Office of External & Competitive Scholarship Advisement

Student Fellowship Guide

Your guide to apply for major scholarships and fellowships.


Every year hundreds of outstanding students from all over the country vie for these scholarships and the competition is intense. Prospective applicants need to understand that these programs are highly selective. Scholarship boards and foundations stress that applications should be encouraged from students who have a good chance of advancing in the competition. To do otherwise is to risk false hope and disappointment for the applicant, and embarrassment for our school. However, each year, students at institutions with no previous scholarship winners win a Scholarship, proving that victory favors those who persevere. (Please see the links on the bottom of the left hand column for links to additional Student Fellowship Guide information.)

The challenge of competing for these scholarships is enormous. Whether or not you eventually win, students who seriously undertake the process of preparing and applying for a major scholarship are in for an amazing experience. During the application process you will discover that the “journey” itself is as valuable as the “destination”. Because you will be competing against the very best college students from across the nation, the "odds" may appear to be against you. But, if you accept the magnitude of the challenge before you, if you’re serious about undertaking that life-changing experience, and if you have the "right stuff," the odds can be beaten. There are other benefits too. Applying for a fellowship or scholarship may seem like a major endeavor. However, if you are applying to graduate school, applying for fellowships is a directly related activity. In graduate and fellowship applications, you must write an essay that outlines your professional goals and objectives for graduate study. Both require letters of recommendation. In contrast to the mid-winter deadline dates for graduate school application, fellowships usually have fall application deadlines. Those applying for fellowships "get a head start" on the graduate school application process. There is help available to you through the Office of Student External and Competitive Scholarship Advising. If you really want to make a strong case, the preparation must begin very early, even as early as your freshman year. To get an idea of what is expected of you in that regard, read the last section of this guide: “The Bottom-line.”

We use the term "major" to describe scholarships and fellowships administered and funded by national and international foundations. Thus, they are to be distinguished from the Rollins scholarships and financial aid programs. Except for the Goldwater Scholarship, these programs are for post-baccalaureate studies, including in some cases a second undergraduate degree. All require candidates to be nominated or endorsed by their undergraduate institutions. Please be aware that the preparation for the application process of these awards must begin at least one year before the due date, if not earlier. In the following pages we will list various things you need to do to get yourself ready for the application process.

One Size Does Not Fit All

While these programs share a common goal of recognizing excellence, they differ in terms of eligibility requirements, application procedures, and expectations for successful candidates. For example, the Goldwater, Mellon and National Science Foundation scholarships are restricted to applicants majoring in particular fields of study, while others, such as the Rhodes, Jack Kent Cooke, and Marshall, seek applications from outstanding candidates without regard to academic discipline or career goals. Some require an essay or "personal statement" to accompany the standard application form. Others require evidence of proficiency in a foreign language, or a detailed plan of study in your major. Therefore, the approach one might take in applying for one fellowship may not be appropriate for another. One thing you don’t want to do is prepare a generic application with the intention of tailoring it to suit the requirements and expectations of a particular program.

Having the "Right Stuff"

There are a couple of schools of thought about what it takes to be competitive for these awards. One notion is that successful applicants are born, not made -- either you have it, or you don’t. From this it could be assumed that there is little institutions can or should do to help students prepare for major scholarship competition. An alternative view is that institutions should "groom" candidates by having them take the right courses, read "great" books, participate in service activities, and attend various cultural events.

Reality, as well as our approach, is somewhere in between. On the one hand, our college can ill-afford to be passive and merely wait for potential Rhodes or Truman scholars to show up and say, "Here I am." Even students who seem to "have it all"—brains, character, leadership—need to be identified early so that their abilities can be refined and their qualifications further developed. On the other hand, for students who lack these native talents or for whom the learned life has little appeal, no quick fix of culture, no short-term stint of community service, no crash reading program, is going to be of much help.

While scholarship of the highest order is of first and foremost importance, most of these scholarship programs emphasize all-around ability. They are looking for the "whole package" -- personal character and integrity, leadership and service, and a cosmopolitan outlook -- in addition to a strong academic record. This is especially true of the three most selective programs: Rhodes, Marshall and Truman. Review committees for these scholarships tend to be unimpressed with "bookworms" or with students who spend most of their time in front of a computer screen. They want to see: 1) "lateral thinkers" capable of discerning connections among diverse strands of knowledge; 2) "risk-takers" who enjoy learning about subjects beyond their comfort zones; and 3) "world citizens" with a broad understanding of national and international events, a sensitivity to cultural differences, and a genuine commitment to making a difference in their communities and in the world.

