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.

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