What does it take to be a competitive candidate?
Excellent grades are important, but there is much more to being a competitive candidate. Think about past accomplishments as well as future ambitions.
- Take your interests and passions to the next level. When youread or see or hear about something that intrigues you, don't be satisfied with just saying, huh, interesting. Pursue it - ask your professor about it after class. Read up on it (and not just online...). Investigate whether you could use it for a paper topic. Find out if you could explore it in an internship. Figure out if you could start something new related to it. Explore the possibility of going there. And if you're not sure what you are interested in, try things out.
- Get involved. While outstanding grades are important for most scholarships (one exception is the Truman...), showing involvement and leadership in extracurriculars is just as important.
- Use your summers wisely. Most students need to work and make money over the summer. Try to find ways to do that and also pursue your interests, develop skills, do service, travel. Can you find an internship related to your future career, instead of just scooping ice cream? Can you do community service once a week during the summer? Can you improve your skills in a language? Can you apply for one of the summer fellowships offered by Emmanuel (the Travel Fellowship for Advanced Study or the Summer Community Service Fellowship).
- Learn another language. Achieving fluency in another language is impressive, is often required by graduate schools, and also might make it possible for you to win a fellowship to go to a country where that language is spoken.
- Study abroad. Most fellowships programs like to see that students have experience in other countries. If you can't study abroad during the school year because of your major requirements, go during the summer or go on a travel course. If finances are an issue, explore scholarships like the Gilman or other programs.
- Get involved in research. Many Emmanuel professors, especially in the sciences, hire students to help with their research. Being involved with real scholarly work is impressive for fellowships applications, but also for grad school applications. And you might even get your name on a published paper.
- Read up on fellowships you might want to apply for. Look at their websites for bios of past winners, check out the applications, and start to dream big!
How should I ask for a letter of recommendation?
- Give your writers adequate time! Contact references at least three weeks before the deadline if possible.
- Provide an envelope for your writer to use. Affix the postage and correct address ahead of time. Or an e-mail address if the recommendation is sent by e-mail.
- Request the letter of reference in writing (in addition to making personal contact). Provide the following information in that request:
o Deadline: Specify POSTMARK or RECEIPT deadline.
o Destination: Even if you provide an envelope.
o Interior address/greeting: Not always the same as the mailing address.
o Full name of the scholarship.
- Supply and clearly identify any forms that the writer is supposed to mail in addition to the actual letter.
- The writer also needs details about the scholarship itself. Help your references understand their audience
o Criteria for selection. Stated attributes of the successful scholar.
o What the scholarship seeks to support and/or foster. The amount and structure of the award.
- Your future goals. How does the scholarship support those? What study do you hope to fund? What career objectives are served?
- Provide a draft of your scholarship application, particularly the resume and personal statement. Your writers need to know how you are presenting yourself. It allows them to write in a complementary way as well as a complimentary way. And they are often great resources for constructive criticism anyway.
- Check back well before the deadline. Check again closer to the deadline. Be polite but never just assume that your letters were written and mailed.
- Waive your right to see the letter if applicable. Confidential letters carry more weight.
Tips for Choosing Your Writers
- Pay attention to any stipulations in the scholarship application. The Rhodes wants four references from your professors. The Goldwater advises against asking your high school teachers to write letters. Et cetera.
- Choose people that know you well. The goal of good letters is to reveal your strengths in Technicolor. Your letters should portray the unique merit of your candidacy. This means that anecdotes and examples are very important. Letters from people with impressive titles are nice, but if your contact with them was limited, the letter may be flat. Vouching for you is not enough.
- Choose individuals who can talk about relevant performance and credentials. If the scholarship emphasizes leadership, ask an individual who has seen you lead. If the scholarship emphasizes academic prowess, you need to contact individuals that have had the opportunity to judge that: college professors, research supervisors, your advisor. And if the scholarship values a variety of things, make sure your letters cover different aspects of your accomplishments.
- Letters from high school teachers, family members, friends of your family, your minister, etc. rarely carry much weight if you are competing at the undergraduate level or higher. However, there are possible exceptions. For example . . . your minister might be crucial if the scholarship is funded by a religious organization.
- Comments like "Well . . . I really don't know you that well" are often an indication that the person does not feel like they will be able to write a strong letter for you. There is no value in lobbying for lukewarm letters.
- If an individual has volunteered previously to serve as a reference, that usually means they will work to produce an enthusiastic letter on your behalf.
- Most of your references should speak to recent efforts: things you have done within the last two or three years.
How do I begin a personal statement?
Make an appointment with a Writing Specialist at the ARC. The Writing Specialist can help you get started on the process.
Read this helpful handbook for writing personal statements (with examples of winning essays from many major scholarship competitions): https://www.e-education.psu.edu/writingpersonalstatementsonline/node/1984
Laurie Johnston, Director of Scholarships and Fellowships
Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies