How to Navigate the Broken Scholarship System

Earlier this year, ScholarshipsCanada, a site that aims to match post-secondary students with scholarships and bursaries, put out a statement claiming that millions of dollars worth of scholarship money goes unclaimed each year. They cited the main reason for this unclaimed money was that students simply didn’t apply.

Other scholarship databases, like yconic, also face similar trends; however, as someone who has been on these websites for over three years now, I’ve identified why it is that people don’t apply.

How to get scholarships

Fault 1: Improper Matching

The article by scholarship Canada states that students aren’t willing to put in the work for the application process. Many of the offered scholarships are no longer academically based. Instead, they take into account financial need, extracurricular involvement, and opinions of the applicant. These scholarships often require the individual to submit essays about certain topics, summaries outlining their involvements, and even letters of recommendation. Undoubtedly, providing this extra documentation can be time consuming.

In response, students want to ensure that their time is well spent. Many of them apply for scholarships worth a lot more money. In short, the higher the scholarship amount, the more people will want to apply. This reduces each individual’s chance of getting that scholarship.

A simple answer to this problem on Scholarships Canada’s part is to match students with relevant scholarships that have lower traffic. This increases each student’s chance of applying to and receiving an award, and makes for more claimed awards overall.

From my experience, this reform is one that many scholarship databases need to undertake. I try to keep my scholarship profiles accurate, but I still get matched to scholarships I am unable to apply to.

For example, I go to the University of Saskatchewan and have listed so in my profile. Scholarship databases do a good job at matching me to USASK scholarships, which also tend to have lower traffic since they are more localized; however, many of the scholarships I find for my university are outdated or are not open to the college of business. I end up wasting a lot of time just trying to figure out if I am eligible for the scholarships the database suggests. It’s in my best interest to search my university webpage for scholarships that they offer since they are current and college-specific, rather than looking at an external database.

I also get matched to scholarships that are open to students at any institute. Naturally, these ones have higher traffic rates. These scholarships shrink their applicant pool by specifying colleges (usually STEM), and asking for essay responses to certain questions. I’ve never shied away from an essay, so I typically applied to these types of scholarships.

Fault 2: Lack of Communication with Applicants

My experience with generic and essay-based scholarships have been underwhelming. I would spend hours writing and re-writing my essay, making sure my extracurricular activities were current, arranging for recommendations, and submitting transcripts. Even then, I was unsure if I had missed anything. A lot of scholarship committees don’t communicate well with applicants. Often, I would submit a scholarship to the listed email and not receive a reply confirming my application had been received.

To make matters worse, many scholarships have the generic ‘applicants will only be contacted if they are selected’ phrase. A few of these scholarships also don’t post who their winners are, so it leaves you wondering if they even selected someone. After submitting a few of these scholarships, I began to worry about how my information was being used and if my applications were being reviewed at all. Over time, I didn’t think my efforts were amounting to anything so I stopped applying using external databases.

Improper scholarship matching and lack of communication need to be addressed if scholarship databases want more students to take advantage of financial assistance. Databases can fix algorithms to provide more relevant scholarships to students and require selection committees to communicate with applicants to ensure security and legitimacy. In the meantime, while we wait for these reforms to happen, I’ve devised a list of ways to navigate the very imperfect world of scholarships.

How to Get That Scholarship Money

  1. Make sure your profile is accurate, but remove information that is clouding your searches. For Scholarships Canada specifically, I found that selecting which universities I’m interested in (besides the one I go to) gets me a lot of irrelevant scholarship suggestions. Play around with which information you choose to include and exclude. I found that including more of my interests helps to get scholarships that have essay topics that I actually want to write about. Unfortunately, I keep getting USASK scholarship suggestions that are expired. I’ve learned to just cancel those ones.

  2. Avoid ‘easy’ scholarship applications. By this, I mean scholarships in which you have to fill out a simple survey or questionnaire and you’re automatically entered to win. To put it bluntly, these scholarships are a waste of your time. They typically have higher traffic rates, so your chances of winning are very low. Besides, you’re giving out your information for free. Mind you, it isn’t information like your SIN or your employment history (I hope), but consumer information is a valuable commodity and you’re handing it over for an impossible chance at some scholarship money. You might be better off playing the lottery. Sure, your chances at winning may be a bit smaller in a lottery, but at least you’re not giving up your information.

  3. Look for scholarships that are specific and low traffic. This one is a little bit difficult, since you’ll probably get matched up to a lot of generic and high-traffic scholarships. It’s going to take a lot of time, but it is possible if you discard enough irrelevant scholarships. Scholarships for lesser monetary amounts are your friend.You should also look to apply for essay-based scholarships; they naturally have fewer applicants since the application process requires more time and effort. Do make sure that the scholarships you are applying to are legitimate, and try to find some with better communication with their applicants.
  4. Think as if you were a member of the selection committee. A lot of scholarships nowadays have a financial need requirement. Although it goes without saying that you obviously have a financial need if you are looking for scholarships in the first place, there are varying degrees of such need. Many committees will choose someone living independently or in a single-parent home for these scholarships. This is unfortunate for people like me; although I come from a dual-income household, I am solely responsible for my educational expenses. I’ve found its best to focus on scholarship topics that are of interest to me. If you write an application essay about a topic you’re not confident about, it’s likely the selection committee will be able to tell
  5. Do a cost-benefit analysis. Is the cost of you applying to scholarships greater than the benefit you received from them? Could you have made more money through a part-time or casual job? It’s likely that even if you follow these rules and write some amazing application essays, you may still not be selected for an award. Many committees already have an idea of the winner in their head. If you don’t receive the scholarship, it doesn’t mean you weren’t an outstanding applicant. It just means you weren’t the exact applicant the committee was looking for. If you aren’t successful with these tips, perhaps look at alternative financing options.

With the changing scholarship environment, it’s important to identify and understand the faults in the application system. By doing so, we can better navigate around those faults and use the system to our advantage. If you’re smart enough to be able to navigate the process, then you’re well on your way to getting extra financing for school.

Nudba Ismaeel is an Edwards School of Business student by day, and novelist/debater/tea fanatic by night. Engage her rapier wit via spoken or written word  at your peril!

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