Everyone knows the cost of college is cray. 😖
It can create serious retirement speed bumps for parents…
…and it only gets worse with every passing year. 📈
But for students and parents who are super on top of their 💩, there is a real path – through scholarships and fellowships – to make the cost of college (and grad school) FREE.
Not only that, if you’re really good and write superb applications, you can even get PAID to attend.
They say, “There’s tons of free money out there for college; you just have to know where to look.”
Well, so…where’s all that free money? And how can you get it?
This week, I talk in-depth with Shirag Shemmassian, PhD, about the exact tips and tactics you need to win scholarships hand over fist, so that you can attend college and grad school for free…or even get paid to attend.
Shirag is a university admissions expert and founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, where he has helped students win admission to every elite college in the country.
As someone who himself won over $200k in scholarships, Shirag’s insights are pure gold, so for you neurotic parents out there, this is an episode you won’t want to miss.
What you’ll learn:
- The biggest myths and misconceptions when it comes to winning scholarships
- The 4 key places to find scholarships and the pros and cons of each
- How to write a superb scholarship application (and do it super efficiently again and again)
- How to ask for standout recommendation letters
- How the game up-levels (and differs) for the most prestigious and competitive scholarships in the world (Coca-Cola, Gates, Goldwater, Rhodes, Marshall, Soros, Fulbright, Truman)
- How to prepare for interviews with these scholarship selection committees
What tips / advice resonate most? If you’re a parent of a successful scholarship student, what other tips did you find effective for winning scholarships? Let me know by leaving a comment when you’re done.
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Links mentioned in this episode:
- The Ultimate Guide to Finding and Winning College Scholarships
- Shemmassian Academic Consulting
- HYW private Facebook community
Read this episode as a post:
My guest today is Dr. Shirag Shemmassian. Shirag is a university admissions expert and founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, and is focused primarily on college and medical school admissions.
He has helped students win admission to, I think, every elite college and medical school that you can just about think of, and is expanding his services into graduate school admissions as well.
He’s a graduate of Cornell University. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from UCLA. And he is the winner of a lot of scholarships, over $200,000 worth, spanning undergrad and grad school, including the coveted Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
He’s been featured in The Washington Post, NBC, and the Huffington Post, among others.
Shirag, thanks so much for joining us today to share insights and tips about how to win competitive and elite academic scholarships.
I’m excited because I think this will be a really valuable conversation for parents in the audience who might have academically bright kids headed to college in the coming years. So thank you for joining us today to share your wisdom with us.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 2:17
Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Andrew. I appreciate your kind words.
Andrew Chen 2:21
I’d love to start just by learning a little bit more about your background. Just to help folks orient in our audience, could you talk about how do you get into the business of university admissions consulting in the first place?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 2:33
Yeah. I think initially it was motivated by self-interest.
I went to a high school that’s been around probably for 60 plus years now, a very small high school in L.A., an Armenian school. My parents were really keen on my brother and me learning Armenian culture and history and language, which was great in a lot of ways, but it was an issue when it came to college admissions because there wasn’t very good college counseling support.
And the thought is you should go to a local school, stay in the community, and so on. But I just had other aspirations and I realized, “If I’m going to achieve those aspirations, then I’m going to have to be self-taught.”
So I started learning everything I could about college admissions and scholarships because my family couldn’t really pay much for college. I grew up in a very middle class household. I’ll put it that way.
And so I was able to gain admission to Cornell and receive a bunch of scholarships. And along the way, people were just asking me for help.
“Hey, I’m applying for this thing, this school, or this scholarship,” or what have you. And the requests were pouring in.
And I’m just an admissions nerd. I really do like this stuff. Most people do it, they just sigh in relief and move on with their lives, but I just really like what’s behind the curtain with admissions.
And then just as the requests grew, word of mouth and otherwise, and I was enjoying it, and our students were having success, I was like, “Okay, this is a thing.”
And I’ve always had the itch to do something entrepreneurial. And that’s how it began.
But initially, it was not at all “I’m going to start a business around this sort of thing.” It’s just something I love doing. And our students were successful, and the rest is history.
Andrew Chen 4:28
So at this point, you’ve advised many students to successful admissions to pretty much all the elite programs in the country. When you look back in your consulting work, what do you think makes you especially effective as an admissions consultant?
Because there’s a lot of admissions consultants. Not all of them have the same track record. Why aren’t there more consultants like you in that regard?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 4:52
It’s definitely an easy field to enter in a lot of ways. You can say, “I’ve gone to these schools and, therefore, I’m now helping other people.” But I think it’s a few things.
First of all, before I jump into what I think sets us apart, I do want to give a shout out to the students that we support. Because at the end of the day, we are supporting people and nudging them to achieve their best results, but it’s not all on us.
We can’t perform in school for our students. We don’t actually take the standardized tests or anything like that. So major props to the students and their parents who prep them for admissions as well.
But I think it comes to a few key things. One is a very deliberate approach to admissions.
Most students will look around and they’ll say, “What are Jim and Sally doing? I’m going to do what they’re doing because they seem to know what’s going on.”
Or “A kid last year from my school got into Yale. What did they do? I’m just going to follow their path or try to be ‘well-rounded’ and take all the hardest classes and join all these clubs.”
And that’s not deliberate at all. Deliberate means you consider what you want to do and how you want to stand out and being very narrow-minded in that way. And we help students basically weed out all of the busy but not impressive extracurriculars so that they can build a unique profile.
And then the other piece is just building relationships with our students, getting to know them on a personal level, so that we can then guide their writing across their application materials.
Because, yes, you have great numbers. Yes, you have great extracurriculars. So many students do who are trying to get into Ivy Leagues and MIT and Stanford.
But only the best students are the ones who communicate all that stuff very well: why they did it, how it has shaped them, how it’s going to serve as a springboard for their success in college and beyond.
So by helping craft that narrative that starts, frankly, through the work you do in freshman and sophomore and junior year, and then delivering that message eventually during senior year, I think it’s taking that deliberate long term view with the process.
Andrew Chen 7:09
Gotcha. That’s really insightful.
And getting in is just half the battle. There’s also the aspect about paying for it. And there’s certainly a financial aid process that students and parents go through.
But there’s also a scholarship process that can help offset a lot of the costs of higher education. Like in your own case, you talk about on your blog, and I think I’ve come across other podcasts that you’ve done where you talk about how you yourself won over $200,000 in scholarships all-in across undergrad and grad school.
What were the most effective strategies, at least at a high level before we dive into the specifics, that made you successful in that regard?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 7:51
Sure. And I’d love to contextualize this a little bit, if that’s all right, Andrew, and talk about the different types of aid.
There is merit aid and need-based aid. And they’re exactly how they sound.
Merit-based aid is aid given to students based on merit. If you’re a super top performer and they want to recruit you and commend you for your great grades and your extracurricular performance, etc., in other words, if they consider you a top applicant, then you will get varying degrees of merit aid anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a full ride.
And then there’s need-based aid which is based purely on financial needs. The Ivy League schools, for instance, offer no merit-based aid because everyone who applies there is so worthy of merit-based aid and high achievers, so how do you decide, basically?
And so they said, “Look, with our financial aid pot, we’re going to help only people with need-based aid.”
And then other schools, if it’s a less prestigious school, they’re going to want to attract stronger and stronger students, so they’re going to offer more merit-based aid to hopefully sway a student away from a more prestigious school. That’s the basic thinking around this.
So based on what your family’s financial situation is and your achievement level, certain options may be available to you, whereas others might not be available to you.
For me, because my family couldn’t afford, when I went to Cornell, the tuition (just tuition, not living expenses and all that kind of stuff) was $32,000, and they gave me $29,000 in need-based aid. And so that was great.
And the thing is, a lot of times, parents will see the sticker prices of private schools and they’re like, “We can’t apply there because that’s so expensive.” Except the richest schools tend to be the ones who are most generous, especially when it comes to need-based aid.
So make sure, all of you parents and students out there, to look at net price calculators and put your family’s financial information because then you can find out, “If we got in, what would the cost be?” and then make a decision based on that. And usually the numbers that those calculators spit out are quite close to what your actual aid packet will be.
So that’s need-based aid.
But then of course, there was that $3000 Delta as well as living expenses, traveling home for holidays, and things of that nature. And for those, I sought out a bunch of different scholarships. And that was for merit-based aid.
So I found little private scholarships here and there. And we’ll talk about, of course, the search and stuff like that in a moment.
But scholarships for kids with disabilities, because I grew up with Tourette syndrome, or scholarships for Armenian students, because I’m Armenian-American, or all of these different little things.
And then of course, in graduate school, I received fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship Organization. And those were more for field-specific and achievement-specific types of things, even though the ethnic scholarships I’ve continued to receive through graduate school.
Andrew Chen 11:25
Gotcha. Okay. Thanks for sharing that background.
When we think about competitive scholarships, whether they have a need-based component or not, but they have some competitive component, what are some of the biggest myths or conceptions that parents or students might have when it comes to applying for and winning these types of competitive scholarships?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 11:54
Everyone hears this phrase of “There’s so much money out there. You just got to find it.”
It’s like, “Well, okay, where is the money? How do I find it? How do I get it?”
And so it’s a very confusing process, even though all these scholarship organizations want all the applications they can get. They’re trying to give out money, but it’s hard to find.
Most people will focus on the opportunities that are very popular or very easy to find. And so the number of questions I get every year about National Merit or the Coca-Cola Scholarship or the Cook Foundation, or whatever the case might be. Because things are very well-known, that’s where most eyeballs tend to go.
And I always say I love competition, but I don’t love competition when it’s for free money. So if you’re looking for these major scholarships, yes, they’re prestigious in a lot of ways, but everyone is looking there, and therefore, they’re more competitive and less likely that you will get them.
Now, that doesn’t mean if you’re a top applicant, you shouldn’t apply for these. But to also look for what I call private or niche scholarships.
Most people, what they’ll do, Andrew, is they’ll go online and they’ll look for scholarships.com or some database that has a million and one different scholarships. Some are no essay required or it’s not hard to apply. Those are basically ways for the organization to get a lot of names and email addresses and sell a mailing list to another marketing company or something like that.
But then these really prestigious ones are very low yield. So apply to those. That’s fine.
But also start looking for private or niche scholarships, which (a) fewer people look for, and (b) they have more constraints, meaning most people who do find them won’t be eligible.
For instance, if I’m looking for a scholarship based on Latin American female students who are interested in STEM, that narrows the pool.
But if you’re a Latin American female who is interested in STEM, bingo. That’s an opportunity for you to apply. Less competition.
For me, obviously, there were a lot of these scholarships for Armenian students if you have a disability. Or maybe there’s a foundation out there who wants to promote students in the humanities, because it seems like most students out there are going into STEM, and so therefore, who’s doing humanities work? There are all of these opportunities.
So always consider, “What are unique aspects of my personal background, my ethnic background, my academic background and interests? And where might I apply?”
And then approach it that way. And if you apply to enough of these things, then you will increase the likelihood of getting some or a lot of money.
Andrew Chen 15:05
Yeah. That’s really good insight regarding looking for niche scholarships.
Actually, I remember when I was in college, I applied for several of these as well. And there is definitely a competitive Delta in the dynamics between a really competitive, widely known scholarship versus a niche one. So that’s definitely a real thing.
You wrote in a blog post on your website on how to find and win college scholarships, which we can link to in the show notes later. You identified four places to look for scholarships.
Public online databases, which you’ve just alluded to. There’s college applications themselves as the natural part of the application process, school counselors, and then Googling around for niche private scholarships.
And you mentioned that in your personal case, you won the bulk of your scholarships from searching for these private niche scholarships. And I was curious if you could maybe just talk a little bit about, very briefly, the main pros and cons for each of the four sources.
If there are benefits to each one, how should students be thinking about them? And then for the private niche scholarships in particular, can you talk about the most effective ways to find and locate these types of scholarships that a student would actually be competitive for?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 16:28
Yeah, sure. I’ll do the quick pro and con. And I know I touched upon some of these briefly, or at least implied what some of their pros and cons might be.
Online databases. Pros: Super easy to find. Google scholarship databases, you’ll find a bunch.
Another pro, there are thousands of scholarships available on there. Oh my goodness. It’s like a buffet.
But then the con is too many eyeballs. A lot of these are well-known or there are these no essay scholarships, and so people will cast a wide net that way.
Or it might be you have to write a little essay about your favorite ice cream flavor. There are all these obscure prompts and things of that nature. So the con is, of course, then low yield because there are too many people going after the same slice of the pie.
In terms of college applications themselves, the pro is that you just click a box oftentimes as part of your application, or do nothing, and they find you.
Sometimes a college application might say, “Do you want to be considered for any of these scholarships?” “Yes.” Definitely click the box.
Most of the time, you don’t have to write anything else because they already have your college essays and they know you.
Con is low barrier to entry. You just click a box or you do nothing and you’re considered like everybody else. But it’s easy enough where obviously you should take advantage of those.
In terms of college counselor, college counselors get pitched all the time because there are scholarship organizations, especially the small ones. For instance, National Merit is not begging for people to find them. They’re found and they’re known.
But if I’m going to start a scholarship today, I’m going to do a lot of things. I’m going to post it online. I’m going to reach out to schools that have the types of students that I’m looking to recruit.
And so college counselors might know about opportunities, or there might be a student from your school who has won something and your college counselor knows.
“Samuel years ago won this thing. Maybe you should apply to it.” That’s a pro.
Con is, of course, limited by how much your college counselor has in their file or that they know about.
And then finally, the niche scholarships. The pro is they tend to have more constraints and fewer eyeballs, meaning if you’re eligible, then you’re competing against fewer people for not necessarily less money.
A lot of times, a very well-known scholarship might be $2000, $3000, $5000, or $1000. A lot of the private and niche scholarships are like that too. I’ve gotten several of them that are $1000, $2000, $4000.
And it adds up. Especially when you’re thinking about interest you might have to pay on the loan in the future, it’s definitely a great idea.
The con is they’re hardest, I would say, to find.
A lot of people say, “Well, I don’t know where to look.” This is why you should create a chart or just start scribbling down different aspects of your background.
“I have this ethnicity, this interest. I have these health issues or learning differences,” or whatever the case might be.
And then Google furiously. And different students, depending on what their background is, are going to have more or less success.
I’ll just speak about my experience. If you’re Armenian-American, we strangely have a lot of scholarships because people like to start scholarships to help Armenian students go through college.
But if you’re part of an overrepresented group, it’s going to be harder to find a ton of scholarships for you. But then consider maybe there’s stuff for music or writers or STEM or humanities or whatever the case might be. Chances are you will be able to identify some.
So the con is harder to find, more constraints. The pro is less competition once you do find them.
Andrew Chen 20:48
You just mentioned a moment ago creating a chart or scribbling down some attributes about yourself. There are some things that are obvious, like your ethnic background or if you have a disability or something like that.
And others that may not be as obvious, like what are you interested in? Maybe a lot of 16, 17, 18-year-old students don’t know. They’re still trying to figure it out.
How would you advise a client of yours to do this exercise? And maybe a little bit more details just so our audience can understand. And then even down to examples of Google queries that you would actually type in the search box as an example so we just get a better feel for this.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 21:32
Sure. It’s one of these things where it’s fairly simple in theory, but then you have to actually do the work and go deeper. Because I think the biggest barrier, Andrew, is people not thinking that certain things will yield results, and so they therefore don’t try.
So I would just create a bunch of lines, like what’s your gender? What field are you interested in?
What’s your ethnic background? What state, city, county are you from?
What are your academic interests? What are your greatest extracurricular achievements?
Which schools are you looking to go to? What career do you want to pursue?
Do you have any health issues? Do you have any learning differences?
Start going more granular. What have you done? Have you helped geriatric populations?
Are you a musician? Do you love to code video games? All sorts of these things.
And then basically, you want to Google all of these permutations: scholarships for Armenian students, scholarships for Armenian students interested in STEM, scholarships for Armenian students interested in Armenian studies, scholarships for Armenian students with disabilities, scholarships for students with Tourette syndrome.
It’s a lot of searches. It’s a lot of looking. And I think this why people don’t do it.
If the gym was in your building, you’re more likely to go than if the gym is a 15-minute ride.
Andrew Chen 23:10
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 23:12
It’s like everything in life. If I want to drink milk and I have milk in my fridge, I am more likely to drink milk than if I have to walk down to the store, buy milk, bring it home, and drink it. So the more barriers there are, the less likely.
But that’s why you have to create this list and keep searching. It takes time to compile that initial list, but once you have the list and you’ve written your college essays and you have certain personal statement-like essays, you can very easily modify and recycle these and just apply like crazy.
And especially these days more than ever. I remember back when I was in high school, in college, I had to buy a lot of Manila envelopes and print out this stuff and put them in the mailbox. Maybe I’m dating myself.
But now it’s easier than ever. You send everything as attachment. So it’s just a matter of organization and effort.
Andrew Chen 24:07
Got it. That’s really helpful. And I definitely want to get into application strategy, how to leverage applications multiple times, etc. in a moment.
But just so folks can have a heuristic for the type of effort that’s required in this, in the students that you see that are successful at this, including your own situation, how much time are these students actually investing in the search process itself?
Just as you said, barriers to entry will make the competition lower, but you have to put in the effort. You have to put in the time. So the successful students that you see doing this, what are the amounts of time that you actually see folks investing?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 24:52
I think in terms of the actual brainstorming aspects of your background and doing the search and compiling a list, anywhere from 5 to 10 hours. So it’s work. It’s not massive amounts of work, but it’s work, compiling the list.
And then I encourage people, when they do find scholarship opportunities available to them, create a spreadsheet.
What’s the deadline? What’s the prompt? What are the requirements?
Do you have to send in your official transcript? How many recommendation letters do you need? All of these things.
So there’s a lot of upfront work. It’s not trivial, but it’s also not this incredible mountain you have to climb.
And then once you’re organized, see what are the prompts. Maybe 80% of the prompts are similar.
“I wrote this college essay about this thing. This will actually work really well here.”
And then map out what your strategy is going to be. And then make your recommendation letter requests, which we’ll talk about in a moment.
Really the planning phase, I would say 5 to 10 hours. That’s my estimate.
Andrew Chen 26:02
Got it. Okay, cool. So let’s move on to the application portion.
Now you have your list of scholarships. You’ve gone through the thought exercise of thinking about all your attributes. You’ve found a good list of niche scholarships to apply to.
What are the things that applicants should be doing and avoiding to present themselves as compellingly as possible to scholarship review committees? You had a nice framework in your blog post. I’m wondering if you could maybe either summarize it here or expand upon it.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 26:32
Yeah, sure. Every time I think about college admissions or scholarship applications, going back to your earlier question, Andrew, about what’s the strategy, why do your students have so much success or stand apart or whatever the case might be, it’s because we’re always interested in what the other wants. And in this case, the other is the school or the scholarship organization.
Oftentimes, when we apply to things, we think about ourselves. “I want to go to MIT because MIT is the best in x, and I want the best,” or “I’m applying to this scholarship because I want their scholarship money.” We think far less about what they want.
So what does the scholarship organization want? The scholarship organization wants to fund the best students that they can then brag about. That’s basically what it is.
The organization who gives the scholarship says, “I gave $5000 to Andrew. Andrew then went to this undergrad, did this amazing research.”
“He’s now at Stanford Medical School, and he’s winning all these other awards. He’s a future leader in the field. Andrew is one of us.”
That’s the scholarship organization’s mentality and furthering their mission of making sure that Andrew and people like Andrew are achieving at the highest levels and not meeting financial barriers to doing so.
So let’s get super clear on what it is that the scholarship organization wants, and understanding their mission or reaching out to them and asking what successful applicants have done in the past, if there are sample essays online, etc. Not to copy anything, but just to understand the framework of “What do they want?”
And then how can I position my background in a way that makes it clear as day that I am the perfect fit for them and them for me? Because when we’re trying to get in a relationship with someone for anything, we have to think about it from both people’s perspectives.
Even this podcast recording that we’re doing. Andrew, you invited me because I assume (correct me if I’m wrong) you’re like, “He has knowledge that I think my audience will find valuable. And if it’s good information, my audience will really enjoy it.”
“They’ll listen to it. They’ll share it. I’ll get more exposure.”
My interest is I want to share this information. Obviously, it brings exposure to me and the company and all that kind of stuff.
So there’s a fit thing here. If you told me to talk about cat food, I’d be like, “Dude, this is not a good fit.” And we wouldn’t be chatting today.
It’s a silly example I just gave, but the same thing applies with scholarships.
It’s basically saying, “This is your mission. This is what I bring to the table.”
“This is how I can further your mission. I think this is going to be a great fit.”
So thinking about what aspects of my background, my experiences, my insights will further their mission, and highlighting that. And not only saying that, but then saying “By receiving this scholarship, I will be able to x.” How can you actually further the mission?
Don’t just say you’re great. “Give me money.” No.
“This is how I’m going to help further your mission and give back to the community that you and I jointly serve.”
And community I’m using loosely here. It could mean people in STEM. It can mean people who need STEM.
It could be other members of my minority group who need role models or who need service in the future, or whatever the case might be.
Making sure that the messaging is very aligned, that’s the high level strategy. And then only drilling down on the personal and professional experiences that highlight those things, and leaving the rest aside.
Andrew Chen 30:44
Got it. That’s a really valuable mindset shift, or a mindset to just internalize, which is really reflecting on what does the other side want, what their mission is, and how the specific cherry-picked aspects of your background can speak to that. Really valuable insight.
So then there’s some tactics that I would love to get your thoughts on. You talked about that you can recycle a lot of the materials that you put together one time for other scholarships.
And if you’re applying for a lot of these things, as you said, it adds up. Then you really have to be efficient with your time at assembling application materials, because applying for a scholarship genuinely takes a lot of hard work if you want to do it thoughtfully.
How can applicants be as efficient as possible, so they’re not rewriting new applications from scratch on every award? I would imagine it’s not a good use of time to write a new essay for every single scholarship.
Can you share some tactics for how to reuse materials effectively without just copying and pasting indiscriminately?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 32:03
Yeah. It really starts earlier. Again, going back to how preparation is time-consuming, but actually, applying shouldn’t have to be very time-consuming.
If you’re going through the college application process, which obviously you will be if you’re looking to then get college scholarships, you’re going to write a lot of essays.
You’re going to write what’s called a common app essay or a coalition app essay, which is otherwise known as a personal statement. This is like a longer form, open-ended prompts where you can really write about anything that you think is meaningful to get to know you.
You’re also going to write a bunch of supplemental essays, which are school-specific essays. So if you apply to Stanford or Yale or Harvard or Princeton or whatever, then they’re going to ask their school’s specific essays.
And you’re going to write a lot of these as well. Each school might have an average of two, maybe three, longer form or shorter form questions.
And over time, as you go through this entire process, you apply to 10, 15, maybe 20 schools, that’s a lot of work. And there are going to be certain prompts that come up too.
“What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced?” or “How will you contribute to our school’s diversity?” or “Tell me something that highlights your intellectual curiosity.”
“What is your commitment to service?” All these types of questions might come up.
And so when you apply to scholarships, it’s very rare where you’ll encounter a scholarship question where you’ve truly never written anything before that can be modified to fit that prompt.
If a scholarship question asked, “The mission of our organization is to further interest in STEM amongst individuals from underrepresented groups. How will your work further that mission?” or something like that.
If I’m a student who is a member of an underrepresented group and I’ve written an essay about contributing to diversity or my interests in STEM or whatever the case might be, then I can probably tweak that to fit this school’s mission.
Maybe I didn’t write about my underrepresented minority background, but I wrote about STEM. Maybe you talk about how growing up, you didn’t have mentors, like people in your family who were scientists or physicians or anyone in your community. That wasn’t really like a job that was represented in your community.
But then there was a really valuable mentor at your school, like a teacher who pushed you and believed in you, and how that was really meaningful to you developing the belief that it is possible and what you achieved, and then how you intend to do that on your college campus or on your community or to further that mission.
So you might have written about that stuff in your college essay about being part of an underrepresented group, having a mentor, and now the way you view STEM and your possibilities.
You take the core of that essay, and for the scholarship essay, you at the end talk about how you’re going to use this scholarship to essentially free up your time and not have to work at the student store, for instance, and otherwise contribute to your community and further the mission and be a mentor to others, just as you’ve relied on mentors in the past. It might even be just a paragraph at the end that changes.
Maybe there’s another scholarship application where it’s just about students interested in STEM. It doesn’t have the minority angle.
You can still use that essay because they’re asking for personal essays. You don’t leave the minority part out now.
You basically do the same thing. You just change the name of the scholarship. You might change the angle slightly in the last paragraph.
So don’t get too hung up on this prompt said contribute to diversity or underrepresented students in STEM. You can still write about your personal background, how that intersects with what you’ve chosen to do academically, and then talk about fit of those two things with the scholarship’s mission.
Andrew Chen 36:32
Really good advice. One thing I wanted to probe on a little bit further on this is that earlier we discussed how finding niche scholarships lowers the competition, which means that your chances of winning are higher. But the more niche it is, perhaps the more specialized their essay prompt will be.
For example, if you have a scholarship for Armenian students with disabilities who are interested in STEM, now there’s three qualifying criteria. And if you didn’t write about this combination in your college application essays, now you’re doing a more substantial tweaking to more directly address the essay prompt from this very niche scholarship. But the chances are better for winning.
And so it seems like there’s this balance of the less adjusting you have to do to preexisting essays, the less work it is, but perhaps the lower the barrier to entry, and also vice-versa.
In your experience, is there any heuristic or rule of thumb in terms of how a student with limited time might most beneficially invest that time on that spectrum of go after as many of these scholarships as possible, lower amount of work but higher competition, or vice-versa? More work, less competition, maybe I get fewer applications out the door?
Is there a framework that you have for thinking about this?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 38:04
Yes. Let me back up and say I actually encourage students to get very niche with their college essays to begin with.
Going back to this less competition idea, if you write your college essay about being interested in STEM, just more generally. Of course, I’m oversimplifying. It would be more narrative-based and all this kind of stuff.
Then you’re going to have a lot of people who write about their interest in STEM and all this kind of stuff.
Now, if I write about being the Armenian student with Tourette syndrome and how those experiences have influenced my path to STEM and STEM majors and STEM fields, that’s also going to make the college application process less competitive for me because they have no one to compare that to.
And so when it stands out and someone is like, “Who was that Shirag kid again?” “Oh, he’s that Armenian kid with Tourette syndrome who’s really interested in reducing mental health disparities.”
No one is going to have that, or very few people are going to have that.
So the niching down and the standing out actually starts way before. And because you have a few seeds planted already (Armenian piece, mental health piece, stigma, STEM piece), now if I find any Armenian scholarship or mental health scholarship or STEM scholarship, that essay that I wrote for a college, it’s like a Swiss Army knife. It now fits multiple prompts.
So I wouldn’t think about apply to college as a generalist and then niche down for scholarships. No. Apply to college as a specialist, and basically you’ve already planted all the seeds you need.
The vast majority of the work is on the front end. Write great essays. Do a great search.
The application process for scholarships, once you have all this stuff planned out, is a relatively small piece of this process. So that’s my advice.
And then if you’re asking me relatively how much time should you spend on the big ones versus the small ones, it depends how competitive you are.
If you’re a 1600, perfect AP scores, won national science competitions, etc., you’re more likely to win these national super competitive applications. But if you’re not that, then maybe spend less time on that and more on the others.
But I would say in terms of effort, I would probably spend 80% of my time on private or niche scholarships, and then less of my time on the bigger scholarships, with one caveat or exception. Sometimes the national scholarships are massive.
For instance, the Soros fellowship that I received in graduate school back in 2010, that was two big essays and a very competitive interview process. I tweaked some stuff from my grad school essays, but there was a good chunk of it that was original.
But with the tuition aid and the stipends, it’s like a $90,000 scholarship. Because it’s a disproportionate amount, I’m more comfortable spending a disproportionate amount of my time.
And that’s like anything in life, right? If the rewards are higher, you feel more comfortable spending more effort than if it was a $1000 scholarship, I wouldn’t spend the same amount of time.
Andrew Chen 41:49
Okay. Really good insight there about starting out as specific a niche as possible, even in your applications, and then generalizing where appropriate or just adjusting to niche scholarships adjacently.
Let’s talk briefly about recommendation letters. You talk about in your blog post how applying for scholarships is largely a numbers game. You have to apply a lot to actually start winning some.
How can applicants be sensitive to the burden that they’re putting on recommendation letter providers when it comes to requesting recommendations, so they’re efficient with their recommender’s time and getting good impact from their recommendation writers but also not overburdening them by asking for the moon in terms of cranking out letters every few months?
Because a recommendation writer, if they’re good, they’re going to be sought after by many students. And you don’t want to be the one that’s constantly pestering them with new letters. But at the same time, it’s a numbers game, so you have to apply a lot.
What’s the right way to engage recommendation writers in this regard?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 43:00
Several pieces of advice. Number one, ask early.
Again, let’s think about the self-interest of the recommender. It’s time-consuming and it’s effortful.
And they have to think hard. They have to write something, on top of they’re not getting paid for this in any way.
So it’s really like a benevolent act in a lot of ways, or they’re going to do it because they might feel bad if they don’t, or whatever the case might be.
So ask them early. Understand and respect that their time is really valuable and that there are a lot of requests that are made for their time. Don’t wait until the last minute.
Even if you haven’t identified the specific scholarship yet, ask them four months in advance. Say, “I’m going to be applying to scholarships.”
The second thing is it’s typically not their first rodeo, so they know how to write letters that highlight how great you are and all of these things. And they can write something that’s a little bit general. And if they’re super generous or have the time, they might even gear it a little bit towards the specific org by writing the scholarship’s name or how it might fit with their mission or whatever the case might be.
But again, asking early will improve the odds of that happening.
The other thing, the third piece, is make it easy. If they’re going to have to think about what they have to write, that’s a barrier. Reduce the barrier by telling them exactly why you are asking them specifically and what exactly you want them to cover.
A mediocre or a poor scholarship letter request would be “Hey, Dr. Mitchell. I hope you’re well. I’m applying for some scholarships. Would you feel comfortable writing some of my letters?”
That’s a very mediocre request. I don’t know what these are. I don’t know when they’re due.
I don’t know why me. I don’t know what you want me to cover. I have other students.
A very good request, or a much better request would be “Hey, Dr. Mitchell. I hope you’re doing well.”
Something about “I can’t believe I’m getting to the point of graduation. I am writing to ask if you would feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation for a number of scholarships that I will soon be applying to.”
“Many of my scholarships will vary in their mission. Some will be about my ethnic background. Some will be about studying STEM.”
“I’m asking you specifically because I think you would be especially able to speak to the x, y, and z qualities that I’m hoping to communicate across my applications. For instance, I’m trying to write about my empathy, my drive, and my passion for serving underserved individuals. For instance, like that one time when we worked on this project together.”
“My deadlines are x. And I’m happy to make available to you my résumé, my transcripts, and one of my essays, so you get a sense of what it is that I’m trying to communicate and to help guide your writing.”
“Is this something that you would be amenable to?” Something like that.
You see now how you’re basically feeding the information. “I’m trying to communicate this about myself. I think that you can help me by talking about these things.”
I take a breath as a recommender. “Okay, he refreshed my memory.”
“These are the kinds of things he wants me to cover. I can definitely leverage these materials to write a better one.”
Andrew Chen 47:02
That’s really fantastic advice. It’s speaking to the same theme earlier that you were discussing about considering the other person’s point of view. And the less thinking you require them to do, the easier it is for them to say yes, and also to have a roadmap for how to make it great for you.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 47:22
Andrew Chen 47:27
As a good practice, do you find students who are tactful and considerate when it comes to asking recommendation writers for letters – do you find as a good practice to attach past sample work or maybe even a one-page bullet point list of “Here are things that you could speak of”?
You’re not prescribing them to, but just as a memory refresher.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 47:48
Yeah, exactly. And you can do that in a bunch of ways.
You can say, “Hey, here’s a bulleted list of stuff I’ve done.” I typically just write it in the cover letter-ish request, like I mentioned.
But I think the endgame is the same, where you’re basically providing them information to either refresh their memory, to give them ideas for what to cover, all that good stuff.
Andrew Chen 48:15
Okay. Awesome. All right.
Switching gears for a bit, I would love to talk a little bit about the really prestigious national scholarships for a moment. You mentioned Coca-Cola scholarship earlier. Other examples like the Gates scholarship, the Intel Science Talent Search (I think it’s now called Regeneron), the Barry Goldwater scholarship, Davidson scholarship, etc.
And then at the graduate level, there are internationally known scholarships, like the Soros Fellowship, which you won, Marshall Scholarship, Rhodes, Truman, Fulbright, etc.
At this level, this is like the NBA. How can students make themselves as compelling as possible for these super coveted awards?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 49:00
It’s a whole different game in terms of the level of achievement and prestige and all that kind of stuff. But foundationally, they’re similar.
If you’re looking at Soros or Gates or Marshall or Rhodes or all these kinds of stuff, I think I’ve never heard it said that way (“it’s the NBA of sorts”), but I love that. And basically, it’s right.
You look around at the winners, and most of us think, “I’m not like that guy” or “I’m not like that gal. This is insane. I don’t know how I can get something like that.” But they’re people too, of course.
And yes, they are high-achieving and these are super competitive. At the same time, they bring with them a lot of prestige, a lot of money. And the network can be really powerful.
Being part of the Soros network has certainly been an asset for me. Some of my closest friends in the world are other Soros fellows. And just the folks I’ve been able to meet, and the ideas I’ve heard and learned have been priceless.
For these scholarships, it’s the same. They have a mission.
Soros, for instance, is showing that New Americans are not just as capable, but some of the best and brightest and critical to our country’s development and future leadership, and so on. And same thing with Rhodes and all these other kinds of stuff.
But talk about wanting to brag about their members. For instance, the Soros Fellowship, they highlight a lot of their fellows, but you see certain people come up time and time again, like our former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is a Soros fellow.
