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Navigating the world of Canadian scholarships

No central database leads to confusion, misunderstanding and barriers among students.


Winning a scholarship can change the course of a young person’s life. It allows students to pursue further studies without worrying about finances, connects them with leaders and instils the confidence in them to pursue their ambitions. However, students in Canada often face barriers when trying to apply for scholarships, mostly because there is no central, up-to-date source of information where students can look for them.

“It’s very difficult to navigate all the online resources about scholarships,” said Kashifa Naghman, a second-year life sciences student at McMaster University. She has applied for over 30 scholarships so far, the majority of which were entrance scholarships that she had applied to in Grade 12. She has had a 50 per cent success rate.

In Grade 12, Ms. Naghman struggled to determine which websites were reliable, so she sought the help of her high school’s guidance counsellors and older friends who had gone to university, as well as mentors from Boys and Girls East Scarborough organization and the non-profit Pathways to Education.

Mark Raghu, the senior manager of education programs at Scarborough Village Pathways to Education, knows that students struggle to find scholarships by themselves. “As a student, you have to know the different kinds of scholarships available. Then, you need to know where to look, what to look for, and when to look for it,” he explained. Mr. Raghu said that these complexities may hinder a student from even looking for scholarships in the first place.

Indeed, a Royal Bank of Canada study from 2023 found that Canadian students lack a central and up-to-date source of information where they can learn about available scholarships and eligibility criteria. As a result, understanding the varied terms, deadlines      and requirements can be tough for students, which is especially true for people from racialized, low-income, rural and newcomer households, who may not have as many people around them who know how to write scholarship applications.

“Building a centralized platform for scholarship opportunities is the number one thing that must happen, so that students can easily access information,” Ms. Naghman said. She added that high schools can make their own domains and compile a list for their students      and the federal government can initiate a similar database too.

Mr. Raghu agrees. “I do think that scholarships should come from multiple places; it’s the information about them that should be more centralized,” he said.

But fixing Canada’s fragmented scholarship landscape may be easier said than done. The root of the problem, after all, may lie in the very decentralized political system of the country.

A diverse and complex scholarship landscape

“It all goes back to the 1867 Constitution Act, which states that education is a provincial and territorial right,” said Josh Levac, the associate registrar of student awards and financial aid at Lakehead University and president of the Canadian Association for Student Financial Aid Administrators. Provinces and territories are responsible for postsecondary institutions, he said, which means that having an overarching federal system for scholarships would impose on provincial and territorial jurisdictions.

Quebec, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories in particular run completely independent financial aid programs, to the extent that the federal government’s flagship grants and loans program is not available for students in these jurisdictions to access.

Scholarship providers across the country also need to follow the Human Rights Code of the province or territory in which they are in. For example, Mr. Levac explained, if an organization in Ontario wants to offer a scholarship, then it would need to meet the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policy on scholarships and awards in order to be able to provide the scholarship.

Establishing a regulatory body to coordinate scholarships in Canada would therefore not make sense, he said. “We can only make the best of what we have.”

As a result, though, even the simplest things like definitions for the terms “award,” “scholarship,” “grant,” and “bursary” can vary from one institution to another, resulting in confusion and misunderstanding.

Postsecondary institutions try to guide students through this complex landscape mainly through their financial aid offices. But Mr. Levac said that making students aware of these resources remains a challenge. “Students often don’t know these offices exist until they need financial help, but at that point, it’s often too late,” he said.

Non-profits face the same communication problem. Mr. Raghu said that every year he gets students asking him in January of their Grade 12 year when they can start applying for scholarships –  when they should have started looking in the summer before they even started Grade 12.  “By then, those students would’ve already missed out on 60 per cent of the scholarships they could’ve applied to,” he said.

Levac encourages students to read about scholarships online and to talk to their guidance counsellors — similar to what Naghman did — but more importantly, to reach out to the financial aid offices of the schools they’re interested in applying to, as these offices would have the most nuanced and up-to-date information.

A time-consuming and emotional process

The lengthy and labour-intensive application process is another challenge that students typically face when applying for scholarships, especially for the larger prizes.

In her final year of high school, Ms. Naghman applied to three of the biggest scholarships in the country: the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership worth $70,000, the Loran Scholarship worth $100,000, and the McCall MacBain Scholarship which covers tuition and fees at McGill University and provides stipends. Of these, Ms. Naghman received a Loran Provincial Award worth $2,000.

The whole process for each of these scholarships, she said, took at least three weeks, as she assembled essays, references and evidence of financial need such as her parents’ income as part of her application packages, as well as participated in interviews.

Naghman also tried for smaller, need-based scholarships, which she said typically asked applicants to answer three to four brief questions. “I would submit two to three scholarship applications each week for a semester in my final year of high school,” she said. “I felt like I was doing an additional course on top of my studies.” Large scholarships have an intensive recruitment process, Franca Gucciardi — the CEO of the McCall MacBain Foundation — explained, because foundations want to intentionally invest in different types of talent.

Read also: Telling the story of who you are through a scholarship application

She differentiates financial aid from merit scholarships. To her, financial aid is purely funding and should be accessible to anyone who wants to take up postsecondary studies. Scholarships, meanwhile, are youth development opportunities by recognizing values other than high grades, connecting students with mentors and validating young people’s visions.

“So, students have to define what their talent is, and why a foundation should invest in that talent,” Ms. Gucciardi said.

Mr. Raghu also pointed out that scholarship applications may compound inequalities. For example, private schools in Toronto tend to hold scholarship writing workshops for their students, while a general public school might not.

Ms. Naghman emphasized that demystifying the application process and providing transparent selection criteria eased her nerves while she tried for scholarships. “What qualities are prioritized and where I should allocate my time the most were clearly communicated, so I knew what I was aiming for,” she said.

Mr. Raghu agreed, saying that some students may not be comfortable disclosing personal details to strangers, so providing information about who’s on the panel reading applications and qualities they are looking for is key. “Scholarships online are often just accompanied by a quick blurb and the ‘apply’ button,” he said. “Providers could go a long way with being more transparent and providing more guidance.”

Mr. Levac encourages scholarship providers to be proactive in reviewing their awards and listening to applicants. “If a provider is no longer receiving applications or receives one or two, then something is wrong and they need to review the process to make it more accessible for students,” he said.

But all the hustle is worth it in the end, Naghman said, because receiving scholarships has changed her life for the better. “I didn’t just receive financial help,” she said. “Each scholarship I got was a validation of my dreams.”

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  1. It surprises me that the article didn’t mention the two largest search engines: and After a student’s intended university’s scholarships page, those two are a logical starting point. When donor organizations ask our university to post their general scholarship on our website, we normally suggest they register their scholarship with these two search engines.

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