Category Archives: Financial Aid

Part 3: How to be competitive

So, you’ve heard about all of these different kinds of scholarships and now you want to know: how can I make sure I am competitive?

Probably the most valuable advice I can give you is to start early. Students are often surprised by how early deadlines are and how much planning has to go into an application. A good rule of thumb is that you should start the application process at least 6 weeks before a deadline (for smaller awards), between 3 and 6 months ahead of deadline for larger awards, and 6+ months in advance for the major scholarships.  This will give you plenty of time to order transcripts, request letters of recommendation, and write (and revise) application essays.

Starting early also means learning about awards that might be a good fit for you early in your college career—as a freshman or sophomore. For some of the most competitive awards for post-graduation or graduate school, thinking ahead can help you plan what kinds of activities to get involved in, how to spend your summers, etc.

Another good piece of advice is to be realistic and choose wisely.  If you don’t have the time to put into writing a good application or you and your fellowships office staff decide that you don’t quite fit the criteria for a certain award, it might not be a good use of time for you to apply. Also, try to have a Plan B. Since these scholarships are competitive, having a back-up plan (or two) gives you some peace of mind that one of your plans will probably work out.

For some of the major scholarships, you need to develop your resume. Try to select activities that fit into your goals and professional plans. Explore programs offered by your university in your first few years, then you might look outside your university for other opportunities that match your interests. Also, try to make your summers productive: look for paid internships or funded research opportunities.

Finally, stay positive while working on an application! These awards require written essays that can really force you to think deeply about what you want to do, what makes you unique, your strengths and weaknesses. You will have to write and re-write numerous times, as you become more clear about what you want to say. It can be intimidating, scary, frustrating, and discouraging! But challenging yourself to articulate what you are passionate about can be a great learning experience and really help you understand what you want out of life.

Working to put together a strong application can also help you improve your writing skills and your ability to discuss what experiences have shaped your perspective. That can only help you later on the job market and in your career.

Whether they win or not, though, I truly believe that students who complete a nationally competitive scholarship application gain a lot in terms of assessing their strengths and weaknesses, perfecting time management and organizational skills, improving their writing, and gaining confidence in pursuing their dreams.

Guest Blog Author, Ms. Jeanne Sokolowski


Jeanne Sokolowski is the director of the Office of National Fellowships at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She was a first generation college student when she attended Rockford College in Illinois and, for many years, had no idea about the world of scholarships! She stumbled upon information on the Fulbright program and went on to receive a Fulbright research grant to South Korea in 2002. She subsequently earned masters degrees in education and English, and published several articles on Asian and Native American literature before falling into and in love with the field of fellowships advising.

Part 2: Overview of scholarships

So what kind of scholarships can a fellowships office help you with applying for?

Here’s the disappointing news: There are plenty of scholarships that are aimed toward helping you pay for your undergraduate tuition, but that’s usually not what a fellowship office works on because 1) there are so many 2) they sometimes have very narrow criteria (residents of a certain county or children of employees of a specific company, etc.) and 3) they offer a relatively small amount of money ($500-$1000). Most fellowships offices are small, with limited staff, so they focus on the larger, more well-known scholarships, which also tend to be the most competitive.

Note: my office takes a slightly different approach. I do advertise three specific scholarships geared toward students with high financial need. I choose to do this because the scholarships are open to New Hampshire and New England residents (a large percentage of students at my school) and because the award amounts are a bit higher ($2000-$18,000) and, in one case, renewable. You might inquire if your fellowships office is aware of any scholarships for tuition that are specifically for students with high financial need.

So what can you get money for?

One big category is study abroad scholarships. There are several major scholarships that aim to help American students get abroad. One is the Benjamin Gilman scholarship, which offers up to $5000 to students who are receiving Pell grants as part of their financial aid to take part in a credit-bearing study or intern abroad program lasting four weeks or longer. The Gilman scholarship is particularly interested in encouraging first generation college students, students of color, students with disabilities, those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors, and those planning to study in non-traditional destinations (i.e., NOT western Europe, Australia, or New Zealand).

The Freeman Asia scholarship is very similar to the Gilman, but is limited to study in Asian countries.

Another award is the Critical Language Scholarship, which provides a fully-funded 8-10 week international immersion language experience in 14 different languages considered critical to U.S. national security (Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, etc.)

Some scholarships aim to identify future leaders in a particular field. One of those is the Udall scholarship, which offers $7000 and fabulous networking opportunities to sophomores and juniors who plan to pursue careers related to the environment or tribal/Native American public health and public policy. For the Udall, applicants’ records of leadership, research experience, and involvement in community activities/public service related to the environment or Native American issues is weighed as heavily, if not more, than the academic performance of an applicant.

