Designing Your Undergraduate Education

One way to view prestigious scholarships and fellowships is that they reward an ideal undergraduate education. While your professors and mentors can help you design such an education, you are its true architect. With that in mind, plan to:

Strive for Excellence in Your Coursework

  • Choose courses that are challenging.
  • Choose diverse courses that allow you to grow in knowledge outside your major.
  • In each course find something about which you can be passionate—and make that passion evident in your work.
  • Go ‘above and beyond‘ what your professors explicitly require in your written work, class participation, and preparation for each class session. Remember that such excellence will be reflected not only in course grades, but in how your professors think of you when they write letters of recommendation.
  • Remember that grades are not “the end of the story.” A less than perfect performance in a course, or on a given essay or exam, can be rescued by a willingness to revise the work, or better understand the material, even when such improvements will not be reflected in your course grade. Faculty admire students whose ambitions extend beyond grades. Show that you are such a scholar.

Seek Opportunities to Know and Be Mentored By Faculty

  • Go to office hours. Discuss with your professors aspects of their courses or their field of study that you want to understand better, or to ask questions about how to improve upon or develop the quality of your coursework. (If you produce “A” work in a course, invite your faculty to tell you what you can do to take your work to the next level of excellence.) Be open to their input and try to use it. Check back with them for further guidance.
  • Learn about your professors’ research—by reading it, and/or by discussing it with them, even if it it’s mostly “over your head.” You will gain a greater understanding of fields in which you have an interest, and of graduate level study generally, from the opportunity to dialogue with these authors and experts.
  • Actively seek opportunities to do research under the supervision of your professors. If you are unsure of what types of research activities are conducted in your field—ask faculty in your department. You might join an ongoing research program, or develop an independent research project of your own. Your faculty can help you refine your thinking about a project you propose in your major. Remember that you may be able to fund expenses associated with independent research projects by applying for scholarships.
  • For students who study abroad, take time to cultivate relationships with faculty at the foreign college or university with whom you might want to work after your bachelor’s degree, supported by an international fellowship or scholarship.

Pay Attention to Etiquette

The way you conduct yourself has consequences for how your mentors regard you. Reliability when you make commitments and graciousness in your communications go a long way toward encouraging faculty and other mentors to have confidence in you as a mature person to be enthusiastically recommended to the academy, future employers, and fellowship foundations. Consider sending an appreciative follow-up email or note for a helpful reference or an insightful meeting with a professor. Remember, too, that when you ask for letters of reference, courtesy demands that you explicitly thank your recommenders after they have submitted letters on your behalf, and that you keep them informed about the status of your applications. 

In this regard, show respect in your emails to your faculty. Several websites offer helpful advice for how to think about emails to professors. Read them and think about the approach you want to take that strikes a balance between the personality and approach of your professor, their level of formality or informality, your evolving relationship (if it does evolve), and the need to lead with a courteous and respectful attitude. See:

Remember, your communication reflects your own excellence, and creates the foundation for your professor's positive assessment of you. If you intend to go on to a professional career, you need them to begin respecting you now, because of your good judgement and attentiveness to your communication with them.

Expand Your Knowledge of the World

 Enrich your perspectives on people, places, and events. Consider undertaking travel and study abroad.

Equally important is to entertain fresh viewpoints by participating in intercultural events, attending lectures (Calendars of Lectures at SF State, UC Berkeley, and Stanford), following the news, and reading broadly (Recommended Texts and Dictionaries). Read scholarly and professional journals in your field of interest.

  • Resources: To find the top journals in your field, consult with your faculty for recommendations, and then consult a librarian for how to gain access to these journals. Journals in your field may be accessible on our library’s website (SF State Library Articles Search). Ensure that journals you are consulting are ‘peer reviewed’ or ‘refereed’ academic journals. Your faculty will be able to verify this, as would a reference librarian in your field (SF State Librarians by Discipline).

Conduct Research in Your Field

Whether you are working on an independent research project or as part of a team, as a researcher you are positioned to be an active contributor to knowledge in your field, rather than merely a recipient of knowledge. In the process of conducting research and writing about your ideas and findings, you will gain an understanding of your field and its methods far and above what you could gain by classroom experience alone.

Consider also sharing your findings at undergraduate research conferences, which will give you experience communicating your research to peers and faculty in your discipline.

Gain Experience

Fellowship boards want to know that you not only have an interest, but that you are doing something about it. Intern, work, or volunteer to gain experience in your field. Use every summer productively. Start looking for such experiences now. The fellowship advisor is available to assist you in developing your application for many of the nationally competitive internship opportunities in the U.S. or abroad listed on this website (Prestigious National Internships, Prestigious International Internships).

Be, In Your Own Way, a Leader

Work to improve the world beyond the classroom. Give generously of your time to support public service or volunteer programs dedicated to addressing social problems or needs about which you care most. Think about what you can do beyond “lending a hand,” and then dedicate yourself to doing it. If a service or program or does not yet exist to address a need you see, consider developing one that will. Seek out professors and other mentors to help you think through how to implement your goals. Convince likeminded folks to help. Consider fundraising or applying for scholarships to fund your initiatives.

Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities that Are Meaningful to You

There are no formulaic ‘best” activities. What is important is how you think about these activities: what value you see in them.

Consider Submitting Essays to Undergraduate Conferences and Journals

Prior recognition by editorial boards that vet the caliber of undergraduate scholarship (will affirm your sense of personal excellence and) will enhance your profile in the eyes of foundation selection committees. Working to improve your essays for submission to such journals will also have salutary effects on your writing.

Consider Competing for Scholarships and Awards

Fellowship applications usually ask for a list of honors and awards. Recognition by scholarship committees provides evidence that you have been willing to compete, and have been adjudged worthy of selection in merit-based competitions.

Develop Your Communication Skills

The most prestigious national fellowships frequently interview their finalists. To ensure that you are prepared for such an opportunity, take courses in the liberal arts tradition to develop your skills and to learn how to construct effective arguments. The skills you gain will help you develop strong fellowship essays—and, if your fellowship application process requires an interview, will help equip you to speak effectively about your ideas.

Reflect Upon Your Credentials and Goals

Take time to reflect upon what it is that most speaks to you and most nourishes you in your various activities and pursuits. Doing so will help you clarify your direction in life, and help reveal what steps you should follow to reach your goals. It will also help you determine which scholarships, fellowships, internships, or research opportunities best fit your situation. The Fellowship Advisor is a prime resource for you: meet with her to develop new ways of thinking about the significance of your activities, goals, and priorities.

This page has been adapted, with the permission of Jim Hohenbary, from “Becoming a Strong Candidate for Scholarships,” Kansas State University.

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Dr. Joy Viveros

Phone: 415.405.2128
Fax: 415.405.0340
Reception: The Hub, ADM 250 
1600 Holloway Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94132