Every year, universities and foundations lay out the red carpet to handsomely reward the next generation’s leaders and humanitarians. A few keywords always recur in the application criteria for scholarships. Leadership, community involvement, and initiative consistently top the list of phrases used to describe a desired candidate for major scholarships. It is clear, then, that being a successful public figure is the ticket to success.

But what about the rest of us?

If scholarships exist to reward deserving students, then their current design is flawed. Scholarship criteria overlook a significant pool of talent and strongly favour candidates of a very specific breed. There is strong bias towards extroverts over introverts, even though a significant portion of the population identifies with the latter. Anyone who doesn’t fall into the cookie-cutter definition of an ideal candidate won’t stand a chance in the system, regardless of their actual merits and personal achievements.

The criteria for Canada’s largest and most prestigious scholarships, such as the Loran, TD, and the National Scholarship all have one thing in common: they want someone with strong academics, who is a leader that has made an impact on their community. While that’s fair, a student may be talented in many ways that don’t fall under these categories. For example, a student may be a very insightful writer who maintains a blog with many readers, or a talented artist whose work has never been properly exhibited beyond his or her own workspace. However, because the achievements of these students are not as publicly prominent, their response to prompts such as “Describe your most significant volunteer contribution” may not be as impressive as the response of a peer who is the leader of multiple clubs.

A word cloud of criteria keywords for Canada's scholarship offerings.

A word cloud of criteria keywords for Canada’s scholarship offerings.

You may argue that we’re attempting to compare apples and oranges, and that these other students should just seek out offerings that are more appropriate for them. However, the solution is not as simple as this, because there are simply far fewer opportunities for these students compared to opportunities present for the “ideal candidate.” To illustrate this point, we’ve scoured various institutions and universities across Canada for scholarship offerings, ranging from academic to artistic, and created a word cloud based on the keywords of their application criteria. In a word cloud, the more frequently a word appears in the source material, the larger the word. As you can see, “community” is the largest, followed closely by “leadership.” “Involvement” and “entrepreneurial” are two other prominent words. Scholarships for students with less visible talents do exist, but they’re far less common than those that cater towards the typical extrovert.

The bias towards Type-As and extroverts is embedded in our society. We consider people that keep to themselves secluded and anti-social, and laud “people people” for their natural ability to socialize and converse. Scholarships are a reflection of this. Even when scholarship criteria do not explicitly favour extroverts, they often gain the upper hand anyway due to the structure of the selection system. People who can express themselves more eloquently often perform better in interviews. Even in offerings where extroversion is not critical for success, such as research positions or internships, selection often boils down to who can leave the greatest impression in an interview. Extroverts, usually the ones with better speaking skills, are favoured, even when personality is irrelevant.

Private foundations such as Loran have the right to favour whomever they desire, be it personality type, ethnicity, or even gender. Often, they are in fact searching for a very specific type of candidate, one that advances their own private agendas. However, universities have a responsibility as educational institutions to provide equal opportunities to all deserving students. The major university entry scholarships in Canada, such as University of Toronto’s National Scholarship or Queen’s University’s Chancellor’s Scholarship, receive the most applicants, yet their criteria disadvantage a significant portion of qualified candidates. Scholarships should offer more equitable representation for students of all talents and abilities, so that they shouldn’t feel pushed to lead superficial charity clubs or whimsical community initiatives in order to appear competitive.

It’s true that widening criteria to allow for a fairer playing field will result in more work for the institutions that handle selection. There simply aren’t enough resources to grant every applicant a chance to fully present themselves, limiting the scope of a candidate’s work to what can be written down on paper. However, universities should still do their best to construct more open-ended scholarship applications. For instance, one prompt on the Chancellor’s Scholarship simply provides the applicant with a page of free space and allows them to use it however they see fit. This is a good example of flexible design to showcase creativity and innovative thinking. Universities need to demonstrate a willingness to reward promising students from all fields of achievement.

Tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs certainly deserve to be recognized for their public achievements, but this should not be the focus for all scholarship criteria. Universities need to dedicate more resources to honour those who speak softly, as these people are far too often overlooked. Reward should be determined by merit, not by whoever is yelling the loudest.


Photo: Sophia Liu

Photo: Sophia Liu