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Gates Millennium Scholarship Essay Questions 2014

To help you write your scholarship essays this spring and summer, we at Story To College are partnering with College Greenlight to break down scholarship essay questions each Tuesday over the next month. This week, we’re starting with the first half of the Gates Millennium Scholarship.

The Gates Millennium Scholarship provides renewable undergraduate (and postgrad) tuition to students of color who demonstrate significant financial need. That means a full ride to the school of your choice. While the deadline, which falls in mid-January, has passed for 2014, this breakdown will provide this year’s juniors a chance to get ahead. It will also model for approaching scholarship essays with similar questions.

As with any application, you should get to know the values and goals of the place to which you are applying. The GMS describes itself as founded on the vision of leadership: specifically, students of “extraordinary promise” who will make a “significant impact” on the American landscape after their graduation. Their application is designed to figure out if you have the grit, perseverance, ambition and compassion to be a powerful change-maker in the new millennium.

Take a deep breath. That sounds scary, but the GMS readers are looking for the same thing every reader is looking for: you. You stand out by revealing your character through telling specific stories. Read the student profiles in their 2012 Annual Report, and get a sense for the kind of details that they’re looking for. Here are some tips for making an impression in the first three questions of the Gates Millennium Scholarship Application:

1. Discuss the subjects in which you excel or have excelled. To what factors do you attribute your success?

Don’t be fooled: this question is not asking for a laundry list of your successes. Nothing is more guaranteed to make a reader’s eyes cross. That second sentence is crucial. When they ask “to what factors do you attribute your success,” they’re really asking if you can reflect and identify your own strengths. Reflection is a crucial skill of all leaders; this will come up again and again in the GMS application.

So take a moment. Reflect. What subjects have you excelled in, and why? What personal characteristics have made you successful in them?

Next, find a moment when you had to rely on that characteristic to excel. Did you need to be a creative thinker in robotics? Did you have to use your humility and curiosity to reach out for extra help in Chemistry? Consider defining “excel” in non-traditional ways. What does success mean to you? (Do keep in mind: the GMS is an academic scholarship particularly interested in successes in leadership, community service, and academics, with a leaning towards science and math, although they support students with interests in all fields.)

2. Discuss the subjects in which you have had difficulty. What factors do you believe contributed to your difficulties? How have you dealt with them so they will not cause problems for you again? In what areas have you experienced the greatest improvement? What problem areas remain?

Like the first prompt, this question is interested in your ability to reflect. Here, they want to know how you deal with hardship.

The most important part of this question is the third sentence: How have you dealt with them so they will not cause problems for you again? To answer this question effectively, you need to explain not only how and when you struggled, but what you did to overcome that difficulty. Keep this in mind, so you don’t get bogged down in that swamp of “all the times I failed.” Keep your brainstorming focused, actually, on your successes!

Then address the last two questions: how have you most improved, and what remains to be done? Think of this essay like a three-act play: describe your difficulty, the climax, and finally, the forward-looking resolution. To stay memorable, use specific details that are unique to only you, like dialogue or description.

3. Briefly describe a situation in which you felt that you or others were treated unfairly or were not given an opportunity you felt you deserved. Why do you think this happened? How did you respond? Did the situation improve as a result of your response?

This question is asking about your conflict management. Remember, the GMS is looking for leaders. You want to show you can handle prejudice productively.

Brainstorm a list of injustices you’ve witnessed or been subjected to. Be real and honest. Sometimes that means a story about the lady at the supermarket, or being pulled over by the police. Sometimes it’s your friend’s mom, or a substitute teacher, or the bullies in sixth grade that are inflicting the unfair treatment. We’ve all seen it. Don’t reach: reflect.

You don’t have to be a superhero, though. Sometimes, unfair things stay unfair, no matter how we handle them. That’s how the cookie crumbles. Take the opportunity to discuss what you would do differently, or how you want to make a change in the future.

I talked to our CEO Carol Barash for more advice on this question. Here’s what she said:

“It’s really easy to get lost in your thoughts in a prompt like this, which is one of the biggest mistakes students can make. Don’t talk about ideas. Show actions. Your actions reveal your character to the selection committee more compellingly than any claim of ‘responsibility’ ever could. Finally, use this essay to demonstrate that you share values with the mission of the Gates Millennium Scholarship. That will make an impression on the readers, and show that you are the type of student they want to empower and support.”

