Judging the Scholarship Application

The judging of scholarship applications may appear to be a mysterious black box. Frankly, that’s true to a certain extent, not because there’s a conspiracy of secrecy, but because the judging process varies widely based upon the organization’s goals in making the award, the availability of paid staff and judges, traditions and policies, time frame for rendering decisions, and so on. Variations aside, the evaluation of scholarship applications does have some general characteristics.

Scholarship Applications: The Winnowing Process

In agriculture, the winnowing process separates the chaff (undesirable) from the wheat (desirable) by thrashing the stalks. The scholarship application winnowing process will probably feel like a thrashing as well.


Scholarship funds receive many more applications than they can possibly fully consider. Therefore, the first step in the judging process is to eliminate as many nonqualifying applications as possible. This strategy reduces the application volume to a more manageable size.

The first cut may well be “the unkindest cut of all.” Here is where all of you “triple checker” personalities will soar above your colleagues who take a more casual approach to life and possibly scholarships. Incomplete applications are the first to go. It is not uncommon for an administrative staff person to compare your application to a checklist of initial criteria such as “all blanks on the form filled in” and “no spelling errors” and reject any applications that don’t meet these initial screens. Just think, you spent hours perfecting that essay, more hours gathering letters of recommendation, more hours assembling the documents, attaching them to the application in the correct order, and it gets thrown out because of the word admission (sic).

Laura DiFiore, founder of FreSchl, makes a frightening claim in her article, “Judging Scholarships, Part I.” According to Ms. DeFiore, up to 90 percent of applications are eliminated in the first review. It’s a breathtaking statistic that is borne out by other funders as well. There’s a message here. Pay attention to detail. Get help to review your¬†scholarship application.

The good news in this somewhat distressing information is that even though you may not have the best GPA in the pile or the longest list of extracurricular activities, if you’re a good proofreader, you have a tremendous advantage working for you. Selecting the Players

The first phase was painful but fast. You have now made it to the second phase where the hot light of scrutiny burns brighter. Now your application will be compared to others, and the ranking will begin.

The participants in this round of judging will probably include paid staff and some or all of the judges. If academic achievement is important, evaluators may compare GPAs and eliminate any below a particular cutoff point. For example, the scholarship eligibility criteria listed a GPA of 3.0 or better to qualify. However, if there are plenty of good candidates with a GPA of 3.6 or better, the otherwise good candidate with a GPA of 3.4 may be scratched. The criteria and intensity of scrutiny varies with the goals of the scholarship, the number of awards made, and sometimes the temperament of the evaluator. The inescapable purpose of this review is to eliminate more applicants.

Note well, however, that many scholarships do not rely heavily on GPAs and SATs as their criteria.

As we spoke with funders about how they judged applicants, a clear message came through about making it to the finalist round. That message is to demonstrate that you are a unique person that the judges can relate to and feel confident will be worthy of their award.

Joshua Barsch, president of Straight Forward Media and originator of the Dale Fridell scholarship, makes an interesting observation. His organization received twenty-five thousand applications for their one $500 scholarship. This scholarship does not require a minimum GPA or reporting of SAT scores; it simply asks the applicant to explain why they should receive the award based on need and work ethic. According to Josh, 80 to 85 percent of the essays were functionally identical, i.e., a laundry list of activities and scores. Those applicants were eliminated. The judges looked for the essays that introduced them to a real person who had real feelings and real problems that he or she had overcome. The message here is to be authentic.

Selection of the Winner(s)

You have survived the neatness and accuracy cut. Your measurable attributes rank in the top 1 to 10 percent or so. Now the competition begins in earnest. This is the time that judges begin to look carefully at who is presenting him or herself for this scholarship. Does your package of academic success, extracurricular activities, leadership skills, and achievements add up to a person worthy of their financial support?

This process is inherently subjective. Like anyone, judges will gravitate toward more likable candidates. They are much more likely to champion your cause if they can understand you and really sense that you have something valuable to offer that will be enhanced by support of your college education. Dottie Theriaque of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts says that the more insight about yourself that you provide to the judges, the greater your opportunity for selection.

This final stage may include judges picking personal favorites and arguing their merits to the panel, taking votes and revotes. Finally, the winners will emerge. If you have followed the steps carefully, you may find yourself in the winner’s circle.

Take Heart

Not every competition is so brutal. Anne Lazaroney, guidance counselor at Berlin High School in upstate New York, notes that when her high school judge panel looks at applicants, their goal is to help everyone. They work to spread the scholarships across as many people as possible and use the amount of money awarded as the way to reward academic achievement and community service.

It’s true that insight into the judging of scholarship applications can be a bit demoralizing. The chances of failure are much greater than the chances of success.

However, keep in mind:

  • Understanding the scholarship application process gives you an immediate and important edge over those who are slapping together an application without having done any research.
  • There are many ways to increase the probability of success. Read on to find more tools for improving your opportunity for a scholarship award.

Read Next Article: Personal Assessment

HOME