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The Secret Sauce Behind Scholarship Selection (part 1 of 2)

The Secret Sauce Behind Scholarship Selection (part 1 of 2)

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us for the first in a 2-part series about scholarship selection. Chaffee has worked for prestigious merit scholarship programs at Duke University, NC State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome, Chaffee!

Imagine you are a child playing with a blocks and cutouts set. You have stars, triangles, squares, circles, and rectangles. Each block is made of pure gold. You place all of them until you get to the last set. In your hand is a gold star, but the remaining cutout is a square. So the game is over – you just can’t fit a star into a square.

This scenario is a good way to think about your chances of winning a major full-ride scholarship to a college or university. Even if you are made of pure gold, among the best students out there, it doesn’t change your shape. It doesn’t change who you are fundamentally. What can change, however, are your expectations for financing college education.

In my experience as a scholarship director, there are three issues affecting your chances of receiving a major (and sometimes even minor) scholarship: Fit, Numbers, and Composition.

Fit

I’ll start with the concept of Fit. Many students think if they aren’t selected for a scholarship it’s because they weren’t good enough—that something is wrong with them, or something is wrong with the selection process. Both of those scenarios are rarely the case when we are talk about truly competitive students (the gold stars). Instead, it is usually about a lack of fit.

For example: the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship at Georgia Tech is the Stamps President’s Scholarship. Our program focuses on four pillars: scholarship, leadership, progress and service. Let’s say we see a student who is solid gold in all their pursuits, but they’ve spent only a little time in service. While the student’s overall quality is high, their fit for our program is not, as service is a fundamental trait we value. On the other hand, that same student might be an amazing leader with a very strong background in athletics. Another well-known, prestigious scholarship program at another school may focus on physical vigor among other qualities. So the same student who may not fit in our program very well may fit into another.  When quality is high and fit is high, the chances of receiving that scholarship increase. (For the record, we do have athletes in our program. Other scholarship programs that do not focus on service still have students with great records of helping others. These are just general examples being used to illustrate a point.)

Now, notice I used the word chances. It’s a chance because fit isn’t a check box—there’s more than one aspect of quality being sought in the same student, not just service, or just physical vigor. It’s more than a yes or no. Many different aspects of a student and their background are held up against the desired characteristics of any particular scholarship program. Students are complex and so are scholarship programs.

My Advice:  when it comes to fit, be sure to apply for scholarships that fit you and your accomplishments, rather than chasing awards a well-meaning parent, alum, or counselor told you would look good on your resume.

Numbers

What do I mean by numbers? On one level, it’s about the quantity of scholarships, and on another, it’s about statistics. We’ll start with quantity of scholarships. If a student is admitted at Tech in early action, that student is in the running for one of our 40 Stamps President’s Scholarships. That’s right –not 1,000, not 100. Only 40. The numbers are similar at many other schools with prestigious, merit-based, full ride scholarship programs-. At Tech, this translates to a less than 1% chance of receiving the scholarship because we admit only about 4,500 students in the early action round.

Why are the numbers so low? The reality is every full ride scholarship a university offers to undergraduates is usually thanks to generous private donors who wish to help fund the education and professional development of a single scholar. Many, if not most, scholars must be funded from the income generated by permanent endowments, especially at public universities. Multiply that by dozens of scholars per year, then by four years’ worth of scholar cohorts. You quickly get a very large amount of money each school must raise from private donors.

The bottom line? There are many more gold star students than there are funds for a prestigious full ride merit scholarships.

What about statistics? Some schools have SAT/ACT minimums or GPAs that must be met, while others do not (for the record, Tech does not have a minimum threshold for our program). Chances for scholarships can, and do, depend on which school and scholarship program you’re targeting. Sometimes scholarship programs make such eligibility factors public, but not always. Even if there are no minimums, the truth is that for students seeking academic scholarships, GPAs, course selection, and test scores still factor into the equation. And even if a program doesn’t have a minimum requirement for academic scholarships, your GPA, course selection, and test scores will still factor into the equation—how can they not? The good news is several scholarship programs use a holistic review just like many admissions offices. Regardless, unless a student with lower academic performance has incredible leadership or extracurricular activities, it is hard to ignore the intellectual superstars in favor of better-than-average students.

One other thought:  To be a valedictorian or in the top 5-10% at your high school is an incredible accomplishment. But when all the top students at high schools across the nation start competing for colleges, only a portion become the top 5-10% of all applicants. It’s mathematically impossible for all of them remain in the top 5-10% at the college level. Yet that is often the mentality of a valedictorian or salutatorian – being the big fish in a small pond in high school often ends with being among the average when it comes to selection for major scholarships. I can’t tell you how many parents have called me over the years to say “but my child was valedictorian, so that means a scholarship.” Sadly, the numbers don’t make that a possibility. Besides, valedictorian is only one measure of strength.

My advice: apply for scholarships and always hope for the best, but get comfortable with the idea that you will pay for college with student loans, work-study, and other sources, even if you are a solid gold performer. Most students going to college have to pay, and they do so knowing they’re investing in themselves and their future salary will pay off those loans. If you’re still concerned about cost, take a look at the schools ranked high for best value, as these are also excellent choices.

Next week we’ll talk about the final piece of the puzzle: composition.

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