Posted on September 25, 2021

How to Win Scholarships and Influence Donors

A preface: I wrote this post specifically about prestigious merit scholarships, rather than need-based scholarships and bursaries. While some of the same principles apply w.r.t. the investment-vs-reward perspective, the stakes are obviously much higher if you can’t afford to further your education without the financial award, and you should take the ‘relax, just be yourself’ advice with a heavy grain of salt.

It’s scholarship season. The time of year when high school students and undergraduates around the world go through a tortuous process of asking organizations with lots of money to please give them some so they can become more educated than they currently are. While the length and standards of the process may vary depending on how much cash is on the line, for bigger merit scholarships it goes something like this:

  1. Submit a transcript to show that you are good at school.

  2. Submit a list of things you do outside of school to show you’re an Interesting Human Being.

  3. Write an essay to show that you are a Deep Thinker who Genuinely Cares About The World.

  4. \(\texttt{if (performance in 1-3 is satisfactory):}\) Go through interviews with adults to convince them of the above in person.

All in all, it probably takes 10-20 hours (or possibly longer if you have to travel for interviews) to go through this process. The Loran process was longer because interviews take up 3 working days (so 24 hours just for interviews) and involve flying to another province, whereas Rhodes interviews were down the street from my apartment and I only had to show up for an hour for my interview.

Note that while I think these processes are fairly long and convoluted, there’s a big difference between tortuous and torturous. With the right attitude, the process can actually be incredibly useful and even enjoyable. It’s a great chance to reflect on your academic career so far, and to spend time thinking about what you want to do in the next stage of your life. This is something you should be doing towards the end of your degree anyway, so most of the essay-writing component of a scholarship application can be thought of as an extra incentive to get you to reflect on things you should already be thinking deeply about. The interview part of the process usually gives you a chance to meet other students who have also been deemed to be Deep Thinkers who Genuinely Care About The World, and this can also be a really valuable and enjoyable experience. In Loran interviews, you spend a day or a weekend hanging out with the other finalists so if you like meeting engaged young people the interviews might be worthwhile just for networking, independent of the potential monetary value of the award you’re interviewing for.

In short, I’m very pro-applying-for-scholarships.

I sometimes get asked for advice on how to approach scholarship applications. I think the answer people are looking for is usually things to write or say that increase their odds of being an X Scholar. To honestly answer this question, I think it’s important to clear up a source of confusion in a lot of students about the difference between rewards and investments.

Rewards vs Investments

There’s a big misconception out there that scholarships are rewards for good performance in high school or uni. There are definitely some scholarships that function as rewards, but a lot of the big and prestigious ones function more like an investment. In theory, the purpose of an investment-scholarship is to enable the student to excel in their chosen field and/or save the world by reducing the financial strain associated with further education (in some cases, the scholarship organization will also offer additional non-monetary perks like mentorship, a community of like-minded individuals, and networking events). If all students are intrinsically motivated, then reward and investment scholarships should be able to use the same criteria and selection processes. However, in practice, it might be the case that a student only cares about getting prestigious scholarships at the end of their current degree, and so will not use the money from the scholarship to do well in their next course of study or to maximize their long-term positive impact on the world. If you’re starting a scholarship and you have a reward-mentality, then you’re encouraging academic excellence in the degree people pursue when they apply for the scholarship so you don’t mind this outcome. An investment-focused scholarship aims to promote excellence in the ensuing degree, or even further down the line, and so is trying to avoid giving scarce resources to people who won’t use them effectively.

If you’re applying for a reward-scholarship, then it’s easy to optimize your chances of success by maximizing the relevant criteria, which are usually stated clearly in advance, before you apply. If you’re applying for an investment-scholarship, you need to show that you’re a Good Investment. Good Investments meet two criteria: they’re morally aligned with the goals of the scholarship, and they’re extraordinarily capable of getting things done. Because the people giving out the scholarship obviously can’t look into your brain and figure out how much character and grit you have, they have to use proxy measures like what you’ve done so far and how you answer interview questions. As a result, the ideal recipients of an investment-scholarships will typically have similar profiles to ideal recipients of reward-scholarships, with the main difference being in how they answer questions about why they did the things they did on their CV.