Other awards that identify future leaders include the Goldwater Scholarship, which selects students in STEM majors who have the potential for successful research careers, and the Hollings Scholarship, for sophomores who demonstrate interest in fields related to the mission of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Similarly, there are fellowships that identify students who want to go into public service careers or the Foreign Service. The Truman Scholarship, named after President Harry S. Truman, looks for “change agents,” who plan to work in public service careers (the government, non-profits, educational institutions, etc.) The Rangel or Pickering scholarships are specifically for those who would like to have a career in the Foreign Service (working in consular and diplomatic services for the Department of State and representing the U.S. abroad).

Besides these opportunities, there are a number of awards that provide funding for graduate study, either in the U.S. or abroad.  For students studying in STEM fields, the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and NASA all have generous, but highly competitive, awards.

For students looking to study in the U.K., awards include the Rhodes, Gates Cambridge, Churchill, and Marshall fellowships.

Have you ever heard of the Fulbright program? Fulbright grants provide full funding for study, research, or English teaching in over 140 countries; students must hold at least a bachelor’s degree by the time the grant starts. (It is a pretty long application process—you apply about a year before the grant period begins!)

Fulbright is one of the main scholarships for many fellowships offices because there are quite a few awards offered each year (around 1500!) and because it is open to students in all fields.

If you choose to do independent research on a Fulbright, you have a lot of flexibility! A Fulbright can allow you to design your own project: you might research and write a young adult novel on the Jewish community in Morocco during WWII, interview and videotape contemporary Chinese artists, or study how the engineers in the Netherlands design flood-resistant houses and dikes. There is also a special business internship program in Mexico; a “combined” grant in Austria that allows you to teach English, take graduate level classes, and volunteer in the community; and grants for doing a master’s degree in the UK, Italy, France, or several other countries. Additionally, Fulbright offers English Teaching Assistantships in over 60 countries. There are lots of options!

Fulbright believes that recipients play an important role as cultural ambassadors and they look carefully at applicants’ ability to engage in cross-cultural exchange successfully.

I hope this has gotten you excited about some of the possibilities that scholarships offer! Next time, in the third and final post, I’ll talk about how to be competitive for scholarships.

Guest Blog Author, Ms. Jeanne Sokolowski


Jeanne Sokolowski is the director of the Office of National Fellowships at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She was a first generation college student when she attended Rockford College in Illinois and, for many years, had no idea about the world of scholarships! She stumbled upon information on the Fulbright program and went on to receive a Fulbright research grant to South Korea in 2002. She subsequently earned masters degrees in education and English, and published several articles on Asian and Native American literature before falling into and in love with the field of fellowships advising.

Competitive National Scholarships: Why You Should Make Friends with your University’s Fellowships Office Staff!

Did you almost skip reading this blog post because of the word “competitive”? I’m glad you didn’t. You might have a better chance of receiving a competitive national scholarship than you think!

This is going to a be a three-part post. In today’s entry, you’ll learn about what a scholarships/fellowships office does. The next two parts will cover different types of scholarships and how to be competitive.

Part 1: Scholarships/Fellowships and what those offices do

First things first: the questions most students at my university ask me (so I’m guessing you are curious, too):

  1. What’s the difference between a scholarship and a fellowship?
  2. What does your office do?
  3. How competitive is ‘competitive’?

Scholarship vs Fellowship

The short answer is that it doesn’t really matter. One definition is that fellowships are for graduate school, while scholarships usually apply to undergraduates, but again—the difference is not that important and the terms are used interchangeably. You might also hear the words “grant” or “award” thrown around, too! The important thing is that this is money from external sources (anything outside your university).

The Work of the Office

Most of my work involves getting the word out about scholarships to students and then helping them understand if they are eligible, if they would be competitive, and how to apply. I hold information sessions for various scholarships and I also visit classes or student organizations and speak about specific scholarship opportunities. On my website, I keep an up-to-date database of scholarships.

The first big decision students make is whether or not to apply for a scholarship. “Eligibility” refers to the non-negotiable aspects or what is mandatory for you to be able to apply. This might include being a U.S. citizen, your year of graduation, your major, etc. “Competitiveness,” on the other hand, is how well you fit the profile of an ideal candidate and whether you have the qualities that particular scholarship is looking for. I help students consider if they are a good fit for a particular award, whether they have time to put together a strong application, and what the timeline will be for applying. The final decision is the student’s, but I can help answer questions and help provide guidance.

Once a student decides to apply for an award, I work with them very closely on their application. We discuss appropriate letters of recommendation (and how to ask for them). I provide support and feedback on application essays—this is probably the biggest part of my job. If a university nomination is required, I coordinate that process. For some scholarships, there is an interview; I prepare students for those, as well.

