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Scholarships 101

By Ashleigh Viveiros

Arguably, the best way to pay for your post-secondary education is with funds you don't have to work your butt off waiting tables to earn, and, above all, that you don't have to pay back.

We're talking scholarships here, people. Specifically, scholarships and bursaries - two very similar and yet different sources of non-repayable funds every current and prospective post-secondary student should keep in mind when struggling to pay for their education.

Scholarships, first of all, are what most people are thinking of when they're looking for money for school. These are generally awarded based on excellence or achievement of some sort, be it in academics, athletics, community involvement, leadership, or a combination of several of these categories.

That doesn't mean, however, that you have to be a super-jock, a straight-A student, or the kid who spearheaded a school-wide initiative that bettered the lives of your fellow students in order to earn a scholarship (although if any of those describe you, your chances of finding funding are pretty good) - there are literally thousands of scholarships out there designed to reward many different aspects of a person's character, abilities, and involvements.

While grades do come into play in some scholarships and awards (often as a way to weed out applicants) others place a much higher value on your time as lead debater on the school debate team, on your ability to write a stirring essay on a given topic, or on your volunteer work at the local animal shelter than on your so-so report card. So don't assume you won't win anything until you take a serious look at what's out there.

That said, all scholarships do have various criteria you need to meet to be eligible for them (a certain field of study, involvements with specific organizations, and, yes, sometimes even minimum grade cut-offs), so read the requirements carefully before applying to save yourself - and the scholarship's administrators - valuable time and effort.

While scholarships reward merit, bursaries, meanwhile, are usually based more on an individual's financial need or other special circumstances.

That's not to say that your grades don't play a role -students usually need to demonstrate that they are capable of continuing their education at a satisfactory academic level - it's just that bursaries are designed more to help someone out of a specific situation that may threaten their ability to continue their education (as such, many schools have emergency bursary funds that can be applied for throughout the school year).

Like some scholarships, a bursary may target specific groups - single parents, people with physical disabilities, and so on. Others require that an applicant demonstrate why they deserve the hand up a bursary provides, often by showing their dedication to their community or school through various volunteer involvements or other efforts.

Unlike scholarships, bursary applications usually require detailed information about your financial situation - how much you make, how much your parents are helping out, how much you spend on rent, food, and tuition - so be prepared to lay out the details of why, exactly, you need the financial help you're applying for.

Now, where do you go to find all this free money that's out there?

Aside from a few automatic entrance scholarships - which are awarded to students entering their first year of university or college based on their high school grades - and undergraduate awards - based, often, on high grades in a certain course or faculty - most scholarships and bursaries not only require an application from you - ranging from filling out a simple form to handing in a detailed essay or portfolio - but also a bit of searching on your part to simply find them.

A good place to start is right at home. You may be eligible for certain scholarships from your employer or through some group you're affiliated with (4-H club, Girl Guides, etc.). Similarly, your parents' workplaces may offer scholarships for employees' children, and their involvement in various community organizations and clubs can also gain you access to awards you wouldn't be eligible for otherwise.

You should also talk to your high school guidance counsellor or university/college financial aid officer - they have access to the details of hundreds of national and school-specific scholarships and bursaries.

Another good way to search for money is via the wonderful World Wide Web, which has dozens of Web sites dedicated solely to helping link up students with awards.

A good route to take is to sign up for a scholarship site like ScholarshipsCanada.com, which allows you to sift through thousands of scholarships for the ones that match your specific needs.

After creating a profile, sites like this will show you the scholarships that you're most eligible for along with all their details, deadlines, and contact information. Or you can search the site yourself for awards based on certain fields of study, schools, and other criteria.

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