Date of this Version
Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring/Summer 2017, Volume 18. Number 1.
When I was appointed fellowships advisor at UAB back in the late 1990s and before the formation of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors, as a first order of business I spoke with the university’s few former winners and finalists about their experiences applying for nationally competitive scholarships. One such former applicant, now an accomplished professor who had graduated from our honors program a number of years prior, was evidently still haunted by his Rhodes interview as he told me about the questions he had been asked by and the answers he had given to his interviewers, answers that did not win him the scholarship. I met another former student and applicant who looked off into the distance—think Ajax’s thousand-yard stare—when remembering the one interview question that stymied him so completely he knew he had begun to circle the drain. After those two conversations, I resolved that, regardless of whatever else I might accomplish in my role as advisor, I intended to make sure that no student would be scarred by the process. My mantra for the six years I held the position was “Do no harm.” It’s a pretty good oath for fellowships advisors, I feel, to this day.
Competing for a major award is difficult even for stellar students. Done well, the process is edifying and extraordinarily helpful not only for those who win but also for those who don’t. Students who apply for prestigious national scholarships have, at minimum, a significant jumpstart on their graduate school plans and applications; more importantly, they have learned, through rigorous self-examination, about themselves and their values, interests, and career goals. Ample arguments and evidence for the positive and lasting value of competing for these major awards can be found in Suzanne McCray’s edited compilations Beyond Winning: National Scholarship Competitions and the Student Experience and Nationally Competitive Scholarships: Serving Students and the Public Good.