Category Archives: First year

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.

Academic Status Report (Or, What’s my current grade?!)

Here at my institution (a large state university in the SW), we undertake something called “academic status report (ASR)” at the end of the 6th week, start of the 7th week of the semester.    This ASR is shorthand for “what is your current grade”.  At first, I was not impressed with this requirement (it was more work for me!); but, now I have come to embrace this moment in the semester when I, as an instructor, take stock of my class and the students in it; I like to imagine that it is good for the students also to take stock of their classes and how they are faring.  If your university DOES do it, do not fear it.  At 6-7 weeks in, it actually gives you time to correct your studying behavior for the class if needed; OR, it can add confidence to your current routine — give you the nod that you are doing things well.

If your school does not use such a method, do not despair, we can help!

Step 1:  find your syllabus;

Step 2:  Figure out how many assignments (quizzes, tests, essays, discussion board posts, etc.) have already been due/completed;

Step 3 :  Figure out the total number of points each assignment was worth;

Step 4:  Figure out your score on each assignment;

Step 5:  Add up your score on each assignment; add up the number of points for each assignment.;

Step6:  Divide YOUR points earned by the TOTAL points of assignments combined.

Following these 6 steps above, will give you a percentage that is indicative of your current grade in the class.  For my class, any student below a 70% gets a notification from me.  That’s a good cut off point.  But each of can decide for yourself:  what grade do I hope ultimately to earn in this class?  Then, make your own ASR and decide if you are on the path to that grade (or higher).  If you aren’t, then NOW is the moment to make changes.  Go see the professor in office hours; go visit the teaching assistant; start swapping notes with a classmate.  Pay attention; make a plan and go get the grade you want!  You can do it!

Need help?  Email us, we can help you figure it out!

Welcome Back!

Students! Welcome to the start of the new academic year!

How are you feeling? Excited? Nervous? Stressed? Concerned? Relaxed? Comfortable? You may have a reason to feel all those things, they are common for new and returning college students.

For me, the start of a new year is exciting and a bit stressful. Exciting because there are new students to work with, there are returning students to reconnect with, and new programs to implement. But, things are stressful too – sometimes there are a lot of people seeking my time and attention, and although it is great to be wanted, I must figure out how to best balance my responsibilities.

As you are kicking off your new academic year, take some time to think about how you are going to balance your schedule. You have classes, you need time to study (reading your textbooks, doing practice problems, essay writing, exam prep, etc.) – follow that Carnegie Rule(!), you might have work/intern/lab/research hours, you must make time for health and wellness (i.e. eating, exercise and sleep!), and of course – your social life!

Now, instead of just thinking about these things, grab a pencil and paper, and diagram your week. Putting all your activities on paper will give you the big picture view of where your time is going to be spent. Seeing it all on paper may cause a little anxiety, sometimes the reality is there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things you want to do, but, it also allows you the opportunity to prioritize and figure out how to create balance.

This activity is not something you should do just once each academic term, it could – dare I say should – be done at the start of each week. Each week of your academic term has different tasks: papers, exams, group projects and activities, as such, assessing your scheduled weekly can be a great tool to help you manage your time. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!

Thinking of taking a “gap year”?

The “gap year” has been in the news lately since President Obama’s daughter, Malia, is going to defer her college enrollment for a year and take a  . . .gap year.  What is a gap year?  It’s a space (= gap) between graduating from high school and enrolling/attending university.  For some students, as detailed in the article here, it is a much needed break — a time out of sorts.

How to take one:  if you have already applied to a college or university and decide you want to take a gap year, then you will need to contact your school and ask for permission to “defer” — put off attending for a specific amount of time.  Your school may allow you to delay by one semester or it may only allow you to delay by one year, it depends on the school.  If you don’t ask, you won’t know if it is possible.

If you haven’t yet applied to schools, but plan to do so soon (and enroll the following year), then it might be a good idea to think about the upcoming year as a “gap year” that will positively contribute to your upcoming application package.

As the article linked above indicates, gap years can be expensive:  people traveling all over the world engaging in volunteer activities; working for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in faraway places that seem needy; but, gap years do not have to be expensive.  Here is the idea behind a gap year:  You are taking a break from FORMAL education (= school) to engage in INFORMAL education (= hands on training in a specified context).  If you want to take a gap year, or need to take a gap year for any reason, look around your local area and think creatively:  where would my time and energy be well spent? What do I like doing and would like to learn more about?  There are plenty of NGOs in your local area, no doubt, that are in need of volunteers and workers (think:  SPCA, Girls/Boys Scouts/Club, public schools, community centers, refugee or migrant assistance centers, and the list goes on and on).  Even if you are not a paid worker, you will still need to submit paperwork and apply; and, depending on the situation, in a public school for example, you may need to undergo a background check or other administrative checks to be able to volunteer.  Every step of the process is a learning step.  You will be learning by doing — by asking questions and seeking input from others — and then you will learn by being trained by someone already in the position.  All of these are opportunities to understand how institutions work, to see real people in real situations responding to daily events.  In short, this is real life.  Don’t approach it as a ho-hum ‘task’.  Approach like this:  this “class” does not provide a textbook or lecture notes.  I must learn everything through observation, asking questions, and trial and error.

