Being competitive for a national fellowship requires a similar college profile to being successful in bidding for the graduate school of your dreams. In either case you must take advantage of every aspect of the university (its courses and its faculty) and use your summers wisely. You should not assume that the basic curriculum is going to make you stand out. In fact, you should assume the opposite--that you must maximize your unique abilities, maturity, depth of character, leadership skills, and dedication to the college experience if you are to stand out in the competitions ahead--be they for prestigious scholarships or for the perfect graduate program in your field, or both!
Some issues you may want to consider are as follows:
Academics, Academics, Academics
Take challenging courses. Read the catalog, ask your adviser, speak with chairs in departments, with deans, with peers--anyone who has knowledge about the most stimulating courses and best professors in your field. Your transcript is a record of the seriousness with which you engaged intellectually. You are required to complete 36 advanced hours; you should complete many more than that. If Phi Beta Kappa is important to you, learn what is needed in order to be considered. Many scholarship and graduate schemes give you serious consideration because you are doing undergraduate research and availing yourself of every "value added" aspect of a prestigious undergraduate degree. Thus, the commitment inherent in the Honors Program, the BIC core curriculum, or the University Scholars Program stands out. Double majoring stands out, too. (Our most recent Marshall winner was a University Scholar whose concentrations were in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Philosophy. He has begun his MPhil at Oxford this year in Islamic studies and history. Our previous Marshall Scholar earned a degree in Great Texts and Political Science, with Honors here before taking two master's degrees in the UK, one at Queen's University in Belfast and one at Cambridge.) Any program of study that is selective, writing-intensive, and rigorous is going to serve you well indeed. Your undergraduate career will stand out in recommendation letters if your recommenders address not only how you performed in their courses but also what curriculum you followed and why it has a shining reputation at the university.
Writing and Speaking Skills in English and Other Languages
Volunteer to make presentations, to assist a team of professors with a presentation or a conference. Become known as someone who takes very seriously being asked to speak. Consider becoming a Supplemental Instructor or a tutor; such experiences will ensure your practice as a presenter in front of others who want to learn what you already know. Ask someone to coach you so that you improve your presentation skills.
Write a paper that is filled with original research and that you invest yourself in. Draft and re-draft a thesis statement that you are proud of and that does not plow old ground with old tools. Work on the document for several weeks, polishing, proofing, and asking for suggestions from the Writing Center staff and from your professor. Writing samples may have to be submitted before you are accepted to some graduate programs. This paper could be preparation for that! Needing help finding cutting-edge materials? Ask a librarian. Read a great journal. Take pains to do excellent work.
Scholarship competitions often seek students with 3.7 or higher grade point averages. Experienced readers for these competitions and for admission to Phi Beta Kappa or to graduate programs acknowledge transcripts that show students have taken challenging courses. A student's reluctance to risk a difficult language course, for example, or take a graduate class for fear of dropping the grade point average also is noted. (Phi Beta Kappa eligibility tends to hover around a 3.9 gpa; therefore, make your academic classes a priority every term.
Submit a thoughtful, well-crafted essay for consideration by The Pulse or Scientia or other publications. (See the list of undergraduate journals available through Council for Undergraduate Research.) Signing up for a writing-intensive course each semester will ensure that clear writing skills are central to your education.
Visit with professors about the subjects you are considering writing about. If students explain that they want to write papers that will move them forward in their understanding of cutting-edge issues in the field, professors are often glad to help them think through potential thesis statements. A professor might even offer you a topic he or she has no time to explore. Such conversations could make the research very exciting and potentially worth either sending to a graduate program as a writing sample or submitting to a journal.
Take a second foreign language course or advanced courses in the language you have already studied, but be certain the language you take complements the graduate program you hope to pursue. For example, if you have studied Spanish and are hoping to attend graduate school in Medieval Studies, you will need not only a solid background in history, but also courses in French or Latin. If you want to go forward in post-modern literature, you need to have also taken philosophy courses as well as literature courses in postmodernism--and also French.
Make acquaintance with a professor whose course energizes you. (Don't stay too long when you go to his/her office; rather, go with a purpose and send a brief thank you note afterward that shows you appreciate the time and counsel.) This does not mean you automatically adhere to the career choice that your favorite professor made; indeed, teaching may not be the right profession for you (but the role of a scholar-professor is perfect for some). Sometimes a professor is not encouraging when you mention a field. Take that seriously, but also get a second opinion from another valued adviser.
Make friends. You may want to have several circles of friends--but certainly you will want one group with whom you have meaningful and honest conversations about school and about life. "Who are your friends and what do you talk about when you are together?" We know you chat and text with friends about sports, pop culture icons, daily life. But if your conversations have not yet delved into questions that matter to building society, making the world a saner place, or finding your distinct calling, you have not yet experienced the rich pleasure of meaningful conversation among close friends. You have much to look forward to when those kinds of conversations become part of your world for they will offer you insights and gifts that will keep on giving for years to come.
Go to lectures that might link to your interests on campus and in Waco. Be sensitive to the surroundings, but if it is appropriate, approach the speaker after the talk to ask a follow-up question.
