Student Guide to Prestigious Awards


The purpose of this website is to assist UCF students who may be considering applying for major fellowships and scholarships. If our tone comes across as a bit uninviting, we hope readers understand it is not because we want to discourage you from applying. Rather, it is because 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, and who are sincerely dedicated to putting their all into the application process.

The experience of competing for these scholarships is immensely rewarding. Whether or not you eventually win, students who seriously undertake the process of preparing and applying for a major scholarship are in for a life-changing experience. 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 is help available to you through The Office of Prestigious Awards (OPA). If you really want to make a strong case, the preparation must begin very early, even as early as your freshman year.

Welcome to the "Majors"

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 University scholarships and financial aid programs. The majority of these programs are for post-baccalaureate studies, and many 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, Javits and National Science Foundation scholarships are restricted to applicants majoring in particular fields of study, while others, such as the Rhodes and Marshall, seek applications from outstanding well-rounded 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. 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, the University 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 academic achievement 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 necessary condition for serious consideration, by itself a high GPA is not enough. 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 3.7 and higher, and ordinarily anything below a 3.5 will put you out of the running. However, a student with a comparatively lower GPA (say, 3.6) 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. Selection committees want to know what’s behind and beyond the transcript.

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 extracurricular 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."

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, applying for a prestigious scholarship may not be the best use of your time. 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 "dart board" 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. The scholarship process involves much more than simply filling out application forms. It is a major investment of time and effort, both your own and other peoples'. Your time would be much better spent perfecting applications for those scholarships that are a perfect fit for you.

To help you decide if you should compete for a major scholarship, try wrestling with the following questions. Although they are not intended as a "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?

(Some of these thoughts are from C. Grey Austin, "Your Mind Is Not Your Friend," National Honors Report, summer 1994.)

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.

Getting 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 which will be challenging and broadening. 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, be yourself.

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. 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. As soon as you have decided to apply, even before you begin the application process, you should contact OPA to discuss internal deadlines, policies, and procedures. 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. To apply for a major fellowship, you do not have to be involved in this particular program. 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 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 to disregard them. Keep in mind that most application forms contain an item that asks the recommender: "How long have you known the applicant?" Think about how your recommender would respond. If he or she is likely to say "about 30 minutes," your application is probably in deep trouble.

Make sure your recommenders 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. To give your letter writers 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 be sure to thank them!

Thinking On Your Feet

In addition to the written application, in-person interviews are required for most scholarships that require campus nomination of candidates. If the applicant is chosen to advance to the next level of competition (state, regional or national), further interviews with semifinalists and finalists may be held. Be sure to check specific scholarship materials for details about interviews.

Anything you put in your written application is fair game for the interview, so it's important to be honest and avoid stretching the truth. For example, if you claim to know a foreign language, expect to be quizzed in it. Also, be aware that some interviewers like to concentrate on apparent inconsistencies in your personal statement, study proposal or other parts of your written application.

Interviews for major scholarships tend to be quite different from job interviews. For one thing, the "rules" of conduct and appearance are more relaxed. Instead of being a tool for assessing job skills, the interview for a major scholarship takes on the tone of an intellectual exchange. You can prevent a lot of stress and nervousness if you approach the situation as a conversation rather than an interrogation.

A conservative, dark-colored suit -- standard attire for a job interview -- is acceptable for scholarship interviews as well. The rule of thumb is to wear clean, presentable business attire (coat and tie for men, dresses and skirts of appropriate length or pantsuits for women). The 'grunge' look, gym shoes, baseball hats, and other casual fashion statements should be avoided.

While interviews are not intended to be threatening or hostile, you should expect to be challenged about your knowledge, your views and your values. Keep up with current affairs. Know something about the person after whom the scholarship was named. The interview may last only 20 - 30 minutes, and is not an opportunity for you to give a speech. It's quite likely that you will be interrupted and that you will not be able to say everything you want to say.

Seemingly off-the-wall questions may be thrown at you to see how well you can think on your feet. Don't lose your cool! If you find the questions (or the manner in which they are asked) discomforting, it's because the interviewers are trying to inspire a spontaneous answer in order to discover what makes you tick. You will be expected to make some concluding remarks. End your interview with a positive note. It may not be a bad idea to reflect upon your experience of putting this application together and what it meant to you.

In July 1999 a workshop on Truman and Marshall scholarships was held at Fayetteville Arkansas . One of the sessions of the workshop was devoted to preparing applicants for the interview segment of the application process. As part of this session, Truman and Marshall Selection Committee members held simulated interviews. Below is a list of possible questions inspired by that session: This list is by no means comprehensive, and is not necessarily the same list of questions you might face in the mock interview. This list is designed to give you the nature of questions that are asked.

  1. Can you name three recent novels you read?
  2. Which newspapers do you read on a regular basis?
  3. Why are you applying for the Rhodes Scholarship? Or, what makes you a good candidate for this scholarship?
  4. Can you recount the most embarrassing moment of your life?
  5. What do you know about Cecil Rhodes?

Ready, Set, Go!

We hope this website has given you a realistic and informed perspective on the challenges of applying for a major scholarship. On the Prestigious Scholarship page you will find summaries of some of the scholarship programs, including information about the semester in which the application is due. 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 OPA for the most up-to-date information.