So, before you start filling out applications, you need to study the information bulletins for the scholarship programs you are interested in, paying close attention to eligibility requirements, selection criteria, application procedures, and all the "fine print." Then, you need to take a long look in the mirror and ask of yourself two questions. First, "Am I qualified?, and second, "Am I suitable?" In other words, you need to give yourself....

A Reality Check

Given the major emphasis these scholarships put on academic achievement, the first thing you need to determine is whether your scholastic credentials are of the highest caliber. To some this translates into a question of "How good are my grades?" Many prospective applicants have the same attitude about grades that the late Vince Lombardi had about winning football games: grades aren’t everything; they’re the only things. It’s important for scholarship applicants to understand that while exceptional scholastic performance is indeed a neFrench House, Rollins Collegenecessary condition for serious consideration, by itself a high GPA is not a sufficient condition. To a selection committee there are many factors just as important as your academic record.

Even so, when it comes to the GPA it’s reasonable for students to want to know "How high is ‘high’?" As a general rule successful applicants have GPAs of 3.8 and higher, and ordinarily anything below a 3.6 will put you out of the running. However, a student with a "low" GPA (say, 3.7) who can converse comfortably across a broad range of topics should be able to compete with a 4.0 student who knows a great deal in his or her field but little else. Also, a perfect GPA can serve as an invitation to closer inspection especially when intensive in-person interviews are part of the review process. Selection committees sometimes approach 4.0 candidates with a bit of caution. They want to know what’s behind and beyond the transcript. Is the 4.0 real? Or is it the result of taking light course loads and otherwise playing it safe?

To qualify for the Truman Scholarship you must have a strong record of community involvement and exhibit a genuine, selfless commitment to serving others. The Truman Foundation reports that resumes packed with extra-curricular activities, memberships in clubs and honorary organizations, and student government offices are a dime a dozen. Candidates who look great on paper, but fail to advance in the competition, usually have limited leadership experience or exhibit a narrow, self-centered view of public service. As the Truman Foundation states in its information bulletin, successful applicants are "people for whom the ‘bottom line’ is to make a difference, not a dollar." Or as Executive Secretary Louis Blair puts it, "When we interview finalists, we can tell which ones are in it for themselves. The ones selected are those with that ‘fire-in-the-belly’ determination to make the world a better place."

Overseas grants (e.g., Fulbright) require language proficiency; a deep, sensitive understanding of the host country’s culture; and evidence of adaptability to a foreign setting.

Once you have decided that you meet the qualifications for a particular scholarship, you also need to give yourself....

An Attitude Check

Understand that all of these prestigious scholarships are awards -- investments in excellence from which much is expected of the recipient. If you think of them as rewards for past achievements, as financial aid packages, or as a way to dress up a resume, you would be doing yourself a favor by not applying. Self-serving attitudes almost always find their way into the application, and selection committees are very adept at spotting them.

Above all, make sure that you are serious about applying and are determined to follow through. These programs are not for the whimsical. Nor are they for those who are merely testing the waters or keeping their options open. Some students, not understanding this, take the "dartboard" approach. They apply for everything, including scholarships for which they are not well qualified, in the vague hope that one of their darts will hit the target. We strongly discourage this for two reasons. First, the process involves much more than simply filling out application forms. Second, it suggests an attitude that the only thing you stand to lose by applying is a 33-cent stamp. If that’s your attitude, what you’re really saying is that it’s worth only 33 cents.

To help you decide if you should compete for a major scholarship, try wrestling with the following questions. Although they are not intended as an exact "test" of your fitness, your answers to them may reveal whether you have the kind of attitude most of these scholarships are looking for. Our guess is that competitive candidates would probably be able to answer most questions with an honest "yes."

  • Do you give at least as much thought to synthesis as to analysis?
  • Do you value intuition and imagination as much as logic and information?
  • Do you think the main purpose of going to college is to learn, not to get ahead?
  • Do you question your own views as vigorously as you criticize those of others?
  • Do you believe that truth must be discovered, rather than received, inherited or borrowed?
  • Do you think an education is something to cultivate, rather than confiscate?
  • Is your thinking guided more by "both/and" than "either/or"?
  • Can you make decisions without all the "evidence" being in?
  • Do you think it’s more important to be a person of honor than a person of principle?
  • Do you place more value on being happy than on being successful?