What makes a strong candidate:
While it is critical to recognize that every scholarship and fellowship application and process is unique, there are certain characteristics and qualities that go into the making of strong candidates for national competitive opportunities.
A few of these qualities include, but are not limited to:
- Your academic achievements: a strong GPA as evidence of a rigorous and diverse course-load. Remember that committees are well-versed in reading transcripts and will quickly recognize and evaluate a record that indicates a student has challenged themselves regularly and developed an academic record indicative of their interests and ambitions;
- Strategic, meaningful and on-going involvement in areas that interest you and help build a strong foundation that is complimentary to your academic pursuits: undergraduate research and participating in ways of making that research public (symposiums, conferences, performances, exhibitions, publications); involvement with campus and/or community organizations where you have been/will be able to grow as a leader and make a meaningful contribution to the group and its causes; service-learning, public service, or volunteer work at the local, national, and international levels; relevant work experience and involvement in competitive internship experiences locally, nationally, and internationally. Keep in mind that more and more funding organizations are looking for applicants who have been involved in activities for a significant amount of time and have sought out opportunities beyond the limits of their campuses;
- Ability to reflect upon, write about and articulate your personal story, purpose, ambitions and goals, both academic and professional, with clarity, confidence and authenticity: This is your moment, and in fact not only are you ‘given permission to’ but are expected to take time to truly assess your journey, what you value and find meaning in, and how that will lead toward your ability to contribute to the global endeavor;
- The ability to build a solid, supportive ‘academic family’: meaningful relationships with faculty and university staff as your teachers, mentors, and advisors with whom you have a consistent and long-standing rapport. They should be able to, in the first instance, provide you with guidance as you consider certain opportunities like international research opportunities, graduate school, etc., as well as attest in writing to your academic strengths, achievements, ambitions and dreams. Keep in mind that you will want to cultivate a group of individuals who can write and speak to different aspects of your academic experience including your strength in the classroom, in undergraduate research, in leadership, in public service, etc.
The importance of planning and the strategic time-line: it’s not just about deadlines anymore!
The earlier you begin planning for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, the better chance you will have at making the most of those opportunities and the overall benefits of thinking through and developing the various pieces that go into a strong application like the personal statement.
Of course, there are the obvious benchmarks from which to start your planning. Almost all nationally competitive funding opportunities have deadlines at least 6 months ahead of the time you will see the actual funding and in many cases, you will begin your application process almost a year in advance. Many opportunities also require students to engage in a campus application process, which will add more time to the application process.
Not only do national scholarship deadlines require advanced planning to simply meet the published deadlines; they also require you to take the long-view of your entire undergraduate experience. In some cases, you will be applying at the same time or even before you are actually accepted to a particular study abroad program or graduate program. In order to meet the minimum requirements of an opportunity, you will need to plan your course-schedule accordingly, pursue undergraduate research, seek out leadership or public service opportunities, and build relationships with your faculty long before you actually submit an application. National review committees expect to see their most competitive applicants having taken full advantage of every relevant opportunity available to them as an undergraduate.
While it may feel like it is too soon to begin thinking this far in advance it is imperative that you do so. The portfolio of materials that you will eventually develop for a scholarship application – like the personal statement, project proposal, or research statement – will help you to engage in the kind of critical thinking and strategic planning that can only aid in your overall experience as a university student. And, take heart. When asked to think and write about your future ambitions, remember it is your ‘educated best guess’. CCSA staff, your faculty advisors, national review committees, even graduate school admission teams realize that things change and that you are a work in progress. That being said, your ability to show a kind of logical trajectory toward your future goals, and to write clearly and creatively about those plans, makes you a far more interesting and competitive applicant.
Finally, good time-management and planning allows for one of the most important practices of any national scholarship or fellowship application: editing, proof-reading, editing, re-writing, editing, using spell-check, editing, have others’ review your written materials, editing, checking grammar, and finally, editing! We cannot emphasize enough the importance of exceptional writing and editing skills. Your applications, essays, project proposals, even short-answers, should be attended to with the greatest of editorial care. Not only is this a form of respect for those reading your materials, it sends a message to your review committees: namely, that you put time, effort, thought and care into the presentation of your ideas which, in turn, suggests you have put time, effort, though and care into the content of application as well.