Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships & Awards

Common Biases in Scholarship Selection Processes 

We all have biases that show up in all areas of our lives and for variety of reasons. These are but a few examples of biases that frequently appear in scholarship selection processes. Being aware of how, when, where and why these show up for each of us as reviewers, we can individually take steps to mitigate their impact on our reviews, and committees can reduce their impact on scholarship award decisions. 

Types of Biases & Mitigation Strategies


English is not the first language for many scholarship applicants. Nor are most scholarships intended to operate as essay contests (though some explicitly are). An essay-based application ultimately puts English language learners at a disadvantage.

Mitigation strategies: Focus on content and information provided and how that fits with the selection criteria. Ignore spelling, grammar and other mechanics unless specifically included in selection criteria.

If writing skill is considered a demonstration of academic merit or otherwise important, make that transparent for applicants and reviewers.

Halo Effect or Harshness/Horn Effect

Occurs when reviewers evaluate an applicant positively (halo) or negatively (horn) based on a single characteristic. For example, biases for or against certain programs, schools, mentors, etc. can influence scores.

Mitigation strategies: Rely on the review rubric and weighting provided. Check that you are applying the appropriate weight to each selection criterion. 


Certain activities are impressive. We may have previous experience and/or a preconceived opinion on the activities presented that may influence our review of the application. Are the extracurricular activities relevant to the selection criteria for the scholarship?

Mitigation strategies: Identify the evidence provided in the application materials. What has the applicant actually shared about it vs. your own knowledge/feelings about it. 

Average/Central Tendency

Most of us tend to end up with a big group of applications that land in the middle of the pack of our reviews, making final decisions extremely difficult. 

Mitigation strategies: Use the full range of scoring and take careful notes to help clarify and confirm that the hairs you are splitting stay aligned with the selection criteria. 


Occurs when reviewers compare applicants to each other or compare all applicants to a single applicant. For example, if one applicant is particularly weak, others may appear to be more qualified than they really are. 

Mitigation strategies: Although comparison is a natural instinct, and sometimes final decisions do come down to direct comparisons, during individual reviews, it is important to try to evaluate each applicant on the content and quality of their individual application. 


Occurs when applicants answer questions based on information they think will result in them getting a scholarship – what they think the reviewer wants to hear. A particularly tough example of this is the application that shares highly personal traumatic details that can be very compelling but may not be well-connected to the selection criteria at first glance. 

Mitigation strategies: Cut through that noise by focusing on what evidence you can discern that connects to the selection criteria. 

First Impression

Happens regularly when we are short on time and reviewing quickly. 

Mitigation strategies: Consider the entirely of materials presented by the applicant. Consider revisiting applications more than once. 

Gut Feeling

Reliance on an intuitive feeling that the applicant is worthy (or not) of receiving a scholarship without connecting evidence of the individual’s qualifications to the selection criteria.

Mitigation strategies: Use the review rubric. Identify the evidence provided in the application materials. Take specific notes about where you are seeing that evidence. If your gut feeling was actually not justified, rescore based on those careful notes. 


Occurs when reviewers tend to go easy on an applicant and give a higher rating than warranted, justifying it with a rationalization. It is very common for reviewers to start out more lenient and get stricter (or vice versa) when working their way through a large group of applications.

Mitigation strategies: Pay attention to how your approach to applications and scoring might be changing over the duration of your reviews, as a result of stress, interruptions, fatigue, etc. Take breaks! Take time to re-review those applications you read early on or at the end. Take time to re-review applications you’ve scored similarly (e.g. every application with a score of 2) to see if they seem consistent. Rescore if needed. Check that your notes connect to evidence provided in the application materials.

Negative Emphasis

Occurs when the reviewer allows a small amount of negative information to outweigh positive information. This can particularly show up when reviewing recommendation letters.

Mitigation strategies: Consider again the selection criteria and the weighting provided in the review rubric. Diligently note positive connections along with the negative information.


Occurs when reviewers recall the most recently reviewed applicants more clearly than earlier applicants and their evaluation is skewed as a result. Particularly common when reading many applications over a long period. 

Mitigation strategies: Consider revisiting applications in small batches and taking thorough, consistent notes. 


Occurs when reviewers share interests, experiences or other characteristics with those expressed by an applicant, causing reviewers to bring in their own knowledge/assumptions, to score them more favorably, or to overlook other elements that don’t align with the criteria. For example, a reviewer with an interest in music might rate an applicant who shares that interest more positively – even if an interest in music is not one of the scholarship criteria.

Mitigation strategies: Identify the evidence provided in the application materials. What has the applicant actually shared about it vs. my own knowledge/feelings about it? How does that connect with the selection criteria?


Occurs when reviewers assume an applicant has specific traits because they are a member of a group. Membership in many types of groups – cultural, racial, economic, political, academic, religious, and more – may be disclosed in the student’s application. 

Mitigation strategies: Identify the evidence provided in the application materials. What has the applicant actually shared vs. assumptions I am making?

UW selection committees should give no consideration to an applicant’s race, color, creed, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, pregnancy, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, disability, or veteran status.