Frequently Asked Questions
This is most direct advice I can offer, followed by the reasoning; I think it’s important you know why I’m advising you the way I am. My answers are lengthy because award application issues aren’t cut and dried; there’s a world of nuance here that one can learn to grudgingly deal with, even enjoy. I don’t think these FAQs should be read in one go. I intend it as a document you return to when and if you need it. You’re welcome to email me with questions, but please first make sure your question isn’t a close version of one listed here.
I'm interested in applying for an award, but I don't know which one. What do I do?
- Sign up for the global award list-serv on our homepage. I’ll send you details of new awards and recognized ones, upcoming deadlines, events and workshops throughout the year. This is the best way to stay connected to our office.
- Try clicking each award and reading through the brief description there. One some, there are links to “expression of interest” forms, as well as further clarifying details.
Clicking through the list of awards on the right seems like a very inefficient way to search. Shouldn't there be some kind of database where I can just plug in my major, year of study, etc?
These scholarships are more complicated than just the issue of eligibility, subject topic etc. See my notes on the culture of scholarship here. Like your choice of college, they require time and research. If you don’t already have a specific award in mind, then I’m afraid there’s some legwork involved.
The award I'm applying for has an expression of interest deadline and/or campus deadline(s) and a final deadline. What does that mean?
Some of these awards require a letter of nomination or endorsement from NYU. Others require that we vet your application first, either interviewing you in person or reviewing your materials. It takes time to do this work.
How hard and fast are these internal deadlines?
It depends on the award. Generally speaking, it is cutting it very fine to begin an application process six weeks or less before the final deadline. (You have to give recommenders time to write their letters, etc.) If we’re writing a letter of endorsement, we need time to look over your materials as well. That said, if you have a compelling reason as to why you should apply at the last minute, you should email the scholarship office explaining your case.
Can I apply for more than one kind of award in a year or over my degree?
Yes. Applying for these awards is like exercising a muscle; the more you do it, the stronger you will become. And some of these awards are naturally contiguous. For instance, the Boren and Critical Language Scholarships both offer intensive study-abroad language programs over the summer break to students early on their undergraduate degree. Applying for these is a way to think about applying for a Fulbright as a senior. If you’re in the sciences, applying for a Goldwater Scholarship is seen by many as a natural stepping-stone to an NSF grant.
I'm a freshman. Do I need to think about any of this?
Yes, but you don’t have to go crazy and create a four-year game plan. For now, just keep the following in mind: most scholarships and fellowships generally award independent thinkers, those willing to take risks, to be adventurous, and who are interested in public service, in making a difference. Simply turning up to class is not necessarily going to show this. Yes, academics are extremely important. But you should also enjoy imagining what else you’re going to do while you’re at NYU. This does not mean stocking your CV with student groups. Instead, I’d keep an eye out for people who you find remarkable. Actively and consciously identify role models, not as students, but as human beings. Ask yourself what kind of experiences you need to have in order to be able to do the work they’re doing. Don’t think of extracurriculars as a matter of participation so much as chances to have great experiences.
I'm a sophomore. Do I need to think about any of this?
Yes. If you haven’t already done so, read my advice to freshman…and now add this.
You’ve been at NYU for a year now and you have some sense of the classes you liked. Regardless of whether you have a declared major, you can still build on the experiences you’re having. Let’s say you really liked Physics and French. Well, what do the two have in common? How about Cern? What kind of scholarships or internships could you apply for that might allow you to travel to Switzerland? If you’re at all interested in a research career in science, you should investigate how you could work on research projects as soon as possible. Search out faculty members who are working in the areas that fascinate you, and ask them if they know of any interesting projects. What do you sense could be a transformational experience for you? Allow yourself to pick up new passions; be responsive to events you wander into. And look for gaps on campus too, areas where you perceive a need in the student body that isn’t yet being met. What group might you form to address that need? Keep an eye out for our announcements about social change workshops for those interested in student activism. And read the Statement of Purpose for the Scholarships Office. Think about that word “risk.” Know that any selection committee knows that you’re going to change your mind about what you’re going to do, and that these shifts, when accompanied by self-reflection and a clear sense of insight, are also signs of growth.
I'm a junior. I probably need to think about global awards, right?
