choosing a college

"Judging Scholarships, Part I"

Article By: Laura DiFiore
Founder of FreSch!, a leading free scholarship search and information website
and respected scholarship expert and judge.

You fill out the application, mail it in, and it seems to disappear into never-never land, lost forever, never to be seen or heard from again. Why? Understanding the basic Judging Process may help improve your odds of winning.

All organizations that offer scholarships have their own way of judging the applications they receive. Please understand that this article is intended to be more of an "overview" based on a variety of judging committees rather than a description of how any one particular scholarship contest is judged.

1. "Weed out the Junk" stage.

Some organizations open up applications as soon as they are received. Others will simply let the applications pile up in a corner of the office, waiting until the deadline date.

Some organizations are very organized. They enter each application into a log book as it arrives, assign it a number, and keep track of it.

Others are not very organized - remember, many of these organizations are SEVERELY under-staffed, under-funded, and overworked. Some applications might, unfortunately, be lost, probably ending up in the same place that your socks go after they enter the dryer.

Either way, often the person opening the applications is a secretary, volunteer, or maybe even stay-at-home Dad watching the afternoon soap operas. Quite often, it is NOT a scholarship judge who actually opens the envelope to give your application the "first look."

As each application is opened, a "quick check" is made of the application.
  • Is the application neat?
  • Are all required documents included? References, transcripts, photo, etc.?
  • Are all questions answered?

This "quick check" is exactly that: QUICK. If your application has been looked at for 30 seconds at this point, you are lucky.

Important: This stage is also where MOST applications end up in that big "NO" pile, never to be seen again. In many cases, up to 90% of applications are "killed" right here - after 10-30 seconds of consideration.

Seriously. Up to 90% of applicants are removed from the running after 30 seconds of consideration. For the percentage impaired, if the organization received 1,000 applications, up to 900 of the applications received lost the game right here.

When determining the acceptability of each application, many organizations use a "checklist" or "point system" - often both. Here's an example of a checklist used by a scholarship committee that I sat on last summer. First, the administrative assistant looked at each application. If the answer was "yes" for each question, she sent the application to Tom Atkins, who was the head of the Judging Committee. If there was a single "no" - she threw the application out. Yes, into the garbage. She didn't "judge" the STUDENTS - she "judged" the quality of the APPLICATIONS and decided which applications the judges would actually judge.

She rated each application with "yes" or "no" for the following:
  • Spelling
  • Neatness
  • Photo
  • Two reference letters
  • Transcript
  • Personal statement
  • Studying engineering or computers?
  • Volunteer work?
  • Active in school?
  • From Colorado?

Think it's not fair that your application "lost" after just 30 seconds because of a single typo or a small wrinkle? Wrong. It's totally fair. It's unfair of you to not take the time to make your application neat, clean, and simply perfect. Remember, lots of students do take the time to make their applications neat and clean. It is unfair to those students to spend a single minute on the students who do not take the time.

Your application will be considered against the scholarship's primary requirements. For example, if the scholarship considers academic achievement, the committee may quickly check your GPA at this point.

And if your GPA is in the 2.0 range, it's probably dead.
If it's in the low 3.0 range, there is still some hope.
If it's in the upper 3.0 range, it's definitely alive!

Be aware that just because you do not have a terrific GPA does not mean that you have no hope for scholarships that are primarily based on academic achievement. The trick is to improve your odds of winning by applying for smaller scholarships and local scholarships, ones that do not receive a lot of applications. With a low (2.0 range) to a good (lower to middle 3.0 range) GPA, you have almost no hope of winning a big national scholarship based on academic achievement that receives 20,000 applications. But if you apply to a local, smaller scholarship that receives 10 or 100 applications, you have much better chances of winning, especially if your GPA is in the 3.0 range.

Cere in Tacoma, Washington shares her experience:

"One thing I am concerned with is that some students might get the message that if you don't have a really high grade point average, don't bother. I am a single parent going to school full time and can only manage to hold a 3.45 GPA. I have been lucky so far though and have received $3,500 in scholarships, so I know that not having a perfect grade point won't hold you back from winning all the time."

Whatever the main considerations are for the particular scholarship - be it grades, financial need, major, religion, hobbies, professional associations, or whatever - if your application doesn't match up to ALL of the basic requirements of the scholarship, it's history at this point.

"Hmmm... hey, this application seems good, Jason, 4.2 GPA, very nice! Lots of volunteer work, helps his mother at her catering business, very nice... oh... he's studying Ghost Chasing, we're looking for Basket Weaving majors, oh well, too bad..."

If you don't pay attention to the requirements, the judges are not going to pay attention to your application.

How to "beat" Stage One:
  • Be neat! No coffee stains. Type your applications - avoid handwriting. No spelling errors. None!
  • Be complete! Include all required supporting documentation, references, etc.
  • Be accurate! Make sure you match all the requirements. If the scholarship is for English majors and you are studying Computer science, don't apply!
  • Think about how to make your application stand out. Consider putting it into a plastic folder. If not forbidden, include school newspaper clippings about you, additional recommendation letters, or other things that help you shine.
  • Remember that appearances count. People say that this is common sense and everyone knows that appearances matter. My response: If everyone knew that they needed to be neat on their applications, then why do so many applications look like they were written in a fast-food kitchen?

Continued in "Judging Scholarships, Part II"

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