Scholarships, grants, and bursaries: Sports

Sports scholarships, grants, and bursaries can open up a wealth of resources to promising student athletes, as well as a financial top-up. Learn more about how you can get a sports scholarship.

What’s a sports scholarship, grant or bursary?

Sports scholarships, grants, and bursaries are awarded to undergraduate students on the basis of their athletic ability and potential. They’re available for a long list of sports, from archery and hockey, through to sailing and triathlon. Scholarships for coaching are available, too.

While student loans have to be paid back, extra funding like this doesn’t have to be.

Sports scholarships aren’t just for students studying a sports degree. So if you’re a chemistry student who can explain the molecular make-up of iron as well as pump it, you might be in luck.

Sports scholarships are offered by universities and colleges which may have top-class facilities, like a centre of sporting excellence for a particular sport. Scholarships can also be offered in collaboration with the National Governing Body (NGB) for your sport through a government-backed programme, such as the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) in England and Wales, or Winning Students in Scotland.

Why do universities and colleges offer sports scholarships?

Sports scholarships are offered to help students progress in their chosen sport, while they pursue a degree. Training and competing at a high level is a huge demand on students’ time, body, and even wallet. Funding of this kind – along with the extra benefits that come with it – can relieve some of the pressure, and make balancing everything more manageable.

Plus, student athletes can get excellent exposure and experience, especially if they wish to compete professionally once they’ve graduated.

In return, universities are able to attract and nurture young talent, who can represent them in competitions, and raise their profile.

How much money will you need to live on at your chosen university? Use our student budget calculator to get a rough picture of your living costs.

What can you get?

Sports scholarships are often awarded at different levels or ‘tiers,’ depending on students’ level of performance and ability. The higher the tier, the greater the award and benefits available. We go into more detail about different tiers when it comes to eligibility below.

Students may receive a cash award, plus one or more of the following (which may be equivalent to a certain cash value):

  • access to state-of-the-art facilities and resources – e.g. gym, strength and conditioning, physiotherapy, nutrition
  • athletics union membership
  • one-to-one coaching and mentorship
  • sports psychology or similar support
  • sports gear, clothing, and equipment
  • free or discounted accommodation – one university offers ‘athlete-friendly accommodation’ that’s close to sports facilities
  • an academic liaison to help manage their workload alongside sports commitments – it might be worth asking about this at an open day
  • financial contributions towards appropriate or agreed expenses, such as travel, accommodation, or entry fees for competitions

Worried about money at university? Check out our guides to creating a student budget, and managing your money.

Eligibility criteria

There’s some basic criteria you can expect to have to meet for any sports scholarship:

  • Your sport is recognised by the Athletic Union and/or British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS). 
  • You’ve competed at a regional, national, or international level in the last 12-18 months.
  • You qualify for home fee status and live in the UK.
  • You’ve accepted an offer for a qualifying, full-time undergraduate course at that university – you may have to accept this as your firm choice too.
  • You meet the grade requirements and conditions that come with your offer.

Many universities offer sports scholarships at different tiers, depending on the level students have competed at already, and that which they’re expected to in the future, based on their current ability. There will be specific criteria which will vary from tier to tier. You may spot patterns across different universities or sports, but it’s always best to check this exactly.

That said, not all universities use this tier system when allocating scholarships, though they may still set out certain requirements, like achieving a podium or points position at the BUCS championship, or be a European, Commonwealth, or World level competitor.               

BUCS, Olympic, Paralympic, and Commonwealth sports are a major focus for many universities, who may prioritise these in the financial awards they offer, or when assessing scholarship applications:

Universities and colleges will be open about what they look for in scholarship applicants – you can usually find this on their websites. Several talk about candidates who ‘demonstrate a commitment to striving for personal excellence,’ or emphasise 'Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound (SMART) sporting and educational goals’. Look out for clues like this, and keep them in mind when applying.