Yes. Promise yourself that you’re going to have one amazing experience this year that you never thought you’d do—plan it, then do it. You should be accumulating stories you love to tell. You should also be keeping a closer eye on specific events that the Office of Global Awards organizes. You’re welcome to attend informational sessions about specific scholarships, even if you’re not going to apply for another year. If you’re interested in a particular scholarship, start researching the biographies of students who’ve received a global award. Also look out for an announcement about the Scholarship’s Office November workshop about degree development, in which you will start to think about what your degree and experience at NYU is starting to add up to, what thematic thru-lines we can discern and broader patterns of inquiry. You should also be thinking about recommenders. The strongest recommendations come from faculty who’ve had extensive involvement with the student, who can comment on that student’s progress over time. These points of contact are genuine; act accordingly. Keep in touch with the faculty you honestly enjoyed working with.
I'm a senior. Have I left this way too late?
No. The amazing thing is that each student is different. Some need months, years, to prepare themselves. Others pull it together in a few weeks. It’s amazing what we can do when we actually need to do it. But you need to get started! Some deadlines may have passed, but others are still coming up. Start researching!
I'm totally intimidated by the biographies of past winners on their websites. I know I need to read them because they indicate what kind of candidate a foundation is looking for, but it just shuts me down to see how amazing these people are.
This is a good moment to put the scholarship application to one side, and write your own aspirational bio. Give yourself two more hypothetical years. Imagine what you could do in those years that would allow you the breadth and depth of the people you’re reading about. Doing this often helps us realize that, caught up in questions of long-term strategy, we’re really overlooking the necessity of short-term steps, which are often quite achievable. It can be humbling to realize that you’re not where you want to be, but this exercise also helps you see what you can do about it.
Alternately, ask a friend to read some of the scholarship biographies you really like, and tell you what your own might sound like. Sometimes, we don’t see what’s special about what we do, and it takes an external voice to show us, for instance, how our work in a local senator’s office two summers ago is connected to a job as a short-fry cook, as well as one a research project in cell-biology. Our ability to connect disparate experiences like these is crucial to understanding the why and wherefores of our lives—how they turn out the way they do.
I'm a graduate student. How do I find out what opportunities there are for me?
Graduate students across the University are encouraged to visit the Graduate Student Fellowships webpage on the GSAS website.
I've graduated, I'm alumni, and I may not even be living in New York. I've heard that I can still apply for scholarships and that this office will help me. Is this true?
Yes. There are certain scholarships that allow alumni to apply, though there is almost always an age restriction. The scholarships you should look at in particular are the Fulbright and Luce. Some of these require careful reading; for instance, for the Fulbright, you can apply “at large,” i.e. not attached to NYU, or under NYU. You’ll need to read up carefully on their website in order to decide which option you want to take.
Regardless of where I am in my degree, now that I've found your FAQs, what should I be doing that I'm probably not doing?
- Keep a copy of all your final papers / research findings / presentations that that you’re proud of, along with the ones that received a good grade.
- Keep a copy of other kinds of achievements: business plans, charters of principles for groups you were involved in (even if they were short-lived), writing submissions (even if they weren’t accepted), New Years Resolutions…you’ll be surprised, later on, how they might connect with each other.
The broader principle behind request 1 & 2 is the observation that quite often, we forget the small details that will really bring an application alive. It helps to be able to quote, very specifically, what you did in a class or project. Furthermore, if you ask a professor to write a statement and they haven’t taught you for a while but have very fond memories of you, sending them your final paper, along with your own memories of the class will help jog their memory too. They’re under no obligation to read any of it, but sometimes they’re grateful for the information. See my further comments on letters of recommendation.
I've read the scholarship website, but I still have questions that they haven't answered. Should I contact them directly or should I ask you?
Great question. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We might know the answer. If not, we can either ask for you, or direct you to the most appropriate contact.
They don't specify a GPA. What does this mean?
A complicated question to answer. It could mean that they don’t believe GPA should be a determining factor, that you are more than the average of your grades, or they’re looking to measure you in other ways. It could also mean there is an unofficial GPA cut-off, which for various reasons, they don’t believe in articulating. This might feel unfair, but in general, most scholarship foundations are interested in transparency. If they’re not clear, it’s not because they want to trip you up, but because they see a need for circumspection. These matters are nuanced. Be generous in your interpretation. If you’d like direct guidance about a specific scholarship, email us quoting the scholarship’s official recommendation and we’ll give you our advice.
I've heard that a scholarship foundation says they will consider a GPA of 3.6 or above, but they'll really only accept those above 3.9. Is that true?
It’s hard to tell. It’s quite possible. One thing that students underestimate is that these processes are mutable things. What is acceptable one year might shift the next. Scholarship foundations are also on the look out for extraordinary students who have a lower G.P.A because of events beyond their control in one semester etc. The GPA is sometimes set at a lower minimum in order to capture those students’ applications. If you’d like direct guidance about a specific scholarship, email us quoting the scholarship’s official recommendation and we’ll give you our advice.
