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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

How to Win Scholarships - Leveraging your gap year to fund your university tuition

We all know post-secondary education is very expensive and a huge financial burden that students have to carry. Thank goodness for scholarships!. However, looking for scholarships, writing beautifully crafted applications and effectively communicating your skills can be challenging! But don’t worry, in today’s episode we invited scholarship expert Janet MacDonald from MyCampusGPS, who shares her incredible insight on the scholarship process and how you can be a successful candidate.

Janet and Michelle also dive further to unpack the greater value besides the money and how scholarships can become a tool you can leverage to make you a better job candidate and land those dream positions.

Topics Discussed

  • Meet Janet MacDonald from MyCampusGPS and learn about the helpful resources she provides students.

  • Looking beyond the money, how will scholarships help you stand out among other job candidates.

  • How gappers can leverage their time and experiences of their gap year when it comes to the scholarship process.

  • What skills funders look for when reading scholarship applications.

  • How taking on a leadership role will help you develop the necessary skills and qualities that can be applied to applications, but more importantly your own experiences.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year podcast.

My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and gap your expert. Today I have the wonderful Janet McDonald with me from my campus GPS.

Janet is the expert on everything scholarship and so we get a lot of questions about gap years and scholarships. And so Janet is here today to clear all of that up for us.

So Janet, do you want to just give a little hello and give us a little bit of background on who you are and what my campus GPS is all about?

Janet McDonald - 00:37

Sure. OK. Thanks, Michelle, for inviting me here today. I'm Jenna McDonald, I'm a former university admissions officer.

So I was in admissions at Dalhousie University and Halifax and at UBC in Vancouver and I was the coordinator for a scholarship program at Dalhousie University as well.

So that’s my background and basically how I came up with my business. My campus GPS is through those years, many years of working with students and parents, I discovered that many of them were missing out on scholarship opportunities simply because they didn't know much about scholarships.

So they didn't know how to find them, they didn't know how to apply for them and what was even worse is that they didn't know that they qualified for scholarships when they actually did.

So, you know, it used to be in the past that scholarships were only for top students. But that has changed and it has changed to the point where there has never been a better time in history for scholarships and by that I mean different kinds of scholarships for different kinds of students. So of course there are still scholarships for top students, but it doesn't end there. There are all kinds of different kinds of scholarships for different kinds of students now.

So there's really kind of this great opportunity out there and like I say, I noticed that a lot of students didn't know that and therefore they were missing out on these opportunities.

So, you know, I knew something about scholarships. They needed to know something about scholarships. So you put those two things together and that's how I came up with My Campus GPS.

And basically what I do is I help high school students to find and apply for scholarships, that's pretty simple.

Michelle Dittmer - 02:34

That's awesome! And I think such a needed thing. I really like that you highlighted that people don't know that there is money out there available to them, and whether that's for a particular things you've been involved in, your ethnic background, your place of residence, your interests, your abilities, your skills, your talents.

There’s really something out there for everyone and let's not let that money go unclaimed. Like put your name in the hat, get out there and get those applications in.

Because post-secondary is not cheap. So anything that you can get to support you on that journey means that you're going to have a little bit more financial independence and the ability to make other things happen in your life, which I think is so cool.

Janet McDonald - 03:34

Yeah, and I think that in addition to the money, the money is great, OK. So we're not gonna skip over the fact that the money is great.

But you know, the other thing that I think it's important that students understand is that scholarships are not just about money.

I mean, of course, the, like I say, money is great and that's probably the first reason why students, you know, engage in the process.

But there are other benefits to scholarships that not a lot of students know or understand.

So, for example, you know, having a scholarship on your record can you give some weight to whatever it is that you are applying for, whether that is a job or whether that is maybe eventually down the road applying for, you know, some kind of professional program, medicine, law or something like that.

It's a mark of success. It's a credential on your record and that can help you then to reach your next goal.

So I'd like students to kind of think a little bit more broadly about the benefits of scholarships other than just the money because those other benefits might be more valuable to you down the line than the money and as far as having that mark or that right that credential on your record.

It doesn't even matter if the scholarship is 50 bucks. You know, put it on, you don't have to often, you don't have to put the amount, but it's a mark of success on your record. Put it down, be proud of it and let it kind of do some work for you.

Michelle Dittmer - 05:00

I love that perspective because a lot of recent graduates coming out of university or college, their resumes are almost indistinguishable from one another.

Because you're just young in your career, you might not have a ton of experience or work experience and to be able to have those other weighted value things on your resume, it's what's gonna set you apart if against that other person who has their BA as well if you're if you're neck and neck those scholarships can tip you over the edge recruiters or people in jobs they like to, they're not very good at gambling. They want something that's a sure bet and if you have listed that you've somebody else has vetted you and said yes, this person is worthy of something that goes a long way.

I've hired a lot of first year students or recent graduates in past jobs and anything that sets you apart, anything where somebody else is gonna vouch for you that holds a lot of weight, especially early on in your career.

Janet McDonald - 06:05

Absolutely and that's why I say scholarships be get scholarships you know in that respect of you know kind of like almost like a laddering effect once you win one it helps you to win more or like you say it could be the difference if it's between you and another candidate who is equally you know as good as you or whatever you know that could be the thing that makes the difference and so like I say the value can be bigger in the long term than you even realise.

Michelle Dittmer - 06:37

Yeah and I think that ties nicely back to the gap year, too, in terms of differentiating yourself and doing something different and even for a lot of our gappers having more time and capacity to research scholarships and then to put together really quality applications.

So I'm curious if you have any advice or suggestions on how somebody on a gap year can really leverage this time when it comes to the scholarship process?

Janet McDonald - 07:08

Absolutely, so you know I would think you know part of what I do is try to make things easier, faster and better for people right in this process.

But you know one of the things that I would suggest a person on the gap year do is try to become a bit of a scholarship expert because it's not just going to benefit you with one particular year of scholarships. It could be part of your future, you know, for your entire post secondary career which could go on for several years, you know.

So there will be opportunities for scholarships all throughout your post secondary career. So you know it's not just a one time thing. So you know, become a bit of an expert on scholarships and how to find them.

So become familiar with the search engines, how they work, you know, set up your profile or get good at finding them and then, you know, I think once you start to find some, you'll start to understand that there are some common things.

You'll understand first that they're all different and that's why it takes a bit of time, you know, to do this stuff.

They're all different because they're offered by different funders and it is the funder who determines everything about the scholarship.

So how much is for who it's for, you know, if there's an essay, what the essay is about, the organisation that's offering the money, they determine everything.

So they're all different because all of those funders are different, but there are some common things that occur with many of them. So you will start to catch on that there are hey, there's unseen this type of theme over and over again.

So some of those themes that you'll see are basically in the essays they're going to be asking a lot about a lot of self reflection questions and so it would be helpful for you to start to develop your self reflection skills.

I guess you would say, you know, why did I do these things? What did I learn from these experiences?

This is what you see time and again in these scholarship applications, especially in the essays. So that would be something that I would suggest that you know students can start to develop.

You might even start to develop some content around some of those themes that you see that are common so that at least you have something, some kind of starting point.

So when you actually do get down to writing those applications, you have some content that's already created, you understand the process. So it would be just a great opportunity to become a bit of an expert that will carry you through for these opportunities that you will have for years to come, I love.

Michelle Dittmer - 10:07

Now, when you say creating content, a lot of our gappers are big into becoming content creators on YouTube, on Instagram and things like that and there's also the written word.

So when you say content, what do you, what do you mean when you're talking about that?

Janet McDonald - 10:30

Well, I mostly mean written content, but you know, some of these scholarships now have students who are able to submit video submissions and things like that.

So there are different formats now, I would still suggest getting comfortable with the written format, because that's probably still where the majority are going to be.

But you know, a very common type of theme or question on an application is to tell us about your most meaningful volunteer experience. Why was it important to you? What did you learn from this experience? Very common, OK, so that is something that alone answering that question, the content that you develop through answering that question could probably part.

I'm not talking about just cutting and pasting and putting into every single application. Obviously you tailor it to each individual application, make sure that it fits, you know, you might, you might have to tweak, but you don't have to start from scratch.

So you know you have some content, you kind of get the idea of things, and you have that and you're kind of ready to go and my thing is also about strategy, you know, like what's their strategy?

So the strategy here is to apply for as many scholarships as possible in the least amount of time possible. Let's do this the most efficient way.

And by reusing that content, there is nothing wrong with doing that. It's what I suggest you do if you can. It's a smart way to do it if it is the smart way that students do it, so that you can apply for more scholarships in less time.

