Developing as a Candidate

Ideally, long before you decide to apply, you will take time to familiarize yourself with the various fellowships and identify one (or more!) that interests you. As you research these opportunities, spend time reading their mission statement and description of their ideal candidate, and ask yourself: Are they describing the kind of person I want to become?

If the answer is yes, then allow that fellowship to teach you about how you can use your time in college to develop into that person. Turn to the selection criteria. What are the core traits that their awardees exhibit, and how might you develop yourself along those lines? Where are you starting, and how might you challenge yourself to grow from there?

Each fellowship has its own criteria, and its own language for describing its ideal candidate. For some awards, there are specific activities you can pursue in order to strengthen your position as an applicant. (Want to be a contender for a Goldwater Scholarship? Then sustained STEM research experience is important. Have your eye on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant? Gain relevant experience by teaching, coaching, or tutoring.) Other awards—including many of the ones that support graduate study—focus more on the qualities they seek and are open to candidates who demonstrate those qualities in different ways.

Despite the particularity of each fellowship in terms of its mission and criteria, NCA has identified a few trends that emerge across many of the major awards—qualities that fellowship foundations tend to prioritize. Consider your personal and academic trajectory through each of the following lenses:


Challenge yourself academically. Enroll in classes that intrigue you. At the end of each semester, take a moment to reflect on what you learned in that course and how that course speaks to others you have taken. As you take different courses, what are the kinds of questions, problems, or issues that consistently fascinate you (or anger you or inspire you)? What do you want to know more about? Are there ways for you to engage in research?

Many awards look for candidates with substantive, meaningful leadership experience, whether it be on or off campus. This is not necessarily—or merely—positional and should not be confused with mentoring others. Scholarship foundations want to know what you have accomplished as a responsible leader. Can you reflect on a time where you noticed a need or a problem, came up with an idea of how to respond to it, got others on board with your vision, and brought about an impactful change?

Many fellowships seeks scholars who have found ways to contribute to communities around them. How are you contributing to a campus, local, national, or global community? Why have you chosen your particular commitments or activities, and how do they connect to your academic interests, personal values, and/or professional goals?

It is vitally important that you develop relationships with faculty members. Not only will they provide you with letters of recommendation , but they also can give you invaluable advice and guidance. They can refine your understanding of graduate school, suggest additional readings on topics that interest you, connect you to research opportunities, or advise you on how to engage your interests outside the classroom. On a campus as big as UC, cultivating these relationships will take purposeful effort on your part—go to office hours!—but the academic, professional, and personal benefits are well worth it.

We encourage you not to see these awards and their selection criteria as providing a checklist for excellence. Indeed, these scholarships tend not to reward “box checkers,” or people who do things simply because they think they are supposed to do them. Instead, let these awards—and the ideal candidates they describe—inspire you. Allow them to expand the horizons of your imagination as you think about what you might accomplish.