Want to see examples of essays that worked? Click here! Have other questions about this or other scholarship applications? Email me at, or leave me a comment below. I’d love to know what other scholarship questions you’d like to see tackled! See you next week for the second half of the GMS application.



Sophie Herron taught high school English in Houston, Texas, as a Teach For America corps member. Since then, she received her MFA in Poetry from New York University, where she was a Goldwater Fellow, instructor of Creative Writing, and Managing Editor of Washington Square Review, the graduate literary journal. She teaches as an instructor at Story To College and as a teaching artist with the Community-Word Project. She is a poet and podcaster. 


Photo Credit: Gates Millennium Scholars


The Gates Millennium Scholarship program is hugely impactful; since 2000, over 17,000 scholars have received over $845 million in scholarship aid. These numbers are overwhelming in the most amazing way possible. 

The program's mission is to provide opportunities for outstanding minority students to reach their highest potential. I'll go through all the details of the scholarship and the application protocols; after that, I'll give you tips & strategies to putting together the strongest Gates Millennium Scholarship application possible. Read on to learn more! 

NOTE: 2016 was the last year for the Gates Millenium Scholarship Program. We'll update this page when more information about future programs becomes available.


What Is the Gates Millennium Scholarship? 

The primary mission of the Gates Millennium Scholarship includes increasing the numbers of underrepresented minorities in computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, and the sciences. Through offering outstanding scholars better educational opportunities, the program aims to develop a diversified group of future leaders for America. 

Even compared to other impressive corporate scholarship programs, the Gates Millennium Scholarship seems especially comprehensive and generous. It offers funding, of course, but it also offers a structure of support, guidance, and mentorship that could potentially continue through graduate school

Overall, this scholarship provides: 

  • Renewable educational funding - the scholarship covers any unmet need and self-help aid (i.e. instead of having to take loans and a work-study job, the scholarship would cover those Cost of Attendance expenses).
  • Graduate school funding for continuing scholars if they pursue degrees in computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science. 
  • Leadership development programs with personal, academic, and professional growth opportunities

The total amount you're eligible to receive will depend on your amount of unmet need. Unmet need is the difference between your school’s Cost of Attendance (room, board, tuition, fees, books, personal expenses) and the amount you’ve received in grants or scholarships. The larger your unmet need, the larger your scholarship award.

Your total scholarship amount will also depend on how long you’re able to renew the scholarship. If you meet renewal qualifications, you could theoretically receive the funds covering all unmet need for 4 years of undergrad AND for graduate school. 14% of GMS winners transition to a GMS-funded field for graduate school.

The average Gates Millennium Scholarship award between the 2001-2014 academic years was $12,492.


How Do You Know If You're Eligible? 

To be considered for the scholarship, you must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Must be African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian American/Pacific Islander or Hispanic American

  • Must be a US citizen, legal permanent resident, or national

  • Must have a cumulative 3.3 GPA on an unweighted 4.0 scale, or have a GED

  • Must demonstrate leadership abilities through participation in community service, extracurricular, or other activities

  • Must meet federal Pell Grant eligibility criteria. This means you must demonstrate significant financial need - check out our Pell Grant eligibility guide to learn more. 

  • Must be enrolled at a US accredited college or university as a full-time, degree-seeking, first-year student

If you meet all of the above eligibility criteria, you're on the right track to getting a Gates Millennium Scholarship. 


What Information Do You Need to Apply? 

Before you get to work on your application, you'll need to gather some important information. 

From your guidance counselor, you'll need:

  • Your class rank
  • Your class size
  • Your full academic record
  • Your cumulative GPA

You'll also need to prepare names, dates, and descriptions of participation for the following:

  • A list of your leadership roles and experiences
  • A list of community service experiences
  • A list of employment experiences

You'll also need some family financial information, including: 

  • Your status as either a dependent or an independent student
  • Your personal gross annual income from the past year

The application you’ll need to fill out is lengthy, with many open-ended questions. These questions ask you to comment on a variety of topics - here's a list of all the essay questions you'll need to answer: 

1. Discuss the subjects in which you excel or have excelled. To what factors do you attribute your success? 

2. Discuss the subjects in which you have had difficulty. What factors do you believe contributed to your difficulties? How have you dealt with them so they will not cause problems for you again? In what areas have you experienced the greatest improvement? What problem areas remain? 