He has a lot of exposure through the fellowship. We’re always talking about what Vivek is doing and all these other kinds of things.
So they’re essentially looking to recruit the best and the brightest and the most brag-worthy types of individuals. And the foundation is the same for what we talked about.
If you’re thinking about New Americans, they want to know about your family’s background. They want to know about how you’ve navigated your bicultural identity, what it means to you to be an American, but to hold dear to you the culture and values of your family’s background.
How that has shaped your insights and what you intend to do with that in the future. How that’s shaped the field that you’ve gone into. How you’re going to give back to serve the American community, minority and otherwise.
Are you going to be a future leader in the field? Are you going to become a senator? Are you going to become the surgeon general?
One of my best friends in the world has started a customized hair care company worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
We want to be associated with these kinds of achievements. And so that’s what the Soros Fellowship and other fellowships like it are looking for.
So you have to get super personal. You have to be incredibly intellectually curious and demonstrate how in the past and looking ahead into the future, you’re going to be seen as one of the leaders in our country.
Andrew Chen 52:35
In what ways does the application process or what selection committees look for differ at this level compared to some of the niche scholarships that we were talking about earlier?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 52:47
I think it’s just the stakes are higher in terms of your achievement. It’s not good enough to just be part of the group.
There are a lot of kids in this country who are immigrants or the child of two immigrants. It’s just the achievement level can be astronomically high, or the achievement expectation.
So we’re not just talking about kids who did well on standardized test scores and won some awards. These are like you started an amazing clean water venture in Africa, you graduated from Harvard and are now a Stanford MBA student, and you’ve already been recognized.
Which goes to a point that we haven’t brought up yet, Andrew, which is scholarships beget scholarships. The more you win, the more awards you have, the more impressive you look, the more scholarship organizations think, “This is one of the special ones. We should really consider them.”
So that’s really what it is. The stakes are higher, and the expectations.
And now if you have better competition, the essays are going to be better you’re competing with. The achievements are bigger.
And then on top of that, they tend to have very competitive interview processes. Interviews like you’ve never really had in the past, frankly. And those are a whole different pressure cooker in some ways.
Andrew Chen 54:05
You mentioned earlier this notion of fit. Try to communicate your candidacy to show why you’re a fit for the organization. At this level, though, I imagine that it can’t just be about fit because there’s so many worthy candidates.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 54:22
Andrew Chen 54:23
If you could summarize in a really pithy way, what is it above and beyond fit that you have to demonstrate?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 54:35
Incredible achievement and incredible promise for future achievement in addition to that fit. That’s the summary statement. You truly have to be in the top 1% or 0.1% of achievement in your field.
And believe me, I feel strange saying that because, although I’ve won the Soros Fellowship, I look at other Soros fellows and I think, “Man, I’m the bottom of the Soros barrel.” I feel that way.
And then I talk to others who feel that way. They’ll say the same thing.
It’s just like when you look around at other folks who are receiving those fellowships, you win it and you go, “Oh, they made a mistake.”
So I do want to highlight, these are insanely competitive fellowships and winning them is a tremendous honor. It’s natural to feel going into it, and even after winning, that you are not worthy of it.
And I say that only to encourage. I know that’s a very weird way of encouraging, but I’m basically saying your feelings are valid and normal. Apply anyway if you’re achieving at the highest levels academically and extracurricularly.
But then on top of that, it’s not enough to be high achieving. That’s what the interview is for.
Because these organizations know it’s not just high IQs that produce great leaders. It’s also the way they think, the way they approach life, their insights, and their interpersonal skills.
You can be super bright, but if you’re lacking social skills, oftentimes your ceiling in terms of career advancement or leadership is going to be lower than someone with tremendous interpersonal skills.
Most of the time, when you meet people who are Rhodes scholars or Truman scholars or Soros fellows, they tend to be very easy to talk to. You can engage them, and they engage you.
They tend to be very passionate, intense conversations, but you walk out of them like, “Oh my gosh. I really like that person. It was amazing talking to them.”
And so that’s what also has to come through the interview. Can I see this person being someone who galvanizes others, who is a social magnet, or has charisma or leadership and stuff like that?
And that passion has to come through in your essays, in your rec letters, and then eventually when you interview. That really has to come through.
Andrew Chen 57:22
Yeah. That’s a really good point because you mentioned the interview is so crucial for many of these most prestigious scholarships and fellowships for the finalists.
A lot of what you describe sounds like just personality, how much intellectual curiosity you have, the passion that you have in the things that you study, the projects that you work on, which are going to be built up over many years. It’s just like a product of your upbringing.
So there may be fewer things that applicants can do at the application stage to alter that because you can’t fundamentally alter your personality at the last minute. And nor should you. You should be yourself.
But are there nevertheless any actions that applicants can do to enhance their candidacy just a little bit more and present themselves well in interviews for these most competitive scholarships? In that regard, what are the interview committees looking for in more concrete terms beyond passion and huge intellectual curiosity and accomplishment and promise, etc.?
I get those in the abstract, but if you could talk a little bit for our audience about both actions they can concretely do as well as more insight on what the selection committees look for in your experience?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 58:50
I think this requires an understanding of why someone would interview in the first place. If all they were looking for was a list of your achievements and the way you write about yourself, then they wouldn’t interview you.
So they’re looking for does the person on paper, who seems incredibly impressive, match what’s on paper? That’s the point of any interview: basically getting to know you in person.
Does the person fit? Are they as good as advertised in a lot of ways? Can they connect with people?
All those things are incredibly true. So when you think about interviews, most people, Andrew, where I think they fall short is they think about the content of their responses.
“Tell me about yourself.” “Well, I should just cover x, y, and z.” But no.
The way you deliver something is so important. Because if you deliver so-so content but you engage someone really well, someone will be more forgiving if you don’t have the perfect content. Versus if you say something like a robot, even if it’s the perfect content, it’s not going to resonate as well.
