Confessions of a Scholarship Interview Panelist

I’ve found myself to be in the fortunate position to sit on a scholarship interview panel that gives away $1 Million every year.

To be more specific, I get a vote in choosing 15 high school seniors who will receive a full ride from the Terry Foundation to either the University of Texas at Austin or Texas A&M. By full ride, I mean the cost of attendance. There are stark differences between what schools and governments consider tuition/fees and room and board and the actual cost of attendance. For the best perspective on this, I’d recommend Sara Goldrick-Rab’s book “Paying the Price.”

The aim of the Terry Foundation is to meet the student’s need for cost of attendance. That means we calculate the full cost to attend their respective university as well as graduate debt free. This is a different concept than the Bernie Sanders-style “tuition-free” public college. Tuition-free still means the student must pay for the cost to live and eat, which are financial matters that the Terry Foundation covers. The Terry Foundation wants the student to focus 100% on their academic goals and not be concerned with loans or part-time jobs.

The Terry Foundation has three pillars: Academics, Leadership, Need. Academics and Leadership are self-explanatory, and Need is relatively subjective to the family’s situation. My goal as an interviewer is to understand how all three of these pillars relate to the student in thirty minutes. Here is a documentary about the organization — you can see my face at 10:48.

I’ve been blessed to be part of the Terry Foundation for over a decade and I’ve been involved in 5 years of conducting interviews. This year, for the first time, I’ve been asked to be the chair of an interview panel. Every April, you can find me pouring over their applications. This blog entry contains my thoughts on what high school students, their families, and their high school teachers/counselors should be thinking about with this process.

These are my thoughts alone and do not reflect any official opinion of the Terry Foundation.

What is your why?

So you’re an all around great student and people seem to like you. But why are you a great student? Are you just following the rules? Are you making good grades because that’s what good students do? Do you run for officer positions because your school needs someone to do it and you stepped up? Why did you step up? Why do you care if you’re a good student?

Every year I read profiles of students, their essays, and their letters of rec and I’ll summarize many of them simply as “small town hero.” That’s not intended to be a good thing or a bad thing. I was the lead in my first grade play. Why? Because my teachers knew my parents would make me memorize the lines. I didn’t want to be an actor nor did I demonstrate any skill to qualify me for that role.

I’m always trying to figure out if the student has an incredible resume because they sought out opportunities or if their community defaulted to them being the leader. It’s 100% OK if that’s the situation. But what did you do with it? Did you take on the President of the NHS role and then the historical status quo of the organization was maintained? I don’t care if you were president. I care what you did when there was an opportunity to make something happen. So instead of saying things like “Leadership was demonstrated when I became president of X, Y, and Z organizations… ,” why not tell me about the thing that needed someone to step up and what you did about it.

Calling out your lack of a sob story is a cliché in and of itself

It’s perfectly OK to grow up in a white, middle class family with parents who are still married and to not have overcome a life threatening disease. I think people hear the tragic stories of their peers and then internalize their lack of a sob story as some sort of weakness on college applications. A frequent occurrence is for students to directly draw attention to the fact that they haven’t had anything horrible happen to them.

I’ve read the subtle plea for help in former students’ letters when they said, “Because I’m not a minority many scholarships don’t apply to me.” I understand where that sentiment is coming from but it’s really unnecessary to point out and personally it makes me feel uncomfortable. And to be honest, I don’t really care. What I care about is what happens when you are given an opportunity. Students who have overcome a lot to get where they are can more directly demonstrate what they do when the going gets tough.

What do you do when challenges arise? I want to know how you’ll respond the first test you bomb. I want to know what will happen the first time you realize you’re not going to be a doctor because most students are going to have a fixed (and incorrect) idea of what success looks like. When that idea changes, I want to know how you’ll come out of it better and stronger.

Don’t claim a passion that isn’t demonstrable

Every year I read a student say they want to be a doctor, vet, environmental champion, lawyer, etc. And then when I dig into their activities, I see nothing to connect their major or professional goals to their daily life.

A student once claimed to be really into environmental activism and was interested in pursuing environmental science as their major. As I am academically trained in that field, I asked for some examples of ways they connected to the topics. The student couldn’t come up with anything. If you want to be a vet but have never volunteered in an animal shelter, I’m going to question if you’re just trying to play the part of “ambitious teen.”

But at the same time, I’m not giving you the scholarship so you can become what you put down on paper when you were 17. In fact, I doubt 50% of my candidates end up with a career in what they wrote down on their application. I’m not voting for your ability to become a doctor. I’m voting for your ability to be successful in whatever it is you pursue. I want you to be flexible in your success.

If you go to a private high school, explicitly explain how that is possible

I’ve worked in a few private schools and I understand that not every student who attends pays full tuition. If your parent works at the school or you’re on a scholarship to attend, call that out directly. It helps me understand your situation. Otherwise, your financial need in regard to the scholarship’s requirements will be in question. This also applies to expensive hobbies. If you horse race or play in club sports you may want to explain your funding for these activities in your essays.

If it’s in your resume/transcript, I don’t need to read about it in your letter of rec

Attn. high school teachers and counselors: this one is for you.

I don’t need you to reiterate the clubs for which the student is an officer. That’s already in their resume. If your entire letter is filled with things I already know about, then I’m going to either assume no one trained you on how to write a letter of rec or that you don’t know the student that well. In either case, you didn’t help the student.

I’m looking for an adult perspective of what the student does when the student faces a challenge. I’m looking for your ranking of the student relative to their peers and relative to your history in the profession. I’m looking for anecdotes that clearly describe the student in a way they themselves cannot explain yet. I want to connect the dots of their historical success to the investment I’m trying to make in their future potential.

I care about you holistically

I generally make note of your core academic performance, but I don’t care that much. I personally don’t make note of your GPA or your SAT scores (but some other interviewers do). As long as they’re above a certain threshold, I don’t care anymore.

If you scored 1400 on the SAT and someone else scored a 1300, it doesn’t really change anything. I will, however, take into consideration your upbringing and access to resources. The only time I really take note of SAT/ACT scores is when a student comes from a place where no resources exist and they still get above a 1300. But in general, I don’t really care. I’d much rather read an essay about a thing that you care about deeply and dedicated hours of work to. That “thing” you care about can be ANYTHING. Just demonstrate to me that you know what it’s like to dive into something and make magic happen.

If you don’t get scholarships, it doesn’t mean that you’re not deserving

Students and families so frequently confuse scholarships as their reward for their success. Truthfully, their reward is getting into their college and major of choice and the intrinsic satisfaction of reaching that goal. For some students, scholarship money is the difference between attending and not attending. It’s the difference maker in changing the entire trajectory of their family.

Finances are a particularly painful subject for many people. It’s deeply personal. I don’t want students to associate the scholarship to their personal worth or what they deserve. My main hope is that when I meet students for their allotted 30 minutes, they can show me who they are. I am looking for students who have the ability to reflect upon their life and draw mature conclusions about how they will operate in this world. I want to the scholarship money to accomplish two things: 1) change the trajectory for the student, and 2) benefit the trajectory of the Terry Foundation.