Scholarships – Reviewing and Writing

Insights of a first-time reviewer

by Melanie Nentwich

Many young scientists will apply for a scholarship at some point of their career. But how to do that? What is expected? What are the differences between the requested documents? I have also asked myself these questions several times. Now that I recently got the chance to see the “other side” I want to share my experience with you.

Most scholarships ask for a “Letter of Motivation” and a “Letter of Recommendation”, by the applicants and their professors, respectively. However, the reality often is that both letters are written by the applicant. So, how not to write the same phrases and information twice? And how to increase the chances of getting the scholarship?

Additionally, I want to give you some insight in the work of a scholarship committee, as I always wondered how much work that is and if I could manage it beside my daily tasks.

Committee Work

About 2 months before the event, we received the list of 20 applicants. For all of them, we received a letter of motivation, a letter of recommendation, and an abstract to their poster.

The committee quickly decided some general rules for the evaluation:

  • Ranking purely considering scientific key points:
    • What can they contribute?
    • What can they learn?
  • Not considering personal aspects
    • Neediness
    • Gender
    • Region
    • INntitution

Each committee member was free to establish a personal ranking system. The resulting individual rankings were brought to a common scale and added up to create the overall ranking.

So far, so good. But how should I create my ranking? Especially for scientific fields I know nothing about. I started a search on that topic and tried to generate an evaluation scheme that was not only tailored to the present event but also seemed useful in a more general context [1, 2]. After the first few applicants I updated the criteria as I realized that some points were not working well.

In total, I needed 3h to create my evaluation criteria and 15min to evaluate each applicant. Which makes a total of 8h of work.

Tips for Your Application

In order to receive a scholarship, you need to apply for it. Sounds easy, right? So do it. The competition is not as big as you might think!

Your document should be such that other people want to read it. Therefore, you should generally respect the following rules

  • Use a reasonable font size (between 10 to 13 should be fine).
  • Respect the one-A4-page-limit, which means not to write more, but also not significantly less.
  • Do not use a background color (printing/scanning/copying make it hard to read).

Both letters should make you stand out from the other applicants. Therefore, you should give examples to your statements, otherwise the text feels very generic.

Generally, I always found it hard to praise myself. But how can I still stand out and demonstrate my strengths? And what are my strengths after all? It helped me a lot when I found an overview of soft skills from different categories [3]. I could now decide if my leadership skills were rather confidence, creativity, or coaching. After making this choice it was simple to find suitable examples.

[This last advice is also very helpful for job applications!]

Letter of Motivation

The letter should highlight YOU. Beside mandatory information, you need to add details, for which you will be remembered (in a positive way).

Mandatory information

  • Name of applicant
  • Event
  • Usefulness of scholarship and event
  • background of applicant (university, field, degree)

Interesting details

  • Extracurricular activities, responsibilities taken, …
  • Stand out! (color, signature, layout, …)


  • If abstract requested, no focus on scientific content in this letter
  • NO eloquent vagueness

In addition, I did not judge the language skills of the letters. This would mean a strong advantage for native speakers, for no scientific reason.

Letter of Recommendation

The recommendation letter should highlight you from a more general perspective. Again, this includes basic information on the applicant that must match the details from the motivation. In reality, new recommendations are written based on old documents to save time. Often, the applicants themselves are responsible for rewriting. Make sure to change all necessary details!

  • Gender
  • Name (of event and applicant)
  • Degree
  • Date/year of the event

Sadly, I had more than one recommendation that consisted of less than 10 lines. For me, this indicates that the relation between supervisor and applicant is superficial and that there might be a lack of interest in the student.

In contrast, I also did not enjoy recommendations where the supervisors describe their own career paths in all detail in order to explain why they are able to judge the students and their career prospects. A professor is a professor for a reason, I will trust their judgement (in a recommendation).

Describing the character and abilities of the applicant is a significant part of the letter and should be supported by an example.

Try to give an example for the character traits. I found a beautiful example in the applications:

During the applicant’s project, whilst [they are] under pressure to [take/give lectures] in parallel and to [prepare coursework], [they have] been able to manage [their] time for the project effectively. Despite only a few months since the project began, not only [have they] grasped crucial hands-on skills in the [preparation method] and state-of-the-art [certain] experiments, but [they have] also acquired critical analytical skills in [data treatment]. This has made [them] stand out from [their] peers, allowing [them] to make an impressive progress which is likely to contribute to [a publication at the end of the project].


The scholarship I worked for, additionally the abstract of the applicant’s poster contribution had to be evaluated. At first, I was afraid that I would need to judge the quality of the science, which is not possible as I am not an expert of ALL crystallographic topics (and neither are the other committee members). Instead I focused on the completeness and the coherence of the abstract. Unfortunately, more than once I could not give points as the title was not given.

  • give title, aim, conclusion, list of methods/materials/…
  • Does it reflect the aim and the conclusion?