Scholarships are a great way of keeping costs down and gaining academic profile.

Jade Leung left Auckland University with zero debt. That's thanks mostly to the large number of scholarships the engineering student applied for and won.

Leung received more than $52,000 in scholarships during her time at the University of Auckland. Sums ranged from $30,000 for the New Zealand premier scholar award to $4000 from the Institution of Professional Engineers.

Some, such as the Edna Waddell Undergraduate Scholarship for women in technology and engineering, were for female students only.

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"I am very grateful (that) I came out of university without the financial burden (of student debt) when a lot of people around me have that debt," says Leung. She won around two-thirds of the scholarships she applied for.

Leung's family and her school, St Cuthbert's College, encouraged her to apply for scholarships. The return on investment of time was huge. The first few applications, completed while studying for NCEA Level 3, took several hours each. After the first few, the process became quicker. Most required only a written application. One, the Beca & Rotary Club of Auckland Scholarship, required a face-to-face interview.

Not all the scholarships were based solely on Leung's academic results. Others also took into account her service track record and extracurricular activities.

Beca, for example, looks at students' character and what they're giving back to the community. "Essentially we're looking for people that have the ability to communicate and impact change," says David Carter, Beca's group director of practice development.

Leung is a public speaker who presented at TEDx Youth Auckland. At university she became chief executive of the P3 Foundation, a youth charity against extreme poverty, and was also involved in Engineers Without Borders NZ, which provides humanitarian engineering.

It may sound difficult to compete with such an accomplished student. However many scholarships are awarded to more than one student each year; Beca's were given to nine last year.

Some have specific requirements. Recipients of KiwiRail Group Scholarships must be children of its employees. The $2000 awards can be used at polytechnic as well as university and KiwiRail is considering incorporating scholarships into its cadet, apprentice and graduate programmes.

This year's recipients are studying law, English literature, veterinary science, communications, media, film and television and paramedicine. The Seafarers Union makes a similar award to children or grandchildren of Maritime Union, Seafarers Union or Seamen's Union members.

The KiwiRail and Seafarer's scholarships, with 40 other undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, are administered by Universities NZ.

Careers NZ has a step-by-step guide to applying for scholarships on its website.

There are many scholarships available to students in financial hardship. The Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs has 84. The Barbara Wood Memorial Foundation Scholarships provide up to $1000, based on need, to students born in New Zealand or the Pacific, and virtually every tertiary education provider offers some sort of financial hardship scholarship.

There are large numbers of scholarships available. Many are administered by Universities NZ -- Te Pokai Tara and details are available at www.universitiesnz.ac.nz/scholarships. Individual universities and polytechs manage some of their own scholarships.

Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities NZ, says the scholarships managed by his organisation range from around $500 to $100,000.

Some are as a result of bequests, which may date back to the early 20th century, and others come from living donors. They can be general or for a specific purpose such as encouraging young people into the arts.

Some awards are quite obscure. The Kauri Museum Mervyn Sterling Scholarship encourages study in environmental conservation, ecology, natural heritage and Northland history. The recipient needs to come from Otamatea, have a historic family connection with the area or have worked/studied in the area for a reasonable period of time.

Graeme McClennan, head of schools and community at Manukau Institute of Technology, says: "For many students, getting a scholarship will make the difference between being able to study at a tertiary level or not. We have a scholarship programme for students in local schools, where we award 60 $4000 scholarships for their first year of study."

The Zonta Club of South Auckland offers a $5000 study award for a female student living in the Manukau region. MIT and students at other institutions are sometimes eligible for scholarships offered by iwi and hapu. Ngapuhi students, for example, can apply for Te Runanga-A-Iwi-O-Ngapuhi Scholarship Awards worth up to $1500 each for undergraduates and $4000 each at PhD level.

Scholarships are about more than just money. Leung says winning affirmed her as a person and gave her confidence. "I found the process very helpful. It makes you articulate what you want to do and what motivates you."

Winning undergraduate scholarships has also made it easier for Leung to get post-graduate scholarships. She has just left New Zealand on a scholarship to Cambridge University. "If you have a track record of being recognised for XYZ, people are more likely to short list you for (further scholarships)."

One of the best places to find information is Generosity NZ's givME database. There is a cost to access the database but it can be searched for free at universities and polytechs and public libraries.