National, merit-based scholarships, fellowships and grants are one reward — a potentially transformative one — of a diverse, rigorous undergraduate education. Your professors and advisers will help you design such an education, but you are its architect. And while there is no blueprint that guarantees a major fellowship, scholarship or grant, several elements inform a competitive application and final consideration by selection committees. 

Excellence in coursework

Maintain excellent grades, a prerequisite for success with any fellowship. At the same time, remember that grades are but one element of a strong application. 

Take challenging, diverse courses in and beyond your major. Expand your base of knowledge so that it stretches across academic disciplines and professional fields. 

Find in each course something that connects to you — your interests, passions, direction. Convey your curiosity and drivenness in all of your work, especially your writing. 

Go above and beyond what your professors explicitly require. Your engagement will be reflected in letters of recommendations from your professors. 

Opportunities with faculty and academic staff

Take advantage of office hours. Discuss with your professors aspects of their courses and related fields of study that you want to understand better. Learn about their research to inform your own in the future.

Share with your professors your own intellectual, academic and career plans. Work with them to take your work to the next level of excellence. Your goal is to establish an ongoing dialogue to develop your academic skills and provide your mentors with a persuasive picture of your intellectual range and powers. 

Actively seek opportunities to do research under the supervision of your professors. Find out what types of research activities are conducted in your field. Join an ongoing research program or develop an independent research project of your own. You may be able to apply for funding from Whitman to cover expenses associated with independent research or apply for a summer REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program in one of many sites across the country.

For students who study abroad, cultivate relationships with faculty at the foreign college or university where you might work after college, with support from an international fellowship or scholarship. If you are working with an NGO or other community organization, speak with your supervisors about needs of the organization that you might address by returning as a Fulbright scholar or through another international grant program.

Visit the Fellowships and Grants Office (Reid 232 and 231) to talk to staff, learn about opportunities and use the office’s library.

Communication skills

Take writing courses to develop your ability to capture your thinking on the page. Take courses that require public speaking, as many fellowships require interviews in addition to essays. 

In your contributions in the classroom and interaction with peers, practice speaking your mind and articulating your positions clearly and succinctly. Your goal is to develop your intellectual voice and articulate your ideas and values mindfully and convincingly to others. Risk explaining your logic and remain open to different perspectives. 

Knowledge of the world

Enrich your perspectives about people, places, and events by following the news, reading broadly and exploring informed blogs. Consider travel and study abroad. At the same time, remember that fellowship committees understand that many students cannot afford to study abroad. There are many ways to travel intellectually and culturally without boarding a plane to another country. 

Participate in intercultural events, attend lectures, read scholarly and professional journals in your field of interest. Consider volunteer work or an unpaid internship in an arena that exposes you to populations or social issues that are beyond your usual experience. Sophomores and juniors may apply for a stipend from Whitman to fund a volunteer or unpaid internship during the summer. Note programs that fund study abroad.

Research in your field

Independent or collaborative research positions you to be an active contributor to knowledge in your discipline. In the process of conducting research, posing questions and distilling your findings, you will gain insight into your field and its precise methods. Your experience will allow you to talk concretely and authoritatively about your work in your applications for fellowships and scholarships.

Consider, again, applying for a summer REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program in one of many sites across the country.

Experiential learning

Fellowship committees want to know that you not only have various interests but also that you are immersed in them. Seek internships to gain experience in your field. 

Use every summer productively. Look for these experiences sooner rather than later, knowing that others are on the same track. 

Initiative and leadership

Work to improve the world. Give generously of your time to support public service or volunteer programs dedicated to addressing social problems or needs about which you care most. Think about what you can do beyond "lending a hand" and dedicate yourself to doing it. If a service or program does not yet exist to address a particular need, consider developing one that will. Seek out professors and other mentors to help you implement your ideas.

Get involved in extracurricular activities that are meaningful to you. There are no "best" activities. What is important is these activities reflect and inform you. As you explore these activities, take some time to think about why they matter to you.

Submit essays for prizes, undergraduate conferences, and undergraduate journals. Revising your essays for submission will also have a salutary effect on your writing.

Faculty in your major are a good resource for these opportunities. The director of Fellowships and Grants is available to work with you on your essays in preparation for submission to journals and other outlets.


Take time to reflect upon your passions, interests and experience. Doing so will help you clarify which scholarship or fellowship suits you best. 

Visit the Office of Fellowships and Grants. It is an essential resource for you. Meet with us to discuss your plans, your goals, your life of learning in general.

Consideration, appreciation and commitment

Consideration, respect and reliability go a long way toward gaining the support of faculty and other mentors who will advise you and write letters of recommendation on your behalf. Send a note of appreciation to professors for a helpful reference or an insightful meeting. 

When you ask for letters of reference, common courtesy dictates that you thank your recommenders after they have submitted their letter, and that you keep them apprised of the status of your application.

Adapted, in part, from Jim Hohenbary's "Becoming a Strong Candidate for Scholarships."

Office of Fellowships and Grants
Keith Raether, Director