What order should I complete the application in? Should I write the personal essay before doing anything else?
This is a great question. Thinking carefully about this can be very beneficial. Here are some guiding principles:
- It often helps to draft your responses to short-answer questions before you write the personal essay. Short answer questions are very important. They allow the scholarship committee to see that you can be concise, detailed, and direct. Students often underestimate the skills involved and what they show the reader.
- It often helps to write the first draft of your proposed program of study statement (if you need one) before your personal essay. Students often underestimate how specific they can be in their proposed program of study. Here are some questions that you should be able to answer. Try writing out the answers to these questions to generate notes for your first draft. The process of specifying these answers also can make you feel more positive, excited and motivated about your application in general. The necessity of what you’re doing becomes more apparent, which helps, in turn, you to develop a broader sense of how this opportunity connects to your past and to your imagined future.
- Applications vary widely in terms of how much weight is put on the personal essay. For the Rhodes, for instance, your proposed program of study is folded into your personal statement; you’re literally writing one document for your application. (Beautifully simple, but oh so intimidating.) For the Truman, they take you through an extensive set of questions, asking you to map out your career goals at various stages throughout your life. Short answer questions may well ask for details you’d initially think to put in your personal essay, and so it’s really important to acquaint yourself, at the outset, with the whole application and understand what kinds of opportunities you have to construct their understanding of you. I strongly recommend finding this out before you begin your personal essay.
- You will likely draft all of your texts multiple times, so this sense of order will feel more like the conducting of an orchestra; you’ll give your attention to one part, only to realize something about another, and then return to the first part with a renewed clarity of purpose.
- You don’t have to follow other people’s advice. In the end, the order you write this in is up to you. There is no golden rule; students have done it every way under the sun and been successful in their application.
How important is it that I really follow the specific wording of an essay prompt?
I have heard representatives from scholarship foundation express frustration that students don’t followed the prompt. So yes, you have to answer the question. However, students often overlook the fact that answering a prompt might well involve an act of redefinition of the key terms. For instance, they might want you to tell them what “diversity” means in the context of your own experience.This doesn’t mean frantically searching for evidence of a Wikipedia-esque sense of diversity in your past, but reflecting on your innate hybridity, whether it be intellectual, cultural, ethnic, sociological, geographical etc., to come to a complex and personally defined understanding of the term.
They're asking me if I have anything to add in the last question, or if "there's anything else they should know." What do I do? Can I leave this blank?
Successful candidates have, in the past, left this blank. I’d caution against doing this though. This question is often read as something supplementary, when it can actually add another dimension to your application. Some applicants write a story they haven’t explained elsewhere on the application, which offers more insight into what they want to do and/or why they want to do it.
I have terrible grammar. I know this, but I have no idea how to fix it? What do I do?
- First of all, print your essay out, and read it out loud. It’s amazing how the act of physically enunciating a text activates your instinctual sense of grammar. You’ll often sense when there’s a problem, even if you don’t know how to fix it. Circle those sentences.
- Find someone who you know has a better eye for grammar than you do. Show your marked up version to them. They might well be able to articulate the grammatical principle to you that you need to learn. Better still, they’ll be able to circle the mistakes you didn’t see. This is a very useful learning moment for you. I promise you that you’ll be able to spot grammatical mistakes so much more easily if you do this. It’s vital you learn your grammar rather than having it corrected without understanding the structural rule. You will not improve as quickly otherwise.
- NYU’s Writing Center offers on-on-one appointments where they can review grammatical rules with you. You can book a one-on-one appointment with a writing lecturer that lasts forty-five minutes. You can register online here. Make sure you bring two hard copies of your draft with the possible grammatical errors circled and identified. They are not there to copy-edit your essay for you, but to help improve your knowledge of English.
I'm worried that my essay sounds nothing like the personal essays I can dig up online. Should I be worried?
This is a hard question to answer definitively in the abstract. There’s a reason why I haven’t posted multiple examples of essays here; in general, I am suspicious of rubrics. It’s very easy to sound glib, vague and overly polished in these things, especially if you start to sense a formula in the samples you’ve read online and simply think that you need to enact the formula to be successful.
That said, you’re not reinventing the wheel here. There are some basic questions they need answered—where, what, how and why—and so there is some inevitability to the shape of these things. You don’t want your reader waiting until the second page to actually understand what it is you want to do. I’d recommend that, rather than thinking there is a personal essay “template” to master, consider the personal essay as a direct and engaging statement of purpose and identity. Overarching principles of good writing obtain here, rather than genre-specific ones. If you’ve read the other materials I’ve posted on the personal essay here and are unsure if you’re moving in the right direction with your draft, then this is a good occasion to make an appointment to see me.
