Advice on Competing for Scholarships

Competing for Scholarships

Being competitive for a scholarship competition generally requires the same type of preparation asked of strong graduate school and job applicants. As a result, if you are laying a strong foundation for the career you intend to pursue, you will likely be a good candidate for scholarships in your field.

Start early! Many scholarships have application periods several months in advance of the actual award, and require extra preparation. Students may make an appointment to meet with SSP Director, Beth Powers to discuss scholarship opportunities.

Check out the links below below for further information on how to be a good scholarship candidate and maximize your chances of winning.

Information Materials for College Juniors

PowerPoint presenation - How to Prepare for Senior Year

Spreadsheet examples - How to Organize your Senior Year

Being a Good Scholarship Candidate

Strategies for Success

Letters of Recommendation

What can I do to be a good candidate for scholarships?

  • Strive for excellence in challenging classes. Go beyond getting good grades.

  • Get to know people, especially professors, advisors, administrators, employers. These relationships provide opportunities for career and scholarship networking, mentoring relationships, and potential references for the future.

  • Get work, internship and volunteer experience in your field or in other fields of interest to you.

  • Expand your knowledge of the world, people, places and events in any way you can- by reading traveling, or participating in intercultural events, etc.

  • Get involved in interesting extra-curricular activities that are meaningful to you.

  • Seek out leadership positions within groups/activities that are important to you.

  • Keep up on the news, and read a variety of opinions. Learn to defend your views and and admit the strengths in others' arguments.


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What strategies can I use to increase my chances of winning a scholarship?

  • Apply for large and small scholarships- they can work like building blocks.

  • Consider submitting essays to contests.

  • Know the eligibility requirements and deadlines for various scholarships. Always allow yourself plenty of time to write and review your application before the due date.

  • Work on your communication skills. Many scholarships require interviews.

  • Don't give up if you are turned down. Many highly qualified people are turned down atsome point, but go on to find other awards or opportunities that suit their interests.

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Requesting Letters of Recommendation/References

Whether you apply for a scholarship, graduate school, or a job, you will need people to serve as references or write letters of recommendation for you. Understanding the terminology and having a plan will permit you to make it easier for your recommenders and get the best possible letters for you.


References vs. Recommendations

A job/scholarship/program requesting "references" wants a name and address and phone number of someone they can contact to ask about you.

A recommendation is a letter written on your behalf sent in for a scholarship/job/program

Frequently Asked Questions:

How do you determine whom you should ask to write your letters of recommendation?

First, determine what the job/scholarship/program selection committee wants to know about you:

-academic qualifications?

-social skills?

-leadership or commitment to service?

Choose people who know about the areas that you want to highlight in your application. For academically oriented awards, faculty or instructors who have had you in class would be best. For awards that seek leadership skills or service, you may be able to ask employers, club sponsors for organizations you are active in, advisors, or mentors.

For some people this is a painful lesson in how few people they know among faculty and staff on campus. Keep in mind that when a scholarship has an academic component it would be a mistake NOT to send in a letter from someone who had taught you or who had supervised your academic work in some way. If you are in the position of really having no one appropriate to write for you, approach a person you know and trust and explain what you need and provide for that person enough detail about yourself to allow that person to write a letter.

Should I get a letter from someone famous?

This is a common question from students, especially those who have had internships with political office holders or with other well-known individuals like a full professor or dean. In general, it is best only to ask these 'famous' people when you have had an opportunity to really work with them and let them get to know you. Having a letter from someone who knows you and understands your goals and abilities generally works better than a weak letter from a well-known person who clearly doesn't know you well.

How do you ask for a letter of recommendation?

The most appropriate way to ask someone for a letter of recommendation is in person. If you are asking someone that you have worked closely with, or someone who has written for you in the past, email is probably okay. However, some people may dislike this and prefer a personal contact. When you ask someone to write for you, tell them what the letter is for and what the due date is at the same time. Keep in mind that you really only want people who can write you strong letters to write for you. You may want to state that you know the person is very busy and may not have time to do such a letter. This gives the person a chance to say no if he/she wouldn't have the time to write you an effective letter.

Once the writer agrees to write for you, provide as much detail as possible about the scholarship, job or program and about yourself (more detail follows on this.) This will generally involve you providing an update on what you are doing. If a scholarship asks for information on a topic that you have never discussed with the writer (career goals etc.), you need to fill the person in with the relevant information. It is generally a good idea to schedule an appointment to talk over the details with the person, but see what he/she prefers. It is ok to provide information via phone or e-mail if it works better for the writer, but personal contact, especially if you haven't seen the writer for some time, is usually best.

