Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships & Awards

Bias Mitigation Ideas & Strategies for Scholarship Administrators/Managers

Process improvement is on-going and iterative! Scholarship Administrators/Managers are often responsible for reviewing, evaluating and updating scholarship applications, advertising and creating committee guidelines, along with other materials on a regular basis. While this can be time-consuming and hard to fit into already full workloads, it is an opportunity to increase transparency and inclusivity.  

If you are building a scholarship process from scratch, you have every opportunity to infuse equity and inclusivity into the materials and processes. If you see changes needed for an application process already underway, you might need to make smaller changes to keep things fair for applicants during the current cycle and implement larger changes in the cycles to come. Either way, we encourage updating the materials at least every 2 years, if not every cycle.

Take the same advice we give students working on applications: start early, stay organized, chip away at each piece. Finally, try to have all stakeholders involved (could include donors, selectors, students, and other key partners) during the process improvement phase. Their input will help ensure buy-in and collaboration at all the stages of the scholarship process.

Ideas & Considerations:

Opportunities for improving transparency of selection criteria

  • Crafting selection criteria is difficult and laden with opportunities for biases to negatively influence decisions. Collaborate with your team on drafting and revising selection criteria. Consider how common biases might creep into selection criteria creation, during the application review and final selection processes, and include notes for your selection committee to help mitigate these. 
  • Compare the selection criteria you are working on to the established program mission, goals, contract requirements, etc. Define terms used and considerations behind those terms so applicants and committee members can understand and apply them. 
    • While there is no perfect template, consider the temptation to use descriptors like “high achieving” or “academic excellence”. Those phrases are often used because they seem like the most concise wording, sometimes because we want to leave flexibility for applicants to bring their strengths in any form, but mostly they result in everyone involved assuming they mean GPA. 
    • Can you further define phrases like these so students know what they can do to demonstrate the qualities your program is looking to support? Can you help reviewers avoid the “I’ll know it when I see it” approach? 
  • Many scholarships are created to honor a specific person or group of people (for example, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans). Consider how that history influences the selection criteria. Consider making as much of that information publicly available as possible, be transparent about how it influences the selection criteria, provide specific instructions for applicants and committee members about how to interpret and apply both the selection criteria and that contextual information.
  • Finalize and make the selection criteria public, transparent and accessible to applicants and selection committee members. Revisit them every cycle to ensure they: 
    • Continue to make sense and align with program goals
    • Are reflected in the application materials you’re asking students to submit, particularly essay prompts and recommender prompts (if using)
    • Are described clearly and consistently for selectors in the review rubric
  • Currently, many scholarship programs share their selection criteria publicly. Very few make their full scoring rubric public. Consider where there could be room to push those boundaries while also maintaining confidentiality where needed. Some examples:

Opportunities for maximizing inclusivity in eligible requirements

  • Review the scholarship contract annually to ensure your eligibility requirements continue to align, and that they continue to serve your goals for a diverse and inclusive applicant pool. 
  • Don’t require US citizenship or state residency if you don’t have to. This gives all students, including international students and undocumented students, the opportunity to apply. Students appreciate and are encouraged by seeing scholarships they are eligible to apply for, whether they actually end up applying or not. 
  • Don’t limit eligibility by GPA, even for scholarships intended to recognize “academic achievement” or requiring “academic merit”.  
    • Despite concerns about the potential number of applications we might receive, we tested this recently and found removing the previously used GPA minimum had no negative impacts on the quality, strength, or number of applications we received. Timing and individual student’s choices about workloads ultimately have a much bigger impact on application numbers and strength.  

Opportunities for maximizing inclusivity in application materials

Rather than simply plugging in the usual application materials, consider what your selection committees really need to see and how applicants will benefit from including each piece of information. Do the application materials requested align with the selection criteria and strongly support applicants in highlighting how they meet the selection criteria


Many scholarships have a selection criterion connected to academic or intellectual performance or potential. Course grades and GPA are often the default method of evaluating this, and yet those letter or numerical grades never give the full picture, nor do they end up being helpful in distinguishing among a sea of compelling candidates all with impressive grades.  

If your program is looking to move away from over-reliance on GPA and grades in the selection process, consider:

  • If academic merit, strengths or potential is a selection criterion, what other application elements could provide applicants the opportunity to demonstrate that? Consider all the ways academic potential can be demonstrated. Some examples: presentations at national conferences, recommendation letters highlighting achievements in a specific project or class, demonstrations of actively seeking out and utilizing resources and/or programs designed to increase access. 

  • Does the application benefit from inclusion of a transcript, or can the selection committee review applications without one? Enrollment can be verified by other means.  

  • Does the application ask students to list, or highlight, GPA in ways that give it more weight than it needs to have in the review process? 

    • Example: We realized our application form, when presented to selection committee readers, defaulted to showing the transcript as the first among several pieces of information. The application form also asked students to report their GPA as one of the very first questions they answer. The cumulative effect was to over-emphasize in the selection process the numerical scoring of academic work in ways we did not intend, were not serving our goals for the program, nor were required by the endowment contract language of “demonstrated academic merit.”
  • If committees are asked to consider transcripts, provide guidance on what should and shouldn’t be the focus of that portion of the review. Avoid sorting the applications by GPA before the review begins. See the Bias Mitigation Ideas & Strategies for Scholarship Application Reviewers section on Transcripts for additional considerations.

Resume or CV

This is a critical part of any application, and one that students can either overlook easily (because they already have a resume they’ve used for job applications, for example) or don’t know what it is or what should be included (have never made or seen one and don’t know the jargon). What is the selection committee hoping to learn about their experiences from this document?

