What's the Alternative to Debt?

When I last checked, there were over 22,000 scholarships being offered to Canadian students. Sadly, gobs of this free money goes unused because:

  • students don't know about it,
  • their grades aren't high enough to qualify for a scholarship
  • small scholarship amounts seem like too much trouble to apply for
  • people are basically laaaazzzeee!

Hey, if you get $1,000, that's a $1,000 you don't have to work your tail to the bone for - or borrow - to get you through school. And since scholarships aren't taxable, it's as if you'd earned $1,200. So what if you have to fill out some paperwork. Beats flipping burgers for 133.33 hours - which is how long you'd have to work to make the same money. And as if getting $1,000 wasn't good enough, there are some scholarships that are renewable, providing you maintain a high academic average or an uninterrupted course of full-time studies.

Surfing for Money
Everyone from schools, companies, charities and governments to private individuals offer scholarships. To find an award you may qualify for, you can go with Google, and wade through a lot of crap. Or you can go with a site that specializes in scholarship awards and cut out some of the slog work. Try scholarshipscanada.com or studentawards.com or aucc.ca, the site of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Know everything about the award before you apply for it. Don't bother applying for scholarship that you do not in any way qualify for since you're just wasting the administrator's time. If you are eligible, complete the application package thoroughly. If you leave stuff out, you're not going to get the money. Let's face it, if you're too dumb to follow the rules of the application process, why would they give you their money?

Make sure you read ALL the eligibility criteria and rules carefully. Submitting photocopied transcripts when originals were requested may be grounds for elimination. I suggest you make a checklist you can check-off when you add in your official transcripts, letters of reference and everything else you may need.

Spelling, grammar and sentence structure count on your application. Who wants to give money to an illiterate? Review your application at least three times with some space in between so your mind is clear. Ask someone else to read it through since there may be mistakes you just can't see. Be organized. Be succinct. Be creative. GET NOTICED! And, for heaven's sake, don't forget to thank them for their time in considering you for the award.

You can get an award for a whole bunch of reasons you may never have thought about. If your grandfather served in World War II, you could receive money from the Royal Canadian Legion. If you were a Little Sister, you could receive help from the Big Brothers and Sisters organization. A very high academic average may earn you an entrance scholarship. The privately funded Canadian Merit Scholarship Awards is worth up to $46,000 over four years. The Millennium Scholarship Foundation's excellence awards offers awards ranging from a one-time $4,000 payment to $4,800 annually, renewable over four years. McMaster University in Hamilton offers automatic-award programs: $750 to those with high-school averages of 80-84 percent, $1,000 for applicants scoring 85-89, and $2,000 for students with 90 percent and above.

(S)he Works Hard for the Money
Work. There it is. The best way to make money so you don't graduate with an albatross of debt around your neck is to work. It won't be easy, but nothing worthwhile in life is, or so I'm constantly told. You've got to pay your dues. You have to make hay while the sun shines. Hmmm.

What you HAVE to do is figure out what it's going to cost to get you through to the end of your education, tuition and living expenses included. Then you have to figure out how much you can reasonably get in scholarships and how much you must earn to offset the need to borrow.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have ANY student loans. I'm saying you should only have the amount of student loans you can afford to pay off completely within five years of graduation, for most people. (If you've done a specialty in medicine, it may take a little longer to pay off your debt, but you're making a whack of money so you're probably alright.)

In the best of all worlds, you'd have a job during school that was fun, covered your food, entertainment and travel costs, and kept you out of the bars on the weekends. Failing that, there may be opportunities for you to use your talents in ways that will ultimately help you when it comes time to start your career.

I know a young lass named Stephanie who worked as an assistant to a financial advisor all the way through her university years. Since she planned to go into finance as a career, this stood her in very good stead when she went job hunting.

If you want to be a vet, find work in a medical arena. If you want to be a teacher, try tutoring. If you want to be an artist, hire yourself out to your professors to do their artwork for books they may be in the process of writing. My friend Ian did this and, hey, it paid some of the bills. You may have to wait tables. You may have to clean bathrooms. It doesn't matter because you're financing an education to which you are absolutely committed. If you have to work in a gas station on the midnight shift four nights a week, hey, you might as well study while you're at it. If you can find a job as a caregiver to an elderly person, at least part time, you will have lots of time to complete assignments while at work. Think outside the box. Don't get caught in the McJob simply because you lack of imagination makes you feel there's no other option. Life will be full of challenges, consider this your first biggie!

And don't whine about not getting enough sleep. You'll be dead soon enough and that'll be plenty of sleep. Besides, you don't whine when you want to stay up to party, play video games or mess around with a hot date! So don't whine about work either.

If it looks like your studies are going to require your full time attention while you're at school, you may have to take a break mid-way through your program to bank some money by working full-time. No one says getting to the end is a race. It's about having a balanced life. And if part-time work is simply out of the question for you, then a one-year hiatus to work may be just the solution. My friend Meghan lived at home, volunteered in her field and worked as a waitress between her under-grad and post-grad degrees. Smart girl.

So, how much will you need to earn? That depends on how much you plan to spend.

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