Advice for Applicants
Preparing Yourself in Advance
Ideally, you will have been preparing, whether consciously or not, from the time you arrived on campus. You have likely accumulated a record of academic excellence and perhaps also demonstrated skills in leadership, service, or research, simply because you’re that sort of person. You should have developed relationships with professors during your time in college, so that they know you and can write persuasive letters on your behalf. You will have developed interests about which you are passionate and can, therefore, write compelling application essays. You’ll have learned more about yourself.
Of course, most students don’t live in an entirely ideal world – so the minute it crosses your mind that you might want to be a candidate for a competitive scholarships (or to get into a top graduate program, or to land a highly desirable first job, etc.), you’ll want to review your own record with a critical eye. If the scholarship you want to apply for has an application deadline that’s still months away, there’s definitely time to pursue activities that can help you increase your odds of success. Consider getting involved in a volunteer activity or an internship that interests you, starting on a research project with a faculty member, creating an organization to work on a problem that is important to you, getting involved in student government, running for a leadership position within an organization you’ve already joined. Get to know faculty of the courses you’re taking right now, and look up favorite faculty from previous semesters. Remind them of who you are, and give them a chance to catch up on what’s going on with you. You’ll be better positioned to put together a strong application when the time comes.
Selecting the Right Program
Sometimes students don’t so much choose a scholarship program as stumble across one. That’s not so bad – most students don’t spend a lot of time researching these things, and you’re likely to learn about a particular scholarship competition from someone else, maybe a faculty mentor who casually mentions in class that the scholarship exists (or even personally encourages you to apply). Those serendipitous matches can be perfect.
On the other hand, if you meet the selection criteria for one scholarship, you may well meet the criteria for several. In fact, many students who win prestigious fellowships to support graduate study (e.g., the Rhodes, Marshall, Gates-Cambridge) are previous winners of undergraduate scholarships (e.g., the Truman, Goldwater) and/or prestigious internships. So casting a broad net can be beneficial. You may find that there’s something to apply for now, and, should you win this competition, the opportunities provided by your first scholarship will position you as a better applicant for another fellowship or scholarship later.
Several are designed for overseas study, sometimes sponsored by the federal government (and sometimes with strings attached, like a promise to seek work within the State Department or another federal agency). Others are sponsored by foundations designed to encourage cross-cultural cooperation and knowledge. To earn such a scholarship, you need to demonstrate more than a desire to go overseas. The most prestigious (but also most competitive) involve graduate study in the UK. Others, like Fulbrights, usually involve having a specific project in mind, and, most often, a reasonable level of fluency in an appropriate language as well – but Fulbright sponsors many opportunities that are reasonably attainable if you meet the preconditions.
Some are designed for students in the sciences and put a premium on research experiences and aspirations – look at the Goldwater, for example, or NSF and NIH-sponsored funding for students. A few, like the Gilman, consider financial need. The Truman requires academic excellence but their Foundation considers the Truman to be a scholarship geared toward promoting public service rather than rewarding academic success.
You’ll need to sort through the various restrictions and stipulations in order to find the opportunity that’s right for you. Make sure you select a scholarship that’s a match with your interests, academic experience, and career goals. Take time to understand the selection criteria for a scholarship before committing to the work of an application. Remember that national awards are not rewards for academic achievement. All candidates for these scholarships have a high level of academic excellence – a winning candidate is one who meets all the specific selection criteria at a high level in addition to exhibiting academic excellence. So finding the right match is crucial.
Writing the Application Essays
Somewhere along the line, a writing teacher probably told you that writing is about drafting and redrafting and redrafting. Maybe, like most students, you didn’t believe that teacher. Maybe, unlike most students, you found that you could get away with single-draft work and still earn top grades.
Writing application essays isn’t like that. Good essays are really hard to write, and they take many drafts. Here’s why.
First of all, application essays ask you to write about yourself. It seems like it should be easy to write about yourself – what topic could you possibly know more about? But it’s not. You may find out that you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. You may realize that all of your reasons for pursuing a particular career sound trite and hackneyed, and you know they’d be the same vague and ill-formed reasons given by a 12-year old. You will find that it’s really difficult to write about yourself in a way that doesn’t sound embarrassed, holier-than-thou, awkward, or preachy. You’ll likely discover that even meaningful anecdotes can sound stale (“I’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since I was 11 and learned my grandpa had cancer.”).
The cure for all of these problems is time, fearlessness, and multiple readers. Start early on your essays, and figure that those first drafts are really going to be nothing more than a way of figuring out what it is you want to say. After you’ve done some writing, read back through them, ideally with support from UND’s liaison for nationally competitive scholarships or a really trusted teacher, in search of the nuggets of ideas that you’ll build your “real” essays around. Remember that each application essay should have a thesis or make a point, just like any other paper. What point are you trying to make? Have you selected ideas to include that support and explain that point? Or are you approaching the essay as a resume in narrative form? (Here’s where fearlessness comes in: no one really wants to share this early, personal writing with outside readers, but doing so will help you develop a final essay that you can really be proud of.)
In the middle of your drafting, take time to go back and reread the information about your desired scholarship. Notice again what they say about the selection criteria. What’s most important to this foundation or agency? Thinking about audience should help you focus in more tightly on the stories, examples, and points that will be most relevant for your purposes.