Experiential Learning: Linking Theories to Practice, Interests to Service
Begin inquiring into internships and summer experiences that will provide extra dimensions to your understanding of a particular field. Other innovative ways to add engaged-learning dimensions to your college life include: Becoming invested in civic boards and committees; Interacting with e-portfolios that outline curricular and co-curricular goals; Giving of yourself through mission trips or global service projects; Investing yourself in service through education and non-profit agencies; Seeing and understanding the world through study-abroad experiences; Taking responsibility for teaching and tutoring under the tutelage of experts; Attending and presenting papers at state, regional, and national conferences; Being employed and making a difference in the workplace; Playing a sport; Tutoring students in your areas of expertise either at college-level or in public schools; Being innovative and creating solutions to problems great and small; Seeking to serve our campus through Student Life or Student Government; and Applying for unique and diverse summer and semester work and study experiences, such as NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs).
Read articles in a field that interests you. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other publications are available on campus and on-line. Make it a habit to follow developments in some aspect of the world that interests you. Read The Economist magazine so you can also understand how the United States is viewed on various issues from the perspective of the UK and/or other international entities. Have some fun searching Google Scholar for current, relevant work in fields that are captivating to you. While there, look up the scholarly profile of a writer whose work you admire. Peel back that scholar's story to see how he or she began their academic journey. Where did he go to school? Where does she do research now? What conferences does he attend? The Internet and Google Scholar can provide you endless tips on how some of the men and women you admire made their way from college to next things to next things and voila! to the extraordinary NOW!
Extracurricular Organizations and Leadership
Join one or two organizations that complement your interests. If you can't find one, start one. The word "president" is important, but experienced evaluators become skeptical when your documents indicate you may have added organizations to the resume instead of creating meaningful projects within the many entities you have joined. And a clear picture of you as a person who has made a commitment to serve well in a few places is valuable. (Do not accept leadership positions in so many areas that you lose your focus and priorities.)
Become involved in knowing your community: serve your church, spend a certain afternoon each week playing with children in afterschool programs, or give of your heart and hands to some cause that will bring hope to someone who is in need.
Finding Your Future--Connecting Interests to Skills, to Dreams, to Career Options
What intellectual, spiritual, or "life" questions keep gnawing at you? Maybe those are issues you should consider delving into deeply. Seek out people and organizations that will have research suggestions or spark your creativity on the subject. Talk with the staff or faculty members in your discipline who will think with you about ways to begin connecting your interests with the courses and the research that might lead to your future.
Talk with family and friends about how you might "shadow" a professional in a field you are interested in during a break from school. Garner all the help you can to accomplish your dreams. Look at profiles on line of scholarship winners. Don''t be intimidated! They started out just like you to find their future. If you need to sign up for a Princeton Review course in law or medicine or graduate test-taking, do it! Much depends upon those scores, and if you know you are not an expert test-taker, you will want to invest in a tutor or a preparatory course that helps you do your best on these standardized tests.
Mapping the Future: Graduate School Realities
Do a web search and find out what courses you must have to enter the graduate program of your dreams. Will you need economics courses in order to be eligible for a master's of public policy? What math and science courses are necessary before you attend public health school? The summer before your senior year is not the time to be surprised by a required sequence of courses that are not needed for graduation here but are essential for entry into the next phase of your studies.
Respect your need to eat some nutritious food and get enough sleep to sustain you. Some fun times when you give yourself permission not to think an academic thought are also to be treasured! One of my students intentionally, purposefully does not do academic work on Saturdays so that he has time off to just be. Risk yourself. And ask: do all the corners of your life have to fit all the time, or can you go forward knowing an outcome is uncertain? Can you face difficulties, fail, learn from the failure, and soldier on? Have you ever spent time with people who are very different from yourself? If not, perhaps you will want to initiate something that stretches you and provides you insight into new capabilities. Dare to do something that is outside your comfort zone. Perhaps you should consider traveling overseas or to another university for research purposes? (And on that note: the Goodrich Scholarship Program at Baylor offers scholarship money each semester/summer to support students study abroad. Enter "Goodrich" in Baylor's search engine and learn the details. There are also URSA monies for small grants that may cover travel to a conference or to an archive. Search "URSA" for details.)
Become known as someone who keeps your word and distinguishes yourself in your responsibilities. To do this, you must make spaces in your life to organize your time, to think through your priorities, and to reflect on who you are and where you are going. At the same time, you want to be someone with whom it would be fun to eat a sandwich or take a bike ride. Being a good sport and enjoying a good laugh, when combined with seriousness of purpose, mean you have somehow learned the difficult art of keeping your balance. Life is not all about the pleasure of good company, but those who are going to be sought for leadership in life know how both to do meaningful work and savor a sunset or rejoice in a walk through daffodils on a spring day.
Faculty members at Baylor often sit across the desk from students seeking all manner of information about how to proceed with their academic and professional identities. The students may not know which road to take and want to weigh the future with wise counselors. As faculty members, we have watched students think, pray, wrestle, meditate, contemplate, push against, or deny their futures for a semester or for years. But we also have had the honor of being there when a student realizes, "I've got to get serious" or "I know what I need to do now!" Becoming "savvy" is in part discerning what is worth wanting and who you truly are. Then you must begin to understand the complexity of the world beyond your comfort zone and, buoyed by prayer, supplication and resolution, you must take first steps toward your own calling. Then perhaps you will be able to respond to Mary Oliver's question in her poem "Summer Day": "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"Elizabeth Vardaman, Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences