Understanding the Judging Process
by Laura DiFiore

The Scholarship Judging Process

You fill out the application, mail it in, and it seems like it’s gone into never-never land, lost forever, never to be seen or heard from again. Why? Having an understanding of the basic judging process may help you to improve your odds of winning.

Every organization that offers a scholarship has their own way of judging the applications they receive. Please understand that this article is intended to be more of an “overview” based on a variety of judging committees than a description of how any one particular scholarship contest is judged.

1. “Weed out the Junk” stage.

Some organizations open up applications as soon as they are received. Others will simply let the applications pile up in a corner of the office, waiting until the deadline date.

Some organizations are very organized. They will enter each application into a log book as it arrives, assign it a number, and keep track of it.

Others are not very organized – remember, many of these organizations are SEVERELY understaffed, under-funded, and overworked. Some applications might, unfortunately, be lost, probably ending up in the same place that your socks go after they enter the dryer.

Either way, eventually, someone is going to open up the applications. Often, the person opening the applications is a secretary, a volunteer, or maybe even a stay-at-home Dad watching the afternoon soap operas. Quite often, it is NOT a scholarship judge that actually opens the envelop to look at your application for the “first look.”

As each application is opened, a “quick check” is made of the application.

  • Is the application neat?
  • Are all required documents included?
  • References, transcripts, photo, etc.? Are all questions answered? etc…

This “quick check” is exactly that: QUICK. If your application has been looked at for 30 seconds at this point, you are lucky.

Important: This stage is also where MOST applications end up in that big “NO” pile, never to be seen again. In many cases, up to 90% of applications are “killed” right here – after 10-30 seconds of consideration.

Seriously. Up to 90% of applications lose after 30 seconds of consideration. For the percentage impaired… If the organization received 1,000 applications, up to 900 of the applications received lost the game right here.

When determining the acceptability of each application, many organizations use a “checklist” or “point system” – often both. Sometimes, a checklist or point system is used right from the beginning, but other times, it’s only used for the “somewhat potential” applications.

Here’s an example of a checklist used by a scholarship committee that I sat on last summer. Each application was looked at by the Administrative Assistant. If the answer was “yes” for each question, she sent the application to Tom Atkins, who was the head of the Judging Committee. If there was a single “no” – she threw the application out. Yes, into the garbage. She didn’t “judge” the STUDENTS – she “judged” the quality of the APPLICATIONS, and decided which applications the judges would actually judge.

Application was judged on:

  • Spelling
  • Neatness
  • Photo
  • 2 Reference Letters
  • Transcript
  • Personal Statement
  • Studying Engineering or Computers?
  • Volunteer work?
  • Active in school?
  • From Colorado?

Do you think it’s “not fair” that your application “lost” after just 30 seconds just because of a single typo or a small wrinkle? Wrong. It’s TOTALLY fair. It IS unfair of YOU to NOT take the time to make your application neat, clean, and simply perfect. Remember, lots of students DO take the time to make their applications neat and clean. It is unfair to those students who DO take the time to create neat, clean applications for the judges to spend a single minute on the students who do not take the time.

Your application will be considered against the scholarship’s primary requirements. For example, if the scholarship considers academic achievement, they may quickly check your GPA at this point.

And if your GPA is in the 2.0 range… it’s probably dead.
If it’s in the low 3.0 range… there is still some hope.
If it’s in the upper 3.0 range, it’s definitely alive!

Be aware that just because you do not have a terrific GPA does not mean that you have “no hope” when applying for scholarships that are PRIMARILY based on academic achievement. The “trick” is to improve your odds of winning by applying for smaller scholarships and local scholarships, ones that do not receive a lot of applications. With a low (2.0 GPA range) to a good (lower to middle 3.0 range GPA) you have almost no hope of winning a big national scholarship based on academic achievement that receives 20,000 applications. But if you apply to a local, small scholarship that receives 10 or 100 applications, you have much better chances of winning, ESPECIALLY if your GPA is in the 3.0 range.