As you continue to generate new drafts, keep soliciting feedback. Don’t go to readers who you know will only offer praise. Praise won’t help you figure out how to revise and improve. And don’t let outside readers encourage you to focus on editorial issues too soon – work with your ideas before you worry about editing. Seek out readers who are willing to be critical, readers who’ll work hard to imagine themselves as the intended audience of your application, readers who are interested in your success but not in love with every word you’ve written. Listen to what they have to say. And remember it costs you nothing to hear criticism – you have the final word on what to include, no matter what a critical reader may advise.
Finally, remember that you actually are permitted very few words with which to persuade your readers that you are exactly the right candidate for this exact scholarship. So you don’t want to waste time and space on information you’ve given them elsewhere (e.g., don’t repeat a list of awards that may show up elsewhere on your application). Show who you are, so that your readers can see for themselves why you are such a logical recipient for this award.
With any luck, you will have prepared yourself for this stage in the process by getting to know faculty during every semester of your time at UND. You will have kept occasional contact with favorite professors from your first year. You will have worked on projects with professors or under their supervision. They will know you and love you. They will be very happy to serve as references for you.
And it is very important, for many competitions, that your references be faculty. Each competition will have its own requirements, but most boards prefer faculty – sometimes full professors. That’s especially true if the scholarship application you’re targeting is one with an academic or intellectual component. So although your closest relationships may be with former supervisors at summer jobs, former high school teachers, your freshman year advisor, or your coach, it is also important to have good relationships with faculty who can serve as references.
When you decide to enter a scholarship competition, you should immediately begin thinking about potential references (see the application to find out how many you’ll need and any restrictions on who they can be). You’ll want to ask a faculty member to serve as a reference in advance, before you actually need the letter. Once the person has agreed to write on your behalf, promise that you’ll return with a draft of your application essays and other materials, along with a resume and/or transcript and explicit information about the scholarship criteria, so that the person can write knowledgeably about you. Tell the professor when you’ll be able to provide all that information. Then agree on a date (maybe 2-3 weeks after you provide all the necessary materials to your teacher) when the letter of reference will be completed and submitted. Aim to have that submission date one week in advance of your final due date for the scholarship – things happen to faculty too (they end up in the hospital, or a family member does!) and you want to have at least a small window of time in which to enlist a substitute writer.
Once your references are on board, begin work on the application itself. When you have an almost-final draft of the application, including application essays, make photocopies for your references. Add a summary sheet about the scholarship and selection criteria. Set up appointments with each of your prospective references and review all the materials you’ve brought, chatting about your goals or project (or whatever else you were asked to write about in your essays). Going through this process will help ensure that the letters provided for you are support the narrative about yourself that you’ve developed in your own materials. Be respectful in your conversations with potential reference writers, but also be forthright about the need to provide all this information to them – remember that very few faculty will write more than a few letters of support for prestigious scholarships in their professional lives. These are not easy letters to write well. They need your help to write a good letter, and you need their help to sell yourself as a viable candidate for the scholarship.
Submitting Your Application
The hardest part of getting an application ready can be managing the timeline. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that you’d need to begin months in advance, but doing so will definitely pay off. Students are often comfortable procrastinators, believing that they do their best work “under pressure.” The truth is that you’ve probably done “good enough” work without putting in the time you should have, simply because you’re pretty good at “doing school.” But this is altogether different, and you’ll now be competing against the best students from universities across the entire nation. What was “good enough” before isn’t anymore!
Furthermore, it’s important to remember that many applications require that your university representative submit your application. And the university may also be required to go through a selection process prior to submitting applications. So it’s critical that you contact Joan Hawthorne, the university’s liaison for national scholarship programs, in advance. Find out if there’s an internal due date for the application, which can be as much as a month in advance of the national due date. This is especially likely to be the case for scholarships with many potential competitors at UND, or those which ask nominating institutions to complete thorough vetting processes, including internal interviews for nominees. All of this requires time, and all must be completed after your application is submitted internally. So it’s absolutely essential that you comply with internal timelines and avoid last-minute applications.
Furthermore, winners of the most highly sought-after scholarships have often been thinking about, maybe even working on, their applications for months. Nothing that’s been thrown together at the last minute is going to measure up. Plan on spending the time to do a really outstanding job.
The bad news is that you may not win. You may put together the best application you possibly can, and still your chances of winning will not be even 50-50. That’s not such a terrible thing, since you’ll be competing against really excellent students. Simply being in the same applicant pool as these future leaders is an honor. Winning the support of the University of North Dakota and your own faculty mentors for your application should be a point of pride.
So it’s not failing to win that’s the worst possible outcome, but failing to try. People who try learn something by putting themselves out there. They measure themselves against the best college students across the nation or around the world. Maybe they win and maybe they don’t, but they have the satisfaction of knowing that they were willing to take the risk of seeing what’s out there and pursuing something that has the potential to be life-changing.
Plus, going through the application process will prove to be beneficial. Students who write these essays think long and hard about what they really want in life and why. They go back and analyze their own strengths and weaknesses, the choices they’ve made and the life paths that have brought them to this place. They learn to focus in on what is most important to them. They take an honest look at the ways in which their goals benefit the world in addition to themselves. All of these experiences make you a better person. You will be a stronger candidate for grad school or your job of choice as a result of going through this process. You’ll be clearer on what you want and you’ll have figured out realistic paths that can take you to that place. You’ll be a winner no matter whether you walk away with money or just with the experience.