Scholarships encourage ( in fact they demand) that students focus on themselves in the selection process.  How can we select the best candidates if we do not ask what makes them tick?  In fact, interview panels are very special precisely because the candidates are holding up their dreams for you to see.

Most students arrive at the interview well prepared to speak convincingly about themselves, their studies and their goals. But beware!  Just as the interview is drawing to a close the lead questioner may arch an eyebrow and ask “if we give you the scholarship what will you do for us?” The interview has just done a 180.

Even the most confident candidates can be completely floored by this question and I am frankly sympathetic.   Up until now the interview has consisted of the (powerful) panel members asking relatively straightforward questions while the (powerless) student responds. Now suddenly, the student is deemed to have some amazing ability to make the scholarship a household word.

How do scholarship candidates deal with this question?   Many tell the panel that their professional achievements will so astonish the world that it will ipso facto increase the fame of the scholarship. This is not impossible. Every year scholarships scour lists of Nobel Prize winners and  newly elected heads of state for exactly this reason.  Every scholarship administration dreams of a president in their ranks.  But the panel has to be willing to believe they have a future president sitting before them.  That’s a big leap of faith especially when they have not made political ambition a criterion.  Other students promise to speak to students at their secondary school and college. That’s a start but the panel looks crestfallen, evidently they are searching for more.  Which is what?

Personally, I think every panel (like every university) dreams of a golden alum –  a guaranteed future billionaire who will take every opportunity to promote and donate to the scholarship. In fact, if the panel is not careful the conversation can give the impression that the candidate is best off hinting that he intends to neglect the subject he vowed to research and engage in wholesale lobbying for the scholarship.

If you are a student reading this  – relax. The truth is that secretly scholarship panels are as flummoxed by this question as the student and that is why it is sometimes asked so brashly.  They may dream of the golden alum but in their hearts they yearn for something that is achievable from every candidate.  What they are really after is loyalty but they are not used to having to ask for it.

Historically,  scholarships have been solely about pride in their scholars giving back to society and pride in assisting talented people to achieve their career goals.  For the older scholarships the idea that the recipients needed to do anything but achieve is a relatively recent stance which they have had to adopt for a variety of reasons.  For some, the scholarship field has become more crowded potentially threatening their ability to sign up the best candidates.   Others may need to raise their profile in order to attract more diverse funding.  However,  many programs are simply reacting to the environment around them and are adapting accordingly.  That environment is one in which every organization which has touched the scholars’ academic development wishes to claim first position.

In the past a prestigious postgraduate scholarship was the crowning academic accomplishment for all but a few candidates or one of the few major life honors.  But over the years there has been a proliferation of scholarships, awards and prizes to the extent that some postgrad awards are the first in a series of honors for a talented individual and in some cases the scholarship gets pushed off the CV.  This is particularly true for scientists. There is also the issue of the rise of alumni relations in foreign universities. Scholarships provide their scholars with once in a life time experiences. Some of the cultural enrichment programs are truly fabulous with students meeting leaders of industry and government in gatherings others can only dream about.  I knew a scholarship student who was invited to a State Dinner at Buckingham Palace for President Bush! She not only chatted with the Royal Family and the President and First Lady but also had conversations with Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Extraordinary experiences aside,  at the end of the day, students spend more time at host universities and the latter are becoming more skilled at engaging alumni. To the extent that students have limited time and resources this stepped up activity means the two may inadvertently end up vying for the loyalty of the scholar.  Universities also have the personnel to maintain links that surpasses the capacity of most (not all) scholarships. And of course they have premises and extensive grounds to enjoy. How many people bring their families back to visit the scholarship office?  So scholarship organisations have been forced to alter perceptions of how they relate to alumni and insert that into the selection process.

Universities and scholarships are definitely not adversaries.  On the contrary they are partners. Universities increase their prestige and brand through scholars.  Scholarships want and need their scholars to enjoy and be good alumni for those institutions. But they would also like their alumni to remember who paid their tuitions and provided them with unique cultural and professional experiences.

In my opinion,  it is neither too much to ask nor to think about.   So students beware this hidden agenda item which, by the way, is also important for written applications even though there may not be a question on it.   I certainly remember when choosing between two impressive candidates with equal qualifications, the one whose application volunteered interest in alumni activities made the cut.



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