I’m Stephen Wu, the current External VP of Triangle Fraternity at The Ohio State University. I recently ran the Triangle Fraternity & Phi Sigma Rho Sorority Educational Outreach Scholarship for 1st & 2nd year STEM majors at The Ohio State University and wanted to share my thoughts, specifically for (1) people who apply to scholarships and (2) people who want to plan scholarships. This first article is mostly for the first category and discusses how we ran this scholarship.
I was definitely in your boat and applied to several scholarships to not rack up some crazy student loans. Running this scholarship and seeing the applications from the judging side really helped me understand this process much better. This article is about how we ran this thing and some general tips that might help with your application process–whether it be to scholarships, internships, jobs, or something else.
The first thing I absolutely want to stress is — never feel discouraged after not getting a scholarship, internship, job, etc. These systems are never perfect and your results in them do not reflect your merit or your impact. Applying to things is a tough process and grading is never an exact science.
HOW WE RAN THIS THING
Some quick stats about our scholarship:
– 1st / 2nd STEM majors were eligible to apply
– 54 applicants, 3 awardees
– 65% 1st, 35% 2nd years, about equal gender-wise
– Sponsored by Triangle Fraternity & Phi Sigma Rho
– GPA / GPA Description
– Extracurricular Activities, Leadership Positions, Volunteering, and Employment (up to 3)
– Honors / Accolades (up to 3)
– Essays: Write to 2 shorter (250+) or 1 longer essay (500+)
We advertised mainly through Honors & Scholars Weekly, Scholars and major advisers, word of mouth, and flyers. Given the audience, we had some crazy qualified candidates — the median HS GPA was probably a 4.1-4.3, and median college GPA was 3.7-3.8ish. We didn’t weigh GPA at all for this reason and made essays the highest weighted item.
One big consideration, as an applicant, is “who else am I applying against?” And that might guide the way you choose or phrase your accolades. If you learned about the application through an Honors adviser, you can sure bet that tons of other Honors students are applying as well, so look for ways to stand out beyond Honors / Fundamentals of Engineering Honors.
One interesting thing that happened was that we had a Biomedical Science/Engineering adviser advertise to his/her students and that was our greatest major, and a lot of people put the Biomedical Science/Engineering program down under Honors / Accolades.
We had 8 initial judges that were juniors and seniors from Phi Sigma Rho and Triangle. As mentioned earlier, GPA wasn’t scored. Extracurriculars were read by 2 and averaged. Honors were read by 2 and averaged. Each essay was read by 3 judges and averaged (if they did 2). Essays were read in total by 6 people, and scores were normalized based on graders.
For example, Extracurriculars were scored from 1-5 with specific guidelines. A brief excerpt is below:
5 – “Heavily involved in service, e.g. led 2+ organizations with demonstrated impact, notable service, and/or employment during school/summers
1 – Participated in 0-2 organization, no notable impact
4 – Demonstrates strong character, growth, and professionalism; impressive rhetoric & verbal skills
1 – Short (<100 words) and/or notable grammatical errors, fails to address prompt
There was a lot more to it and weights for each category and lots of spreadsheets. Top scorers were given interviews, and full applications, scores, and interview feedback was sent to faculty judges to make final decisions for the 3 awards.
TIPS FOR PEOPLE APPLYING TO SCHOLARSHIPS (and OTHER THINGS)
So throughout this process, I noticed a lot of patterns and thought of tips that I wish I knew when I was applying to scholarships and other things. Here are some insights:
1. Apply to many. For scholarships, definitely fill out the FAFSA and apply for Special Scholarships and Departmental Scholarships (e.g. College of Engineering). Justify spending a lot of time in scholarships by the expected value. So… if you’re spending 1 hour per scholarship for even a 5% chance at $1000/scholarship, you’re valuing your time at $50/hr, which is a pretty sick gig and helps put things in perspective.
That % chance of earning the scholarship can vary a lot, depending on how good of a writer you are, how passionate you are about your major, how involved you are, how much service you’ve put in, or tons of other factors depending on what scholarship you’re applying to. Seek out scholarships that you can write good prompts to and are passionate about the same things the scholarship runners are passionate about. So maybe you apply to nuclear engineering scholarships, or SWE (Society of Women Engineers), URO (Undergraduate Research Office), or another org’s scholarships, and your goals resonate with theirs. There’s BIG scholarships and fellowships, like the Gates Millennium Scholarship, or the OSU named fellowships (Goldwater, etc.) too, and these might be good fits depending on your background. In our scholarship, we were pretty general and were just looking for outstanding STEM students who cared about STEM careers and outreach and being involved on campus.