Michelle Dittmer - 12:14

Awesome. I think that that's key and I have two follow up questions for you on that. The first was around the content that they're producing, so you use the example of your most meaningful volunteer experience.

So we just launched the Gap Year Scholarship. So we're giving out gap year scholarships and the way we're evaluating them on questions similar to that is not on the activity that they did. So it's not about the fact that you started a puppy mill rescue organisation then you save puppies from burning buildings.

And it's amazing, compelling, that activity, but it's actually more for us about the reflection and the connection and the self-awareness that you were talking about.

What did that experience, what did that volunteer experience mean for you?

So the experience could have been I spent an afternoon picking up garbage, but the reflection part, it made me realise XY and Z about the world.

It made me realise ABC about myself and this is how it's going to shape my future decisions and the fact that you spent an afternoon picking up garbage isn't rated less than saving puppies from burning buildings.

It's the reflection, and is that true for other scholarships as well.

Janet McDonald - 13:44

Oh absolutely that's absolutely true.

So yeah it doesn't necessarily matter so much about what has been done versus like you say that demonstrating self knowledge hat shows maturity to be able to show that type of self reflection and then like you say making that connection kind of to the larger lessons, the kind of life lessons that came from that and then how are you going to use that in the future? How has that changed you? And how that is going to shape your future and how you do that and it's important.

It's important though that if that experience happened a while ago you need to say then how it did change you.

You can't just say, Oh well you know I changed me but then you don't prove that it changed you like you don't say how so you know you want to definitely it's always about demonstrating right.

It's about demonstrating how that changed you and if it just happened and discuss how it's going to inform your future. But if it happened in the past, tell them how it informs your future.

Michelle Dittmer - 15:00

I love that, and I think it's important for a couple of reasons, because I think some people feel that their experiences aren't as valuable or as grandiose as other people and therefore they think they shouldn't apply and I just want to encourage you that even if you have what you consider smaller experiences or are things that seem a little more basic than your peers, that doesn't mean you will not be successful in the scholarship applications.

There is so much more to it and I like to use the nerdy experiential learning framework.

The what? What happened? What did you? The so what? The now what? What are you going to do with that information?

So those basic three questions: What? So What? Now What? It’s a nice simple way to get yourself thinking that way and you can practice that on a daily basis when you experience something go through in your head while you're lying in bed thinking about your day and go through the what So what now what and get practiced in making those connections because that will make your application so much stronger in the future.

Janet McDonald - 16:14

I really like the “so what” because often you know students think well I have to list all of these things like a grocery list, I did that, I did this. I did that and it. But that doesn't tell us why you did those things. It doesn't tell us what you learned from doing those things. So that's the So what? And then the now what is very important too, because one of the main things that the scholarship funders are going to be looking for is the initiative. How did you take initiative? How did you say there was a need there? I filled it or there was something and I did something about it. So there's a lot of weight put on the whole initiative part of things.

Michelle Dittmer - 17:03

I love it and that kind of transitions into my next question for you. What about using your gap year to strengthen your experiences for those scholarship applications either for your first year or for the subsequent years like you said.

So what are some things that young people could do on their gap year that would bolster their ability to earn these scholarships in the long run?

Janet McDonald - 17:30

I think it's important to go back to what you said. It's not necessarily about what you do, it's about what skills that you developed and what you learned from the experience. So I'd like to kind of get away, maybe from giving you specific examples of things. I mean we can, we can talk about that if you want.

But and that's, you know, what I do with students is we brainstorm to come up with some specific things that they can do to, you know, optimise their, their activities, I guess you would say.

But I like to just start with leadership. It's the, it's the most bang for your buck activity. OK and that again that's what I bring is that strategy to you know use your time in the most effective and the best way possible. So even though you're on a gap year you don't have all the time in the world.

You still need to use your time to the best to your best advantage and so with that in mind, a leadership role is going to be your best bang for the buck activity.

So what that means though is I'd like students to start to think about leadership in a much broader way than they might do now. So it's not leadership is not necessarily just tied to a role like a title or a position. There are opportunities for leadership everywhere. It's basically anytime you take responsibility for something and what you're doing serves or helps others in some way. OK. So that's a really broad definition and. Once you start to think about it that way, you can see lots of different opportunities for it.

