How to win a big scholarship

How to win a big scholarship

A strong vision, hard work and plenty of smarts are needed to impress scholarship juries. Here’s the inside story on how these students beat the odds.

A smiling student with short hair in front of a colourful background

(Photo illustrations by Maclean’s)

Pénélope Fernandez-Busto

Age: 20

School: McGill University

Program: Civil law and common law Graduating Year: 2025

Scholarship amount: $100,000

A friend told me about the Loran scholarship, which awards $100,000 to students with integrity, courage and grit, and who maintain an average of 85 per cent. I liked that it was focused on community involvement and didn’t target a specific field of study. Many scholarships focus on STEM, and I was planning to study law. In my last year of CEGEP, I had already become the president of the student council, a student representative for the school board, the captain of the debate team and a member of my school’s feminist committee.

I spent 40 or 50 hours on my Loran scholarship application. I wrote five essays, each answering a different question, like what my most meaningful leadership position was and describing a situation where I got out of my comfort zone. I asked some friends and family to look it over, and I also had help from a former scholarship winner at a non-profit called the Debtless Students.

The Loran has an intense interviewing process. The semi-finals in November consisted of four 15-minute interviews in the morning and a 25-minute panel interview in the afternoon.

All the interviews were virtual. I wore my “lucky suit”—a light-pink suit with a dark blouse. I had my notes next to me, but I never really looked at them. I had a narrative in my mind, which was my commitment to the community through feminist advocacy. I wanted to study law to be able to work on issues affecting women’s rights.

The finals were in February. It was four more 15-minute interviews, a panel interview, and an interview with a Loran co-chair. They really pushed me with my answers. The co-chair kept interrupting me, asking me to clarify points in my response. I think she was looking to see if I could keep my composure. I was calm on the outside, but inside, I was like: omigod, omigod.

I got a call from a Loran adviser in March who told me I was one of the recipients. Having both financial and academic support means I can continue getting involved in my community and focus on my education.

A smiling student in front of a colourful background

Janelle Tam

Age: 18

School: McGill University

Program: Software engineering

Graduating year: 2028

Scholarship amount: $120,000

I’ve always been interested in math and science. I built a robotic car in Grade 8 and learned basic programming after that.

In high school, I started a non-profit called Project Empathic. We held workshops for elementary school students in Vancouver to reduce stigma and shame around homelessness. I also volunteered with a biomedical lab team at the University of British Columbia that studied concussions and sports injuries. I helped develop an app that assessed the impact of concussions on neurological behaviour, which we later adapted to assess the impact of intimate partner violence.

I started looking for scholarships in Grade 11. I used keywords like “STEM” and “minorities” to narrow down search results. The Schulich Leader Scholarship piqued my interest. It awards $120,000 to 100 students studying STEM, based on leadership, entrepreneurship, a willingness to tackle community problems, and a strong passion for innovation and STEM.

I knew of someone at my high school who got the award in 2021, so I connected with her on Instagram and she shared some tips. On LinkedIn, there’s an “honours and awards” section where you can see what major scholarships people have won. I found people with similar backgrounds and experiences as me and asked them for a 20-minute coffee chat. Not everyone got back to me, but a few people did.

I also connected with the Debtless Students, a non-profit organization that helps high schoolers apply for scholarships. My Schulich essay went through six or seven rounds of revisions, and I spent 10 to 12 hours a week on it for about three weeks. Maybe it was a bit excessive—I know people who wrote their essays directly in the portal in one afternoon and still won.

My advice: find the projects and initiatives you’re most interested in exploring. Don’t pursue activities based on what you think evaluators will want to see, but out of self-motivation and a desire to learn.

A smiling student in front of a colourful background

Besan Jadalowen

Age: 18

School: University of Calgary

Program: Business and psychology

Graduating year: 2028

Scholarship amount: $70,000

I have three younger siblings and I didn’t want my parents to be worried about how they were going to pay for tuition for all of us. Toward the end of Grade 11, I started looking into scholarships. I used websites like Scholar Tree and to find scholarships that I qualified for.

I came across the TD Scholarship for Community Leaders, which awards $70,000 to students who have made positive change in their communities and have an average of 75 per cent. In Grade 11, I started an initiative at my local community centre called Sisters n’ Sport. Every two weeks, we gather 20 to 30 girls in junior high to learn about and play a specific sport, and then we make healthy food together afterwards, like fruit smoothies and chicken and veggie wraps. This project was inspired by my own athletic childhood—I did swimming, soccer and martial arts, which built my confidence. I also led a youth group at my mosque in Calgary.

While I had strong experiences in my community, I figured I could do more at my high school to make me a competitive candidate. Early in Grade 12, I created a multi-faith prayer space. I met with the principal to explain how people were praying in the stairwells and how we needed an actual room to practise our faiths. We took a small, underused printing room, emptied it out and made it into a place for everyone to pray.

I applied for the TD Scholarship in November. I found a blog post from GrantMe with tips specifically for applying to this scholarship, like how to organize your essay and how to create strong paragraphs about your experiences. I started my essay a month before it was due and worked on it a little bit every day. When I was starting to feel brain-dead toward the end of the process, my dad helped me by reading it over to make sure it made sense.

I found out I won the scholarship in April of 2023. I was just relaxing at home, scrolling on my phone late at night when I got the email from TD telling me that I won. I never saw the things I did in my community as something I could be rewarded for, so being one of the 20 people who won the TD scholarship was a big moment for me.

A smiling student in front of a colourful background

Irekanmi Awoyiga

Age: 19

School: University of Waterloo

Program: Mechanical engineering

Graduating year: 2026

Scholarship amount: $70,000

I wanted to study mechanical engineering, but the best schools for mechanical engineering are all outside my home province of Nova Scotia. I started googling scholarships in Grade 11, and signed up for email newsletters, like the one from Scholar Tree.

I made a long list of about 25 scholarships and applied to 10 or 15. Some were random $500 scholarships where they asked you to submit a video about yourself or an essay related to a subject, like what your aspirations are. I was really interested in the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership; I liked that it was not only about academic success but about going above and beyond in extracurriculars and in the community.

By Grade 11, I had already started a STEM tech club at my high school and a tutoring club to help students from underrepresented communities with STEM subjects. These students, especially those of African descent, aren’t always given the opportunity to fully express their potential and find what interests them.

I spent close to 10 hours a week on scholarship applications in the fall of Grade 12, when more of the larger-value scholarship applications were due, then about five hours a week in the spring. I used to joke that applying for scholarships was my part-time job. I also needed reference letters, so I asked teachers who had helped me start my clubs. Teachers get approached all the time to write reference letters, so I gave them a brief summary of my experiences and what I had talked about in my application and essay.

I was really grateful that I was selected for the TD scholarship, as it allowed me to pick a school based on where I wanted to be, not based on how much it was going to cost.

As told to Andrea Yu

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