The best part of my job, of course, is when students win! and I can publicize their success.

 The Odds of Winning

A lot of students don’t consider applying for fellowships because they think they aren’t competitive with a less than perfect GPA or because they go to a state school. Not true! Sure, every year, geniuses with a 4.0 or undergrads from Harvard and Yale win some of these awards, but not all. And particularly in the case of scholarships that are funded by the U.S. government, there is a real emphasis on diversity, which includes student diversity, diversity of schools and geographic diversity!

The funding agency determines what type of applicant they have in mind and what qualities are most important to them.  Some scholarships weigh academics heavily; others don’t even have a GPA cut-off. A number of scholarships have selection criteria in which academics are balanced with other skills and qualities.

 Another factor is how many scholarships are available for a given competition. Some can be quite competitive, with only 30 or 40 students are chosen from across the entire country. Some scholarships actually limit the number of students a university can nominate, so you might have to compete with other students at your school before actually being considered in the national pool.

Other scholarships are more democratic, with a larger number of awards; these offer a pretty good chance of success if you meet the criteria. One study abroad scholarship, for example, offers around 2,800 awards each year. If you fit at least a few of their criteria, your chances aren’t bad at all.

Next time, I’ll go into some examples of scholarships and what you can get money for.

Guest Blog Author, Ms. Jeanne Sokolowski


Jeanne Sokolowski is the director of the Office of National Fellowships at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She was a first generation college student when she attended Rockford College in Illinois and, for many years, had no idea about the world of scholarships! She stumbled upon information on the Fulbright program and went on to receive a Fulbright research grant to South Korea in 2002. She subsequently earned masters degrees in education and English, and published several articles on Asian and Native American literature before falling into and in love with the field of fellowships advising.

Motivation & Organization

Happy New Year students! There are many things going on for you all! Here is a quick run-down of important tasks for the start of the new year – which of them apply to you?

*  All college students for the 2016-2017 academic year: it’s FAFSA time! Do not delay, do it today (or as soon as you have received your and your parent’s 2015 tax information)! Get it done before March 1!

* Returning college students: reflect on successes and challenges of last term and make a plan for success this term. See your advisor(s) immediately for time sensitive questions.

* College seniors who are working on a thesis or capstone project: outline the steps to complete this task. Set deadlines, document the activities you need to do to meet the deadlines. Plan meetings with your faculty sponsor/advisor and make sure they happen – do not let them cancel on you more than once, these final weeks will fly by. Your thesis/capstone is a great opportunity to let your light shine – this is your independent study, your passion – thrive!

* High school seniors: finish up your campus tours of places to which you applied but had not yet visited. Utilize our On the Quad campus tour worksheet to maximize the information you receive on those visits.

* High school juniors: if you haven’t already, begin making your list of colleges you are interested in researching. Utilize our On the Quad self-assessment worksheet to reflect on why you want to go to college and what expectations you have for yourself the school you attend.

* All students: begin your search for a summer internship! Now is the time to research options, polish your resume and write a good cover letter. Bring your second or third drafts to your career center for fine tuning. In this process you will discover there are interesting opportunities you have already missed – plan on them for next year!

Maximize your new year motivation and make it a great term!

Are you applying to scholarships?!

How is summer treating you?  Are you gearing up for going to college in the fall?  Have you been doing a part time job?  Saving some money for books, a computer, parking pass, or coffee during fall semester?  Do not forget to apply for scholarships!  Every year, thousands of dollars go unawarded/unused because not enough people apply for monies that are ‘out there’ waiting to be awarded.


1.  Check your local county scholarship opportunities.  Often, your local county or city will have scholarships that are awarded for various reasons, not just grades or merit.  Your local library can be a great resource in helping you find these scholarships.  Also check local Rotary and/or Lions clubs, as they often fund education.

2.  Know your scholarship deadlines.  Check out these two different sources for scholarship information:  the first one gives examples of scholarship deadlines coming up in August.  The second one gives great hints about what to keep in mind when applying for scholarships; it also lists some ones to apply to.

3.  Finally, check out these scholarships with fast approaching deadlines.  Be sure to look at the one titled “Wholesale Halloween Costumes” – you could be the next recipient!

Be sure to read the rules of the scholarships carefully; abide by the rules (that is half of the battle, trust me); use your best essay skills (have a friend read what you write); and apply, apply, apply.  Good luck!

Stay in the Present

College students – you’re nearing the end of the academic year. You have 3-6 weeks (approximately) until your term ends and things are busy. It’s Spring, the weather is nice, and you’re probably getting a little stir crazy sitting in a lecture hall, writing research papers, or spending time behind a microscope in a lab. I am here to remind you to stay in the present and focus! Instead of letting distractions get the best of you, stay on task and commit to giving these next few weeks your best. Now is the time to prove to yourself you have will-power and follow-through, do not procrastinate! Set your intention on academic achievement and stay focused!

