Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships & Awards

General guidelines for reviewing scholarship applications

Thank you for serving on a scholarship selection committee! These guidelines are meant to serve as general information to support any specific instructions you may receive from the particular scholarship for which you are reading. These guidelines also reflect the approach our office advocates for maximum student support and maximum equality of review, given the inherently subjective nature of scholarship selection processes.

If you or your department plan to use these guidelines in a scholarship selection process, we appreciate you letting us know, so we can track whether this information is helpful. Please contact our office at or call 206-543-4282.

Our office coordinates and works with a wide variety of scholarships and scholarship selection committees. The desire to create this set of common guidelines that could be shared among committees grew out of discussions and efforts to simplify selection processes for all involved while at the same time ensuring students a selection process that is as fair and unbiased as possible. We recognize that each individual scholarship program has its own purpose and mission, and therefore will have different selection criteria and foci. These guidelines are intended to supplement, not supplant, individual scholarship purposes.

Guidelines for Evaluating:


Intellectual excellence can be demonstrated in numerous ways, and many research, scholarship and fellowship opportunities are not GPA driven.  They can be more concerned with the quality of a candidate’s research project, the strength of the candidate’s commitment to public service or science research, or the depth of the candidate’s leadership activities.  In some cases, grades can be overshadowed by extraordinary achievements represented in other parts of the overall application.

However, a student’s academic transcript is usually one of the materials requested as part of the scholarship/fellowship application and will play a role, to the greater or lesser degree, in the selection decision.  That degree is determined by the purpose of the award and/or the mission of the funding organization.

Transcripts can provide a way of understanding the student’s academic potential and can demonstrate the consistency of course work over a period of time.  It can give the selection committee a way to look at the level of their education, the type of preparation, and the quality of their achievements to date in their program and/or department.

In evaluating a student’s transcript, consider the following:

  • Trajectory of the GPA. What is the pattern:  is it increasing, consistent;
  • Challenging course content;
  • Number of credits taken within the graded period in addition to grades earned;
  • Grades in the major discipline(s);
  • Note if there were challenging periods – freshman year, quarter(s) where grades are inconsistent with the overall history of the transcript.

The instruction to those selecting Rhodes Scholars says it best: “Intellectual excellence is obviously required, but not in isolation from other qualities. Mr. Rhodes sought Scholars who were more than ‘mere bookworms;’ he wanted their intellectual talents to be combined with concern for others. Thus, the Selection Committees assign the highest importance to this blend of character with intellect. They are charged to seek excellence in qualities of mind and in qualities of person which, in combination, offer the promise of effective service to the world in the decades ahead.”

CV or Resume

The CV (or resume) is an important part of many scholarship applications.  Also, the development of a professional CV is an unintended positive outcome for many scholarship applicants, whether or not they ultimately receive the scholarship.

Individual scholarships differ in focus from research experience, leadership activities, or a particular academic or career path.  However, the CV is useful beyond providing information about particular activities related to the scholarship.  The CV can offer additional details about applicants’ experience and accomplishments, flesh out timelines, and provide contextual information.

Typically, the student’s application and personal essays are congruent with the activities listed in the CV.  In that case, significant activities or experiences listed in the CV will also be discussed in the application and/or personal essays.  Conversely, activities discussed in the application and essays should typically be listed on the CV.

Students need not have experience in every one of the categories listed below to be considered a strong applicant.  That said, an “ideal” CV includes activities from more than one category, perhaps with a particular focus on one category or activity.  The following are activities which frequently appear on the CVs of scholarship applicants:

  • Education
  • Volunteer experience or community activities
  • Leadership activities
  • Research experience
  • Work or internship experience
  • Honors, awards, and special recognition

For each of the activities and accomplishments listed on the CV, consider the following:

  • Has the student provided details about each activity such as:
    • Project description
    • Duties and responsibilities
    • Length of participation and hours contributed
  • How does the activity relate to the student’s stated academic/career goals?
  • How does the activity relate to the scholarship’s requirements or goals?

Scholarship Application Essays

Each scholarship program will have its own essay prompts crafted to elicit different information from students based on the scholarship’s selection criteria. However, there are some general characteristics and approaches to reviewing application essays that can be applied broadly, as a starting point, along with the specific desires and values of the particular scholarship you may be reading for.

Typically a personal statement essay should:

  • Answer the question posed in the prompt, if applicable;
  • Make a connection between the mission of the scholarship (the activity or interest the scholarship seeks to support) and the applicant’s academic, career, personal interests and/or goals;
  • Successfully articulate how the applicant plans to achieve those interests/goals and how the scholarship/activity will fit into that plan;
  • Demonstrate how the applicant thinks and why they’ve made the decisions they’ve made, clarifying and reflecting on relevant past experiences.
  • The essay should be easy to read, reveal interesting things about the applicant, and help the reader gain an overall understanding of where the applicant is coming from.

General qualities to look for, though these may be defined differently or others may be included by the specific scholarship:

  • Engagement – Does the applicant discuss extracurricular, research, volunteer, internship, work or other experiences that add to his or her academic pursuits?
  • Leadership – Does the applicant discuss his or her role in or contribution to any experiences discussed?
  • Sense of Purpose – Does the applicant provide evidence of having a sense of direction and an understanding of how that has developed through past experiences?

Issues to give special consideration:

  • English language learners – Many scholarship applicants are not native English speakers or writers. Because an essay-based application naturally puts these applicants at a disadvantage, selection committees should look beyond the spelling and grammar errors when there is evidence that the applicant is a non-native speaker, and focus more on the content of the information provided.
  • Eloquent vagueness – Some applicants are fantastic writers who have great things to say on the surface, but no experience to back up their statements. Exceptional applicants will show, rather than tell, about themselves and their ideas.
  • Resume recap – Does the applicant simply restate, or even copy wholesale, information from his or her resume/CV? Exceptional applicants will use the essays to provide context for the most pivotal experiences listed on the resume/CV, reflecting on them and going beyond, but not just recreate the list in narrative form.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation could be coming from any source: faculty, community members, supervisors, etc. The writers may or may not be native English speakers, or may or may not be strong writers in general. They also may or may not have had adequate time to write or proofread. Please do not hold writers’ errors against the applicant.

Common errors that should not negatively impact the applicant:

  • wrong applicant name
  • wrong scholarship name
  • grammatical mistakes, type-os, etc.

Stellar recommendation letters always stand out. It tends to be those in the middle of the pack that can be hard to know what to do with. Look for positive, deep, meaningful comments and connections.

  • Do the letters confirm what the student has said in his/her application?
  • Do the letters provide context, giving specific examples or information about the student’s characteristics and qualities?
  • Do the letters distinguish the student, or do they seem like they could have been written for anyone?
  • Do the letters answer questions raised by the application?
  • For letters that are clearly outdated and old, do they still provide the relevant information listed above?
  • For letters that are clearly not written specifically for this scholarship, do they still provide relevant information listed above?

What to do with recommendations from the same author for multiple applicants that appear very similar, or actually are the very same letter?

This is no fault of the applicant and is likely more reflective of the harried writer. Attempt to read each letter on its own, and consider the merits of each separately.

What to do with patently negative letters?

Unfortunately, from time to time, applicants do make poor choices in selecting their letter writers and this is born out in recommendation letters that are not “recommendations” at all and provide mostly negative comments. Should this kill an otherwise strong application? The same questions provided above should be considered in this case. Is what the writer has to say relevant? Does the letter provide evidence to back up the negative statements? Does the letter say more about the author than the applicant?