Merit-based scholarships are generally awarded based on your future potential as demonstrated by your past achievements. These scholarships are investments in your future based on your past achievements rather than strictly rewards for past achievements. Therefore, making plans and setting goals are critical components to successfully searching and applying for scholarships.
Becoming more competitive for scholarships
While every scholarship is unique and has its own priorities and criteria, there are some common student experiences/qualities that scholarship selection committees often highly value:
- Academic achievements: rigorous and varied coursework (breadth and depth); maintaining a strong GPA
- Engagement in learning through varied experiences: research projects, public service efforts, leadership endeavors, lab work, internships, employment, study abroad, performances, publications, exhibitions, etc.
- Demonstrations of deeper and sustained involvement in your topics or areas of interest (at campus, national, or international levels): active membership in relevant clubs/groups/organizations whether on-campus or in the greater community; participation in conferences/symposia, active membership in honors societies; active commitment to a community of some kind; relevant work, internship, research experience
- Development of mentors and supporters: strong relationships with faculty who can attest to your strengths, accomplishments, goals, and passions
- The ability to articulate, in writing and in person, a sense of purpose, your interests, goals and past experiences with conviction and confidence
There are no “book-worm” scholarships that reward students solely for having a high GPA. Merit-based scholarships typically fund a future activity or project you intend to pursue, and your past experiences should demonstrate why you are headed in that direction or how you have prepared. For example:
- Conducting a research project
- Participating in a study abroad program
- Engaging in public service and/or a leadership project
- Acquiring an internship or job
- Taking a meaningful gap year (or two) between graduation and graduate school
- Planning for graduate school
When to apply for scholarships
Thinking and planning long-term will give you the most options. Search and apply for scholarships at least one year in advance of when you would like to receive the funding. Many national scholarship programs have deadlines in the fall for scholarships that would provide funding for the following academic year. There are very few scholarships that have deadlines less than 4 months in advance of when you would receive the funding.
This means that you will often be applying for scholarships to fund trips, programs, etc. that you haven’t even been accepted into yet. For example, if you are planning to study abroad, you will need to search and apply for scholarships at the same time or even before you are applying to get into the study abroad program. For graduate studies, you will be searching and applying for funding for graduate school at the same time or even before you are applying for admission. Don’t wait to look for funding until you’re accepted; it will be too late!
Searching even farther in advance, identifying scholarship goals that you want to work toward over time, will also allow you to develop yourself as a candidate more intentionally. For example, if you found a scholarship for an abroad experience that required knowledge of another language, identifying that scholarship several years in advance would allow you time to study that language, making it part of your class schedule. Or if you identified a scholarship that supports students with extensive research experience, you would have the time to gain that experience. So set goals for yourself several years out and start looking for scholarships to support those goals long-term.
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Searching for scholarships
There are many good, free, online scholarship search tools. Here are a few we can recommend as starting points, but there are many others:
Consider your options broadly. There are scholarships geared toward students’ academic interests, students’ heritage, students’ gender, students’ future goals, other personal aspects of you, etc.
Consider scholarships for both the short-term and the long-term, not just those you can apply for right now, but several years in the future as well. Document your search efforts and keep track of the scholarships that look good but for which you might not yet be eligible.
Common myths about scholarships
Myth – Scholarships are only for students with 4.0 GPAs.
Fact – Many scholarships are do not require any specific GPA, and are considering more carefully what you are doing, rather than what your GPA is. Having a high GPA opens more scholarship doors, but it is never the only factor taken into consideration.
Myth – Scholarships are only for students with financial need.
Fact – There are many scholarships that do specifically support students who have financial need, and there are many scholarships that do not take financial need into consideration at all and are based instead on merit, which includes all the elements described above. And scholarships are more than just the money. Simply going through the application process can help you to clarify your goals and receiving a scholarship is recognition of your potential, direction, commitment and hard work.
Myth – Scholarships are too competitive, so there’s no point in applying.
Fact – Scholarships are competitive, but that’s no reason not to apply for those that are a good fit for your interests and plans. If you don’t apply, you definitely won’t get selected to receive anything. It does take effort to search out those scholarships that are a good match and worth applying for. And taking advantage of our office to assist you through the application process to make sure you’re submitting an application that will best represent you to the selection committee is critical. Just going through the application process is a learning experience, which can help you to clarify your interests and goals. This is helpful for all future applications, whether they are for jobs, internships, graduate school, or other scholarships. So even if you apply for a scholarship and don’t get selected, you will come out of that experience more knowledgeable and in a better position for future applications than if you don’t apply at all.
Myth – There are no scholarships for me because I am… (insert any of these categories here: an out-of-state student; an international student; an undocumented student; older than a traditionally-aged college student; a woman; a transfer student; a first-generation college student; a minority student; a military veteran with GI benefits; LGTBQ; a white middle-class male; financially stable; any other category you might consider yourself in).
Fact – There are scholarships out there for everyone, it just takes careful searching to locate those for which you may be eligible and a good fit. There are scholarships that don’t require US citizenship, scholarships that don’t require Washington residency, scholarships that don’t require a social security number, etc. Because many scholarships are based more on what you are doing and plan to do in the future, actively engaging in your education and gaining experiences beyond the classroom as described above are the best ways to broaden the scope of scholarships you might be eligible for. And scholarships are more than just the money. Simply going through the application process can help you to clarify your goals and receiving a scholarship is recognition of your potential, direction, commitment and hard work.
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