3. Briefly describe a situation in which you felt that you or others were treated unfairly or were not given an opportunity you felt you deserved. Why do you think this happened? How did you respond? Did the situation improve as a result of your response? 

4. Discuss your short and long-term goals. Are some of them related? Which are priorities? 

5. Discuss a leadership experience you have had in any area of your life: school, work, athletics, family, church, community, etc. How and why did you become a leader in this area? How did this experience influence your goals? 

6. Discuss your involvement in and contributions to a community near your home, school or elsewhere. Please select an experience different from the one you discussed in the previous question, even if this experience also involved leadership. What did you accomplish? How did this experience influence your goals? 

7. Other than through classes in school, in what areas (non-academic or academic) have you acquired knowledge or skills? How? 

8. Is there anything else you would like to tell us about that may help us evaluate your nomination (i.e., personal characteristics, obstacles you have overcome)? 

9. ONLY for Nominees who graduated from high school or earned their GED more than one year ago: Describe those activities in which you have participated since completing high school (e.g., community service, leadership, employment) that you believe qualify you for this scholarship. 


How Do You Submit An Application? 

The application for the 2016-2017 academic year opened on August 1, 2015. The application deadline was January 13, 2016. The application period is now over. The deadlines each year are usually around January, right around when college applications are due as well.

You can submit an application online here. 


Strategies: How to Increase Your Chances of Winning a Gates Millennium Scholarship

It's time to get tactical. 


Hundreds of scholarships are awarded through this program every year, but that doesn’t mean this scholarship isn’t competitive - if you want a chance at winning, you’ll have to dedicate yourself 100% to the application process. Winners come from all over the country, but many scholarship recipients end up at prestigious college schools, including Harvard, Yale, Emory, Cornell, Dartmouth, and more.

The strategies that I'll present won't just help you strengthen your application for the Gates Millennium Scholarship -  they'll also help you more generally with your college applications. The best candidates for the Gates scholarship will be motivated, high-achieving students with strong resumes, transcripts, and test scores - basically, the sort of students who prepare themselves well for college. As you might expect, the best way to effectively implement these strategies will be to start as early as possible. 


If you're in your early high school years ...



Demonstrate Academic Excellence

Competition for this scholarship will be stiff. In order to be a strong applicant, you should strive for more than the minimum GPA (3.3). Take advanced or AP classes when available, and actively seek out extra help from your teachers in your weaker subjects. Take those opportunities to develop strong relationships with teachers, tutors, or mentors. 


Demonstrate Leadership Skills

Scholarships like the Gates Millennium Scholarship want to invest in future leaders and pioneers. One of the best ways to demonstrate your leadership potential is to actively develop your leadership skills as a student. You can do this by:

  • Actively participating in class. Volunteer to lead discussions or group projects. Help out other classmates who may be struggling with a particular problem or concept.
  • Joining clubs or extracurricular activities that ignite your passions or interests. Focus on quality over quantity; invest in fewer activities, but stick with them. If the opportunity presents itself, move up to team captain or to a club officer role. The more your instructors, coaches, and peers respect you, the easier it will be to assume a leadership role.


Commit to Community Service

Scholarship programs like the Gates aren't just for helping individuals achieve their own personal goals - they're also for aiding in the betterment of whole communities. An ideal scholarship applicant will use opportunities that they'll get through the Gates Scholarship to give back to their communities in one way or another.

You can demonstrate your commitment to community service by choosing, and sticking with, a community service or volunteer position. Ideally, it should be something you participate in on a weekly basis. If you’re thoughtful about choosing where you volunteer, and spend time doing something you’re passionate about, it’ll pay off when you submit your scholarship application.


Develop Relationships with Educators and Mentors

It's important that you have wise people around you that can offer trusted guidance and advice. It's also important that you have good relationships with people who can serve as recommenders. 

If you have respect for a particular class or extracurricular activity, your teacher or mentor will come to respect you - that’s step #1. To work on further developing these relationships, you can:

  • Go to office hours to ask for extra help on tricky problems or concepts. 
  • Actively participate in class, practice, or club meetings. 
  • Go to your teachers, coaches, or mentors with questions that may be outside the scope of your regular curriculum; this demonstrates intellectual curiosity. 


If you're getting ready to apply for the scholarship ... 


