted 13 totalling $19,200, mostly covering books and pricey tuition at the Smith School of Business at Queen's University.
"Scholarships played a big role in deciding on my program because tuition is more than double that of other schools," says the 19-year-old from Markham, Ont., who is in second-year commerce in Kingston. "It's better than working part-time during the school year. To earn the same amount, it would take almost 1,700 hours at minimum wage."
Mr. Zheng, who also has a student loan, won some university entrance awards plus a couple of scholarships targeted to students of Chinese heritage. His community work, including founding Project 5K to connect youth with volunteer opportunities and helping to build a home for a family in need in the Dominican Republic, aided in landing other awards. He also snared a Burger King Scholarship for $1,000 (U.S.), which he discovered online just before the deadline. And for the 201617 school year, he scored a $1,500 Loblaw Scholarship recognizing his community volunteer work.
Despite the growing number of scholarships offered by corporations, associations and individuals, many students don't apply and miss out on opportunities to reduce debt, scholarship experts say.
Many awards are listed on websites, such as Scholarshipscanada.com and Yconic.
com, which match students to eligible awards for free and earn their revenue from donors. But students need to be vigilant about application deadlines because they run throughout the year.
"You can't win if you don't play," says Chris Wilkins, president of EDge Interactive, which runs Scholarshipscanada.com.
"There are over 80,000 scholarships listed on our website, but most don't require a high or any academic average so you do not need to be a brainiac. Only 30 per cent are based on financial need, but some may target students of a specific heritage or gender, and require community service and/or writing an essay. Scholarships are available for undergraduate and graduate students, too."
One lucrative scholarship is offered annually by TD Canada Trust to 20 students. The award, which is valued up to $70,000 (Canadian) and comes with summer jobs over four years, requires only a 75-per-cent average. "What we are interested in is their community leadership," for anything from cleaning up the environment to promoting social justice, plus the impact of their contribution, says Jane Thompson, executive director for this scholarship program.
Student awards can also take the form of contests. The U.S.-based maker of the duct tape brand Duct Tape runs an annual Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest open to North American students who can win up to $10,000 (U.S.) by creating prom outfits using its duct tape.
In addition to scholarships, the Bank of Nova Scotia devotes $150,000 annually to prizes for contests that it runs on Yconic.com.
"It's a brand initiative," says the website's managing director, Jon Kamin. "They want to be seen as advocating student success."
Despite the allure of free cash, about 3 per cent of awards on Scholarshipscanada.com can go unclaimed although they tend to be for smaller ones in the $500to-$1,000 range, Mr. Wilkins says.
The University of Ottawa administers some awards from private donors that used to be ignored by students, but that is no longer the case. Because the criteria for applicants could be too restrictive, "we push the awards after the deadline to students who may have 80 per cent of the qualifications," says Normand Séguin, the university's director of financial aid and awards. "We tell them to apply, and over the past two years all my scholarships have been given out."
Some students may be "intimidated or discouraged" from applying for awards because they feel they haven't done anything special, says Brittany Palmer, founder of Unlock Your Future, a fee-based Vancouver firm that counsels on scholarship applications. But participating in activities for enjoyment – playing a sport, volunteering or sitting on a student council – can help someone stand out, she notes. "Committees are often looking for students who are well rounded, demonstrate leadership and initiative and are involved in some capacity within the school or community.
"The most important thing to do is apply, apply, apply," says Ms. Palmer, who won $56,500 in scholarships in 2005 and graduated from university debt-free. "It's all about volume when it comes to this process. You never know which opportunity is going to be right for you."
Tips for finding free money
Most students could use help paying for school, and one important source not to forget is scholarships. Here is some advice on seeking and successfully finding some education funding.
Cast a wide net
Create a profile on scholarship websites such as scholarshipscanada.com and yconic.com. Check out Universities Canada awards at univcan.ca.
Build a foundation
Start early to build a profile as a scholarship candidate. Find your passion. Volunteer and participate in activities that can demonstrate leadership, initiative and innovation.
Read the award criteria carefully. Get reference letters and school transcripts well before deadlines. Spend time to craft an essay template that can be adapted to different scholarships.
Don't ignore the small fry
It's tempting to target big-ticket awards and snub those offering $500 or $1,000. But winning several smaller ones, which may have fewer applicants, can still add up to a tidy sum.