Cere in Tacoma, Washington shares her experience:

“One thing I am concerned with is that some students might get the message that if you don’t have a really high grade point average don’t bother. I am a single parent going to school full time and can only manage to hold a 3.45gpa. I have been lucky so far though and have received $3,500 so far in scholarships, so I know that not having a perfect grade point won’t hold you back from winning all the time.”

Whatever the main considerations are for the particular scholarship – be it grades, financial need, major, religion, hobbies, professional associations, whatever – if your application doesn’t match up to ALL of the basic requirements of the scholarship, it’s history at this point.

“Hrmmm… hey, this application seems good, Jason, 4.2 GPA, very nice! Lots of volunteer work, helps his mother at her Catering business, very nice… oh… he’s studying Ghost Chasing, we’re looking for Basket Weaving majors, oh well, too bad…

If you don’t pay attention to the requirements, the judges are not going to pay attention to your application.

How to “beat” Stage One

  • Be Neat! No coffee stains!
  • *TYPE* your applications – avoid handwriting.
  • Be Complete!
  • Make sure you include all required supporting documentation, references, etc.
  • Be Accurate!
  • Make sure you match all the requirements.
  • If the scholarship is for English majors and you are studying computers, don’t apply! Think about how to make your application STAND OUT.
  • Consider putting it into a plastic folder.

If not forbidden, include school newspaper clippings about you, additional recommendation letters, or other things that help you shine!

┬áRemember: Appearances Count. I am occasionally criticized for telling students that their applications need to be neat and clean, people say to me that “it’s commonsense and everyone knows that.” My answer to that criticism is simple: If “everyone” knew that they needed to be neat and clean on their applications then why do so many applications look like they were written in a fast-food kitchen??

2. “Pick the Contenders” stage.

Remember that quite a few outstanding students ended up in the “no” pile during the first stage because their APPLICATIONS were not good enough – NOT because the STUDENT was not good enough.

This is an important point to remember: The best APPLICATIONS get the serious consideration. The person looking at the applications at this point may still be a secretary, a volunteer, or an intern, or it may be the “Scholarship Administrator.” Sometimes, it is one of the “Official Judges,” who has been chosen to select the applications that are “seriously considered.” It may be the entire judging committee.

Sometimes this stage is “combined” with the “Weed out the Junk” stage.

Either way, USUALLY at this stage in the game, your application is being looked at for WHAT IS WRONG WITH IT. They are not looking for the BEST applications, they are looking for the WORST applications, so they can “kill” them and get on with the job.

This is a particularly tough stage to “win” – a critical eye is being used to find ANY REASON WHATSOEVER TO SAY “NO” to your application.

#1 Reason your application will die here: Rudeness. Be POLITE! Having personally read over 8,500 scholarship applications myself over the last two years, it amazes me how RUDE many students are. You are asking the judges TO GIVE YOU MONEY. Rudeness will not win you any points.

#2 Reason your application will die here: Spelling. I know I harp on spelling over and over (and I know I’m not a perfect speller, either!), but it is an EASY way for judges to reduce the number of applications they have to seriously consider. If you have even one spelling error, one typo, your application may well be history.

If you do not take the time to spell-check your application, the judges will not take the time to read it.

“Let’s see, we have Claire here, who is studying Computer Sceince? Sheesh, she can’t even spell her own major right!! Forget her!”

#3 Reason your application will die here: You don’t “make the grade.”

At this point, your application is also being compared to other applications that have been received. I’ll use GPA as an example:

The judge or judges look at the first student in the pile. He or she has a 3.6 GPA. Goes to the “potential yes” pile.

They look at the next student, who has a 3.4 GPA. OOPS… they have already seen an application from a student with a higher GPA, so this student “can’t compete” and goes into the “no” pile.

On it continues… while seriously looking at the applications, there is still a “weeding out” going on… they look at each student, if they have already seen one that is “better” off to the “no” pile it goes… if, however, the application matches or is better than the best ones they have seen so far, into the “potential yes” pile it goes.

Until they have found the very best applications, from the very best students.

