(Undergraduate) Scholarships: Applications and Interviews

Everyone hopes to go to college for free or close to free. Scholarships are the answer! But how do I go about dealing with the nuances of scholarships?

Here, I try to help by sharing what allowed me (and both of my siblings!) to go to college on a full-ride, with additional scholarships that paid for books, travel, etc.

What to apply for?

Local Scholarships

Does your high school or town offer local scholarships? Apply to every single one you are eligible for. You will have the best chance here because the applicant pool is the smallest, and because you know your competition. When I was in high school, there were about 30-40 scholarships sponsored by local organizations. The amounts varied between $100 and $1000. I applied to two, and received both, which funded my college laptop and my first semester of textbooks. However, a classmate of mine received 7 or 8 scholarships, because she had put in the little extra effort necessary to apply to all the ones she was eligible for, and she walked away a few grand richer than the rest of us, who sat there dumb-founded. Don't make my mistake!

Scholarships at your University

If you apply early, you will be considered for automatic scholarships (that will make tuition less expensive and are usually proportional to the overall tuition i.e, you might receive $20000 for applying early and having a good ACT score, but overall tuition might be $50000), and scholarships that will require additional competition and materials, like an essay or interview. These latter scholarships are where you will get your full- or almost full-rides, so make sure you apply early! Once you've done this, get started prepping for the essay(s) and/or interview(s). See sections below!

Your university might also have a general scholarship application, which considers you for multiple smaller scholarships or only requires a few additional materials for each scholarship. Here, also try applying to all those you are eligible for although the applicant pool will be larger. Get started early in case you need a letter of recommendation! FYI: Once you go to college, make sure you reapply for scholarships in this manner each year. You'll have a better chance with each passing year that you build up your resume and skills.

National Scholarships

To be completely honest, I did not end up applying to any of these, so I am probably not the best person to give advice here. My impression is that they are extremely competitive, but that you can often catch a break if you apply to scholarships where a connection or local chapter might give you an advantage, or where you know someone involved that will write a great letter of recommendation (think Boy Scouts, Daughters of the American Revolution, etc.).


Nowadays, you are often able to submit a college application essay-less, letting your transcript and standardized test scores, as well as your list of extracurricular activities, speak for you. While you might get away with this for the simple application, you'll need an essay for pretty much any (at least slightly significant) scholarship, unless you're applying to some weird scholarship that is based solely on a particular on-paper trait or that works like a lottery.

As always, start early!

A scholarship (or just general college essay) should go through multiple drafts - at least three. While your skills as a writer might be better or worse than average, this should not make that much of a difference since you can use as much time as possible to prepare an essay (unlike the ones you might write for the AP Lang or Lit exams).

Enlist help!

Use your parents, siblings, counselors, mentors, and teachers to act as proof-readers that can give constructive criticism. Although your ego might get bruised, I also suggest going to the people that are the hardest on you. Regardless of how hard I've worked, I know that my dad will hold me to the absolute highest standards, even if that means doing a complete re-write, so he is one of the people I always ask to read my essays.

Organize your thoughts in advance!

This is the hardest for me because I love to just go ahead and start writing. I like writing as I talk, which is what I am doing now, but in a scholarship essay, you can't afford to waste the space given to you and you can't count on the essay readers to read your essay extremely carefully so as to catch that tiny little detail you mentioned in paragraph 5, sentence 4.

First, determine the page or word limit for the essay. Then estimate how many paragraphs you will write - single-spaced, I can fit between 3-5 paragraphs on a page. For each paragraph you plan on writing, write one super strong sentence that contains an allusion to one of your large accomplishments and key points you would like to make. What do you want to say about yourself? What have you done to prove that statement? (Example: "My research as a high school student as part of a national laboratory outreach program has prepared me for the rigors of college research. In 20XX, I applied to and was selected for...".)

Be positive

This is another tough one for me: every sentence in your statement should present yourself in a positive light, or at the very least, with the positive part first. What sounds better: "I did not participate in my high school's summer research program, to which I was accepted, because I had the opportunity to take part in a student exchange that year" or "The summer after my sophomore year, I had the chance to participate in a student exchange, and was accepted to XXXX research program. I chose to do the exchange, gaining a valuable experience that inspired me to....."?

