Gambling with Your Education
By Devon Flynn
I’m very grateful to say that I’ve been fairly successful in receiving scholarships and bursaries during my five years at UNBC. The university, as well as the community of Prince George, make available an abundance of scholarships and bursaries to be taken advantage of by a wide range of students. Though these awards may not always be prominent or in your face, I assure you they are out there, and they’re up for grabs.
For those of you who don’t know, there is a difference between scholarships and bursaries; scholarships are awarded based on scholarly merit – the better grades you achieve, the more likely you are to be rewarded. Bursaries, on the other hand, are given on the basis of financial need, sometimes requiring applicants to meet certain geographical or demographic criteria. It’s becoming more common that both demand you also have to be an exemplary volunteer and be involved in the community.
I’ve had several friends come up to me and ask, “Devon, how do I apply for bursaries?” The first thing I tell them when applying, which somehow still manages to surprise them, is just that – apply! You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. That may seem very cliché, but it’s also extremely accurate. It’s also how I first began getting into bursary writing.
When I was younger, my parents and teacher encouraged me to enter a writing contest. While it was very imaginative, I didn’t feel what I had was an amazing piece of writing and wasn’t confident it would be chosen. They suggested that perhaps the other entrants felt that way too. I quickly realized that if everyone held the same negative thought of rationalization I had and chose not to apply, then maybe the winner would be the one person who applied. Homer Simpson said it well: “The two sweetest words in the English language! De-fault!” It’s pretty freakin’ sweet when you’re on the receiving end of those default situations, but you have to make that first step.
This is particularly true for university students where you are a lot less likely to have mommy and daddy kissing your ass and filling out those award applications for you. I’ve seen it before when I graduated from secondary school: class dummy wins a hefty bursary and he doesn’t even know what for. It was because his dear mother did all the paperwork for him. The worst part was he let it sit and expire because he was too busy partying and never even went on to college or university.
While I strongly believe scholarships and bursaries should be available to a range of people and not just the academic elite, I also believe they should be rewarded to those who deserve them and work their asses off. So to those of you who are eager to pursue educational goals, as well as the financial means of achieving those goals, bursaries and scholarships are a great way to go! Just because you apply for them doesn’t mean you automatically get them, bingo-bango. No, the stark reality is your application gets you the chance to be awarded a bursary or scholarship, something I’ve come to realize feels a lot like a form of gambling. Allow me to explain.
Just like gambling, applying for awards can rely on a degree of luck. As I had mentioned earlier, the fewer people who apply, the greater the chance you have of winning, regardless of academic or extracurricular merit; it’s like a draw. However, most scholarships and bursaries require a bit more work and skill. I’ve found these tend to fall into two tiers of applications: there’s the basic application, and the extensive application. The basic application is where you are required to provide typical contact information, what program you’re in, goals and aspirations – about as much information as you might expect to see on your average Facebook profile. You may also be asked to write a small essay on a chosen topic like your future career goals or modern day issues, but these are usually short, simple, and demand nowhere near the work a class assignment might require. And finally, you may or may not need reference letters which I find to be the most time-consuming actually: contacting possible references, providing them with additional information that makes you look good, and running around to grab the letters from them.
Not the most demanding of requirements, eh? A fairly simple process you could squeeze in between classes and work. But you’re a gambler, and broke to boot. A horrible combination, and perhaps interrelated, but what do I look like, your gambling counsellor? Tuition is up, and student loans suck. So it’s time to up the ante and win…err….apply for some big money!
The next tier of bursary and scholarship applications are biggies. You’ve likely seen or heard of these before: The Terry Fox Humanitarian award; the UNBC Scholars award. These are worth several thousands of dollars and more or less considered a free ride because they cover so much of your expenses. As I mentioned earlier, bursaries and scholarships are like gambling, and now it’s time to play some high-stakes poker.
The payout is big here, so unlike smaller bursaries and scholarships, you will not be winning by luck. Unlike basic applications, these applications are hard work. You need sublime reference letters that ooze recommendation out of every sentence; your future goals have to be so altruistic and admirable, they’d make Mother Teresa cry; your extracurricular activities and work experience need to have such range and commitment, you might as well give up on the thought of ever sleeping; and your essay (and yes, there will be an essay) needs to be succinct and eloquently written, it should make Mark Twain weep. I thought I did a lot of activities in my spare time – hell no! If you look at the bios of recipients of these big-payout bursaries and scholarships, you would almost expect to see they donated their kidney to a disabled man while feeding the homeless and coaching children’s soccer within the span of a day! They’re the kind of people you want to punch in the face for being so amazing and likeable, but you also want to hug and shake their hand for being so amazing and likeable. Let me be frank – these people absolutely deserve these kinds of payouts. They work their ass off to get to where they are, and that deserves great recognition. But if you want to apply for the same big-pay bursaries and scholarships as them, then you need to step up your game. So here are some helpful tips to help you apply for bursaries and scholarships, whatever kind you may come across:
1. Apply! Practice makes perfect, and soon you’ll be whipping out applications in no time. Whether you’re applying for simple one-off awards like coins in a slot machine, or hoping for a royal flush at the big-league poker table, you have to play to win.
