[Originally posted on 28 February 2018 for The Mars Generation Student Space Ambassadors (SSA)]
By: Emily Judd, SSA Leadership Board Secretary
Why should you consider applying for an academic scholarship or fellowship? There are several good reasons: winning a prestigious award is a personal honor, the prize shows future employers that you are capable of great things, and the monetary assistance helps fund your education. Now that we’ve established why you should want to apply for scholarships, here’s a few tips on how to win these awards.
1) Start the application process early
As students, procrastination often hits for homework assignments. Here, if you want to stand a decent chance at winning an award, you’ll need to start well in advance of the deadline. You’ll need time to collect official transcripts, write and edit essays, and solicit recommendation letters. In addition, some of the big awards require nomination by your university, so this can require a pre-screening application to secure a nomination slot. For some of the most prestigious awards, I have heard it suggested to devote the time to the application process that you would give a 3-credit course. In addition, you’ll still be balancing attending courses, working on assignments, and all of the other activities that make you such a strong fellowship candidate to begin with, so attempt to lessen your stress by working ahead.
2) Find and make use of your school resources
Your school may have assistance available for students pursuing fellowships and other awards. Check with your administrators, your Honors program, and your professors to see if your school may have resources to aid with the application process. These resources could be people to help you through the university nomination process and suggest which awards you would be most competitive for or possibly a university writing center where people can critique your application essays. Ask around to see what help there may be.
3) Find an award that fits your profile
Most scholarships and fellowships have very specific criteria for applicants that could include academic level, field of study, extracurricular involvement, personal identity, and nationality. Make sure to read all of the application materials to make sure you fit the criteria. On the reverse side, take what makes you unique and search out organizations that cater to specific interests and identities. Applying to these types of awards will usually help bring down the numbers of applicants, making you statistically more likely to win!
Apply to a variety of awards. Smaller awards that are one-time scholarships usually have less competition, and if you win multiple awards, they can have the same financial impact as one larger award. By proving that you deserve these awards, you’ll be more qualified as an applicant for more prestigious fellowships. When applying for the big, name-brand fellowships, take care to pick out the awards that you are most qualified for, even if they might not be the awards that everyone else seems to be aiming to win. For example, if you are studying engineering, you might fit better as a Marshall Scholar rather than a Rhodes Scholar.
Overall, I like to think of the process of picking out which awards to apply for as much the same as deciding which universities to apply to. There isn’t enough time to apply for all, so pick out some that you believe you’ll have a high chance of winning, a few that are tougher competition but you’re well qualified for, and one or two “reach” awards that are the most prestigious.
4) Choose your references well
Almost all awards applications require at least one letter of recommendation. As you go through your academic career, get to know your professors well, as they will be your most likely source of recommendations. However, even the best professor may not be your top choice for a recommendation; some professors are too busy to write a personalized letter, and others may not have the necessary writing skills to fully show off your strengths. Many awards will have the references submit their letters directly, so you will not be able to read them, making this process of deciding a difficult one. From time spent in lectures and office hours or research time, you should be able to gather a sense of their writing style or, at least, their way of expressing themselves in order to help with this decision. In addition, you may want to consider using college administrators, volunteer supervisors, and bosses as references depending on the specific application requirements.
Part of your job as the applicant is making the process as easy as possible for your references. Give them plenty of time to write and submit the letter and any other paperwork, aiming for at least two weeks before the deadline, although three to four is better. Some applications want specific things for their letters, like official university letterheads, cover sheets, etc. Make sure you know the requirements and state them in a clear summary for your reference. Highlight the skills and experiences that you want your reference to include. These could be research papers, team projects, outreach events, but you want the letter to reflect on what you learned from these things, not just read out like a list copied from your resume. It is also sometimes helpful to provide your references with your other application materials such as your resume or CV and any essays, as it will give them background on why you think you’re a good candidate and a reminder on your previous experiences.
5) Tell your story with your essays
Essays, including personal statements, academic statements of purpose, and responses to prompts, can be the most daunting portion of the application process. Much like any writing assignment, start with an outline to create the organizational structure. Is there a word or page limit? Will you need introduction and conclusion paragraphs? Will the style be technical and formal or is it more personable? Figure out what main points you want to highlight and fill in from there.
Remember that judges will be reading through many applications; you want your essays to make you stand out as a human being, not just as a gifted student. Make your essay read like a story, telling about personal experiences that have made you grow and develop into the person you are today. What did you learn from these things? Were there any unexpected outcomes? What challenges did you face, and how did you work through them? Don’t be afraid to mention setbacks or times when things didn’t go according to plan; showing how you recover and adapt to failures can be just as powerful as telling about previous successes. Do remember, however, to actually answer the question or prompt given. If allowed, find a friend or other trusted person (preferably someone good at writing) to critique your work, both for grammar and for content. Different perspectives will give you varied feedback, so be prepared for that. Ultimately, the essays are your work as a reflection of yourself, so you must take charge of how you want to present your story.
Now that we’ve explored the process of applying for scholarships and fellowships and given some tips for making a successful application, best of luck as you go forth to pursue these opportunities!