THAT learning is the sum total of a GAP YEAR.  Whether it is done on another continent or 2 miles from your home.  Learning how real people undertake their daily tasks is a true lesson that, eventually, will make the classroom not only seem like a refuge, but will bring to life lessons IN the classroom as you can imagine real-life scenarios through the experiences in which you engaged.

If you can do a gap year, do it!  But, take notes.  It’s STILL learning, just outdoors in the classroom of LIFE.

Excitement & Patience

Your deadline to say “yes!” to the colleges you have been admitted is quickly approaching, or may have recently passed; congratulations on making your decision(!), we know it may have been difficult. Many of the high school students I have been interacting with were deciding between some big name institutions – their lists were impressive! However, in my career in higher education, it has not always been this way. For some students, in my recent past, being admitted to the one university they applied, was a big deal, and deciding to enroll was an important decision for the student and her/his entire family. The opportunity to go to college is an accomplishment, and enrolling is a big deal!

Now that the excitement of the admission decision is winding down, it is another time for patience. If the admissions deadline has not yet passed, or has only passed by a few days, be patient with the college’s orientation team, you may need to check their website a few times a week for announcements on dates and deadlines. Be patient with the transcript evaluators, they are still processing you exam scores and transferring credits/units onto your new college academic record. Be patient in planning a vacation and weekend trips, the university is still announcing programs and events for the summer which you may want to attend – be flexible to adjusting plans. Colleges and universities are not like Internet search engines or online shopping that have realtime updates. Regular people are processing forms and paperwork, and are working off of dated spreadsheets (automated tools are expensive, and our budgets are lean).

Thank you, in advance, for being patient with us! We look forward to seeing you at orientation and ‘welcome’ events. We are happy you chose to come here – where ever here is, and we look forward to supporting your academic and career aspirations!

Invitation Options

Last week, the program in which I work, University Honors, 1500+ first year students were sent an invitation to apply to program. That list of 1500 are all students who have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, after their first term at the university. Congrats to these students for having great first-term grades as during that time they were handling the transition to college life and college academics.
On Tuesday, I hosted an information session regarding the invitation. After the session was over, there was a student who asked for a few minutes of my time. She was concerned that although she received the invitation, she was not confident she was really Honors ready as she is struggling with one of he classes this term. What would you do if you were in her situation?
Invitations. How many invitations do you receive on a weekly basis? Think about your email inbox. Do you receive invitations to go to events, to shop with a discount, to join an organization, to make a contribution to a charity, to apply for a credit card? The list of invitations is lengthy. What decision making skills do you employ when deciding which action to take? Some decisions are simple: “I do not have a $100 for that concert ticket.” so that email can be immediately deleted. Others decisions are not as swift. “Do I have time to join this club? I really like the activities they do, and it would look good on my resume.”
When making the ‘big’ decisions, take your time. Make a list of pros and cons, ask your friends, ask people you trust, talk to people in the organization about their experiences, talk to people outside the organization about their opinions. In the case of the student in this story, she was concerned about asking for a letter of recommendation, her upcoming grades, time management and recent family struggles. I reiterated to her, that receiving the invitation was an honor in itself, and for her to be considering those other things also meant she is a proactive thinker! Moving forward with the application process might not be in her best interest, and that is okay. College is one of the best times to engage with your decision making skills.
The next time you look at your inbox, give a brief thought to how you are making decisions: quickly, slowly, thoughtfully, knowingly… and, do delete that credit card application without even opening it!

Repeating a Course

College students: the end of the term is upon you! Maybe you are already enjoying winter break, the students at the university I work at vacated campus last weekend, or maybe your only motivation through finals right now is your excitement for the upcoming Star Wars premier. If you are in the midst of finals, stay focused, committed, and give your best to these exams, projects and papers.

As you are anticipating and checking your grades, some of you may find yourself in an unhappy place. There are students who are satisfied with the ‘C-‘ they earned in a difficult course, but another student may be in agony over a ‘B-‘ in a course they really enjoyed and thought they were doing well. Another student might be solely focused on her/his GPA as they are planning on professional school, and have a desire to repeat a class in which they received an ‘A-.’ Should you find yourself in a situation where you want to repeat a course, you need to look up your campus’ course repeat policy.

