One of the questions that I’m most frequently asked is, “Will I be competitive for this scholarship?” or, more generally, “What makes an applicant competitive?” By the first question students don’t typically mean “Will I win?,” but rather, “Is it worth my time to apply? Do I at least have a shot?” Time and effort are valuable commodities and everything we do has an opportunity cost. Putting yourself out there for evaluation also takes a certain amount of courage, so it is understandable that candidates want some assurance that they are not wasting their time applying to something they don’t have at least a reasonable shot at winning.
With the scholarships that ONSF supports a “reasonable shot” may still be pretty low. For the US Rhodes Scholarships, for example, more than 1000 students will be nominated for 32 scholarships. These candidates have each been selected by their universities as fulfilling not only the eligibility, but also the selection criteria for this scholarship. They should, in this sense, all have a “reasonable shot.” But mathematically, at least, that means a 3.2% chance of winning. Of course, mathematical odds are not really what counts here - this is not a lottery. Some of those candidates will be more competitive than others, and what my students are asking is whether they will be in this more select group of potentially competitive candidates. So, we arrive at the second question, “What makes a candidate competitive for these ultra-competitive scholarships?”
So, what makes a candidate competitive?
My best generic answer to this question is “fit.” By that, I mean three things. First, a competitive application is one in which all the parts fit together: the essays, transcript, resume of activities, letters of recommendation - and in some cases an interview - all combine to tell a story, each contributing to the whole in their own appropriate way. The parts of the application don’t all need to say the same thing over and over. Like parts of a symphony, each part of the application makes a distinctive contribution, but they fit together into a coherent whole.
More importantly, the parts of the story that the applicant tells fit together. Most applications answer three basic questions: “Who are you?” “Where are you going?” and “How does this scholarship/fellowship move you forward in that journey?” The first question - “Who are you?” - includes your background, your various social identities, your current education and activities. However, I usually suggest that applicants start their brainstorming with the second question - “Where are you going?” There are many different stories that I could tell about myself that tell you who I am. Until we know the purpose of the story, we don’t know which of those stories would be most appropriate. A competitive application is one in which the applicant’s goals make sense, are feasible, and compelling within their story - and in which the opportunities afforded by the scholarship or fellowship are the next right step in the applicant’s journey. A few candidates come to ONSF with their stories ready for the telling. But not most. One of the greatest benefits of the application process is that we discover our stories in the telling. Applications motivate us to write out our stories in personal statements, to refine and revise them through multiple drafts, and to answer questions about them from highly intelligent and probing interviewers. The self-discovery of this process is, in my opinion, the best way to answer the question of whether it is worth the time and effort to apply.
Finally, to be competitive the story that the application tells must be a good fit with the criteria of the scholarship and fellowship as well as with the mission of the foundation that is providing it. Each scholarship or fellowship has its own “personality,” if you will. A big part of my job is to understand the personalities of the scholarships and fellowships that ONSF supports, and to help applicant’s tell their own stories in ways that fit the nuances of each opportunity. Still, when you look at the criteria for all of the scholarships and fellowships that we work with, three main types of criteria stand out. I call these “the big three.”
Let's take a closer look at the "Big Three"
The first is academic excellence.
Different scholarships and fellowships will place different weight on this criterion, but all are looking for applicants that are in some sense “at the top of their field.” Some will expect applicants to have exceptional depth within their field of specialization. This might be demonstrated with a strong overall GPA, but more particularly with excellent grades within the applicant’s major, with grades in upper division courses, and through taking the most rigorous course options available within that field of study. It may also be demonstrated through excellence in research and publications. Letters of recommendation from faculty within the applicant’s field will tell a story beyond the transcript itself: a applicant was the best is their individual classes, ranks highly in their cohort, and compares favorably with students the letter writer has known throughout their careers, especially those who have gone on to achieve goals similar to what the candidate proposes to do in their future graduate and professional studies. Letter writers may also contextualize a candidate’s accomplishments by talking about obstacles they have overcome and “distance travelled” as evidence of academic excellence in the future. Since many of the scholarships in ONSF’s portfolio support graduate and professional study, one important question is whether the applicant will be a competitive applicant to the top programs in their chosen field.
