University of California, Riverside

Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity



Tips for Preparing Competitive Applications


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Tips for Preparing Competitive Applications

Listed below are the components that will be required for competitive awards and applications for admission to graduate/professional programs. Students are urged to seek advice from the Director of the National Prestigious Scholarships and Awards Program, as well as from faculty and departmental advisors regarding the preparation of competitive applications. 

Knowledge is power, students are encouraged take time to research scholarship, fellowship, and award opportunities as early as possible to understand the requirements and allow enough time to build a strong resume.  The NPSA Awards Site is a good starting resource.

-       Attend campus workshops that provide professional development opportunities.

-       Seek opportunities outside of the classroom to expand the undergraduate learning experience

-       Seek out campus resources and advisors to maximize success

  • A record of strong academic performance and leadership in activities outside of the classroom will be necessary to gain positive outcomes when applying to scholarships/fellowships.
  • Faculty and advisors are good resources for involvement in scholarships/fellowships.
-      Make an action plan
  • Set personal deadlines well in advance of the actual deadline. 
    • Take into consideration other commitments, ie. if you plan to take the GRE or have a midterm
  • Begin working on essays well in advance to allow time for editing.  Winning essays will take multiple revisions.  Be considerate of your time and others who are helping you.

-       Speak to advisors who will provide support during the process.

Attention to detail is an important skill in putting an application together. 

-       Read all of the fine print for each program of interest and understand the deadlines and required materials. 

  • Make note of all deadlines, including any institutional deadlines that may precede the organization’s deadlines. You can double check the institutional deadline at the Prestigious Scholarships website.

-       Know the date and time that the application is due.  Be cautious to note the deadline time-zone, for example the Mitchell Scholarship has a 5PM Eastern Time deadline, this means 2pm California time. 

  • Application deadlines are strictly enforced.  Planning ahead to meet the deadline a day or two before the published deadline will help to deal with any unexpected glitches.  A time line for completing each application should be developed and strictly followed, a good resource is the NPSA Planning Guide.
  • Remember to be considerate of people's time, especially when requesting a letter of recommendation, or support in reading your draft essays.

Students are solely responsible for ensuring that all application components are submitted by the application deadline.  Most application components include:

-       The application

-       Essays: personal statement, project proposal/plan of study, any additional required essays

-       Transcripts

  • Read the application requirements – most awards require official transcripts from all schools ever attended, even if the grades are listed on the UCR transcript
  • It is a good idea to have a few copies of sealed transcripts on hand

-       Letters of recommendation

  • Deadlines are strictly enforced.  It is the applicant's responsibility to follow up with the letter writers to ensure timely submission

“Winning” applications are based on how a candidate looks on paper. That is why planning applications early and going the extra mile to ensure that all components of the application are as impressive as possible is so important.  

Outstanding Undergraduate Record:

 Students should always strive to achieve the highest possible GPA

-       While grades are not everything, often admissions and scholarship/fellowship committees use this criteria as a cut off for initial consideration.  Having a GPA of at least 3.5, and as high as 4.0, is necessary in order to represent a student of the highest caliber.  Make sure you know the GPA minimum required for the award.

-       In addition to a strong GPA your transcript should demonstrate a rigorous course load and breadth in coursework. 

  • Physics major with electives in social work or philosophy.
  • Accounting major with electives in history.
  • English major who learned computer programming.
  • Engineering major who minored in a foreign language.
Recognition by national honor societies:

-       Research the Honor Societies you are invited to join to understand the selection criteria, participation expectations, membership fees, history of the society, etc.  A good resource to evaluate an honor society's credibility is the Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS).  This association sets high standards of excellence for certification.  You can find a list of member societies on the ACHS site.  You should note that PBK and PKP are not members of this organization since their reputation is unquestioned.

-       Questions to ask yourself when deciding if an honor society is "right" for you:

  • How selective is the honor society?  
  • Does the honor society offer professional development or networking opportunities? Scholarships? Corporate discounts? On-campus events or community service opportunities?  
  • Does membership require a time commitment?    
  • What are the membership fees? (one-time or annual?)

-       Faculty and professional staff are good resources to ask about distinguished honor societies in your field.  Listed below are a sampling of national society chapters on the UCR campus: 

Distinguishing Achievements:

Evaluators look for evidence of participation and leadership in university life, community service, and achievements outside of the regular classroom.

-     This provides evidence that candidates possess an exceptional level of motivation and management skills, and whose innovation in their fields will lead to careers where they make significant contributions to society.

UCR offers many opportunities for students to become involved:

-     Student leadership

-     Campus organizations

-     Internships (Academic InternshipsUCDC,UCCS)

-     Educational opportunities off campus 

-     University Honors

-     Undergraduate Research Journal

-     Undergraduate Research Symposium

Additionally, UCR offers programs that support faculty mentored research and assist students in developing the skill for proposal writing:

-     UCR Student Mini-Grants 

-     Chancellor's Research Fellows 

Students should also talk to advisors about ways to get involved in community service projects.