So likability and connection is super important, but then the passion with which you speak, if you don’t sound convicted of what you’re talking about, then game over.
The other thing is they want to see how you respond in different situations. It’s one thing if I have weeks to write an essay.
My friend looks at it. My professor looks at it. A consultant looks at it.
I can make it really perfect. But on the spot, especially if I’m thrown a curveball question, you don’t get a lifeline. This isn’t “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
If I may offer some examples, I remember for the Soros Fellowship, there were two panel interviews of five people in each one. And all of these people are either former Soros fellows or people who would have been Soros fellows in their day.
There was a Stanford biophysics professor I remember in my first interview, as well as the director of the entire fellowship.
I had the names of them and their profiles. We said hi. I sat down.
Literally, the question was “I see you do FMRI research in people with disabilities. Describe to the group the physics behind MRI.”
I did not expect that in a million years, but I answered it.
I am not a physicist. I don’t play one on TV. None of those things.
But I had to have an understanding. So basically, he was trying to get at “Yeah, you’re doing this stuff. Do you actually know what you’re doing and can you communicate it?”
Because being a good researcher isn’t just about producing results. You also have to be able to communicate it to the scientific community and to the country, to the world, or whatever the case might be.
And he just wanted to know, “Are you real, or is this just you’re doing stuff? Do you even know what you’re doing?”
And then I just remembered this was his response. I know that won’t come through on voice, but basically he just slowly nodded his head with his bottom lip stuck out. So I remembered that question.
But then someone said, “Oh, you’re doing mental health work. What’s the difference between autism and Asperger’s disorder?” And so I had to explain that.
And then “Talk about Tourette syndrome. What was the most hurtful thing someone said to you?”
It was honestly like a pinball machine. One is talking about physics. The next question might be “Tell me about the relationship with your mom.”
It’s basically everything is fair game. And they’re just trying to get to know you and understand on a personal and professional level, “Does your personal background fit with what you’re doing?”
“Is the drive there? Can you talk about it? Can you be vulnerable?”
And different organizations and different interviewers will have different styles. But just to show you, if you’re writing about it, it’s fair game. And you have to be able to communicate with conviction and with passion and that gravity that I was talking about to draw people in.
Andrew Chen 1:03:08
That’s really insightful. And it sounds like you definitely have to know the content backward and forward.
You mentioned a moment ago likability and connection. Could you define more concretely, what are actions that folks can take?
Maybe it’s the obvious stuff. Look people in the eye. Smile. Don’t speak too quickly. Pause to give an opportunity to ask questions back, etc.
But I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I’d love to hear it from you directly.
And then also, how do you practice for this? Did you do simulated interviews? Do you do simulated interviews?
And what’s the best way to simulate so that you can focus less on the anxieties and the perceptions and just focus on the content and being fully comfortable in delivering the content?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 1:03:55
Know your application cold. Don’t think that what’s on your application is the only thing they will ask about.
Because you’re on the hot seat. You truly are. And so they can ask about anything.
Yes, all of those things are true. Smile. Shake hands. Be polite. Dress well. Those are very listicle type tips that we can offer.
But my big thing is always practice delivery of your responses. When you do practice interviews in front of the mirror and you record them, which is super awkward for a lot of people, or you do it with your friends or mentors, ask them, push them to give you feedback on how you came across.
Most people say, “When you talk about yourself or why you want to do this work, make sure to mention this piece and transition from A to B.” That’s surface level stuff.
Content is doable. Get obsessive about delivery, about looking people in the eye, about little things, habits we have that might not be great.
If every question you say, “That’s a good question,” I don’t like that.
Show thoughtfulness. Even if you’ve practiced a question, make it seem like you’re thinking about it for the first time, so it seems thoughtful.
If you said to me, Andrew, “How would you approach this?” and I say, “Well, the way I would approach it…” then there’s no pause and it seems very practiced.
Versus if I look down and to the right for a second, nod, and then slowly come back to it and respond, not rush it. A lot of times, we think we have to talk early.
A five-second delay is a lot. Two-second delay is this. You don’t even really notice it when it’s done well.
I don’t want to call them tricks, but all of those body language communication pieces are super critical here. What you lean forward with.
When you’re delivering something that’s sad, “If I told you my grandmother died,” I wouldn’t talk about it like that.
I would say, “Yeah, that was really hard because my grandmother died.” I would lower my voice at key moments and I would raise my voice at certain key moments.
There’s a lot of nuance that when we’re talking to people day to day, we don’t think twice about. But if you rehearse too much, you run the risk of your tone or delivery not matching the content.
So get obsessive about delivery level feedback. That’s my biggest piece of advice to people who are going into this kind of thing.
Andrew Chen 1:06:44
Shirag, this has been an extremely interesting, insightful conversation. I’ve really enjoyed our discussion.
Where can people find out more about you, your consulting services, and what you’re up to?
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 1:06:54
Yeah, it’s been an absolute pleasure. In terms of where folks can find me, the website which is really hard to spell, shemmassianconsulting.com. But I’m sure you’ll link to it.
And then on the site, you can find all sorts of information about college admissions, medical school admissions, scholarships, and so on.
And then for the purposes of this conversation, we can also talk about linking to really successful college essay examples, graduate school examples, and even interview skills and content and delivery and things of that nature.
Because a lot of the stuff that works well for one prestigious sphere cuts across really well to scholarships or even into future job interviews and things of that nature.
Andrew Chen 1:07:48
Awesome. Well, we’ll definitely link to the website in the show notes. And please share over if you have specific content about the interview stuff or any of the things that we talked about.
I look forward to sharing this discussion with our audience. And thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with us today.
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian 1:08:02
Yeah, this was such a treat. Thank you, Andrew. And thanks, everybody out there for listening.
Andrew Chen 1:08:06
Cheers. Take care.
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