Many institutions, especially ones with a large number of students, have very clear guidelines on repeating courses. Often, if a student received a ‘C’ or ‘C-‘ the course cannot be retaken. Generally the reason for this is: seats in the course need to be available for students taking it for the first time, sometimes it is so students stay on track for a four year graduation plan. At other institutions, a student may be able to repeat a course s/he received a passing grade, but the second grade will not be calculate into the student’s GPA. (The course and grade are on the official transcript, but not in the overall GPA calculation.)

Whatever the reason for considering a course repeat, know the repeat policy. So, for those of you heading into a final – you now have some extra motivation to put the time and energy into your studies! Give 100%, you will not be disappointed with yourself!

Honors Education

Last week I attended the 50th annual National Collegiate Honors Council Conference. It was four days of learning, brainstorming, and discovering best practices for college/university honors programs. Despite working in an honors program, I had no idea how mainstream honors education is in the higher education system.

Honors, in college, is much different than being an honors student in high school. At the collegiate level, honors programs at not universally designed. Each institution designs a program to meet the needs of the students within the scope of the college/university. The scope comes from the institution’s mission statement, goals, and education (major) programs. Honors education incorporates a style of teaching which is often interdisciplinary in approach and a classroom atmosphere of engagement through discussion and interaction. Needless to say, it is much more than a high GPA.

High school students, as you are exploring colleges, inquire about honors opportunities. You may be surprised to find out you qualify for an honors program or honors designed education plan. Honors programs exist at small private colleges, liberal arts colleges, large institutions, reasearch I universities and at community colleges! Most honors programs, or honors colleges (yes – some institutions have entire honors colleges on campus), take a broad view on what qualifies a student for honors. The high school GPA will be evaluated, but exam scores (ACT/ SAT) might not. AP or IB courses may be accounted for, but not always (we do not use them for course replacement at the university in which I work). For certain, an honors program is looking for students who embrace being challenged, have academic hardiness, grit, determination and motivation. Those would be excellent items to highlight in an application essay!

If you are accepted into an honors program, and you choose to participate, know what you are getting in to. Understand the curriculum, the academic requirements, extra curricular activities, etc. These programs are an enhancement to your education, but they are not for everyone – make an educated decision for yourself (not your parents)!

Registration Blues

College students, are you preparing to register for your next term of courses? If so, how many course schedules are you going to create? Of course you have your ideal schedule in mind, but what if you aren’t able to get one of those courses, or aren’t able to get the courses at the exact times you have identified? If you only create one course schedule, and it doesn’t come to fruition, how are you planning to handle the disappointment?

In the program I am associated, our students have priority registration and they almost always get their ideal schedule. However, these students must also enroll in a course within the program, and there are only 25 seats in each course. This is where registration stress comes in for them. This past registration cycle, more than 70 students, of our 380, wanted the same course, and another 50 wanted one other. These students had 18 course options, any many had to choose their second or third option. In our program, all the courses cover general education requirements, are taught by research faculty, and are a ratio of 1 to 25 or less, so in my opinion, there aren’t any bad options! But I can recall being 18 years old and stressed about registration. (Plus I live it with students all year long!)

The best way to lessen registration anxiety is to create at least three course schedules (or maybe five if you happen to register near the the last day of the registration cycle) the day/night before your registration time. The best way to do this is by knowing what courses you need in your major, or what courses overlap between majors and minors you are exploring. Doing this well requires time and effort with the course catalog and an academic advisor many days before (weeks before) registration. Why? Because outlining college courses is like a puzzle. Research your major(s), create a spreadsheet of course requirements, know which courses have prerequisites, and start planning, the more course plans the better! Create a lot of plans that will work. Unlike a 1000 piece puzzle, college is very expensive, so it is necessary to create multiple viable schedule options. Don’t let your parents or a friend do this for you – you need to take ownership of your education!

If (when) you do not get your first choice schedule during the first round of registration, figure out what adjustments you can make during the second round and during the first week of the term. Monitor wait lists, consult with advisors (again), email professors and most importantly, keep an open mind. You may have the ideal schedule, but you just don’t realize it yet! Whatever you do, do not have your parents calling or emailing your advisors, you are an adult, you are in college, you can handle this!

From a liberal arts/humanities professor:

Professor Lynn Huber (of Elon University) has four recommendations for being “more than practical” when choosing a major and navigating your early college career. You’ll note she recommends pursuing your passion. Yours. Not your parents. Not your favorite high school teacher’s. Yours. To pursue it, you need to find it. Explore a variety of courses. Actually dig in, get connected, find out what your passion is. Then go after it.

She ends her piece with this paragraph:
“And I didn’t say don’t major in marketing, strategic communications or any other number of professional school majors. If you love it, you should be there. But if your passion is in another field, you’re selling yourself short by staying there. Start doing what you love now. It may be the most practical move you can make for the future.”