Friday, March 20, 2009

How I read a Udall file

For my final Udall blog post, I’d like to discuss the application from the point of view of the reader – what I look for, how I read, and what matters most to me. (I should also emphasize that not all readers approach the application in exactly the same way.) You might want to have a copy of the Udall application and Udall rating form as you read this, since I refer to both throughout this post.

I’ll note at the outset that these comments are specific to the environmental candidates; I have never read the tribal health care and public policy applications, and am not sure how my advice would differ for those files.

Also, all candidates and facreps should thoroughly read and use all of the resources on the Foundation’s website, which has several documents and pages which will be very helpful as you prepare your applications.

When I first open a file, I immediately try to note the basic information about the candidate, including name, gender, age, institution, GPA, class year, and major. I find this helps me get a snapshot of the student in my head right away, which helps me to frame the rest of the application.

I then turn to B1 and B2, which ask the candidate to first define their goal (B1) and then their path to that goal (B2). I’m always surprised by how some candidates tend to misunderstand the difference between these two questions, and how they conflate them. In B1 I like to see broad yet realistic goals that let me know how this candidate will define success in their career, which also lets me know the general direction their life will take. B2 then gives me a roadmap towards that goal – it lets me know what they are doing now that will help them get there, it gives me their graduate school plans, and what jobs they might have which would help them fulfill these plans. Personally, I like Truman-esque levels of specificity, including naming graduate schools and specific potential future employers, since it lets me know that the student has really thought about his or her future. However, when I see an answer that has obviously been lifted directly from a Truman application, it usually doesn’t work for me (I’ve literally seen answers written in this style: “In my career, I plan to….therefore, I will go to this graduate school…after graduate school, I will….then, five to seven years later, I will….”).

B1 and B2 are crucial to the success of the application, both in terms of letting the reader know what the student’s plans for the future are, and for setting up the student’s trajectory. This idea of trajectory is really important – readers are looking to understand the candidate and their story. The story needs to make sense – past, present, and future. To take one frequent example, I read a lot of files from candidates who proclaimed a desire to be an environmental lawyer. That frames how I read the rest of the application. So if I see no legal internships, no legal experience, no pre-law classes, and nothing that tangibly demonstrates an interest in the law –I wonder how much thought they’ve really given to their career goals. The candidate gets to pick what path they want to go down, and I as a reader will follow them down that path – but the future path they pick should make sense, based on their past and present.

This is also a point at which a candidate can start to stand out in the reader’s mind. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that 85%+ of the applications I read were from students who wanted to be professors, policymakers, lawyers, or engineers. Many Udall Scholars go on to do amazing things in these fields, but I start to sit up and notice when a student wants to do something outside of those four. For one thing, it tells me that the candidate has really thought about what issues he or she wants to address, and the best way to go about it. It can also literally earn candidates bonus points – readers can give up to three discretionary points, and I would usually give applicants one extra point if they were outside of one of those four fields and were specific about their plans.

So now, at this point, I have the basics of the student in mind, and I know where they want to end up. Now I need to begin to fill in the rest in C1-C3, and D1 & D2, or what I refer to as the “list sections.”

I glance at C1 to see if there is anything particularly interesting there (study abroad, a gap year, etc.), but there usually isn’t anything too exceptional, so I don’t spend much time on it. In C2 I tend to look for some of the things that will help me fill out the “academic accomplishments’ section of the rating form, including whether or not the candidate has taken challenging coursework, if their courses are appropriate for their future path, and what their grades have been, especially in their major. C3 helps me check the “honors and awards” box – and candidates can help readers here by explaining what the awards are for, since most of the honors they have received are campus awards that don’t make sense to outsiders. If a candidate has won the “John Doe Book Award,” let me know what that is, and (honestly) how big of a deal it is. What is it given for? Is it merit-based or need-based? Who selected it? If it was a scholarship, how much and was it recurring? Something simple like “merit-based, four-year renewable $10,000 scholarship” helps me tremendously as a reader. I would rather know the details on two or three awards than see a longer list of awards that I don’t understand.

D1 and D2 are also crucial. D1 is a list of the student’s primary activities and D2 usually tells me how they spent their summers, and what jobs/internships/research positions they’ve had. Remember how I said a big part of my job as reader is to get to know the candidate’s trajectory? This fills in a huge amount of what their background is. How do they spend their time? What are their priorities? What leadership positions have they held? If you look at D1 and D2 in conjunction with the rating sheet, you’ll see that there are a lot of questions that these sections help to answer – activities related to environmental interests? Internships/jobs/research in this area? Community service? Above and beyond? Leadership? Well-rounded? I spend a lot of time looking at D1 and D2.

The other thing the list sections do is set-up expectations for the rest of the application. If there is a big leadership activity named in D1, I expect to read about it in detail in D4. If there is a research experience named in D2, I want to hear what its impact was in D3. Help the reader anticipate what the rest of the application will be like, and don’t drop morsels here that are never followed-up on. I always wonder about those candidates who list something like leading a campus environmental group as their first entry in the prioritized list in D1, but never mention it again.

Which brings me to The Big Lesson I learned the first time I read for the Udall in 2007: pay attention to the list sections of the application, not just the short essays. The short-answer essays are easy to see how a candidate has to craft and write them, and I often times just worked with candidates to slap together the lists before handing in the application. But by the time I have finished D2, the only short answer essay I have read, really, is B2. But I probably have used up half of the time I will spend on an application by the time I am done with D2, and feel like I know a lot about the candidate already. At this point I should know the basics of the candidate, the outline of their future path, and then have had the details of their past filled in. All that is really left is for the candidate to highlight sections of that past for me.

D3 – research experience – is really most important for science candidates. If the candidate’s career goal is to be a scientist, they should have a home-run answer here. For everyone else, it’s a spot where they can gain points, but probably won’t lose any. We see a lot of answers squeezed in here that don’t really fit, and that’s ok, but doesn’t matter much one way or another.

D4 is absolutely the most important short-answer question, hands-down. Nobody is going to win the Udall unless they have an outstanding leadership experience, and it needs to be described really well in this essay. I pay a lot of attention to D4. My favorite answers tend to follow the Truman model of writing about leadership – describe the problem, describe what you did to solve the problem, and then tell me what the tangible, change-oriented outcome was as a result of your efforts. The biggest problems I saw with D4 were 1) students not explaining what their specific role was, but rather saying what “we” did, and 2) describing organizing a conference or meeting or bringing a speaker to campus that “raised consciousness” about an issue, or “made people engage with an issue.” At the end of reading the essay, I should not be thinking “So what happened? What did the student actually do?” I should know what changed because of the student’s leadership. Numbers help a lot with this – they can help define change.

D5 is rarely done well – and that’s because it is a really, really hard question to answer. A good answer is one of those classic personal statement “I know it when I see it” situations, but there are a couple of pitfalls candidates can avoid: 1) do not describe climbing a mountain at sunrise (usually cheesy and overdone), and 2) do not describe an experience within the last year, unless the student can explain how and why the experience was “clarifying.” The best answers are unique, honest, and personal. Like D3, this is a part of the application where students don’t usually lose points, but they can gain points for a really good answer.

D6 is important. This is one of the last chances the candidate has to make an impression on the reader, either by being well-rounded, going above and beyond, demonstrating their commitment to the environment, being a leader, or showing their compassion through public service. Again, students usually take liberty with the definition of “public service or community activities” here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they can justify it. This answer – along with D5 – is also where the reader usually starts to get the best sense of the applicant’s personality.

D7 is a freebie, and like D3 and D5 can really help a candidate if it is done well. (Sometimes students leave it blank! Don’t do that) This is where advisors can really help students – use the rating sheet to figure out where their weakness are, then address them in this section. Tell another leadership story. Demonstrate well-roundedness. Here’s the best thing D7 can do: when the reader is done with it, they think, “hey, that’s interesting! I’d like to hear more about this student.”

Next, the reader turns to the transcript. Personally, I don’t spend a huge amount of time on the transcript. They are formatted so differently from one another, and so hard to read, that I would rather rely on the student’s answer in C2 and the letters of recommendation.

Then come the letters of recommendation. I’m mostly looking for the letters of recommendation to confirm the impression I have already built about the student, but they can also push me in one direction or another. As a reader, there are times when I have a candidate who seems great, but has tepid letters – or a student who seems merely ok, but the letters grab me by the shoulders, shake me, and say “Look at this kid!” One tepid letter or shoulder-shaking letter isn’t enough to change my mind – but if all three point in one direction or the other, they can make a difference. I also really like letters that are not just academic in nature, since the Udall is much more than an academic award. If just one letter is purely academic and says marvelous things about a student, fine. But I would rather see two or three letters that are partially (even mostly) academic but also address the student’s accomplishments outside of the classroom.

Then, the Mo essay. Please take a moment to look at the rating sheet to see what we are told to look for in the essay: Does the student critically analyze something of Mo’s? Does the student integrate their career path (trajectory!) into their analysis? Does the student understand Mo’s legacy, and how this particular speech or piece of legislation fits into that legacy over time (is it placed in context)? Does the student demonstrate a broader knowledge of environmental issues and how Mo fits in? Is it well-written, unique, or come from a fresh perspective?

Essays are judged on a four-point scale. I would estimate that I scored 90% of the essays I read as a 2 or a 3. Here are the most common problems I saw:

1) Describing, not analyzing.
2) Thesis statement = “Mo’s words still ring true today.” I would easily say that at least 60% of the essays I read had some version of this thesis statement.
3) Giving the impression that the student read one speech of Mo’s and made no attempt to contextualize it or understand its greater import.
4) Opening with a quote from Mo, using the next three paragraphs to talk about their own work and interests, and then closing with another quote from Mo and saying something along the lines of “So me and Mo – we’re just the same. I’m really inspired by him.”

The best essays were smart, well-written, unique, incorporated several Mo sources, and gave the sense that the student had a) really tried to understand Mo, and b) reflected on how Mo’s life intersected with their own interests.

Lastly, readers can give up to three discretionary points for candidates who diversify the pool (not just racial/ethnic diversity, but candidates who come from really different angles or backgrounds or interests), who are working 20+ hours/week, who are first-generation students, or who have overcome significant hardships. I occasionally give a point here when it is justified, have given a handful of two points, and gave my first three-point bonus this year to a really, really extraordinary candidate who diversified the pool in about four different ways AND had overcome significant hardships.

In general, then, it is an 18-point scale with the possibility of a score up to 21 if we include discretionary points. We grade pretty tough – a 16 is an extraordinary score, and I think I only gave one of those this year. 13-15 gets an applicant in the running for an honor, and 11-12 will at least get the applicant some consideration. I don’t think Sue and I named anyone as an honorable mention or scholar who we initially scored as a 10 or under.

Each file takes about 15 minutes to read and score on average, though readers spend longer on the application that are clearly more-qualified, since we are trying to get to know them better for the discussion at the end of the region.

Lastly, I'll add a reminder that the application is read holistically, not piecemeal as I've described it here. We're trying to learn about the candidate in their entirety, and sometimes human stories don't fit neatly into the prescribed boxes, descriptors, or yes/no choices on the rating form.

In the end, I try to get to know a candidate through their application, understand their trajectory and story, and then weigh their qualifications as I understand them against the stated criteria of the Udall foundation, and then also compare those qualifications to the other candidates in the pool. It's hard and subjective work, but having the opportunity to get to know all of these candidates - and reward many of them - is absolutely worth it.


  1. Just discovered this blog and read through all the entries at a clip. It's a bit like eavesdropping on a conversation where you know you were discussed at some point, even though you'll never hear the words. Thank you for posting!

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