This is an attempt at marketable writing, should I ever be asked to write for an audience besides my own ego. Please enjoy!
In the summer of 2019, as I headed into my final year at San Diego State University, I was selected to participate in two fully-funded study abroad experiences in Cambodia and Brazil. During my 12 weeks traveling the world, I watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat on my birthday, sipped from coconuts on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, and gained valuable experience as a Sales and Marketing intern and social science researcher - all without spending a single dime. In fact, I actually ended up making money due to a research stipend I received.
So, how did I do it? Snappy title aside, a fair bit of luck was involved in my situation. However, I believe the type of luck I experienced is fully replicable with a little bit of upfront research to make sure you’re maximizing your chances of success.
The strategy that I used to win more than $12,000 in study abroad scholarships and stipends can be summed up in four words: minimize the applicant pool.
Simply put, the fewer people are competing, the higher your chances of winning. Of course, merit-based opportunities have factors beyond those of a probability scenario, but having fewer contenders overall is the easiest way to ensure your high-quality work stands out from the crowd.
There were 4 main strategies I used to minimize the applicant pool.
1. Search locally
The first and most intuitive strategy is to search for local opportunities, rather than national or even global opportunities. These may come in the form of scholarships only available to students attending your college or grants offered by community organizations. This strategy is pretty straightforward. Instead of trying to compete against the world, you're choosing to compete against a much smaller group of people.
Additionally, attending local outreach events such as university fairs or community gatherings is a great way to learn about lesser-known opportunities that may not be easily searchable online. At these events, you may even be able to interact with members of the selection committee face-to-face and gain valuable insight into what they are looking for in candidates. For my internship in Cambodia, I was able to speak directly with the program organizer at a study abroad fair on campus. She provided advice on how to tailor my application to fit the donors’ vision and helped me brainstorm how I could share my learnings with the larger university community upon my return - one of the major goals of the program. Our conversation allowed me to express my interest early on and hear about the acceptance criteria and desired outcomes directly from the source.
2. Narrow by identity and interest
People love helping out their own, which is why many scholarships are only offered to people belonging to a certain community or interest group. Take advantage of this by searching for scholarships based on your unique attributes such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, major, class standing, etc. The more specific you can get, the smaller the applicant pool and the greater your chances of being chosen! Another positive of applying to identity-specific programs is the freedom to talk more openly about how that characteristic affects who you are and how it ultimately aids in your ability to succeed on the program.
For study abroad in particular, there tends to be a wide variation of interest in different countries. Doing research on previous years’ acceptance rates can help you identify a destination that may have less competition. For example, in the 2021-2022 application cycle, the prestigious Fulbright Program received 1035 applications to conduct research in the United Kingdom. They awarded just 45, amounting to a 4.3% award rate. In comparison, the Fulbright Program received 82 applications to conduct research in China and awarded 50, equivalent to a 61% award rate.
3. Assess the application difficulty
Students are extremely busy. While many of us are willing to fill out a form for the chance to win money (think “$10,000 Sweepstakes for giving us your email!” campaigns), a lengthy application process can be a huge deterrent, even for qualified applicants. Those who do take the time to apply benefit from less competition as well as the chance to showcase their accolades. Scholarship committees are not trying to find fault in your abilities. Rather, they are hoping that you possess the qualities they are looking for. Essays, short answers, recommendation letters, video applications, portfolios - these all provide a platform for you to express those good qualities and demonstrate that you have what it takes.
If you are passionate about an opportunity, it is a better use of your time and effort to compile a solid application rather than half-heartedly completing “easy” applications with no response component.
4. Seek word-of-mouth opportunities
Professors are not marketing experts. Many of them know of opportunities (or are actively recruiting for opportunities) that never make it to school-wide job boards.
For the research scholarship in Brazil that I was awarded, I was likely not the ideal candidate. The project focused on wastewater engineering systems and took place in a Portuguese-speaking country - both subjects I knew nothing about. But as it turns out, the principal investigators were having trouble getting the word out to students. I learned about the opportunity during office hours, where my professor mentioned that the program’s deadline to apply had been extended. That immediately clued me into the fact that either there were not enough applicants or the candidates were not up to caliber, both of which worked in my favor.
Despite my lack of subject matter knowledge, I applied and was selected! In the end, out of the six people in my cohort, three came from the same lab and the other three worked closely with a professor who personally told them about the opportunity. We shared the commonality of knowing someone closely involved in the project.
The next year, I referred two of my friends and they both were accepted, despite having majors unrelated to the research topic. As much as this is a testament to the talent of the people I was lucky to meet in undergrad, it also proves that less competitive programs are willing to accept those who are a good fit instead of a perfect fit.
While I was fortunate to have an opportunity presented to me, you can take it one step further by being proactive in your communication. Don’t be afraid to ask professors, study abroad advisors, or friends if they know of any programs that might interest you. Even if the answer is “no” at the moment, they’ll remember that you are looking and be more likely to pass on news when it arrives.
All in all, it never hurts to apply to a study abroad program that you are passionate about, regardless of how competitive it seems. That being said, using the strategies above to minimize the applicant pool can make a world of difference. By intentionally choosing opportunities where you have a statistical edge, you maximize your chances of being a top candidate. Happy applying!