It is important to remember that even those scholarships that do NOT consider academic achievement as their PRIMARY consideration are going to look at your grades, your community service, your school activities – the judges are ultimately looking at The Whole Person Who Is You, not just your grades or your need.

Some examples:

The PRIMARY consideration is FINANCIAL NEED. That means the “poorest” students are going to be considered, right?

Imagine there are 10 students who all have an EQUAL financial need: $30,000 in family income, two kids in college, one parent disabled.

But of those 10 students, one of them has a 3.0 GPA. That application is going to STAND OUT from the other 9 who all have 2.6 GPAs.

Maybe all 10 have 3.6 GPAs and equal need. But one of the students has a lot of volunteer work and is active with their church and their school. That student is going to stand out above the others for serious consideration by the judges.

3. Pick The Winner.

This is where things get ugly … Judges have their personal favorites, fights break out, coffee mugs go flying, arguments occur over which student is the best.

OK, that’s an exaggeration *grins* but by now, YOU – and your application – is now being discussed, debated, and fought-over.

Of all applications received, 1%-5% might make it to this stage. Or less.

This stage is where YOU are finally “put on the stage” to shine. Each STUDENT is now being looked at very, very, seriously.

They are now looking at your application to find every reason possible to say YES to you. The judges will ask themselves questions such as:

WHY is this student better than that student?

WHY does this student deserve our money? Our support?

What makes this student outstanding?

And, somehow, amazingly enough, a winner is chosen. There is no easy way to describe HOW out of the remaining 5, 10, or 100 applications the winner is chosen… A lot of discussion will go on, “votes” will be taken, perhaps they will use a point-system yet again, and assign a “grade” to each application… ”

Application number 2012, from Bob in California, 3.9 GPA, volunteers, active in school, studying Physics, who saved the entire city of San Mateo by inventing an earthquake early-warning system when he was 7 years old, raised $200,000 for Save the Armadillos, and wrote a chapter for Miss Manners… how many vote? I count 10 – is that right? Mary, you are voting for Bob? I thought you hated San Mateo because that’s where your ex-husband lives?! Oh, I didn’t know you got back together with your ex, Mary! Congrats! It’s 10 votes! We have a winner – Bob it is!”

OK, I am absolutely making fun of the way the final decision might be made… but it’s also to make a point: While YES, the very best student is chosen as the winner, the decision can also be somewhat SUBJECTIVE.

When you have 5 or 10 students who all have “equal” academic achievement, community service, financial need, service to their schools, meet all other requirements… the final decision sometimes comes down to who the judges LIKE BEST.

This is where the time you spend on Personal Statements and Essays will push you over the edge to the Winners Circle. Something about YOU – and your application – stood out from the crowd enough that you won. You are The Best of The Best.

To “beat” this stage of the game, REALLY READ the application. Most applications TELL YOU who they are looking for. Write your personal statement so that it “talks” to the judges, tells them what they want to hear, about you, but yet at the same time, is truthful. Don’t let your personal statement sound like a singles ad! Let your personality SHINE THROUGH! Let them know who you are, and why you deserve to win! Tell the judges why you are a unique, special, deserving person, one WORTHY of their time and money. Remember, you ARE unique, special, and worthy! Be the best person you can be. Don’t be pathetic, whining, rude, or ignorant.

Ultimately, it’s the “whole person” that is judged, not just your grades or your need or your athletics. You ARE a unique, special deserving person – sometimes despite your grades! Let that shine through!!

Some Points to Ponder:

  • If you don’t take the time to check your spelling, the judges won’t take the time to read your application.
  • If you don’t take the application process seriously, the judges won’t take your application seriously.
  • If you don’t pay attention to the details, the requirements, the judges won’t pay attention to your application.
  • The polite student with a 3.2 GPA is going to beat out the rude student with a 4.0 GPA every time.
  • Appearances Count.
  • REMEMBER — It’s their money. They get to make the rules.

The best APPLICATIONS get the serious consideration, from which the best students will win.

Up to 90% of all applications are really awful. Don’t be part of that 90%.

GOOD LUCK! Have fun and take your time!