Expressing Hard Ideas Clearly

Writing a Winning Scholarship Application

by Heather Jane McWhinney

The fall term has barely started, and already graduate students are writing to me for advice on how to craft their scholarship applications. This blog post provides some advice on how to prepare a successful application.

Start Early

Most scholarship deadlines are in the late fall to early winter, so you might think that starting in August or September is too soon. It’s not. Here are some reasons for starting early. First, funding agencies require transcripts and reference letters, which take time to collect. Second, the application process for many scholarships is lengthy. You usually need approval from your supervisor, the department, and a university committee. Third, the proposal part of the application is challenging to write, so you’ll need time to write and revise several drafts. I suggest you write a time-line for yourself outlining the steps involved.

Tip: Give Your Referees Time

Keep in mind that many faculty members are doing fieldwork or are on holiday during the summer, and they have teaching and administrative demands once the semester starts. Give your referees ample time to write you a thoughtful letter of support.

Follow Instructions

Funding agencies and other donors usually publish application procedures on their websites. These procedures, particularly for the national granting agencies, are extremely detailed. For example, The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada requires single-spacing and Times New Roman, 12 pt. Applications that don’t meet the requirements go to the bottom of the pile, so follow all procedures to the letter.

Tip: Contact the Program Officer/Administrator to Help Manage the Letter-Writing Process

Universities have people who can clarify requirements and procedures for your application. Don’t hesitate to seek their advice. But you might not get a rapid response. Delays in responses from these people are another reason to start the process early.

Coach Your References

The committee evaluating the application will be reading a lot of reference letters, so if you are going to stand out, yours have to say something special. Think carefully about who can write—and has the time/capacity to write—a letter that helps you to stand out.

But remember, even the best referees can’t write a good letter if they don’t have the right information. Referees must know the agency’s selection criteria and enough about you to demonstrate how you meet these criteria. For example, Canada’s granting agencies are looking for leadership abilities. Suppose you have had four years of experience as a youth leader. Your referees need to be able to use this experience to illustrate your leadership skills. Don’t assume that your referees know the agency’s priorities, and don’t depend on your resume to tell them about your strengths and experiences. Point out the selection criteria and how you meet them.

Tip: Manage the Letter-Writing Process

You might suggest a meeting with your referees, so they have all the information they need. When you ask for the letter, communicate your deadlines and tell your referees that you will follow up with them on a specific date. Following up will keep the process on track and on time.

Engage Your Readers

If you want your application to stand out, you must engage your readers right from the first line of your research proposal. How are you going to attract their attention? You could immediately connect your research to a public concern. You could link your research to the funding agency’s goals. Or you could tell a compelling story. How has the writer of this winning grant proposal engaged the reader?

Eating is of course essential to survival. A core question driving studies of primate, mammalian, and vertebrate evolution is how different head sizes and shapes arose without compromising vital head functions and structures (e.g., teeth and the jaws that hold them). To eat, hunt, and ultimately survive to raise offspring, an animal’s teeth and jaws must develop properly in the right place, at the right time. Despite their importance for survival, the developmental-genetic processes that coordinate tooth and jaw growth remain a mystery. Explaining these processes is vital to understand how species develop, evolve, and adapt to a variety of foods.

This writer has told the story behind her research using simple, concrete images and active verbs that engage the senses. As I read this passage, I could imagine the heads and jaws of different animals as they eat and hunt.

How do you know if your writing is engaging? Check your nouns and verbs. Are your nouns concrete? Have you relied too much on the dull “is” and “are”? Have you used enough verbs? The more verbs, the more engaging your writing. Have you used too much passive voice? The proposal on animal head structures uses 15 verbs, none of which is in the passive voice. Have you varied sentence type and length? Have you used examples? Notice how the writer of this grant proposal uses the example of teeth and jaws to create a visual image.

Tip: Read Your Proposal Aloud to a Friend or Family Member

Ask your listener to close their eyes as you read? Can they form a mental picture of what you are saying? Does your proposal engage them?

Write Plainly

Scholarship selection committees comprise people from various academic backgrounds. These individuals are academics, but don’t assume they are specialists in your field. If you want them to understand your application, your language must be accessible.

But academic writers find writing plainly a challenge. For one thing they want to sound smart. For another, they are so familiar with their subject that they assume everyone else is, too. In the 1980s, a team of economists coined the term “the curse of knowledge” to describe this familiarity. They argued that knowledge is a curse when it hinders communication. To avoid the curse, write your research proposal for people who know nothing about it.

Here are some suggestions to help you write plainly: 

  • Keep jargon and abstractions to a minimum.
  • Define specialized terminology or use familiar terms.
  • Choose a crisp, understandable title.
  • Use examples to support your claims.
  • Keep your sentences under 30 words.
  • Use short words rather than longer alternatives (e.g., write use rather than utilize).
What would you think if a friend chose this title for the proposal section of her scholarship application?

Argument constituencies as a major impediment to epistemic success in consultations with Indigenous Peoples of Canada

You’d probably be mystified and have no idea what her research is about! You’d no doubt ask her what “argument constituencies” and “epistemic success” mean. And you’d probably diplomatically suggest that she simplify her title.

Here is the student’s revision. How has she improved the title?

Consultations with Indigenous Peoples of Canada:
Argument Positions Impede Success

This revised title is much clearer. The student has replaced the vague term “constituencies” with “position” and discarded the pompous (if accurate) adjective “epistemic.” She has also shortened the title and led with the main topic.

Tip: Ask Colleagues, Friends, or Family to Explain Your Research

Have them read your proposal. Then, ask them to tell you what your research is about. If they are unable to do so, your writing is not plain enough.

For more tips about how to write plainly, see this blog post on decluttering your writing:

Project Confidence

When drafting a proposal, academic writers often hedge to avoid overpromising. But to convince the committee that it should fund your research, you need to project confidence. Use future tenses to reveal confidence and certainty. The first of the two passages below is tentative and unsure. The second projects strength and certainty.

The proposed research has the potential to contribute to Canada’s capacity to manage the risk of contaminants entering public groundwater. It is hoped that this research will improve water management and monitoring strategies.

The proposed research will advance Canada’s capacity to manage the risk of contaminants entering public groundwater. This research will improve water management and monitoring strategies.

Tip: Weak Phrases to Avoid

It is hoped/I hope that the proposed research will contribute to …

The research has the potential to …

The research may make a difference in …

This research will likely/probably/possibly improve …

If all goes according to plan, …

Final Words

Your scholarship application is a persuasive, professional document that makes a case for your research. Your job is to convince the judges that you and your research deserve funding. If you follow the advice in this blog post, a winning outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it is more likely.

Thanks go to my former students for giving me permission to use their work, to Jim Hendry, former NSERC-Cameco Industrial Research Chair, University of Saskatchewan, and to Dr. Julia Boughner, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, University of Saskatchewan.

Heather Jane McWhinney

Heather McWhinney is a long-time academic editor and writing coach. Formerly graduate writing specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, Heather has helped thousands of students and professors become better writers. Her blog offers tips for expressing hard ideas clearly.
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