Some scholarships - for example, those that support STEM research careers - will care primarily for excellence within the candidate’s specialization, whereas others - such as the Rhodes, Marshall, and Knight-Hennessy Scholarships - are looking for candidates who demonstrate excellence in multiple areas. They are looking not only at depth, but at the breadth of a candidate’s intellectual engagement. Do they demonstrate excellence in more than one area of the liberal arts: humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences? Do they show skills in both quantitative and qualitative areas? Did they challenge themselves in their selection of distribution courses, electives, or the study of languages? Has the candidate demonstrated the ability to meaningfully connect with scholars in other fields, either in formal collaboration or in informal settings? Stanford calls this aspect being “T-shaped.” In other words, depth in one’s own field and the ability to make horizontal connections with experts in other fields. For the Rhodes Scholarship, this notion of excellence spills outside the bounds of academics into excellence in other fields such as the arts, athletics, or other endeavors that “use one's talents to the fullest.” Depending on a candidate’s depth of specialization or breadth of intellectual engagement, they will be a better or worse fit for certain national scholarships and fellowships. There is no single way to be “academically excellent.”
The second of the big three criteria is demonstrated leadership potential. In fact, I would say that leadership is the most ubiquitous of our scholarships’ criteria: they want to select candidates who will be leaders and do high impact work within their fields. Some scholarships, such as the Truman Scholarship and Schwarzman Scholars Program, care more about a candidate’s demonstrated leadership potential than on traditional measures of academic excellence such as GPA.
“Demonstrated leadership potential” has both backwards-looking and forward-looking components. It means that the candidate’s past and current activities display and are cultivating the skills, traits, and knowledge necessary to lead others in their future endeavors. These skills and traits include the ability to clearly articulate goals in ways that inspire and motivate others to collective action. It includes the ability to assemble, care for, and manage diverse teams. It means the ability to innovate, problem-solve, and initiate action. It means the ability to deliver important and impressive results. Often these skills, traits, and knowledge are demonstrated in activities that are prototypes for the leadership activities the candidate proposes to carry out in the future. If a candidate is passionate about a particular issue or cause - for example, immigration and refugee rights - they may have led or created a student organization that tackles related problems in their own communities. Many times, however, these skills and traits will be demonstrated in unrelated areas. Part of the work of the application is to make a compelling case that transferable skills developed student-centered activities will successfully be employed in the candidate’s future career. Again, letters of recommendation play a crucial role here in contextualizing a candidate’s accomplishments so far and projecting them into the future. The most compelling leadership letters are from writers who not only know the candidate’s past and present activities, preferably from direct experience, but also know the candidate’s future career field and what it takes to be a leader and do high impact work in that field.
The third of the big three is evidence of an altruistic character or sense of mission. This criteria is expressed in different ways. The Truman Scholarship talks about public or community service. Knight-Hennessy calls it “civic mindedness.” Gate Cambridge calls it “commitment to improving the lives of others.” Rhodes calls it “fighting the world’s fight.” These scholarships are looking for future leaders who are not primarily motivated by their own self-interest, but rather those who will use the education, social, and cultural capital that comes with these highly prestigious awards to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. These character traits can be demonstrated and cultivated through spending valuable time and energy on volunteer activities. These activities may not be related to the candidate’s career goals, but rather by unrelated values and sincere concern for others. Or they may be built into the candidate’s vision of the future high-impact work that they hope to do. Often, but not always, these activities are related to elements of the candidate’s own identities or background. One of the most beautiful types of narrative that can be built into essays in letters is when we can use our own struggles to overcome obstacles as a way to help others. For candidates that have certain types of privilege, it is vital to demonstrate awareness and willingness to leverage their own privilege for the betterment of others, but without falling into various forms of savior complex.
For a candidate to be competitive for a national scholarship or fellowship, they probably need to have strengths in each of these big three categories. However, the relative strength of each and the ways they are demonstrated will vary for each particular scholarship and each particular applicant. There isn’t a single type that is or isn’t competitive. It’s all about fit.