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How to Apply for a University’s Highly Selective Scholarship

Christine Kenyon

Written by Christine Kenyonon January 5th, 2022

I first encountered the world of undergraduate admission as a student volunteer in the Boston College Office of Undergraduate Admission. While I was pursuing my graduate degree, I received a graduate assistantship in BC’s admission office, where I worked part-time as an admission counselor. This is when I truly fell in love with undergraduate admission, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history! After receiving my master's degree, I accepted a position at Babson College where I reviewed applications from students in the northeastern and southern regions of the US and international students. Additionally, I oversaw the Weissman Scholarship and Enrico Scholarship application processes, served as a co-coordinator of transfer admission, and assisted with multicultural recruitment. I also mentored many of Babson’s first-generation college students and served as the advisor to the Babson Admission Mentors program. Most recently, I worked as a professional reader and interviewer for the scholarships affiliated with the Morehead-Cain Foundation at UNC Chapel Hill and the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program (a partnership between Duke and UNC).
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Ahh, scholarships. What’s better than having a student be admitted to a college that’s a great fit and also being given scholarship money to entice them to enroll? It’s like writing a letter to Santa asking for a Mickey Mouse stuffed animal and getting both Mickey and a free trip to Disney World. (Is it obvious that I have young children? And that I am dreaming of a warm family vacation as snow falls outside my window?) Colleges have different ways of awarding merit aid. Some scholarships just appear in a student’s financial aid package at the same time they are admitted (hooray, free money!). Take Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. LMU is transparent about how admitted first-year applicants are automatically considered for a vast range of scholarships; all a student needs to do is apply for undergraduate admission. Other colleges will make students jump through more hoops; in particular, highly selective scholarships and their affiliated programs often require students to fill out an additional application or to be nominated for the scholarship by their high school, like the Jefferson Scholarship at the University of Virginia. Colleges that require extra steps for scholarship consideration are not trying to arbitrarily add more work to applicants’ to-do lists. Rather, the scholarship review committee wants to learn as much as possible about each potential scholarship recipient to envision them on campus. How will the student take full advantage of the robust funding and additional mentorship, support, and resources available to them if awarded the scholarship? In what ways do the student’s lived experiences mirror the core tenants of the scholarship program’s mission, or would be enhanced by the scholarship program? Because of the focused nature of these questions, components of scholarship-specific applications can vary from the application a student submits for general admission to the university. Specifically, the essay prompts can differ greatly, so if applying for a scholarship is on a student’s radar, consider the tips below: Research the details of the scholarship program. More often than not, if a university offers a full-tuition scholarship and/or a comprehensive award that includes money for summer stipends, study abroad, or research, there is a programmatic element involved. This means that students awarded the scholarship will be part of a cohort of students who receive additional mentorship, support, or resources throughout their time on campus. Students should make sure that the program aligns with their interests and goals for college, and that they can articulate them. Write new essays. No matter what the scholarship essay prompt is, students should write a completely distinct and separate essay from what has already been submitted within their application for admission. Some scholarship programs are reviewed by the admissions office, so students should make sure that they aren’t copying essays from their app or retelling the same story. Each opportunity a student has to write about themselves and their experiences should showcase a different facet of their growth and experience.  Focus essay response(s) on the programmatic elements of the scholarship. Most scholarship essay prompts aren’t free form or open ended; they ask students to reflect on something specific: resilience, leadership, intellectual interests, inclusion, or any other number of topics specific to the mission of that scholarship/program. When choosing what to write about in an essay response, students should keep the core tenets of the scholarship in mind. This will allow students to showcase how the scholarship program aligns with things they have started to explore in high school and would continue to explore in college, thanks to the scholarship program. When needed, get new recommendation letters. If a scholarship requires a letter of recommendation, a good rule of thumb is to ask the recommender(s) to write a letter specifically tailored to why the student is a good fit for that specific scholarship. If a student is applying to a scholarship that emphasizes collaboration and teamwork, a letter of rec from their math teacher might not fully highlight the student’s strengths in these areas; one from a science teacher, who could speak to the student’s skills within their lab group, might offer better insight into how and why collaboration comes naturally to the student. Keep in mind that educators write letters of recommendation during their free time. Students might want to ask separate recommenders to write letters for their scholarship application than asking the same educators who submitted letters for their application for general admission. Keep deadlines in mind. Oftentimes the deadlines for scholarship consideration are earlier than the traditional application for admission, or at the same time. Don’t miss the opportunity to be considered for a scholarship because of missed deadlines; as students finalize their college list they should be researching and noting details of the scholarship application process along with all of the other deadlines related to the general application process. Check your email/scholarship application portal. Once a student has submitted their scholarship application, there might be opportunities to interview and/or engage with the scholarship review committee in some capacity. Students should be sure to respond promptly to any invitations to interview or move forward in the scholarship review process. Regardless of whether or not scholarship consideration requires a written essay, a recommendation letter, or an interview, the best thing that students can do is research the details of the program. Students should find commonalities between themselves and the opportunities presented through the scholarship program to show the application reviewers why that specific program is such a great fit for them, beyond the financial benefits that go along with the scholarship award. Good luck! There is definitely some additional work involved in order to be considered for more highly selective scholarships. But in my mind, even if Santa asked me to write an essay about why Mickey Mouse is amazing in order to earn the stuffed animal and free trip to Disney World, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

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