Plan Ahead

It’s important to give your nomination and recommendation writers plenty of advance notice - you can’t really decide to apply to this scholarship last-minute. Aim for a 12-week window; this will give you and your writers plenty of time to put together a strong application.


Invest In Your Essays

If the scholarship evaluators only cared about your grades and resume, they wouldn’t ask you to write 8 (or 9) full essays. Here are tips for tackling these open-ended questions:

Make sure you’re answering every part of the essay prompt in your response. Most essay questions have multiple parts.

Elaborate - don’t just provide a list as a response, or give a yes/no answer. The evaluators want to see that you’re thoughtful. 

  • Example for essay #1 (Discuss the subjects in which you excel or have excelled. To what factors do you attribute your success?): A poor response might be "Biology, because I really like biology." A strong response might explain why you decided to take biology, the specific units you were most interested in, what personal qualities or situational factors affected your performance, and FINALLY how your performance in this class affected your future goals or inspired you. 
  • Example for essay #3 (Briefly describe a situation in which you felt that you or others were treated unfairly or were not given an opportunity you felt you deserved. Why do you think this happened? How did you respond? Did the situation improve as a result of your response?): A poor response might discuss a relatively personal petty experience, such as being grounded undeservedly. A strong response might discuss a social or institutional injustice or unfairness, like a classmate being bullied. If you did something to address this injustice, you should definitely explain what happened. If you failed to take action, explain why, and discuss what you learned from the experience & how you plan to act differently in the future. 
  • Example for essay #4 (Discuss your short and long-term goals. Are some of them related? Which are priorities?): A poor response would be focused on superficial measures of success, like financial wealth or prestige. A strong response might discuss the development of personal qualities that align with the scholarship's own goals. What sort of leader do you want to become? How do you want to contribute to your community in the future? How will your more concrete educational and career goals going to propel you forward in these domains?
  • Make your goals clear. Why do you want this scholarship? You don’t want to worry about paying for college, sure, but how will winning this scholarship affect your long-term and short-term academic and career goals? Most importantly, how will it enable you? You’ll get brownie points if your goals include pursuing one of those underrepresented fields (computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health or science), or if your future goals include serving others in some capacity.



The more thoughtful and clear you are in describing your goals, the more impressed the scholarship evaluators will be. 


Craft a narrative. Make sure all your essays work together to tell one unified, logical story. Before you start writing, come up with 2-3 points that you want to get across about who you are. Maybe you want evaluators to know that you’re empathetic, hard-working, and interested in mental health; maybe you want them to know that you’re focused, ambitious, and passionate about social justice issues. All of your essays should ultimately serve to clarify on these points.

Don't be afraid to brag (to an extent). Bring up any honors, awards, accolades, promotions, or fancy titles. You earned them - talk about them! It’s helpful to make a comprehensive of all of these things before you start writing your essays so that you don’t forget anything important. 

But also be humble - very few people can attribute their success solely to their own hard work. Did your family, friends, teachers, coaches, or mentors support you or offer guidance? Don’t be afraid to partially attribute your accomplishments to them, as well as to your own efforts. Evaluators won’t see that as a weakness, but as insightful self-awareness.

Stay positive. This is especially important for the questions asking about hardships or difficulties, academically or otherwise. Be frank and honest about things you’ve struggled with, but also maintain a matter-of-fact tone. Express optimism and positivity about future outcomes and goals after you discuss difficulties or disappointments.


Choose Your Nominators and Recommenders Wisely

Nominator - This individual should be a teacher that you have a long-standing, positive, even personal relationship with. If your nominator doesn’t provide a strong and well-written response to the question about why you should win the scholarship, chances are your application won’t be given much thought.

Recommender - This person will have to include detailed, glowing anecdotes and accounts of your personal relationships with others in addition to your academic/extracurricular performances. It would be ideal if you could ask someone to serve as your recommender who knows you in multiple contexts (e.g. a teacher who serves as a club head, coach, or personal mentor). This should be an individual with whom you feel very comfortable.


What's Next? 

One of the best ways to make yourself a strong Gates Scholarship Applicant? Set your goals high: be a strong college applicant. Check out our guides to getting perfect SAT scores and ACT scores, and our infographic on getting into your top choice colleges. 

Maybe you have more questions and Pell Grant eligibility since you have to meet those criteria in order to receive the Gates Scholarship. Read more about the Pell Grant and its eligibility criteria. 


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: