Scholarships and Fellowships FAQ

Listed below are some of the frequently asked questions fielded by the NIFS office from Michigan State University students.  If your question is not listed below, or you need further clarification, please contact the NIFS office through our email  If you intend to apply to an award listed on this site, please fill out an Intent to Apply Form.


Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the differences between grants, scholarships, and fellowships?

    In practice, there are very few differences between these three types of awards, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.  However, although few, one should keep in mind the distinctions between them when assessing the benefits of an award.  

    • Grants

      • Grants are the most general of the three, comprising any allowance of money awarded in exchange for a defined purpose, which does not have to be repaid. Therefore, both scholarships and fellowships are considered grants.  Grants are issued by a variety of organizations, most often through a competitive application process.

    • Scholarships

      • Scholarships typically refer to grants awarded for the purpose of funding a student’s undergraduate education.

    • Fellowships

      • Fellowships are grants that are most often awarded to support post-graduate academic pursuits, or undergraduate projects outside the scope of the standard curriculum.

  • Who should consider applying for a fellowship?

    You should consider applying for a fellowship if your plans for after graduation include any of the following:

    • Graduate school

    • Professional school

    • Study abroad

    • Professional development

  • What do fellowships look for in applicants?

    The most common criterion for a competitive application is academic excellence.  National scholarships and fellowships are highly competitive, thus successful applicants are usually in the top 15% of their class, with a minimum GPA of 3.5.  Many fellowships also look for a record of leadership, public service, research experience, and meaningful participation in extracurricular activities.

  • How important are grades?

    Grades alone are less important than the overall combination of qualities (which might include research, service, leadership, and so on), but they are still significant.

    • In General

      • Nominees for prestigious fellowships typically have a GPA of at least 3.5 on a 4.0 scale.

    • Marshall

      • The Marshall Scholarship requires a GPA of 3.7 or higher, and in practice most fellowships also look for a similar level of academic achievement.

    • Truman

      • GPA of 3.5 - 3.6, with outstanding grades in upper-division courses in their field of interest, along with several years of public service.

    • Udall

      • The average GPA of Udall Scholars is 3.7, but some Udall winners have had GPAs as low as 2.8 or 2.9 combined with exceptional accomplishments related to the environment, or in other areas

    • Goldwater

      • Most Goldwater Scholars have GPAs in the range of 3.9 - 4.0.

    • NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

      • Most applicants for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships have GPAs of 3.7 or higher, but applicants with less competitive GPAs have won awards if they show substantial improvement in their grades and a very strong application in other respects, including the proposed plan of research and very supportive letters of reference.

    Near perfect grades are never, by themselves, enough to win.  So many students with excellent grades apply for these awards that other aspects of the application are more decisive.

  • Can I apply for more than one scholarship or fellowship?

    Yes, you can apply for more than one scholarship or fellowship.  We encourage you to apply for any of the awards that you judge to be a proper fit given your experiences and interests.

  • How much time do applications take?

    The time required to complete a quality application varies by award and student.  Typically, students who advance to be interviewed for prestigious fellowships report having spent the time equivalent to taking a regular academic course on preparing their application.  Applications are competitive, so students must be willing to invest time and effort if they wish to win. 

  • If I need research experience to apply, how can I get experience in research as an undergraduate?

    Ask faculty in your area of interest if they have any research projects that you could work on in the school year or during the summer.  MSU sponsors a number of summer undergraduate research fellowships on campus each year and many faculty also hire undergraduate research assistants to work with them on their research.  Visit for more information about research opportunities on campus. Consider your interdisciplinary project and major project as opportunities to engage in professional level research.  Each summer, there are many opportunities to work in research projects on campus and around the country. The NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education both sponsor many programs nationwide.

  • How do I register for the GRE (Graduate Record Examination)?

    Many fellowships require the submission of GRE scores in their application process.  The GRE General Test is given year-round by computer at test sites. MSU has a GRE testing site on campus.  You can register over the phone or online at using a credit card. Appointments are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis, so you should register early.

  • What are the differences and similarities between the U.S. and UK education systems?

    The degrees that you can obtain from UK universities are equivalent to what you can earn from a U.S. institution, and thus are valued the same.  Many universities in the UK are highly regarded educational institutions, comparable in their excellence and prestige to U.S. Ivy League schools.  Both countries share a rich tradition of quality higher education, excellent research facilities, and a culture that promotes intellectualism as well as academic freedom.  However, although the U.S. and UK both provide a similarly excellent environment for learning, there are some crucial differences between the two regarding university structure and student life that ought to be considered.