2. The more difficult the application, the less likely people will apply. Don’t limit yourself. It’s like applying for a job; you never know when you’ll land that job out of your league. That being said…
3. If you don’t think you can match what the top-tier applicants are bringing to the table for large bursaries and scholarships, then do what it takes so you can! Join a club, volunteer, save a kitten from a burning tree, whatever plumps up that academic resume and makes you look good.
4. Save everything. Don’t treat every application with the same “cut and paste” shortcut, but be aware that similar questions are asked often on applications. It can save you a lot of time when you can reuse a lot of information over again, like a list of volunteer activities or future goals.
5. Apply for niche awards. These are the odd awards that you’ve never heard of and are offered by some obscure group in the community, but are available to anyone. The local clown college throwing a few hundred bucks to any student willing to write on the merits of juggling? Pick up those balls and start practicing, there’s money on the line. These awards are helpful actually when you need to…
6. Set yourself apart from the competition. If you can’t do that through impressive extracurricular experience or grades, you better make damn sure you’re a more skilled and convincing writer or speaker than the other applicants.
7. Know the “risks.” I use the word “risk” here as I still want to reiterate my analogy of gambling. You are not guaranteed anything. However, the higher the risks, the higher the payout. Bursaries and scholarships are not a risk in losing money, only a gain. You do, however, gamble with the time and effort that comes from the application process and writing involved. Okay, there may also be a small fee for express shipping when hitting those close deadlines.
The reality is, sometimes you will put a lot of work into an application and still won’t be chosen. That sucks, but that’s life. It’s like a job – just because you’re the most qualified doesn’t always mean you’ll get it. There are numerous reasons to why others may be chosen over you, and there’s a good chance you’ll never learn why. That’s not to say you’ll walk away empty handed. In the process of applying for bursaries and scholarships, you learn time management for short-notice deadlines; you hone your short essay writing skills; and you practice presenting yourself and communicating your thoughts to complete strangers, all of which I find to be extremely valuable in university. Hearing all the nice things your references said about you tends to leave you feeling pretty positive too.
The UNBC Process: You’ve got the tips and tricks, now you just need to get started. Although UNBC has moved their Financial Aid office to the depths of the Student Registrar’s office where you can no longer flip through the big giant binder of awards or visit with Gloria Benazic (we miss you!) they have streamlined the application process and put much of it online, making it much simpler.
Here’s what you do: Sign in to Student Online Services; click the top-right Awards and Financial Aid tab; and view your current awards and financial aid payments, the awards guide and their criteria, or begin filling in the application.
Your general awards application requests basic information and can be filled in fairly quickly, but obviously the more effort you put into it, the better. This application acts as sort of a template which applies to a range of UNBC awards. If your “template” fits the requirements, you’re good to go, and don’t need to do anything else but wait for a response.
If you want to improve your chances for receiving awards or bigger awards, you need to provide more information in your application. If an award requests a little extra criteria beyond your basic information, like reference letters or a short essay, than those need to be provided. Often these can also work as one-shot templates which can save you time. For example: if ten different awards request a short essay on why you joined your program or your career goals, you only need to provide one essay. It will cover all of the awards and you don’t need to hand in ten copies of the same essay. Most important of all, read the criteria. Reading the fine print can make the difference between getting an award and not. It’s these awards that are often recycled back into circulation, giving students a chance to apply for them again.
A couple months later, you may receive a wonderful letter from the UNBC Financial Office informing you you’ve been chosen as a recipient to an award; it’s like winning the lottery! They will request you respond with an acceptance of the award. I’m pretty sure nobody has ever declined an award. “Free money, no thanks!” Pft, as if. They also ask you send the award donor a thank you card if requested. I’ll be blunt, this should not be optional. A group or organization gave you free money; you bloody well write them a sincere thank you card!
In regards to this coveted letter you may receive, you best make sure you have your mailing information correct. Currently, correspondence for these acceptance letters does not utilize emails. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve almost missed an acceptance deadline because I was unavoidably between places of stay and never received the letter. However, the Financial Aid Office staff is working hard at improving the awards system in hopes of fully transitioning the application process – including notifications – online.
So there you have it, the nitty-gritty reality of applying for bursaries and scholarships. The deadline for this year’s awards application is 1 March 2014, so be sure to get those reference letters and extra writings done early. I tell you this now because I always forget the deadline until a few days before, until I’m fortunately reminded by one of my peers. I literally had to run down the hall one year to get my application into the office before it closed! As I’m graduating this year, I won’t have to worry about award deadlines anymore. I graciously leave those available awards to the remaining hard-working and dedicated students of UNBC who deserve them.