Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships & Awards

Tips on competitiveness

Set Goals

Merit-based scholarships are generally awarded based on your potential as demonstrated by your past achievements. These scholarships are investments in your future based on your past achievements rather than strictly rewards for past achievements. Therefore, making plans to reach your goals is a critical component to successfully applying for scholarships.

Engage Deeply

While every scholarship is unique and has its own priorities and criteria, there are some student experiences/qualities that scholarship selection committees often highly value:

  • Academic achievements: rigorous and varied coursework (breadth and depth); maintaining a strong GPA
  • Engagement in learning through varied experiences: research projects, public service efforts, leadership endeavors, lab work, internships, employment, study abroad, performances, publications, exhibitions, etc.
  • Demonstrations of deeper and sustained involvement in your topics or areas of interest: active membership in relevant clubs/groups/organizations whether on-campus or in the greater community; participation in conferences/symposia, active membership in honors societies; active commitment to a community of some kind; relevant work, internship, research experience
  • Development of mentors and supporters: strong relationships with faculty who can attest to your strengths, accomplishments, goals, and passions
  • The ability to articulate, in writing and in person, a sense of purpose, your interests, goals and past experiences with conviction and confidence.

There are no “book-worm” scholarships that reward students solely for having a high GPA. Merit-based scholarships typically fund a future activity or project you intend to pursue, and your past experiences should demonstrate why you are headed in that direction or how you have prepared. For example:

  • Conducting a research project
  • Participating in a study abroad program
  • Engaging in public service and/or a leadership project
  • Acquiring an internship or job
  • Taking a meaningful gap year (or two) between graduation and graduate school
  • Planning for graduate school

Plan Ahead

Thinking and planning long-term will give you the most options. Search and apply for scholarships at least one year in advance of when you would like to receive the funding.

Many national scholarship programs have deadlines in the fall for scholarships that would provide funding for the following academic year. Most local and internal UW scholarship programs have deadlines from January through April. There are very few scholarships that have deadlines less than 4 months in advance of when you would receive the funding.

This means that you will often be applying for scholarships to fund trips, programs, etc. that you haven’t even been accepted into yet. For example, if you are planning to study abroad, you will need to search and apply for scholarships at the same time or even before you are applying to get into the study abroad program. For graduate studies, you will be searching and applying for funding for graduate school at the same time or even before you are applying for admission. Don’t wait to look for funding until you’re accepted; it will be too late!

Searching even farther in advance, identifying scholarship goals that you want to work toward over time, will also allow you to develop yourself as a candidate more intentionally. For example, if you found a scholarship for an abroad experience that required knowledge of another language, identifying that scholarship several years in advance would allow you time to study that language, making it part of your class schedule. Or if you identified a scholarship that supports students with extensive research experience, you would have the time to gain that experience. So set goals for yourself several years out and start looking for scholarships to support those goals long-term.

Stay Organized

As you begin your search, develop a speadsheet to collect information about those scholarships most appropriate and for which you would like to apply. Include web address, deadline date, required application materials, number of letters of recommendation needed, and organize the information by the date you wish to begin the application. Typical application preparation times vary between three or more months (for the most competitive national scholarships) and four to six weeks. Certainly, preparing a competitive application will take no less than four weeks.

Once you have a plan, you’ll know which scholarship applications you need to work on at which points in the year, and you’ll also have time to gather supporting materials.