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Everything you need to know about getting a university scholarship, grant or bursary

You don’t have to pay them back, you can get them once you’ve already started university, and you may be surprised by the variety on offer

Going to university and getting your first proper taste of independence feels pretty amazing, but it can also get really expensive, really fast and it can be a challenge to find the funds to pay for everything.

Along with tuition fees, you’ll need to find the funds to pay for accommodation, food, bills, socialising and more. Your student loan will only go so far, and your time for paid work will be limited by your studies. 

Find out more about what you'll be spending your money on at university here.

For many students, this can lead to increased financial pressures which can be very stressful. But help is available.

You’ve probably heard of scholarships, grants and bursaries – essentially, free extra money for students – but you may have also assumed that you wouldn’t be eligible so there’s no point applying to one.

Do a little bit of research, though, and you may well be pleasantly surprised by just how many of these awards exist – and how wide the selection criteria can be.

Here’s everything you need to know about these awards, and how to go about finding and applying to one.

Is it too late to get a scholarship, grant or bursary if I’ve already started university?

Nope – lots of scholarships are available year-round, with rolling deadlines.

They’re also available to students in all years, not just freshers.

What are the differences between scholarships, bursaries and grants?

These three terms have one really big similarity in that they all refer to sums of money that you do not have to repay.

The main differences between the three come down to what the award is based on, and who it is offered by – although there’s no set rule for this and they are also often used interchangeably.

  • Scholarships are usually awarded to students to recognise an achievement. This could be an academic achievement or something related to one of your interests, such as sports or music. They’re offered by universities or colleges and local employers.
  • Bursaries are generally given to students based on their personal circumstances – so, for example, they could be for students from a disadvantaged background, those who have a low household income or students from a particular area.
  • Grants tend to be based on the same kind of criteria as bursaries, but are likely to be offered by charities or trusts instead of universities or employers.

As you might imagine, funding that doesn’t need to be paid back is in demand, so you may be up against lots of other applicants. So, it’s worth spending some time on your applications and getting them in early. 

Who can apply for a scholarship, grant or bursary?

There are a huge variety of scholarships, grants and bursaries available out there – meaning that all sorts of different people can meet the criteria for one.

The kinds of thing you might be awarded one for include:

  • If you do well in your exams or other academic work
  • If you have an extracurricular talent, for example you might be very musical or good at sports
  • If you follow a certain religion
  • If you’re the first person in your family to go to university
  • If you’re from a particular area or country
  • If you’re in financial need
  • If you’re passionate about working in a certain industry
  • If you’re from a disadvantaged background
  • If you have a disability
  • If you’re studying a certain subject.

That isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, and it can get very niche. You can even apply for a grant for being a committed vegetarian from The Vegetarian Charity, for example.

Your interests, hobbies and financial needs will likely all play a fundamental part in determining whether you’re entitled to a scholarship, so it’s a good idea to do your research and check your eligibility as soon as possible.

How much money will you get from a scholarship, bursary or grant?

It completely depends on the award.

Some might pay all or part of your tuition fees, some may give you money towards living costs and others could be given to you for one very specific purpose – say, to pay for specialist equipment you need for your degree or to help fund study abroad.

Where can students find scholarships, grants and bursaries?

Your university’s website is a good starting point. There should be a page on it covering scholarships or bursaries where you’ll be able to see all the different awards it has on offer.

You could also pay your student welfare office a visit to see if they know of any financial awards going that you might tick the right boxes for.

Your research definitely shouldn’t begin and end with your university though. Most universities won’t advertise grants and bursaries provided by anyone that’s not affiliated with the university, so you’d be seriously limiting your options.

The Scholarship Hub has an extensive database of available funding for UK and EU students on undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.  

There are quite a few government-funded awards. You can find an alphabetical list of them on the website here.
They include the Dance and Drama Award (DaDA) for certain private dance and drama schools, bursaries for studying to be a social worker, bursaries for studying to be a doctor or dentist and the Disabled Students’ Allowance to help cover extra costs students might have because of a disability.

International students should visit the UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs) website to find government-funded support for going to university in the UK.  

You could also check out relevant employers, whether that’s local companies or organisations that are in your particular field of interest. They often have bursaries for students who show promise, as well as to attract underrepresented groups into a particular industry, for example women in STEM.

Charities are another good place to look, especially if you have a particular set of circumstances that line up with the charity’s aims. 

The Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS), for example, is designed to help young athletes through education, while Wise funds scholarships for women in STEM.

They don’t necessarily need to be educational charities, either. Turn2Us, for example, is a charity that provides grants to people in financial need, including students. 

And if you have a disability, Disability Rights UK publish this factsheet to help you find and apply for funding.

How do you apply for one?

The first thing you’ll need to do is put in a bit of research. Find out what scholarships are out there for your university, who they’re for and how you can apply for them.

It will require some time and effort, but it’ll all be worthwhile if your application is approved.

Next, check when the deadlines are and allow a minimum of two extra days in case you’re waiting for a reference or there’s an unexpected delay.

It's a good idea to create a separate folder for your scholarship material and make sure you keep up-to-date information in there; this will help you keep track of the different deadlines and make everything easy to find.

When you’re ready to apply, double-check you’ve provided all the information required set out in the application guidelines – missing information will only delay things.  

Can you apply for more than one?

Short answer: yes – spread your net far and wide! You can apply for as much help as you want.

So how can you stand out from the crowd?

Some financial awards are either automatic or only ask you to prove eligibility – for example, if you get specified grades in your exams or if you come from a particular background. 

With others, however, you’ll have to make an application. And writing an application for a financial award is a bit like going for a job interview – you want to give the best impression to give yourself the best chance.

Take your time over your application and make sure you include as much relevant information as possible, and that you haven’t made any obvious spelling or grammar mistakes. The awarding panel won’t be impressed by a form which has been thrown together in five minutes.

If the application asks for referees, choose them carefully – a lot hangs on this process, so make sure they highlight all your best bits by praising you in the most effective way.

Also, keep track of the deadlines and be prepared in advance for anything that could jeopardise your application, particularly if you’re relying on referees, proofreaders or professional printers.

Finally, when you’ve got your application together, get someone to look over it for spelling mistakes and to check all information is up-to-date, including your full address, phone number and email.

Once you’ve got that nailed, all that’s left to do is apply!

Alternatives to bursaries and scholarships

Even if you don’t qualify or succeed in getting funding in the above ways, there are other avenues available. Rather than giving you funding, some institutions might assess your situation and agree to a fee waiver – which reduces the amount you need to pay. 

For more on budgeting for university, including student loans, check out our advice on how student finance actually works.

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