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Competitive Scholarships

Becoming a Strong Candidate

Early preparation is important in the application process!  We encourage students to pursue an undergraduate research project.  Also, many students have a study abroad experience which demonstrates their commitment to globalization.  Because letters of recommendation are a critical component of a successful application, start building relationships with faculty early in your college career.

Course SelectionPresentation

Take classes from rigorous professors. A student with a 3.9 GPA in physics sends a strong message that she can excel in challenging classes.  When choosing your classes, keep in mind that you will need excellent letters of recommendation; consider taking more than one class from a few professors. 

Extra-curricular Activities

Success in the classroom is a necessary but insufficient qualification for most nationally-competitive scholarships and fellowships.  The evaluators are looking for students who are well-rounded people.  You’ll want to demonstrate your involvement outside of the classroom.  There are many ways to enhance your résumé.  Choose depth over breadth – evaluators are quite skeptical of the “shotgun” approach where a student joins a large number of clubs in his or her junior year to pad a résumé.  You are much better off demonstrating a genuine, long-lasting interest in a few activities. Click here to view a list of available organizations at UNI.


Most awards require evidence of leadership.  Students may demonstrate leadership skills in a variety of ways:  involvement in extra-curricular activities, volunteer organizations, philanthropic or religious organizations, etc.  Evidence of leadership requires more than a title of President or Treasurer.  Make sure you can provide detailed examples; try to take ownership in a project or activity.  The best strategy for acquiring leadership skills is to participate in an activity about which you are passionate and to select an activity or organization where your leadership skills can be observed by someone who could write you a letter of recommendation.  Consider becoming a leader in a student organization that has a faculty advisor.

Letters of Recommendation

Getting outstanding letters of recommendation requires careful planning.  Most fellowships require at least four letters of recommendation.  Some allow more.  For example, the Rhodes Scholarship allows eight letters of recommendation.  You will need to plan ahead to build sufficient relationships to obtain many high-quality letters.  Ideally, you should begin cultivating close relationships with a few faculty members as early in your career as possible.  You can get to know faculty members by taking several classes from them, working with them on an undergraduate research project, and participating in clubs or other extra-curricular activities in which they participate. 

Study Abroad

Many students enjoy a study-abroad experience as a part of their undergraduate education.  Evaluators want well-rounded students, and a study-abroad experience demonstrates that you can step out of your comfort zone and appreciate other cultures.  If you want to study abroad for an entire semester, you will need to plan carefully to make sure that you can complete your UNI requirements.  For example, the Gilman study abroad scholarships can be a good precursor to the Fulbright Program and would look good on any applications.  Click here to connect to the UNI Study Abroad Center.

Undergraduate Research

An undergraduate research project provides many benefits to students who want to apply for nationally-competitive scholarships and fellowships.  You will gain valuable knowledge about your topic.  You will develop research skills, including the ability to think critically, work independently, meet deadlines, and accept constructive criticism.  You will improve your writing skills.  You can improve your oral presentation skills by presenting your research at a conference.  An undergraduate research project provides the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member, which means that when you need a strong letter of recommendation, the faculty member can comment on a variety of skills and give specific examples. Also, review the biographies of recent winners of the fellowships in which you are interested.  For many fellowships, most of the winners have completed at least one significant undergraduate research project.