Office of External & Competitive Scholarship Advisement

Getting Started

The first steps in the fellowship application process.

Start Early

There is a lot more to the process than filling out forms. But more to the point, if you are a senior and you are just now thinking about applying—two or three weeks before the deadline—you are probably a year too late for most scholarships, two years too late for some. Institutions that traditionally fare well in these competitions emphasize that their successful candidates began the application process as early as the freshman year by formulating a competitive strategy.

Get to Know Yourself

To some students formulating a competitive scholarship strategy means sitting down with an academic advisor and charting a four- or five-year plan of study, including subjects considered to be good "skull practice" for the scholarship competition. An effective scholarship strategy involves more than deciding which courses to take and when. Rather, it is a plan for personal, as well as intellectual, development. An excellent foundation for such a plan is to write and regularly revise a personal statement which many scholarship programs, particularly the Rhodes, require as part of the application itself.

Whereas your transcript and resume provide information about your achievements and experiences, a personal statement is an essay, usually of about 500-1,000 words, that offers understanding of the kind of person you are and the life you live. It should be the product of deep reflection on who you are, how you got to be the way you are, and where you think you’re heading -- not just in college or in your chosen career field, but in life itself.

One way to approach your personal statement is to think about how you would answer questions such as these:

  • What fascinates you, and why?
  • To whom do you feel obliged, and why?
  • In facing moral choices, where do you draw the line?
  • What do you like and dislike about yourself?
  • When was the last time you cried about something that really mattered?
  • What individual people, books, experiences have shaped your life?
  • What did you do for people not as fortunate or as talented as you are?

There is no prescribed format or preferred style to follow in writing a personal statement. Nor should you approach the endeavor as a series of fill-in-the-blank responses to stock questions. The essay should bear the imprint of your individuality. Be imaginative, expressive and honest. Most of all is be you.

Practice Makes Perfect

The various scholarship boards advise students to apply only if they are willing to spend the time and effort necessary to prepare an outstanding application. It is very essential to contact a faculty member who will work with you as your mentor, critic and guide during this difficult but very rewarding process. (Truman officials report that successful applicants typically spend 50 hours preparing and revising their written applications, and then spend as much time preparing for the interview.) Once you reach the point that you’re satisfied with the content of your application, edit it and proofread it until you’re sure it’s letter perfect. Ask specialists from the writing center to offer their thoughts and criticism of your essay. Tolerate no typos, misspellings or poor grammar. Always type, never hand write, your application. Bear in mind that a sloppy application may signal an uncaring attitude. If you don’t take your candidacy seriously, why should anyone else, particularly a selection committee?

Watch the Clock

It’s easy to underestimate the total amount of time involved in applying for a major scholarship. Whatever amount of time you have calculated for typing and photocopying forms, increase it by 50 percent. Give writers of letters of recommendation plenty of advance notice (at least a month). Pay close attention to all deadlines. Some professors may allow you to turn in your term paper a day or two late without penalty. This is different. If you miss a receipt deadline by just one day, or a postmark deadline by just one hour, you might as well have missed by a month. Your application will not be considered.

You're Not Alone

No matter how bright and talented you are, you cannot win a major scholarship on the basis of your efforts alone. Schools with the best track records in major scholarship competition know this, and they report that their successful candidates had a great deal of help along the way. Early in your college career you should develop close relationships with people who can suggest a reading program, review and critique your personal statement, monitor your academic progress, sharpen your writing and speaking skills, give you tips on interviewing and resume writing, and generally serve as a source of encouragement. Naturally, you will want to seek out professors in your major. It’s also important to cultivate faculty in other disciplines, student development staff, and business and community leaders.

Letters of Recommendation

Ask for letters from people who know you well. It may be natural to seek recommendations from professors in whose courses you made your best grades, but the writers should be able to comment on more than what’s in the grade book. You may be better off with letters from faculty who gave you B’s if they can speak more knowledgeably and favorably about your work habits and personal qualities.

Some applicants, apparently believing that what counts is not what you know but who you know, think it’s crucial to get references from public officeholders, celebrities, high campus officials, and the like. Unless the letters you get from such VIP’s give specific examples of your abilities and accomplishments, scholarship screening and selection committees are likely mentally, if not physically, to trash them. Keep in mind that most application forms contain an item that asks the recommended: "How long have you known the applicant?" Think about how your recommended would respond. If he or she is likely to say "about 30 minutes," you are application probably is in deep trouble.

Make sure your references understand what it is you are applying for. With increasing numbers of students competing for major national scholarships, letters of recommendation are extremely important and factor very heavily in the selection process. Therefore, your letters should reflect the high standards of the programs themselves. Generic, two-paragraph letters laden with vague superlatives are of little value. Letters that read as if they came right off the word processor, have that fill-in-the-name appearance, or simply rehash items in your resume can be fatal. On the other hand, letters that supply concrete evidence of your talents and back up superlatives with specifics can provide the key to a successful application.

Selection committees tend to be suspicious of letters overflowing with extravagant but unsubstantiated praise. Even the most gifted applicants have shortcomings and imperfections. Your references should not hesitate to speak of them. If letters of recommendation portray you as flawless, needing no improvement whatsoever, you will come across as too good to be true.

A helpful letter of recommendation reveals qualities that don’t show up on transcripts or resumes. Be sure to provide them with your transcripts and a note about how you performed in their class. To give references further insight into your intellectual and personal character, you might want to provide them with written responses to the following questions:

  • Why do you want to ....? (study at Oxford, win a Fulbright Grant, etc.)
  • What in your background prepares and qualifies you for ....?
  • What are your goals beyond..?
  • What experiences have you had that reveal your leadership, creativity, motivation, etc.
  • What do you like to do in your spare time?

Finally, give the people who write for you plenty of advance notice, if necessary give them timely reminders, and thank them!

Ready, Set, Go!

We hope this outline has given you a realistic and informed perspective on the challenges of applying for a major scholarship. In most instances the preparation needs to begin at-least one year in advance. Actual deadlines and other details may vary from year to year, so be sure to check with Dr. Shivamoggi for the most up-to-date information.