What is a scholarship?
As the cost of education rises, many students seek out scholarships to help offset the financial burden of attending graduate school. "Scholarships" are awards that offer funding to cover tuition, living expenses, and sometimes travel and other fees. Most scholarships require a written application, which may include a proposal or essay(s), letters of recommendation, a resume, transcript, and other supplemental items. "Need-based" scholarships include the applicant's financial need as a criterion for selection, while "merit-based" scholarships consider only the achievements (academic or otherwise) of the scholarship applicant, without consideration for their financial need.
Most scholarship applications require a written statement/essay outlining the program, plan of study, or research that you intend to pursue while on the scholarship. This "proposal" is likely the piece of the application that you will spend the most time preparing — you should plan to spend several weeks, at least, writing drafts of your essay, soliciting feedback, and refining your writing before the application deadline. Because study proposals should include a clear articulation of your academic and intellectual interests, it would be wise to spend some time reflecting on how those interests were formed, what you find most urgent and compelling about them now, and how you plan to pursue them in the future. Your study proposal will draw on that self-reflection in order to convince a scholarship selection committee that you are the right fit for the scholarship.
Scholarship applicants often ask how specific their plans need to be — what if they don’t know what they want to study yet, or if their interests evolve between the application deadline and the beginning of the program? Selection committees understand that students in their undergraduate years may still be figuring out what they're most passionate about. That said, graduate school is not designed for the wide exploration that college offers, and especially in the case of research-based programs, scholarship applicants will need to articulate a specific and narrow plan of study. Think of it like this: by identifying a focused intellectual question or avenue of inquiry that is ripe for further exploration, you are signaling to the committee that you have a mature understanding of your field and you are prepared to make a significant contribution. Even if that avenue of exploration changes later on, by being specific in your original proposal, you are demonstrating that you have a sophisticated command of your field and as such, whatever contribution you ultimately make will be well-informed, mature, and worthwhile.
Many scholarships, especially full scholarships (scholarships that provide 100% of your expenses), are administered far in advance of the beginning of the program of study, several require that you apply in your junior year of college. If you are thinking about applying for a scholarship to attend graduate school, even if you aren't sure, start talking to your faculty and academic advisors early (pro tip: these individuals will also likely be serving as recommenders for you, so it’s helpful to keep them apprised of your plans.) URAF also hosts a series of information sessions for juniors every spring, so keep an eye out for those!
Some scholarships come bundled together with an offer of admission to your graduate school/program of choice. Make sure that you’ve researched scholarship opportunities offered directly through your intended graduate school — these scholarship applications will often be coupled together with your admissions application. Other scholarships, however, are administered externally, meaning they are not associated with the graduate school and you will need to apply separately for admission to the school. (In these cases, it is possible that you might win a scholarship for graduate study but not gain admission to your graduate program.) Be careful to keep track of all the appropriate deadlines – some external scholarships require that you apply for the scholarship and for admission at the same time, even though the scholarship deadline falls before the admissions deadline.