Provide specific resources or guidance for applicants when asking for a resume or curriculum vitae (CV).

UW resources: OMSFA CV writing resources, Career & Internship Center resources.


  • One big benefit of asking for a resume and providing guidance: applicants are encouraged to create this application component, which they can and will use for other purposes and can continue to build upon. The development of a professional resume or CV is a tangible benefit regardless of the outcome of the scholarship selection process. 

  • Drawbacks to asking for a resume or CV: not everyone has one, knows what should be included, or how to craft a strong one for a scholarship application. Certain types of information, like family commitments/obligations that often account for time that would otherwise go toward other types of extracurricular experiences, would not traditionally be reflected on a resume.

Would students be served better by being clear about what to include and asking them to plug that information into a form? This would standardize the information shared and reduce opportunities for applicants to mistakenly discount information that could benefit their application. 


Reconsider any essay prompts and instructions regularly:

  • Will students understand what information you’re seeking from them? Does that align with the committee’s expectations?  
  • Can you provide additional descriptions, questions, and information to help applicants flesh out their ideas more fully and bring their strongest applications to the table? Consider how those questions are phrased/organized in order to promote success of applicants in answering the questions fully? 
  • Consider carefully the challenge of providing opportunities for students to share information about contexts and experiences that have influenced and motivated their directions vs. questions that might suggest they are being asked to “trauma dump”. For many reasons, it is very common for applicants to make this assumption no matter how carefully worded a prompt might be.   
    • Many applications include questions along the lines of “what challenges have you faced…” Is there additional context that could help students understand why they are being asked that question? What is the selection committee hoping to learn from an applicant’s response? Many students have needed to overcome many challenges in their lives. Can additional instructions help them to understand in what ways any of those experiences are relevant to your selection process?
    • Examples of prompts that attempt to provide some context: 
      • The Goldwater Scholarship application includes, after responses about research interests, experiences and future goals, an optional question: “Optional question, answering the question below will depend on your personal experience. Goldwater Scholars will be representative of the diverse economic, ethnic and occupational backgrounds of families in the United States. Describe any social and/or economic impacts you have encountered that have influenced your education – either positively or negatively – and how you have dealt with them.” 
      • The Udall Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship application includes, at the end of its application after several other essays addressing leadership and career interests, an optional short response: “Alert the Foundation to any unusual circumstances or hardship. Examples include situations that may have affected your academic performance or limited your activities.” 

Recommendation Letters

Debate continues about this traditional application component (for an introduction to the debate, search the Chronicle of Higher Education for “letters of recommendation”). Consider what information the selection committee really needs from recommenders. If you and your team are finding letters of recommendation are not contributing meaningful information, are unduly burdensome, or perpetuate inequities for applicants, consider: 

    • Many scholarships do not ask for letters for recommendation (e.g. Gilman Scholarship)
    • If desired, would a recommendation form with specific guidance/questions better support recommenders in providing relevant information and reviewers in their evaluation? Examples:
    • What expectations does your selection committee have about who is best positioned to provide the information they’re seeking from recommendations. For example, is there an unwritten expectation that academic references are preferred over non-academic references? That letters from faculty are preferred over letters from TAs? Is that expectation something that should be reconsidered? If not, is it made clear to applicants and recommenders?

Opportunities for maximizing outreach

To expand the pool of applicants for any scholarship, more students need to hear about the scholarship and feel confident they can both meet the eligibility requirements and see themselves in the selection criteria and past awardees. Maximizing outreach efforts, especially by building intentional collaborations with units across campus, specifically encouraging applications from students from underrepresented backgrounds and marginalized communities (e.g. Rangel Scholarship), providing connections to or sharing reflections from past awardees, and creating welcoming environments (on websites, social media, on zoom, at workshops and in 1-1 meetings, etc.) are all opportunities to establish an inclusive scholarship culture.

Consider the language used in sharing information about a scholarship with different audiences. Relying on the endowment contract verbiage can help with consistency but may not help students understand what the program is about or what they need to do to apply strongly. 

Share opportunities widely through both broad-based announcements and to specific collaborators who interface directly with student populations: 

  • We ask applicants how they’ve heard about the scholarships we manage. Most responses indicate word-of-mouth, from a trusted advisor, mentor or friend. A much smaller number indicates internet searches or various databases. 
  • Specific encouragement from trusted supervisors, advisors, faculty members for individual students has the biggest impact on applicants’ confidence to apply. 
  • But many compelling applicants do not have that social/academic capital, so broadcasting widely is essential to ensure access.  
  • UW’s communications team has collected helpful guides for Communicating with an Equity Lens

Opportunities for maximizing inclusivity in the review process

A review rubric helps reviewers align their comments and score to the selection criteria, maintain consistency throughout their reviews and reduced the temptation to bring in outside information.  If made public, review rubrics could be useful tools to improve transparency and change applicant pools, as more students understand what is expected and how their applications will be reviewed. 

Review Rubrics

  • What? An evaluation system matched to the selection criteria.
  • Why? Establish consistency across reviewers and reduce the temptation to bring outside information into the review process. 
  • How? Specifies and details strengths in an application, to measure the degree to which the selection criteria are met. Sometimes a numeric rating scale with room for comments but can also be just comments and notes. 
  • To be most useful and transparent, rubrics could be shared with applicants to help them understand the selection criteria and how their applications will be reviewed. Examples of programs that share selection criteria in different ways: Mary Gates Endowment for Students, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, Truman Scholarship.