National Scholarships & Fellowships
Part 2: Applying
A Conversation with Dr. Vin Moscardelli, Director of UConn’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships (ONSF).
Click here to view part 1 of this 2-part series.
How can someone best strengthen an application for national scholarships & fellowships?
Start thinking early because many of these applications require not one, not two, but at least three and sometimes more, letters of recommendation. Finding meaningful letters doesn’t happen organically. You have to make that happen. You have to build these relationships, cultivate them, and sustain them. I encourage you to start thinking early about what your network will be because you want advocates.
For most of these scholarships, they have a scholarly component to them so you do need to take care of things in the classroom and be intellectually curious and you need to be aware of what’s going on in the world and engage as an original thinker in some kind of way. I think this is an important part for a lot of these but how much of an important part varies enormously across scholarships. For some, you need to be a good student but if you’re in the upper half of your class you’ll be fine. For others you need to be a truly great student – near the very top of your graduating class. There’s a range of opportunities out there looking for different things and they weigh different components differently depending on their mission. Again, it’s all about fit.
Wonderful advice. As you have worked with students on applying for these scholarships, what tips can you share on what works?
You can’t rush. If the prompt is to talk about a particularly satisfying public service activity you’ve engaged in, well you can write a story about something you’ve done as a tutor or something like that but the particularly satisfying part is kind of hard. What made it satisfying? How can you write about it so that it doesn’t sound completely trite? Because when we try to write about these things it can be so hard to write.
Personal statement is a genre we don’t write in often and like in any language you can’t be fluent unless you are actively practicing. You have to immerse yourself in it and this is a new genre. Start early, draft, draft, draft, draft. Have people pulled these together quickly at the last minute? I suspect that some have. All the thinking, all the distillation of what’s floating around in your mind, all is transferable to other opportunities and particularly for grad school.
For students you have worked with who have not won an opportunity, have you noticed any reasons why their applications were not successful?
The big picture answer is those who don’t advance are people who aren’t good fits for the awards. If you’re a great fit but in your application the things you write about don’t speak to the award criteria then they have no way to know that. They can’t read between the lines. There are too many applications. You have to do the work for them. Sometimes this is a symptom of a larger problem of people applying for awards for which they are not a good fit. When they’re writing it feels like a reach the whole time because the fit to the award criteria just isn’t there. The key is to be yourself. You’re always strongest as your best self rather than trying to be something you’re not. The key is authenticity. It needs to be your voice.
We don’t have incentives to encourage students to apply to things that aren’t a good fit for them, our job is to help you inventory your strengths and weaknesses. Some of our work overlaps with the Center for Career Development because we try to help you discover what’s next. It’s not the same work, but there are parallels.
What do you think distinguishes an application that wins?
I want to challenge the premise of this question. You don’t see the word win anywhere on the website. We don’t put it anywhere because if there’s a winner, there’s a loser. In an award like the Rhodes where there may be a thousand or twelve hundred nominated people for a grand total of 32 awards, you’re telling me the only winners are the 32? They were all nominated and identified by their schools as among the very best and brightest.
Our purpose is for you to get something out of this process of putting your best foot forward and developing this application and if it results in getting that scholarship then awesome, we will celebrate that. We have an event each spring called our Celebration of Nominees- you can view last year’s virtual version of it on our YouTube page in fact. Students and mentors and even parents come and recognize the work that went into putting together an application and throwing your hat in the ring of something so highly selective where the chances are statistically not high and to continue to take that shot. There’s a quote on the website saying you miss 100% of the shots you never take. We want to recognize that it’s hard to put yourself out there and to risk rejection. And we want to celebrate the students who were willing to take that risk because we believe that in the long run they’ll be better for having done it.
I think it’s important to highlight also that your worth is not determined by a yes or a no to any application, whether it’s these scholarships or job applications. Throughout life, you may get rejections, but it doesn’t mean that your worth is going to be diminished.
The most prominent scholars on this, or really any campus, are those who write the most, submit the most manuscripts, and, ironically, get rejected the most. They get rejected the most because they submitted the most. But guess what else they do? They also get published the most, and in the best outlets. In many of these scholarships, such as the Rhodes which winnows a thousand nominations down to 32 recipients, there’s inherently some level of subjectivity involved in the evaluation and selection process because you’re comparing the apples of scientists to the oranges of humanists to the toasters of creative artists. It’s inherently subjective at some level. Maybe that year people were enamored with a particular topic and a student who had spent the last four years working on that issue got the nod over you. It doesn’t mean you were any less good or you couldn’t have gotten it the year before. It just means you didn’t get selected that year. So you can’t ethically make it all about the “winning” because there’s so much in the winning you can’t predict or control. I don’t believe it’s a random process. But there is certainly a subjective component to it, and you have to embrace that and be proud of what you have done, which is why we make a point of celebrating the applications our students submit.
If you have any interest in applying, jump on the website, fill out an intake form, make an appointment, and let’s have a conversation.
Check out the previous segment in this special 2-part blog:
Elisa is a junior majoring in Economics with minors in English and Global Studies. Click here to learn more about Elisa.