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

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

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, is back for the second 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 back, Chaffee!

As I mentioned last week, 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.

This week we’ll talk about the third issue on the list that affects your chances of receiving scholarships: Composition.

Two Types of Major Scholarships

Before we get into composition, let me define what I mean by a “major” scholarship. There are two key types I am focusing on. The first is the kind that offers more than just money. These scholarships also include personalized mentoring, enrichment experiences, leadership development, research opportunities, shared experiences with a cohort of fellow scholars, and/or admission to an honors program. All or some of these experiences might be offered in addition to a full (or near full) ride to college. There might be anywhere from 5 to 50 scholarships to go around for each incoming class at various schools in the United States (the Stamps President’s Scholarship at Georgia Tech falls into this category).

The second kind of scholarship is the most expensive or most prestigious scholarship at a particular school. It’s not unusual to find 5 or 10 of these scholarships sitting there for the students deemed “the best of the best” in the incoming class. Criteria for selection is often very academically focused, but not exclusively. Incentives beyond funding for the cost of attendance are hit or miss, usually miss (though sometimes they come with admission to an honors program). Regardless, there are probably still anywhere from a handful up to 25 or more per incoming class.

Back to Composition…

Now, what do I mean by composition? I’m talking about what type of backgrounds will be sought in a full cohort of incoming scholars. What will they look like with regards to gender, geography, ethnicity, major, and so on? It might have to do with secondary factors like organizations they represent. Each school and scholarship program will have a desired composition or enrollment priority.

This is usually where someone gets worried that their demographics will work against them.

For example, a few years ago in a public forum someone asked me whether or not we reserved a certain number of spots for students of color in our scholarship program. I asked him if he meant qualified or unqualified students of color. He indicated qualified students. I replied, “If they’re qualified, why would I have to reserve any spots? Did you actually mean unqualified students of color? Because we don’t reserve any spots for unqualified students of any type.”

Judging from my conversations with families in the past, some people seem to fear that our aim to build a diverse cohort means we are selecting unqualified students over qualified students in the name of diversity. While I have no doubt such a thing has happened somewhere at some point in time, I have not encountered that situation in my career anywhere I have worked (or seen it happen among my colleagues at other scholarship programs at other schools).

Each scholarship program you might be considering will want to build a full cohort representing our society, not just one or two predominant segments of it. They will aim to pick scholars from various walks of life. The overall composition of the group of incoming scholars is important because in the programs that offer more than money, they usually want the scholars to work together on various projects, where success is enhanced by having a multitude of different perspectives and backgrounds involved.

It’s about the numbers.

It’s about the fit.

It’s about the composition.

Fake News (or something like it)

Hollywood, the media, and broader American culture often provide a distorted picture of the availability of scholarships and what it takes to get them. Popular myths, including having straight A’s, being involved in 10 different clubs, or having relatively good grades and being a great athlete and student body president, send the message that a scholarship is an easy thing to come by. These are all generally fiction. Not exactly what would qualify as fake news, but it’s pretty darn close. So are alarmist stories of how certain students can’t win scholarships based on their demographics.

Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t win a scholarship (or the particular scholarship that you wanted) that is normal, even for gold stars. Don’t take it personally, don’t believe you have been rejected (an awful word in my experience), and don’t be resentful. Above all, don’t let not receiving a scholarship keep you from attending a college if it’s the right fit for you. Attend the  best college for you and pursue a career and life full of meaning … even if it didn’t come for free. The best things in life, despite the old adage, are not necessarily free.

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