Why scholarships are competitive and how to overcome rejection

Nobody likes the feeling of rejection, especially when it comes to the scholarship that you set your eyes on. You did your best to include every aspect of your outstanding portfolio in your application. You prepared for the interview by making yourself presentable and coming up with answers to common questions.

When you finally received the outcome, you hope that the e-mail starts with:

However, as you opened the e-mail, you are greeted with this instead:

Is the last line a crude joke, or did they want to end their e-mail with a bitter message?

You might be thinking, why are scholarships so hard to get, and how do you get over the devastating feelings of sadness and regret?

Why are scholarships so hard to get?

The benefits of scholarships entice many potential applicants.

However, the relative ease of application means that there sponsoring organisers receive tons of applicants each day. If we tally the numbers, it often ranges from hundreds to thousands competing for a few hundred scholarships.

Competition has never been this tough, either, as the COVID-19 pandemic has convinced many local highflyers to pursue their studies locally. They can also apply for local scholarships and easily impress the interviewers with their achievements.

Receiving constant rejections has never felt so real. In my case, I applied for multiple scholarships ranging from the MOE Teaching Award Scholarship to the NUS Merit Scholarship. Still, I have been rejected from all the scholarships I have applied for.

Dealing with rejection after rejection had crushed my self-esteem. I initially thought that all my hard work from my polytechnic days was wasted. However, I would not let the string of rejection e-mails deter me from my future success. After all, life goes on and there are far more opportunities than a scholarship.

Here is a small guide on how to deal with overcoming scholarship rejections:

1. Do not be too hard on yourself. 

It is easy to blame yourself for not making the cut. You may hear from delighted friends or people from Reddit, who applied for that very same scholarship. You think that the organisers hate you and refuse to reward you with a scholarship.

However, do not take these rejections personally. Given the competitive nature of scholarships, only a small handful of applicants receive offers. There are far more applicants who are in the same boat as you.

2. Give yourself time to recuperate.

 It is natural to feel frustrated and upset at your unsuccessful application. Give yourself one or two days to feel resentful, and then move on past the rejection. After all, life is so much more than a mere scholarship.

While you are recovering from the setback, do not compare yourself to others. Avoid looking at scholarship discussions found in internet forums such as Reddit or HardwareZone. Some (if not most) of these people really like to brag about how they clinched the scholarship, which does not benefit or motivate you in any way.

I fell into this trap when I was rejected from the Nanyang Scholarship. I chose to amplify my sadness by looking at how other Redditors show off.

3. Seek out support

Whatever problems you may face, do not suffer in silence. Do seek out support from the people you trust, such as your family or close friends.

Explaining your disappointments and struggles releases some of that tension in you. Furthermore, the people around you will also motivate and encourage you to press on. They may even have similar experiences of their own to share with you!

4. Look for alternatives to scholarships.

Suppose the main purpose of applying for scholarships is to waive the school and/or residential fees. In that case, you might want to consider financial aids or donated bursaries where they look at your family’s financial status instead of academics and portfolio.

For example, as a matriculating freshman at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I decided to opt for a bursary. I was granted the Higher Education Bursary, which helped to cover some of my tuition fees. Although financial aids may not be full subsidies, like some scholarships, at least you have something to relieve the financial burden.

If your goal is to build up your portfolio, look out for opportunities such as community service projects or even starting your own business. These can really pump up your portfolio and develop your soft skills without needing a scholarship.

If your eyes are set on a scholarship, consider applying during the following application cycle. Just prepare yourself fully if you are shortlisted again. After all, there is no harm in re-applying again as you will be assessed again as a new applicant.

If you are an existing polytechnic or university student, work hard to achieve a solid academic record to qualify for mid-term or post-graduate scholarships.

5. Reflect on your application.

If you have the urge to figure out what went wrong throughout your scholarship application, act on it. Reflecting helps to identify the mistakes you have made throughout your application so that you will not repeat them.

Do not throw your application forms away if you have copies of them, do look through and figure out if there’s anything you can fine-tune. Could there be some points in your essay that were irrelevant or unclear? Were there any grammatical or spelling errors? If so, you can plan out what you want to write in your essay and use grammar checking tools such as Grammarly.

Usually, the interviews are the deciding factor for many scholarship committees. Suppose you did not do well in the interview. In that case, you’ve already lost your interviewers’ interests.

Interviews are nerve-wracking, especially for group interviews where you must constantly stand out from the crowd. Interviews are my biggest downfall and are the sole reason for my multiple scholarship rejections.

There are tell-tale signs that indicate whether your interview had gone well or poorly. Keep a lookout for these signs during the interview and leave a favourable impression on the interviewers.

If you have the courage, request feedback from the scholarship committee regarding your interview performance. You can look up online templates on how to write a request to the scholarship committees.

If you are lucky, they will tell you about the flaws throughout your interview. However, most cannot give you feedback as it is highly confidential.

6. Understand that there are many factors in the scholarship selection process.

The chances of every scholarship are very slim because it is dependent on many factors such as your academic and non-academic portfolios, interviews, psychometric tests etc.

No scholarship relies purely on a single factor, such as academic abilities. Even if you scored a perfect grade point average or A-Level results, your chances of a scholarship are not high if you lack a portfolio!

For example, the Public Service Commission Scholarship practices a holistic assessment which includes assessing the applicants based on their academic and non-academic achievements, leadership qualities, NS reports, interview, and psychometric test performances.

Some scholarship committees could be biased towards some applicants, such as favouritism. Still, these are external factors that we do not have control over.

Last few words

Overall, the benefits of scholarships are attractive to many prospective applicants. However, given the large and competitive applicant pool for a limited number of scholarships, the chances of rejection are always greater than being offered.

If you have received the dreaded rejection letter or e-mail, do not be disheartened! You can always look for alternatives or re-apply for the same scholarship in the next application cycle.

It is normal to be disappointed, but remind yourself to never dwell on it. Not everyone around you is a scholar, and you certainly do not need to hold a scholarship to prove your worth in life.

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Alpha Ho
Alpha is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS) pursuing his degree in Chemistry with a second major in Food Science. The Nanyang Polytechnic alumnus is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Depression, which leads him to fight for his identity instead of living under the label. Alpha believes in inclusivity, especially for the minorities in Singapore. He is an advocate for human rights and special needs. He hopes to work with SGEnable to help spread awareness of people with disabilities. Alpha is also passionate about education and research, which he also serves as a freelance tutor and an academic mentor. As a keen learner, he always looks for opportunities to improve himself. Besides being preoccupied with studies or giving tuition, he enjoys shopping, taking strolls around nature parks and cooking. He is also a huge fan of the singer Cher (not the short form for ‘teacher’), who he looks up to as his idol and motivation in life.


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