Can I be funny?
Yes, but I would think carefully about it. If it’s one thing these awards have in common, it’s a belief in the benefits of idealistic thinking. Be aware that humor often sounds like cynicism to a person who’s not accustomed to the nuances of your voice, especially at the beginning of an essay. You don’t want to sound off-hand. Wry, yes. Witty, yes. But you don’t really know who who your reader is: what their day has been like, or what kind of humor they enjoy.
What if I've been through a traumatic experience that helps to explain my motivation for applying for the scholarship? Should I write about it?
This is a very common experience; we’ve suffered, and it’s given us a reason to fight for other victims of that same trauma. Some examples include eating disorders, violence, and mental illness. These personal narratives can be very powerful; they explain, very directly, why we feel the way we do. Even if they’re difficult to tell, we feel we cannot approach our motivation in any other way, particularly because these experiences often have the natural shape of a story. It’s your call. However, before you do so, consider the following:
- Many prestigious scholarships involve studying abroad. A selection committee is bound to consider what impact this naturally stressful situation will have on the student. They will wonder if stress is a trigger. You need to be clear, in your own mind, as well as indicating it in your statement, that it will be not.
- The personal essay should be intimate in tone—the reader should have a sense of your voice, your personality—but not confessional. You are not disclosing, but describing in a thoughtful, intellectually rigorous way your motivations for applying. Personal information should serve this end rather than obscure it.
- Keep in mind that these aren’t rules, but guidelines for you to consider. It’s your choice. You need to believe in your personal statement. If you feel that recounting a particularly difficult experience is absolutely necessary in order to explain yourself, then that is your decision to embrace. It can be very rewarding to understand and show that what was difficult made you stronger. But that growth is important to show.
I want to make an appointment to discuss writing my personal essay because I have no idea where to begin. Can I do this?
I need you to complete a draft of a personal essay before seeing me. This draft cannot be a page of notes, or a list of bullet points. It needs to be a full attempt—that is, you need to have crafted a beginning, middle and end and have a sense of structure. This is important for a number of reasons. The first is that I have limited time. I’m working with multiple applicants for scholarships, and I simply cannot meet everyone, one-on-one, several times. Why several, you ask? Well, personal essays usually go through multiple revisions or drafts. It’s not uncommon for applicants (especially finalists) to draft their essay ten, even twenty times. Many students go into the process thinking that they will be told once what they need to fix, and then they will fix it. This is not necessarily the case. So it’s you who will be deciding that you need another draft, not me; my feedback cannot be an algorithm built into every draft. Second, my time limits here speak to a broader principle here; namely, that this is not a process that should be micro-managed. I will not be able to tell you what you “should” write about—that is up to you. The various scholarships are interested in how you respond to the information they’ve given you on their website, how your personal statement reflects a vision of yourself given the context of what they hope to achieve. The voice they’re interested in hearing in your personal statement is yours, not mine. So it’s very important that, from the very beginning, you “own” the process of working out what your voice sounds like on the page. That is why, at the very least, you should attempt a draft on your own.
Having said that, there is some writing advice I’ve assembled here which can help you brainstorm beginnings, and develop your drafts. This advice is good, but broad; I’m trying to think of tools that will help a Soros candidate as much as a Truman, and the cost of this generality is a lack of specificity that you will need to take responsibility for by reading the Foundation’s website very carefully.
The Scholarships Office will also be running personal essay writing workshops throughout the year. Sign up on the scholarship list-serv to receive emails announcing these workshops.
This looks like it takes way too much time. I have no time. How on earth does anyone have the time to do this?
Yes, you have a point. Please read the Scholarship’s Office Statement of Purpose here.
The application process has knock-on benefits that you can’t quite anticipate. People often incorrectly assume scholarship applications are exercises in glibness or jargon, in speaking insincerely and hyperbolically. This is not the case. The scholarships process is a self-directed process of really thinking through what matters to you and why. Your applications will help you prepare you for all kinds of future professional opportunities: careful research, negotiating your way through an institutional culture, answering questions, reflecting on your motivations, learning how to comport yourself in interview, responding honestly, directly and intelligently in your own voice…all of this is pretty fundamental to your ability to negotiate your way through your professional development. Keep in mind that the process of being turned down is also crucial; I can’t tell you how many times people have applied for one thing, been knocked back, then used that knowledge to successfully apply for another scholarship. Of course, you either have time or you don’t, and you need to be honest with yourself about what you can do. But I would consider the time you do have as an investment, rather than a one-time opportunity with an uncertain outcome.