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.