Extra conditions

Watch out for any terms or conditions that come with a cash award. For example, you might be restricted to spending it on sports-related items, rather than general living costs. 

In return for a scholarship, it’s generally accepted that recipients commit to representing their university competitively. This might be as part of an ongoing league, or at particular events over the course of the year, like the British Universities and Colleges Sport Championships or World University Games.

This may extend to an ambassador type role at special events or engagements, or be available for media interviews or appearances, on an ad hoc basis.      

Being a sports scholarship student is a bit like being a walking advertisement for a university or college, in the same vein as a professional athlete signed to a team or sponsored by a brand – only on a much smaller scale, and unfortunately, without the salary. That said, if you have ambitions to pursue an athletic career, it can be great preparation, allowing you to pick up skills like public-speaking and talking to the media.

You might be required to keep your university – or scholarship donor, whether an organisation, or individual – informed of your progress too, so they can see how that award has benefited you. Usually this is through an end of year report, or meeting(s).

How to apply

You can normally apply for a university sports scholarship online, by completing a short application form that covers the above eligibility criteria.

This may involve writing an essay style answer about your top sports achievements, your sports goals for the future – including rankings or medals you’re aiming for – and how a scholarship will help you achieve these.

You’ll need to provide a reference or supporting statement from an appropriate individual, such as a National Governing Body (NGB) coach or performance director, team manager, or sports teacher.

Your application will be reviewed by a panel, who’ll make a decision.

In the case of government-backed initiatives like TASS or Winning Scotland, you’ll have to be nominated for a scholarship by your NGB.

Open day questions for sports scholarships

  • What scholarships, bursaries, and grants do you offer? Are there different tiers, and if so, what’s the criteria for these?
  • If a student receives another form of funding, such as a widening participation or academic scholarship, will it impact whether they can get a sports scholarship as well?
  • Will it hurt a students’ chances of applying for a sports scholarship if they don’t wish to pursue a professional sports career after university?
  • Do you look at applicants’ UCAS or student finance application – or consider their household income – when considering their sports scholarship application?
  • Do I need to provide any video evidence or other media material as part of my application?
  • Do you prioritise any sports over others?
  • What exactly do students commit to in exchange for receiving a sports scholarship, grant, or bursary?
  • What happens if a sports scholarship student seriously injures themselves at university, which affects their ability to compete (either short term or long term)? Will they lose their award?
  • Many scholarships involve representing the university in a non-performing capacity, such as speaking to the media, or serving as an ambassador at events. Given this public profile, do you monitor recipients’ social media activity, or other public behaviour?
  • What resources and facilities are available to sports scholarship students? Do they share these with the rest of the student population, and if so, is priority given to sports scholarship students?
  • Is there financial support to cover the cost of competing at events or competitions (e.g. travel, accommodation, food, entry fees, etc.)?
  • What support is in place to help students juggle their sports and academic commitments?
  • Do you offer a sports scholar’s kit? What does this consist of?
  • Are there any famous sports alumni who’ve gone on to achieve great things?
  • Do you have links with any professional teams?

Tips to get a sports scholarship, grant or bursary

  • Your reference or supporting statement – get this sorted as soon as possible. The person you ask will probably be doing this for lots of students. Take the time to talk to them about this, including where you’re applying to and your future goals – it might shape what they write about you.
  • Coaching or leadership qualities – as well as your performance and ability, can you add a further dimension to your application by taking up new roles and responsibilities? This could be coaching a local team, mentoring an individual, or volunteer work with a sports programme. It’s these transferrable skills and experience that you can use to stand out in a sports scholarship application, as well as in your personal statement.
  • Train and stay healthy – don’t slack off the moment you receive a sports scholarship. Once you arrive at university, you’ve got to prove why you deserve it (against top-level athletes, too). Also, don’t take any unnecessary risks that might jeopardise your physical health or wellbeing, especially if you go travelling in the summer before university. 

Learn about other additional funding available, including academic and low household income scholarships.