People also don’t realize how some scholarships have very few applicants. Ours had 54, which was somewhat sizable, but many local ones have very few at all. Sometimes the more work you have to do (especially if there’s a “drop off/mail application” component), the fewer applicants there are for the scholarship, but marketing is also a big factor.
2. Read carefully! If asked for “up to 3” of X / Y, try to have 3 of X / Y, not 2 of X / Y, or 3 of W, but 3 things within X / Y. Unfortunately, it may hurt you if you only have 1 when a rubric asks for 3 even if that 1 was really great, depending on how the rubric was set up :(. Elaborate on important things about X & Y, but be concise and precise, focus on accomplishments and quantify impact.
3. Financial need is often a factor, but not always. Figure out when it is and if this applies to you — look for need-based opportunities. Not all scholarships are need-based, but if you are a student with demonstrated need, seek out scholarships where you qualify. Our scholarship was not need-based, partially because we felt that was too hard to evaluate from our side of things.
4. Log ALL your application materials in cloud storage, and feel free to re-use parts of essays or other content like awards and honors but always revise according to the prompt and audience. You still have to be on-prompt, but it’s not unethical to copy paste and edit chunks of content from your own past content.
5. Be 100% honest but brag! Quantify accomplishments (hours, $ raised, impact made), just like on a resume. Watch out for cliches & fluff — think about what makes you stand out.
I once heard about a recruiter who came to OSU and interviewed people for an engineering role. Nearly everyone he interviewed talked about Fundamentals of Engineering Honors (FEH) for their project questions — so these applicants didn’t stand out as much. While FEH is definitely a really fantastic program – it’s also the standard for Honors students in Engineering. So at an on-campus interview for an engineering role, FE/FEH might be mentioned a lot and not be as great of a major talking point.
Sometimes accomplishments that are impressive but very common ones tend to be drowned out – so think maybe, “How many other people applying might also put this and how should I distinguish myself?” If you just say National Honors Society — it doesn’t say too much about you — but if you say NHS and quantify impact (e.g. spent 50 hours of service involving going to hospitals in superhero costumes, lead on student council as vice president and implemented X and Y), then graders have a better picture of your accomplishments.
6. “Show, don’t tell” in writing essays!
7. Get feedback. Ask several others to review your work! Sometimes college/scholarship essays fall under a couple traps: “too safe / generic”, “not elaborate enough, confusing or holes”, “too arrogant,” or often “good intentions, not written well.” And you might not notice this when you’re reading through it yourself, but other readers will. The more eyes, the better.
8. Applications & interviews are a skill. A lot of people sorta see interviews as a process that they’re good at or not. People think of themselves as natural interviewees or not. I think this mindset hurts applicants in general, as they might do amazing in the first round of things and then end up losing out because of a skill they they haven’t developed. While interviews certainly might favor the extroverted and talkative, they’re definitely a valuable tool in assessing character and motivations, whether the words written align with your values. Practice, practice, practice. Take advantage of on-campus resources and mock interviews; do interviews with friends, mentors, faculty, etc. Plan and practice for popular questions (google!) and assess your answers along the way, research if applicable. There’s a lot of other resources for this (especially for job interviews), so be sure to look those up. My first interview in college was awful and my conversion rate for interviews in software internships was 0/1 my freshman year, 2/10 my sophomore, and 4/5 my junior.
9. Try not to be discouraged after some denials and just keep moving forward! This process of writing apps & interviewing is very transferable to cover letters, resume writing, professional correspondence, job interviews, etc.. So don’t think you’re wasting your time even if you don’t receive X or Y scholarship or job. I definitely think that the time I spent writing personal statements and applying to scholarships helped me improve my technical writing skills and helped me land offers. Doing interviews helps you get better at passing interviews; failing an interview is never a waste of time.
Whether applying to jobs or scholarships, sometimes there’s a factor of luck. We tried to minimize this a lot with the way we set up the rubric, but sometimes something you say or do simply resonates a lot with an interviewer or judge in a good/bad way.
I hope this helped! If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at stephen @ this website.org.