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What scholarships should I focus on?

I recently asked people on my email list to tell me some topics they’d like me discuss in upcoming blogs. A few people asked me to give them advice on how their child should manage multiple scholarship applications. In other words, if they are eligible for several, what scholarships should they focus on?

Now, at this point I must remind you that Grade 12 is the best time for your child to get a scholarship. There will never be another time when there are more opportunities and less competition.

So, if you’re waiting for a “better time” for scholarships, there isn’t one. This is it, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. I say this not to scare you, but rather to help motivate you.

And, as with all things we should do, there is an opportunity cost – when we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to something else.

So when is it time to say yes to scholarships?

No two people are the same, and each person will have their own reasons for applying or not applying. And while there are a variety of factors to consider, here is a step-by-step guide to help you decide.

Step 1 – Ensure these 3 priorities are met first

Your child may have other priorities as well as these, but here are the 3 priorities I believe should always come before scholarships:

1. Your child’s health – if taking time to pursue scholarships impacts your child’s health, e.g. not enough time to eat or sleep properly, then it’s not worth it.

2. Your child’s grades – grades are still the main determinant of admission (and some scholarships), so students shouldn’t put their eligibility for admission on the line by spending too much time on scholarships. Afterall, you can’t use the scholarship if you don’t get admission!

3. Completing the admission application process – applying to several universities takes time. You child shouldn’t spend all of their time on scholarships and miss the admission deadlines for their desired programs and schools!

Step 2 – Do they meet the requirements?

You and your child should read the scholarship application requirements carefully and ensure they meet them. It’s a waste of time to apply for awards you don’t qualify for.

However, if you are ever unclear of requirements, especially financial need, always check with the scholarship grantor rather than assuming you don’t qualify.

Step 3 – Is it worth it?

Beyond health, grades, and meeting admission deadlines, it’s a personal decision about what scholarships are worth investing your time.

But here are some things to consider:

The big ones – are you in the same ballpark?

The scholarships that offer the most money in Canada (Loran, Schulich, and TD Community Leadership) are very, very competitive. This year the Loran had over 5000 applications, the highest number of applications to date, and I bet each one of those students was pretty amazing.

If you don’t have a history of significant leadership experiences (not just being a member of groups, but of actually leading people and/or projects), then it’s likely not worth taking the time to apply. I’d estimate it takes at least 7-10 hours (over a period of time) to complete activities sections, craft essays, request and gather references, and to put the entire package together.

These awards, and some others, have biographies of some of the past winners on their website. Read the bios from the past year or two, and if you feel you’re in the same general ball park as some of them, then apply. And if you’re not, you’ll need to decide if you think it’s worth investing your time (which means taking time away from something else, like other awards you're more qualified for).

The smaller ones - usually better odds

Some of the smaller awards ($1000 - $5000) can be well worth your time, especially if you win more than one.

The great thing about smaller awards is the pool of applicants tends to be smaller, for 3 main reasons:

1. Some students will skip them altogether because they don’t think it’s worth spending time to win $1000. Crazy, but true.

2. If it's a local scholarship, the eligibility may be for people who live in a certain catchment area, and that also cuts down on applicants considerably.

3. Local awards are sometimes poorly advertised too, which means fewer people know about them (which is even better for you if you find them!).

And if you like to write, essay contests might be a good place to focus some time. Many students don’t enjoy writing essays, so they don’t apply for them. Some essay contests can go up to $5000, and some are only about 500 – 750 words (750 words is about one page single-spaced).

Basically any scholarships you think have a smaller applicant pool are good bets. And here’s a bonus: smaller awards can also help you win bigger awards, because you can put your win on subsequent applications, which demonstrates achievement. That’s why I say, “Scholarships beget scholarships.”

So what scholarships should you focus on? Ideally, your child has time—or can make time—to apply for all scholarships they qualify for, and take advantage of this time of their life when it’s their best opportunity to win one.

But, if not, I hope this information helps them to prioritize their time and focus on their best bets.

Need help with scholarships? Check out my services.

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.


Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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