    Generally, degree programs in the U.S. take about one year longer than programs in the UK, though this varies depending upon whether you receive a Master’s degree prior to a Ph.D.  In both systems, you can go directly to a Ph.D. program out of your undergraduate program, but in the UK it is more common to complete a Master’s degree program before moving on to a Ph.D.  Courses of study are shorter in the UK because the course programs are generally much more focused than in the U.S.  These differences create unique advantages and disadvantages for each system.

  • Can I apply after graduation?

    Yes. It is possible to apply for most major post-graduate fellowships as a senior or for several years after graduation.  For the Rhodes, candidates must be between age 18 and 24 in the year of application, and for the Marshall, nominees must have graduated within the last three years. Applicants for the Gates Cambridge or Soros fellowships normally should be under the age of 30. You should check the eligibility requirements for each award. Consider that some students may put together stronger applications after graduation since they have completed a senior project and developed a more mature understanding of their future plans and goals. If you think you might apply for fellowships after graduation, it is helpful if you discuss this possibility with faculty advisors before you leave campus so that they can make notes that will be helpful in writing letters of recommendation at a later date.   Note: If you intend to apply for the Rhodes, Marshall or Mitchell competitions after you graduate, you must still receive a nomination from MSU in order to compete.

  • Most of the fellowships listed in the Database are only open to U.S. citizens. If I am not a U.S. citizen, what are my options?

    Most awards described in the fellowships and scholarships database on this site are open only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents, but some fellowships invite non-U.S. citizens to apply. Consult the applications for specific information on eligibility. In separate competitions, citizens of other countries may apply for the Rhodes and Rotary scholarships. A permanent resident may apply for the Hertz and NSF. Only a naturalized U.S. citizen or child of naturalized parents may apply for the Soros. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is open to citizens of any country other than the UK.  Citizens of member states of the Commonwealth may apply for certain scholarships to study in the UK.  If you are a foreign national, you may also want to contact the fellowship office at a university in the country where you are a citizen to get information about other opportunities.

  • Why are some competitions restricted by nomination?

    Some competitions are restricted by nomination in order to ensure a consistently high quality in the applications. In these cases, restrictions are in place as a requirement from the sponsors. Competition is fierce, and there are many more qualified candidates than nomination slots.

  • What are the benefits for applicants who do not win awards?

    Students who apply and come short will find that they have still received the following benefits from applying.

    • Clarified career goals
    • A better sense of suitable graduate study goals
    • Greater awareness of one’s strengths, interests, career opportunities
    • Improved writing skills and, if a finalists, enhance interviewing skills
    • A head start in preparing applications for graduate education and other scholarship competitions
    • An experience for learning and personal growth that is not normally possible in the classroom
  • What is required in fellowship applications?

    Every fellowship has its own application form. However, fellowship competitions generally ask for a transcript and record of extracurricular activities, three or more letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and some may require the GRE.  For highly competitive fellowships, you may also be asked for a project proposal or plan of study, and an interview.

  • How should I prepare for applying to a prestigious fellowship?

    To prepare for the fellowship application process, you should:

    • Scan the NIFS website for useful information.
    • Schedule an appointment with the NIFS office.
    • Meet with faculty mentors and Honors College advisers in the semester before the applications are due.
    • Begin reading regularly an in-depth national newspaper, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or the Christian Science Monitor, if you are not already.
    • Plan to start working on the application at least two or three months before it is due.
  • What makes a strong application?

    In a strong application, the pieces of the application fit together well, and offer a convincing composite picture of your strengths. Your application may be compared to hundreds of others. It will likely be read by several groups of people during the selection process. To ensure that you are conveying the impression you intend, utilize the knowledge and experience of others in putting together your application package. The letters of recommendation should offer a portrait of the student that is consistent with the personal statement and other materials submitted by the candidate. A strong application will stand out from the crowd, and will impress a variety of people.

  • How many letters of recommendation should I get?

    Each scholarship requires a different number of recommendation letters ranging from 3-8.

  • What is the process for reviewing my application after the internal campus deadline?

    After the internal campus deadline, your application will be reviewed by a committee and you will be notified if your application will move forward.  If you receive a nomination to move forward, you will be given 1-3 weeks (depending on the scholarship) to make any necessary revisions that the committee suggests to strengthen your application. You will then need to resubmit your application incorporating suggested revisions and then you will officially receive MSU’s endorsement to apply externally.  The NIFS office will work with you to mail and/or upload all application materials and supporting documents to the foundation’s website.