How To Get A STEM Scholarship

There’s no easy way of saying this: college is expensive and for now, the price only going one direction, up. This can be a daunting future for parents who have invested their all into ensuring their child’s success and are now waiting for the final step of the best college education. Luckily, talent often begets the interest of those who want to recognize or develop it by accounting for the financial investment that goes into nurturing such talent in the first place. Nowhere is this best illustrated than the myriad of scholarships available to students and parents.

Scholarships represent the best and most accessible way to get paid for past and anticipated future achievements. While you can find scholarships to support any field of study, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) scholarships are a hot-button topic. The growing presence of STEM scholarships mirrors the increasing number of students who are choosing to pursue careers in science. There are several explanations for this trend, not least of which is purely demographic. As STEM industries push to become more inclusive and accepting, the number of students entering these fields is also increasing.  Scholarships represent an excellent way of nurturing students that help bridge these demographic gaps on top of increasing engagement with scientific careers. More importantly, however, is the omnipresence of technological advancement. With this exponential increase in scientific ability and capacity comes the space and need for students to explore it and develop it further. And all scholarship providers, from the tiniest memorial fund to Google, want to be a part of the story of the greatest minds of tomorrow.

Choosing a scholarship can often be a complicated and muddled process. There are many out there that offer anything from $500 to several thousand in rewards, but none have a negligible application process, although some are, of course, easier than others. There is also nothing precluding students from applying to multiple scholarships, other than potential time constraints. The first step is of course to identify those that are appropriate for one’s interests and extant achievements. How much money are you looking for? Are you willing to commit to a future career in exchange for said funding? For example, the Department of Defense’s SMART scholarship provides a substantial stipend in exchange for several years of service after graduation.

Do research on past award winners. Ask yourself how you compare and what you think you would add to the roster of past candidates. If there is one scholarship in particular that students or parents are keen on, don’t be afraid to model extracurriculars earlier in high school and college on the experiences of past award winners. However, students should avoid activities they dislike simply because they are under the impression that these activities will maximize their chances for a future scholarship. Colleges and scholarship awarders always know when students are faking it.

An oft-ignored upside to scholarships, in addition to alleviating the financial burden of higher education, is their ability to provide a quantifiable measure of success that sets students apart from the plethora of great grades at the top of their fields. Some students choose to do research that will lead to publication. While this is a great route, not all lead researchers are amenable to giving undergraduates a publishing byline, favoring those who have at least graduated from college, if not those who are further in their career and education. Conversely, not all students are able to fully ingratiate themselves into their teams either. Similarly, some students choose to enter competitions that demonstrate their initiative and innovation. These can be great experiences for both high school and college students to cut their teeth in practical applications of their scientific knowledge and provide vital talking points for the application process, regardless of whether they win. However, not all students have a specific idea or solution to the scientific problems we face today, least of all at young ages. Many are high achievers with talent and a propensity toward a scientific subject of their choice. Scholarships are therefore a great way of demonstrating excellence and potential in a subject without committing to a specific idea, while eliminating the fear and uncertainty lacking a tangible award to list on graduate or job applications.

The largest downside of scholarships is that few are available to high school students. Though not impossible to come by, high school is better spent focusing on setting yourself to get scholarships in college and further down the line. Grades come first, that’s a rule that cannot be circumvented. In an ideal world, grades would perfect all the time. Realistically, however, this won’t always happen. Students should pay special attention to subjects that interest them, but never allow humanities classes to fall by the wayside. Not only are people looking to award scholarships to well-rounded students, but humanities also play a valuable role in developing communication, writing, and critical thinking skills, all of which are highly valued in all future endeavors. As aforementioned, do extracurriculars that you love and are passionate about. I tend to avoid recommending a specific extracurricular activity only because it’s not quite what you do, but more about what you learn from it. Avoid jumping between interests; longitudinal experiences are always preferable to many short-lived experiences. The only exception to this would be a short internship or career-goal related experience during the summers of junior and senior years (or earlier, if that’s what the student wants). Most importantly, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, always participate in community service. As with extracurriculars, avoiding jumping between interests. Rather, find something you love and stick with doing your best to effect change in that field. As you get deeper in the process of finding the scholarships that suit you best, you will find that commitment to leadership and community service is a highly sought-after attribute.