How to get a scholarship

This is a very nice framework, but what does it say I should do if I’m trying to fund my next degree? My answer to this is simple: become a Good Investment, and then make sure you’re effective enough at communicating to be able to convey this.

The reason I recommend becoming a Good Investment is because being someone who cares about making the world a better place and is capable of making things happen is in my opinion a generically good thing. I think the world needs more people with vision, character, grit, and ability. Being able to communicate effectively is also a generically super important skill in life. Even if you don’t end up getting any money, if you make the effort to cultivate the qualities in yourself that would make you a good investment, you’re going to be better set for life anyway.

I have a second reason for suggesting to focus on doing things that are generically useful, which is that I suspect that most scholarship selection processes are super noisy and so time spent maximizing your application has diminishing returns. There are a lot of subjective judgements that go into selecting people out of a pool of equally-qualified applicants, and there are fewer scholarships given out than there are people who could offer a good return-on-investment to them, so even if you tailor your entire academic career towards being the optimal fit for a scholarship, there’s no guarantee you’ll get it. It makes a lot more sense to focus on qualities that improve your odds of getting a scholarship but also improve your ability to achieve your goals later in life as well.

I’ve added a few bullet points below to give you a jumping off point, but there are loads of ways to become the type of person who wins scholarships that will also set you up well for life after graduation.

  1. Become a good writer: you don’t need to write the next Great American Novel, but being able to communicate your ideas effectively via text is a super important skill for the modern age and will come in handy in college and careers later.

  2. Think deeply about what’s important to you: exactly what is important to you will and should change over time, but getting into the habit of every once in a while checking in with yourself on what you value and how the things you’re doing align with that is a good way of keeping yourself honest. In the long run, it might prevent a quarter-life crisis of asking yourself why you’re working as an investment banker when what you really care about is saving the Amazon rainforest.

  3. Get really really good at something you enjoy: the exact area doesn’t really matter, but becoming good at things is in itself something of a skill — and a very useful one at that. Things like mental discipline, problem-solving, and breaking down a complicated goal into achievable sub-components are things that will help you later in life even if you never pick up a saxophone after your jazz band days again.

  4. Make sure you can work with people. You don’t have to be the super-popular class president, but most of the success of the human species can be attributed our ability to coordinate in groups. Whatever you want to do later in life, collaborating effectively with other humans will be massively useful. Scholarship selection committees know this and so they do try to check that you’re not a robot or a serial killer during your interviews.

While I don’t recommend spending an absurd amount of time optimizing your application, I do have two pieces of advice on how to make sure, assuming you’ve done steps 1-4, you are able to convey this to the people who are giving out money.

  1. Write your application essays yourself, but ask a friend who’s good at writing to read it over and say whether it sounds like you (and also check for typos). I know there are some services on the internet that offer to help you with your application essays, but as long as you have a half-decent command of the English language I think it’s better to try to keep your essays as close to your own voice as possible. The vibe I’ve gotten from people who do scholarship selections is that professionally-edited essays are often pretty easy to spot and/or make you sound generic.

  2. If you get invited to interviews, practice talking about the types of things you wrote in your essays with a friend or family member who you trust to be able to ask tough questions. It makes the interview less stressful if you feel like you could give a reasonably thoughtful answer to anything you might be asked, and being less stressed also means you typically give better answers.

In summary: many scholarships are investments, not rewards. There’s no way to guarantee you’ll get one of these scholarships because there’s a lot of randomness and subjectivity in the selection process. Instead of trying to tailor your academic career to what you think the scholarship selectors want, you should take the time to figure out what problems you care about and what skills you need to address them, then tailor your scholarship applications to those goals. Ultimately, if you’re the type of person these foundations claim they want to give scholarships to, it won’t matter (terribly much) in the long run whether or not you got the money.