High School seniors – it’s time to inform the college/university you plan to attend of your intent to enroll. (Remember, you can tell more than one college you plan to attend and still take a little more time to make your final decision – but do not miss the intent to enroll deadline!) As you’re narrowing your choices, it is very important to do detailed research on each institution you’re considering. Make sure to investigate your majors of interest, know if you are ‘in’ the major, will be a ‘pre-‘ major, or will be applying for a space in an ‘impacted’ major. If you’re receiving financial aid, in any form: grants, scholarships, or loans, make sure to get all your questions answered by a financial aid counselor. The financial aid resources in our book can be a great resource for those conversations. Doing intensive research now should be a great help in making your final decision!

There’s no time like the present – stay in it!

Does Free Equal Motivation?

A few weeks ago, media was all-a-buzz about President Obama’s “free community college” idea mentioned in his State of the Union address. Does it sound too good to be true? Let’s disect a little.

Doing a bit more reading on this idea, the U.S. News & World Report stated the following… According to the White House budget document, you’d have to be at least a half-time student with a B average whose family makes less than $200,000 a year. And the tuition would be free only for two years. That suggests that students would still have to fill out onerous financial aid forms. And many part-timers would still be ineligible.

Students, do you REALLY know what it takes to maintain a ‘B’ average in college? Only 36% of the first years students at the university where we work have a ‘B’ or better grade point average (GPA) at the end of their first term. Nearly 17% are on academic probation for having an average GPA of ‘C-‘ or lower! So, what is free tuition really about? It’s about academic motivation!

In addition to, or rather, excluding free money, what would motivate you to achieve, not strive for, but to actually earn, a ‘B’ or better average, in all your college coursework? Are/were you a 3.0 GPA student in high school? Do you think college is/will be easier than high school? The things other than free money, need to be your true motivators! Then, effective time management, dedication to studying, and knowing how to study, are the only things that will help you (a student) earn the 3.0+ GPA.

It’s our hope you are motivated by your own self, not just by money! No one is handing out free money once you’ve graduated! (Well, maybe your Grandma, but that’s wishful thinking too!)

Last minute gift idea!

Looking for a last minute gift?  Don’t forget you can get our book On the Quad:  How to Arrive, Survive, and Thrive at College on Amazon for any digital device.  There are FREE Kindle Apps for ALL digital devices . . . (; download the free app then purchase the book in the Amazon Kindle store – great for students and parents.

Chapter 2 has all of the Financial Aid information you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA on January 1, 2015.  You’ll be ahead of the game!

A very happy holiday to all of you.

Cindi and Heidi

The FAFSA opens Jan 1, 2015

School is almost out, no doubt — if you are a high school student.  For some, it may already be out until next year.  In between your holiday merriment and your winter holiday reading list, check out the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  You can access it here.

Financial aid refers to a package of “monies” (multiple forms of money) that are offered to a student to attend a particular institution.  The package typically includes:

  • scholarship and grant money (money which is NOT repaid);
  • loans (money which must be repaid);
  • parent and student expected contributions (money you are assumed to have available to contribute to tuition and fees).

We  encourage you to be interested in any and all scholarship/grant money that is available to you.  Thus, filling out and submitting a FAFSA is imperative.  You may or may not be interested in loans.  Nonetheless, a FAFSA is imperative to fill out and submit.  The only way for an institution to “understand” you financially — and thus offer you free money or loan money — is to fill out and submit a FAFSA.  In fact, the FAFSA is required for many jobs that are available on campus (these jobs are called ‘work study’ jobs and are funded by the federal government; as such, to qualify for the job, a FAFSA is required.).

Our book has a great explanation of financial aid — complete with examples of sample award letters, what to watch out for, and many other things that are important to consider.  We encourage you to check it out.

And, plan to fill out the FAFSA sooner rather than later!

Happy Holidays.

Trying to understand the “offer letter”? You’re not alone

Getting an acceptance letter from a college you applied to is really fun!  Waiting for the financial aid offer letter is less fun; reading the letter and decoding it might be no fun at all.  In fact, it may be downright confusing.

While colleges were encouraged to use the “college shopping sheet“, fewer than 50% of them did.  There is a list (here) of ten important things to pay attention to when reading your college offer letter.

Chapter 2 in our book is also a great resource for estimating what your expenses at college will be as well as lots of insightful financial aid information including a breakdown of what kinds of loans are available, examples of real college financial aid award letters, and step by step explanations of what each ‘award’ is (free money, loans, or employment opportunities).  Check it out today!