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Insider Notes From A Scholarship Judge

By Dr. Noaquia Callahan

Students and parents often ask me, “what are judges really looking for?”After evaluating hundreds of applications for domestic and international scholarship organizations, I’ve gained rare insight into what could be sabotaging your victory. As such, the following advice is dedicated to those who want the unfiltered truth. 

I’m revealing:

  • How applications are evaluated and assessed

  • What judges find impressive

  • What judges find annoying

  • Some intangible factors outside of your control

  • The power of an advocate in the final selection meeting 

Serving on scholarship committees is a labor of love. For many of us, it’s exciting to support hardworking students pursuing their educational and professional goals. That said, scholarship judges are rarely compensated for their time. This also means that applications are evaluated quickly and often in our “free time": at our kids’ weekend basketball tournament, while binge watching a Netflix series, or while waiting in the lobby for a doctor’s appointment. If you followed directions, I’m reading your application, if not, it goes to the bottom of the pile for later. The most crucial real estate in your application is the opening paragraph of your personal essay. Instead of telling me what you think I want to hear, tell your truth, share your experience, and own your story. Scholarship judges don’t have time to figure out what you mean — we can only evaluate what you tell us through concrete examples and details that create a vivid illustration of your personal journey up to this point. 

Even for the most competitive scholarships, potential super-star candidates standout. What these applicants have in common is that they are consistent in the activities in which they claim to have interest and future goals to accomplish, they are creative and innovative in the ways they go about gaining hands-on experience, and they have a diverse record of community service. For example, a student who dreams of becoming a doctor but has no social connections to obtain a coveted internship at a hospital should describe the ways she/he exhibits the characteristics of an excellent doctor (e.g. cares for siblings, sick grandparents, volunteers at Red Cross drives). 

Not all scholarship materials can be recycled. It is common practice - and encouraged - to reuse scholarship essays, reference letters, short answers, etc. when applying to several competitions. There’s no harm in this. But keep in mind that you must still tailor your responses to supplementary materials to each specific scholarship. There’s nothing more annoying than scoring an application that was clearly cut and pasted from another application, misspells or includes the wrong name of the grant, and list last year’s date (presumably they were not selected last year and resubmitted the same application). This convey carelessness, sloppy, and disinterest in the opportunity. Remember, there are more qualified applicants than awards, so the above mistakes are easy disqualifiers. 

Much of the above tips are within your realm of control. But who actually evaluates your application is not. The composition of scholarship committees is often as diverse as the applicant pool in terms of profession, areas of expertise, experience scoring applications, age, and geographical region. As such, use clear, succinct, and jargon-free language when describing your work. Using big discipline specific language is not impressive — it’s confusing. After reading dozens and dozens of essays, you want judges to find your essays refreshing not the one they have to struggle through and re-read to comprehend. 

In the end, you’ll want a scholarship judge who can advocate for you come final decision time. I’ve participated in these sessions, and the applicants we remember are the ones who told compelling stories. We almost never remember names, but we always push for the applicants in which we can say - “the student who described traveling outside the country for the first time and dealing with unexpected homesickness,” or “the student who became a dog walker to pay for school books although they were afraid of dogs.” You get an instant visual that sticks with you. 


After serving on numerous scholarship selection committees, and winning $200,000 in scholarships, fellowships, and grants, I want to teach you the game within the game of scholarships. Schedule a FREE scholarship strategy session with me to get started.