Becoming a Strong Candidate

Preparing for national scholarships and fellowships

In addition to high academic achievement, national scholarship selection committees are looking for students with demonstrated and sustained leadership, research experience (for some programs), community and/or public service, and participation in professional activities or internships in their fields of study.  At the time of application, you should have well-thought out plans for graduate study and career. It is also important that you apply to programs that are a good fit for you and offer opportunities relevant to your larger goals. Here are some suggestions to help you prepare early (freshmen/sophomore year) in your undergraduate career to be a strong candidate for scholarships, fellowships, and graduate or professional schools.

  • Maintain high grades and take challenging courses. Explore your intellectual interests and demonstrate a commitment to learning by taking demanding classes or designing independent studies.


  • Seek out meaningful activities. Most competitive scholarships look for demonstrated, sustained experience outside of the classroom: internships, research, leadership, community/public service, study abroad, languages other than English, conference participation, publications and awards.


  • Be engaged. The most competitive candidates are not only committed to their own fields of study, but have broad intellectual interests and an awareness of political and social issues.  Reading outside of one’s discipline is recommended. Read the news from several sources each day. Experience in activities seemingly unrelated to your area of study or profession can provide important perspective. Don’t just focus on your field.


  • Meet with faculty and mentors to discuss ways to supplement your academic courses and interests. They can assist with mapping out pathways suited to your interests, that complement your academic work, and that can help you become a competitive candidate for future opportunities. The earlier you start this process, the better--first or second year. 


  • Cultivate good relationships with faculty. Scholarships usually require three letters of recommendation, some even more. These should highlight your academic abilities and future potential. It is important that faculty know much more about you than grades you earned in their courses. They should be familiar with your interests and aspirations and how you have prepared for them, and indicate the contributions you can make in your field. Give faculty, mentors and supervisors plenty of lead-time to write recommendations—at the latest, a month before a deadline. Also, provide them with a CV or resume and relevant information about the program to which you are applying, so they can tailor recommendations.



  • Research a broad range of scholarships, fellowships and other programs related to your field and future plans (e.g., internships, language study, training programs, undergraduate research). Most of these can be found on university, foundation, organization and government agency websites. Note eligibility requirements, deadlines, required materials for applications, and descriptions of recent awardees and their research. Discuss programs of interest with faculty and mentors.


  • Plan and schedule. Scheduling and time management skills are critical for successful applications. Many competitive scholarships require six months and up to year of preparation. For some scholarships (e.g., Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, Truman, Udall) the college must nominate or endorse applicants. There is an internal deadline for these and several other scholarship applications to be reviewed by a campus committee. This involves submitting nearly finished drafts of the application to a nominating committee two to three months before the program’s actual deadline. You will have other responsibilities, like classes, activities, research/internships, applying to graduate programs, and preparing for qualifying exams, while applying for scholarships. It is important to develop a comprehensive schedule for yourself that includes: meeting with faculty and advisors, getting recommendation letters, setting deadlines for written drafts, getting feedback on essays, ordering transcripts, and submitting relevant materials. Keeping in touch with faculty and mentors will help you stay on top of this work.


  • Ask for help from faculty and mentors to contact students who have been awarded scholarships you want to apply for. They can provide a helpful perspective, as they have experienced the rigorous demands of the application process and enjoyed the intellectual rewards specific scholarships/fellowships offer.  Current and previous scholarship awardees, faculty, and mentors are also a good resource for preparing for any interviews, should a program select you and require one.


  • Be reflective about your experiences and how they relate to your future plans. Most application questions follow similar themes: 1. How you have prepared yourself for a given scholarship/fellowship (courses, research, leadership, internships, and other relevant experience)?; 2. What are your academic/research plans (what issues you want to study, their significance in your field and their broader relevance)?; 3. Why is the scholarship/fellowship is a right fit for you and why you should be selected?; 4. What are your career goals, both short and long-term?; and 5. Write an essay, statement, or proposal centered on research or issues relevant to your field of study. To help you respond to these kinds of questions, keep a journal of your learning and experiences to refer to when it comes time to write scholarship essays. 

Last Updated: 05/07/2021 13:23