Scoring the Scholarship

It’s that time of year again: Scholarship season!

All across Canada (and beyond) students are putting together their scholarship applications, faculty are writing letters of reference, and scholarship officers are preparing their review committees.

To help make the process a little easier, here are a few tips to preparing the best possible application:

Know your deadlines: This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how deadlines can creep up on you, especially when applications almost always are more complex than they seem at first glance. You need to plan ahead to make sure you have time to order any required transcripts, secure you letter writers (and prepare them, as described below), write your research proposal, and get your CV in the right format (that last one can take much longer than you could possibly imagine…). Remember also that universities may have internal deadlines much earlier than the agency deadline, and departments may have internal deadlines much earlier than university deadlines. So even if you think you’ve got a few months before the final application is due, you need to get going now.

Follow the instructions: Again, this sounds obvious, but every year students are disqualified because they misinterpret or just miss the application instructions.  Students often run into difficulty when they’ve applied for a scholarship before and assume the next year’s application will be the same. Remember, just as people change, application processes change as well; so don’t assume the instructions are the same as they were in previous years. Read and re-read instructions before getting to work. If there is a page limit, and margin and font minima, stick to those. Make sure you cover off all the relevant aspects, using headers where possible to make it easy for the reviewers to follow. If something is unclear, ask your supervisor, and if he or she doesn’t know, ask your university’s scholarship officer. Better to be clear than to guess incorrectly and be disqualified.

Look at past success: Although you can’t count on the application process to remain the same every year, you can get an idea of how successful applications are written by taking a look at recent winning applications. If other students in your research group or program won the same award in the past year or two, ask if you can see their applications. If you don’t know anyone who has won that particular award recently, ask your program director or university scholarship officer – sometimes universities will have open meetings where previous winners give advice to future applicants. Usually the students who win scholarship competitions are happy to share their work with others, and they may even have tips for specific scholarships. For example, Canada’s Vanier Award, which provides students with $50,000/year for 3 years (yes, tax free!), differs from many other awards in the extent to which leadership is emphasized, and in the kind of references you need. Speaking with past winners can give you great insight into how to frame your own application, and how to approach and advise potential reference letter writers (more on that below).

Revise, revise, revise: As with any writing you do, the first draft of your scholarship application usually won’t be perfect. Unlike a doctoral dissertation, where you have hundreds of pages to make your case, scholarship applications usually have limited space (only xx words, or only text that fits in this box, etc.). And unlike a doctoral defence, where the people evaluating your work are from academic areas close to your own, scholarship applications usually are judged by people from a wider range of backgrounds. But don’t panic. You can start with a longer, more technical version, and then shorten it up by using the active voice and eliminating unnecessary, redundant, repetitive, and otherwise superfluous words, sentences, and phrases. When making your writing more concise, you’ll also make changes to ensure non-specialists can understand what you’re proposing to do and why it’s interesting and important. Ask others to read your application and give you feedback, and leave plenty of time for revisions (even this informal blog post went through 9 revisions before I hit “publish”). In the end, the final draft of your scholarship application still may not be perfect, but reviewers never expect perfection, so that’s ok. Check out our communication module for more great tips on writing and oral presentations.

Help your letter writers write their letters:  I have read, ranked, and recommended thousands of scholarship applications over the years, but somehow I remain stunned when I see a poorly written reference letter kill a student’s chance at a scholarship. Sometimes, the fault is with the letter writer (a clear cut-and-paste job, not speaking to the questions in the instructions (see above), or empty platitudes without any concrete examples). But too often, the fault is with the student for not arming the reference letter writer with the necessary information to make a good recommendation great. Dr. David Clark, an English professor at McMaster University, has spent a lot of time thinking about how students can help him write the best possible reference letters, and he’s created a wonderful resource for students to use with any potential referee. Follow his advice, and you’re certain to get better letters than you would if you just tell your referees the deadline. And it is often that one sparkling letter that makes all the difference in scholarship awards.

Help your reviewers review: In any given competition, a committee member may be reading, ranking, and recommending hundreds of applications. You want to ensure your application stands out, but in a good way. To do so, make it as easy as possible for the reviewer to read your application. That means not just writing clearly and concisely (for, as Dr. Seuss noted, “the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”), but also paying attention to formatting. If the instructions suggest specific headers for different sections, use those headers. You won’t score originality points for using different headers, but you will make it more difficult for those reviewers who are scoring hundreds or thousands of applications to see if you’ve covered all the points properly. Make sure you include white space to give the reviewers’ (often) aging eyes a bit of a break. The committee members will thank you, and that appreciation may be reflected in a higher ranking.

Get ready for next year’s competitions now: Although your focus right now may be on the current crop of scholarship applications, it’s never too early to start planning for the next round. Academic publications can take a long time, and — depending on your field — one or two more journal articles or conference presentations can make a huge difference for young researchers. So don’t forget to keep your research on track and plan well ahead to ensure your contributions will count for next year’s competition even if they didn’t quite make it for this years.  Our research modules may be helpful for you on that front. Finally, don’t be shy about reminding your supervisor or collaborators that you need comments back on your work because you’ve got a big application deadline coming up.

Speaking of which, I have a few revisions to work on with my own students….

Good luck to everyone this scholarship season!


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