-       The goal of these activities should be to make a contribution to the organization while gaining first-hand experience managing projects and meeting goals.  

-       Students should focus on getting involved in activities that are of genuine interest, and focus on career paths.

-       Participation in these types of activities will build a résumé of distinctions that will help to present a full picture of the student's capabilities. 

Honors Societies at UCR:

Phi Beta Kappa – The nation’s oldest, largest and most prestigious academic honor society, was founded on December 5, 1776 by five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The UCR chapter, designated Iota of California, was chartered in 1964. UCR faculty members nominate students to become inductee’s of this prestigious society. Election to Phi Beta Kappa is very competitive, based on grade point average and other selection criteria. Each year, approximately five percent of the graduating class (seniors) and one percent of juniors are elected to UCR’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

Alpha Lambda Delta – A national society that honors academic excellence during a student's first year at college.

Gamma Beta Phi Society – The national honors society in all undergraduate fields of study.

Gamma Sigma Delta – The honors society of agriculture.

Golden Key International Honors Society – A national honors society in all undergraduate fields of study.

National Society of Collegiate Scholars – An honors organization which recognizes outstanding academic achievement among first- and second-year students and encourages members to develop leadership skills through community service.

Omicron Delta Kappa – The national leadership honors society for college students, recognizes and encourages superior scholarship, leadership and exemplary character.

Omicron Delta Epsilon – The international honors society of economics.

Phi Alpha Theta – History honors society.

Pi Sigma Alpha – The national honors society for political science.

Psi Chi – The national honors society in psychology.

Sigma Xi – The international research society.

Tau Beta Pi – The engineering honors society founded in 1885 by Edward H. Williams Jr. It’s dedicated to integrity and excellence in engineering

Tau Sigma - A National Honors Society open only to students who have transferred from other campuses to UCR, and then received a 3.5 or higher GPA in their first quarter here.Tau Sigma is specially designed to promote academic and personal excellence as well as campus involvement of transfer students.

Undergraduate research provides an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real world issues under the supervision of a faculty mentor.

-       Use UCR’s Undergraduate Research Portal to find current faculty-led research opportunities.

-       Talk to faculty you have taken courses with about volunteer opportunities in on-going research projects.

-       Look at the departmental faculty webpages to identify and contact faculty involved in the research interest area.

-       Students can also develop their own research focus and seek faculty advisors to mentor the work.  These ideas may result from involvement in the following:

-       Whenever possible students should seek opportunities to publish and present their research findings

-       Other opportunities for students to seek research experience include: 

Letters of recommendation are crucial for successful award and admission applications. A strong letter of recommendation goes beyond the standard language of praise for academic achievement.  The letter should include specific distinguishing remarks that testify to a student’s unique capacity to carry out her/his proposed plans, leadership capacity, and potential to make an impact in the discipline. Earning a strong letter of recommendation comes from developing a strong relationship with a professor years before the letter of recommendation is needed.  Tips on earning a strong letter of recommendation include:

-       Utilize office hours to get to know professors. 

  • Discuss your long term goals and seek advice on how to achieve them.
  • Be inquisitive and ask for recommended readings to further your knowledge.

-       Enroll in a series of courses with specific professors, so that the professors can develop a solid academic basis for offering a strong endorsement.

-       Volunteer in ongoing research projects sponsored by a professor.  This provides a great opportunity to get to know the professor, and demonstrate your skills and development as a researcher.

-       Be mindful of the professor’s time.

  • As a courtesy, professors should be provided at least 2-3 weeks’ notice when requesting a letter of recommendation. 
  • The professor should also be provided with information that will make the letter writing simple:
    • Draft personal statement, and any other required essays.
    • Information on the opportunity you are applying to
      • the award’s mission statement and web link
    • Resume
    • Transcript
    • Sample of your work (if appropriate)
    • Recommended highlights you want the letter writer to consider including in the letter. 
    • Deadline for when the letter needs to mailed or uploaded.  Any special instructions, particularly for awards that require a campus endorsement.

The personal statement should make a strong case for why the award and the student are a good fit, and why the award would benefit from the student’s participation in its intellectual/scientific/arts community. The essay should be written in a manner that captures the reader’s attention and makes them excited to get to know “you”.

  • Make a specific and compelling presentation of who you are, including where you have come from, what you have accomplished, your future goals, and how those components fit with the award’s purpose.  Read "Helping Students Tell Their Stories", Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Utilize the writing support resources of the Academic Resource Center.  Jennifer Kavetsky is the Writing Specialists who partners with Student Success Programs in supporting applications to prestigious scholarships.  Make an appointment to see her as soon as you feel you have a strong draft essay
  • Allow time for editing several drafts of the document.  Great essays take several drafts and months to develop.
  •  Do not be shy about asking friends, faculty, advisors, alums of the award, or people in the career field for their advice. 

It is important to demonstrate your appreciation for the support you receive during your application process by sending a thank you card.  This small gesture of appreciation will ensure that faculty, staff, letter writers, etc. know that you followed through with the application.  Remember to keep them informed of your progress in the competition.

More Information

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