So you know in that, you know with that type of leadership role, think about how I can do something that is going to give me, you know, that responsibility for something where I'm helping other people. In something obviously that I want to do that I enjoy doing.

OK, that's key and sometimes, you know, students don't think enough about that. You wanna do something that you're really, you know, interested in. So I kind of think about the three “I’s” of leadership, something that you're interested in. You take initiative in that area and then you try to make an impact in that area.

What you can start to do, really, is start to think about like take a more thoughtful and kind of deliberate approach to your leadership.

Read there are thousands of books of leadership. Or just do some Google searches and start to think about what kind of leader I want to be?

How do I want people to see me? But some of the skills that you want to think about developing through whatever activity you know it, it might be things like recruiting people, motivating people bringing people together with a common kind of interest or purpose and reaching a consensus on how to move forward with that and identifying the best skills and other people to help them to, you know, to help you to assign them tasks, keeping them on task and evaluating the impact of whatever it is that you did.

These are the types of, you know, skills that you want to think about developing and that can be developed through a lot of different things and in a lot of different ways.

But then that will help you, like I say by taking a more kind of thoughtful and deliberate approach to your leadership and really kind of zoning in on how I can find something where I can develop those skills.

When you do that and when you participate in whatever activity it is, you are going to have some fantastic content to use on your scholarship application. And you know, because we're talking about scholarships, that's what I'm focused on here but what we're really talking about is just incredible personal growth and development.

That's really what that's really what they're looking for in scholarship applications.So you need to go out there and you need to do these things that will help you to develop those things.

And like you said, it doesn't have to be a huge save the world type of thing. It can be something quite small and grassroots, you know, in your own community. It's more important about what the skills are that you're developing and the personal qualities and the character that you are developing through that experience.

Michelle Dittmer - 22:30

Yeah, you're talking my language here. I love, I love leadership. I did my masters in leadership actually and we had tons of discussion around what leadership looks like.

And I think it's important that all of these gappers understand that leadership doesn't mean being the boss, it doesn't mean being in charge. It doesn't mean necessarily starting something of your own. There are ways that you show up as a leader every single day.

And similar to the first example when we were talking about the scope and the size and the perceived value of that experience, it's the same with your leadership.

You don't have to be the big head honcho running something major, those, those silent leaders or those, those leaders on the side that are continually showing up and stepping in and making other people's lives easier or better or more efficient that has a lot of weight too.

And I want you to think about that and think about how you are a leader, because a lot of people are scared to attach that, that title or that role to them. When I think if you sat down with somebody like Janet, she'd be able to pull out 10 examples from things you've been involved in that show leadership qualities.

So don't be, don't be intimidated by that term because we all have those leadership qualities and for the scholarships and jobs and everything. It's about how you communicate your leadership capabilities.

Janet McDonald - 24:04

By thinking about leadership much more broadly in that kind of, you know, taking responsibility for something and using what you're doing to help other people. It means you don't have to wait for an opportunity to come to you and you don't have to wait to be elected into a role or something into a position.

You can start to see opportunities all the time in front of you in ways that you can and start out small. If you want to start like just start out small if you don't have much experience.

The other thing is you want to be very aware that doing this is going to cause your self doubt to come into your mind a lot at different points, right? It's not just even in the beginning, it can happen at different points and I always tell students that you know you will have self doubt through this process because you're doing something different.

You're doing, you're trying something new, you know there's a risk of failure, absolutely.

But that's where personal growth happens. It's not doing the same things over and over again. So of course you're going to have self doubt everybody does.

It's normal, it's natural just you know acknowledge that it's there because it's there and it's normal and it's natural. But don't let it hold you back from doing that thing that is going to give you that great personal growth. So acknowledge it. Yep, it's there, it's normal. It's a natural part of this process and just continue on and and. Do what it is that you want to do.

Michelle Dittmer - 25:48

Yeah, and own your greatness. Own the skills that you have. This is not a time to be humble and to hide or to downplay the things that you are capable of. This is a time to share that with the world and that's a powerful thing.

And it can feel very overwhelming to say those words maybe for the first time like I am a leader and to see that on paper, it can scare us a little bit saying, oh, who am I to say that I'm a leader, but when you back it up with the anecdotal stories or comments from other people that have showcased that you, you are a leader or you do take initiative and there's nothing wrong with putting those things down on paper.