As aforementioned, the dearth of high school scholarships means that focusing on college scholarships often proves to be a much more realistic and lucrative endeavor. However, even the most motivated and bright of students recognize that college is a time for personal, and not just professional, discovery. How can parents ensure that their kids still have the best chance of getting scholarships that reflect their academic strengths and professional interests in such a critical time of self-discovery?

Tutors are an excellent source of wisdom for students and parents alike. Of course, they help reinforce concepts, maintain good grades, and help pupils maintain an appropriate pace as the semester goes on and the work piles up. But they also help provide perspective. For parents, tutors hopefully represent a tangible end goal or trajectory that betters their understanding of what their child is going through. Talking to someone who sees students in similar situations on a regular basis helps reassure any concerns they may have about their child’s progress or focus. Conversely, students appreciate a pragmatic voice that can help clearly lay out the steps they need to take to achieve their goals while balancing their desire to develop independence and find their identity.

Another important way of maximizing the chance of being awarded a STEM scholarship is being crafty in the way you structure your classes in college. As most scholarships are given out to rising sophomores (if not to older students), students cannot discount the value of one year or one semester simply because it’s early on in their education. There is, of course, some leeway, but even by the end of your child’s first year, it’s important to make sure they have covered enough classes to demonstrate excellence in their chosen science without making your course-load too easy, too heavy, or too hard. If courses are too easy, students fall into a fall sense of security for future years. Overload students or make their classes too hard and they won’t have developed enough skills to do well.

I recommend all students to take a statistics class that reflects both their existing knowledge and intended utility. For example, a student who aims to research should aim for a more advanced foundation in data analysis. One who is interested in biology but has little mathematical maturity is better off doing an introductory class without adding an incredibly difficult or heavy component to their course load. The logic behind my emphatic focus on statistics is that it helps to give students an advantage when parsing through data and studies they will encounter in their harder sciences.

However, specific science classes one takes will depend on their interests. Engineering, computer science, or physics-inclined students should absolutely start with a math that reflects the last level they left off at in high school; the same goes for their physics classes. Those who prefer chemistry or biology should follow suit respectively, but I advise against taking both in one year unless the student is motivated enough to follow through completely or is taking the easier of the available introductory classes. If appropriate or possible, start with the level two classes in the subject that interests you the most. Interpose these hard sciences with humanities classes. Although humanities and English classes are mostly pre-assigned and mandatory in the first year, students must approach them with the same rigor and focus as their desired STEM subjects. As aforementioned, they are vital in developing the critical thinking and writing skills needed to analyze scientific information and convey it in a comprehensible manner.

As in high school, never ignore extracurriculars. Feel free to continue with those you started in your younger days, or explore the opportunities now afforded to your as a college student. Note that these experiences need not be unpaid; plenty of students find part-time jobs to supplement their income while building a relevant CV. As always, never forget community service. I cannot emphasize its value in determining who is awarded a scholarship in addition to its utility for graduate school and eventual employment. Again, you don’t have to pursue the same interest as you did in high school, but I find that spending at least a year on each interest volunteering about once a week is an appropriate time to immerse yourself in the project while demonstrating a commitment to your cause. More importantly, learning from others while helping them is a deeply rewarding and eye-opening experience that helps broaden your perspective of the world. That in itself is one of the greatest privileges of having the opportunity to give back to the lives of those less fortunate than you.

Ultimately, if you are pursuing scholarships, the end goal of your first year of college is to demonstrate a high level of mastery in the subjects without ignoring your development as an individual. Given all the advice in this article, I appreciate how flippant these words might be given how daunting and grand of a task it is to develop as a healthy and socially aware person while also being a top student. Balance is everything. With balance comes prioritization but also an understanding of where to draw the line, whether it be on your fun time or your studies. Remember that although these grades and achievements will follow you forever, so will the lessons you learn from your friends, surroundings, and other non-scholastic factors in your development. I leave you with a parting thought: scholarships may reward mastery, dedication, and passion, but true excellence is a holistic attribute.

Noodle Pro Rachel Lipton is an expert science (and more!) tutor. She graduated with a 3.97 GPA and a 522 (99th percentile) on her MCAT, with a perfect score on the verbal section.