Don't let the small things trip you up

Proofread, don't (or do not) use contractions, don't end on a preposition, make sure all your tenses agree, and double- and triple-check for any format requirements the scholarship might have. Also make sure you know how to submit your application (did you check the time zone, time, and date?).


Some scholarships, require not only an essay submission but also an interview. This interview might be virtual (in which case the only extra consideration would be to make sure you choose a quiet environment with a good internet connection) or in-person. In case of the latter, you might have to travel to a different place, so ask about scholarships or funds to pay for gas, hotel, etc. and think of taking someone with you, like a parent.

While I was applying to colleges, some of the more prestigious merit scholarships required interviews. My dad helped me prepare, and my mom was with me during the actual day/weekend, helping me by acting as my chauffeur and butler. The role of such support structures cannot be understated - I consider myself extremely lucky and encourage you to seek out people that can help you in similar ways!

Below I have compiled the most helpful advice I can give regarding interviews.

Find someone to practice with

This is one of the best ways to prepare for an interview. Have someone you trust and that knows you well practice interviewing you for the intended length of the interview (15, 20, 30 minutes). Have them play different characters i.e. apathetic interviewer, super excited interviewer, an interviewer in a bad mood, bored interviewer, etc. Bonus points if you record yourself doing this - only by recording myself did I notice how often I used filler words, had bad posture, and stared off to the right corner, looked disinterested, etc.

Decide what you want to convey

Of course, an interview is supposed to convey to the interviewers who you are. And if you had a few hours, a whole day, or even the weekend, they might get an idea of who you are, but you will not have that much time. So what things (things = experiences, stories, items on your resume) best convey who you are? Every chance you get, gently steer the conversation, while always spinning things positively.

Attention! Please do not forget to be human - do not just recite facts, and if there just isn't a chance to tell that awesome story you hoped they would ask about, it wasn't mean to be. If you force conversation or just seem to be listing off what you think is great about you, you will come off as arrogant, conceited, and/or robotic.

If the interview is going well, and you feel that the interviewers like you, don't ruin it by abruptly changing topics, even if the topic is the largest qualification you might have. Whether or not you receive the scholarship, depends on what your interviewer(s) write(s) on their piece of paper, so if it seems like they like you, don't jeopardize that. Instead, keep an eye out to transition to your target topic while maintaining enthusiastic and engaged in the current subject matter.

Come with a question

This is an age-old piece of interview advice, but that doesn't mean it's bad. At the end, they will likely ask you if you have any questions, and so you better have an answer (or two). When you think of a question, don't ask something that could easily be answered with an internet search, i.e. "When was this university founded?". It will make you seem more unprepared and insincere than asking nothing at all. Instead, this is a great chance to tell your interviewer(s) something you didn't get the chance to earlier, so it can help if you did a little bit of homework i.e. "When I was researching my major, I reached out to professors, and was happy to receive a response from a few of them - would you say that this helpfulness reflects the dynamic of all the professors on campus?".

Keep your content straight and be informed

This means information about you and your interviewer, university, or program. When I was interviewing for the most prestigious scholarships at Illinois State University (ISU) and Southern Illinois University (SIU), I kept switching the names in my practice interviews. I'm glad I had this chance to realize that so that I could focus on getting it right in the interview.

Additionally, you should come to an interview prepared. It is likely you'll have already submitted an essay which helped get you to this point. You should know this essay inside and out as the interviewers will likely refer back to it. But if you are asked something that you already wrote about, do not be rude and tell them you already wrote about it - just give the same answer, phrased even better!

In the week before the interview, read about the school or program you are applying for to keep up with the state of affairs. For example, did the university recently hire a new chancellor? It will also show your commitment if you know the general history of where you are applying - you might not need it, but I still think you should know when the university was founded, what their mascot is, and a few things not relevant to your chosen path of studies. If needed these can be great talking points if conversation is stalling.

Don't give up or give in to frustration

Being interviewed is exhausting! You are maintaining a large amount of energy and enthusiasm, recalling a large amount of information, trying to steer a conversation, managing nerves - all for what feels like forever. So don't feel bad if it seems like everything is going wrong. This is why practicing can be so helpful, especially if your practice partner is not afraid to challenge you and push you to your breaking point.

Most interviewers at this level will be nice, and try to help you, but this is not a given. Always try to recover your train of thought, and never let your positive attitude slip.

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