It's a very great experience and it can help us to understand just how fantastic we actually are because sometimes we don't take time to actually put that down on paper and say no, “these are the things that I'm good at. These are the things that other people have told me I'm good at. These are the things that I excel at. These are things that I enjoy”.

And seeing that all in one place can sometimes feel like bragging or feel uncomfortable and this is the place to talk about those things and to show other people just how fantastic you are and that can take us into an uncomfortable place sometimes.

Janet McDonald - 27:06

Yeah and I know I work with a lot of students who too struggle with that they'll say breaking. Like, do I really say that?

And you know I get that it might seem that way because you know, we're told by everybody, especially by you know you're probably by your peers that they don't they'll tell you the moment you know you're starting to feel like bragging.

But this is not that, this is this is something that's completely different. You are just stating facts. You're not embellishing, you're not making stuff up. You're just telling what you did and you're. Like you say, you're backing it up with evidence, basically and remember, they want to know this.

You're just telling them what they want to know, you know? So when you kind of look at it from that perspective. It's easier to get past those natural feelings, maybe that, hey, you know, isn't this bragging? No, it's not bragging, it's just stating facts and it's telling them what it is that they wanted.

Michelle Dittmer - 28:17

Amazing. Well, I could talk to you for hours, but I have one very specific gap year question for you before we wrap up. So some scholarships do stipulate on them that you need to be moving directly from grade 12 into postsecondary.

How common is this and what, if anything, can you do about that if it's written into the fine print, but you do know you need to take it or you want to take a gap year?

Janet McDonald - 28:45

So I think there I do think that it is quite common although I think it's becoming less common. I think funders are starting to understand that there are different pathways for different students. So that's good, that's positive.

But there are going to be some of those absolutely. I think what you can do is, I mean if you wanted to take the initiative you could contact the funder and ask them.

So each funder like I said before, each funder determines everything about the scholarship so that includes the rules and regulations and policies and all of that sort of stuff.

So you could contact the funder and explain this is my situation, blah and ask them if they will accept an application from you and it might be something that they have never really considered before so you know it, but it will be up to the funder to determine that and they definitely can, I've seen it happen before where they have allowed students who didn't you know you would have to fit the criteria exactly other than that one thing for the gap year.

So if you fit the qualifications exactly but there's that but it's just the gap year then contact the funder let them know and you know give them the opportunity to tell you whether or not you would then qualify.

It may be written into their terms of reference or something that they can't. I mean, who knows? But I have seen them change some of that, some of their kind of written rules I guess you would say to allow other students to apply.

So it's worth it. It's definitely worth following up.

Michelle Dittmer - 30:38

Yeah, I think that's important for people to know.

Don't just don't just throw in the towel. Don't give up on it because that e-mail or that message can be really beneficial to you in the long run and put everything in there. Say this is why I will be an even better recipient after my gap year, this is how I'm building on the things I talked about in my application on my gap year. This is how I'm going to take on more leadership and I will be a much more deserving person in the end.

So how can we make this happen still, yeah because the funders want to see successful recipients that's what their goal is they want give you a leg up and they want to be able to tell amazing stories about their recipients.

And so if you can show them how you are going to be an even better recipient or alum of that scholarship than you're gonna, you might be able to sway them a little bit.

Janet McDonald - 31:38

Exactly! So you know, unfortunately the onus will be on you to educate them. But that's a good experience. That's a good skill for you to have as well. I mean something that you will be doing for other things as well. So educate them a little bit about the benefits and what you will then gain by having this gap year.

Michelle Dittmer - 31:55

Awesome and like I said we can go on for hours.

But if people did want to learn more from you where can they find you and where could they maybe work with you if they were interested in taking you up and making their life a little bit easier, quicker, more efficient to get those scholarships where can they find you?

Janet McDonald - 32:16

Yeah, so I'm at and my e-mail is

So if I can be of any help to anyone, it's what I love to do.

Michelle Dittmer - 32:32

Amazing. Well, thank you for spending time with us today and it's so valuable to hear all of these things. And we'll link to all of your stuff in the show notes.

So if you want to learn more from Janet, just click on those links and we'll get you connected with her.

So thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today.

Janet McDonald - 32:49

Thanks, Michelle, it’s been fun speaking with you.

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