How much do I need to tell each letter writer about the awards?

Put yourself in the letter writer's shoes. If you want to write a strong letter recommending someone for an award, you would want to know what qualities the committee is seeking in its ideal applicants. Ask yourself the following questions when providing this information:

-Do they want to know about academic qualifications only?

- Do they want to know about personal characteristics?

- Do leadership and service experiences make a difference to them?

-Is financial need relevant?

-Is it significant if you have overcome hardship?

-Are interpersonal skills and experience working with diverse groups important to the committee?

- What would this award entitle you to do, and how are you suited to doing this? (Study abroad, receive a grant for a particular project, reward him/her for going into a career the committee deems desirable?)

-Is there any particular format or length that the letter must conform to?

If you want a strong letter of recommendation, you need to let the writer know what the award is seeking so he/she can address those qualifications adequately. You can provide this information in a concise way, either by providing a form describing the award or writing your own description of it. If you then seek another letter from the same person for a different award, don't assume the same letter will fit, especially if the award committee seeks different characteristics in its winners. Some recommendation writers will use the same letter for you in every circumstance you request one, but others will modify their letters appropriately for each situation, so provide them with the information they need about the award/job/program to write a strong letter.

What if you are applying for more than one award? Should you ask for more than one letter?

It is ok to ask people to write multiple letters for you, especially if you prepare them in advance. Make a plan that includes everything that you're applying for instead of coming to someone over and over, if possible. In this way, they can prepare the number of letters you need more easily. However, recognize that 1) you may need to vary your recommendation writers and; 2) that you need to prepare some of the writers for the fact that they will be writing more than one letter. It is not generally a good idea to make copies of one letter of recommendation and send in a letter with the name of one award in it when you are applying for another one. Generally, people keep copies of letters on their computers and can easily change addresses and other details.

How do I decide which recommenders to use for a particular award?

If you are applying for two scholarships and one focuses entirely on your academic ability and the other focuses on both academic ability and leadership and both want three letters of recommendation, you will probably not use the same three people for both of them. You might ask two academic references to write for both awards, but then ask a different academic reference to write the third letter for the academic award and someone familiar with your leadership, like a club advisor, to write the third letter for the academic/leadership award. Do your best to match the scholarships goals with the recommender.

How can you make the process easier on your letter writer?

-Give your recommendation writer from 2-4 weeks advance notice about the letter(s).

-Provide an envelope or file with the following included:

o The deadline for mailing the letters or when you will come to pick them up

o A description of the award

o A resume

o An updated transcript or printout of grades

o The personal statement asked for in the award if one is requested, or if you haven't yet prepared the statement, an outline or description of what you plan to write

o Any forms or other materials that should accompany the letter

o An appropriately addressed envelope

How much time should I give my recommenders?

Two weeks is a good minimum amount of time. More than a month is not necessary and may make it easier for someone to forget your request. When you make a request for a letter or letters of recommendation, provide a letter or list specifying the deadline(s).

What if I ask someone for a letter and that person says 'no'?

There are many reasons a person might say no, ranging from not having enough time, to feeling he/she doesn't know you well enough, to not having good things to say about you. If you get no for an answer, don't push. The person has reasons for saying no and you don't want to risk the kind of letter you might get from someone who feels coerced into writing. If a person you ask to write a letter says no, don't take it too hard; instead, seek out someone else to write for you.

Should the letter be confidential?

It is considered a sign of faith in yourself to trust that a recommendation writer will say good things about you. Some scholarships actually provide a waiver in which you are given the option to waive your right to see the letter. If you have this option, I encourage you to select that you waive your right to the letter. You will likely be perceived as overly controlling or doubtful of your own abilities if you do not waive this right. If such a form is not provided, and you are compiling the parts of the application, including the letters to mail in, your recommender may give you the letter in a sealed envelope. You should NOT open this letter. On the other hand, if a writer provides you with a copy of the letter, it is acceptable for you to read it.

How should I follow up?

After you have asked for a letter of recommendation, you may want to send an e-mail message to the writer 3-4 days before the deadline as a polite reminder with a brief thank you. Then, a few days after the due date, send an actual (not virtual) thank you note. This final note can serve as a reminder if the person has not yet written the letter, but more often it is just a nice recognition you can offer for the effort this person has expended on your behalf. It will also keep this person more positively disposed toward you, which will help in the event you need more letters in the future. In addition, keep the writer informed of your progress. Let him or her know if you won the scholarship, got the job, or were accepted into the program. Whether the news is negative or positive, it is good to keep your recommendation writers informed.

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