Inclusive Scholarship Practices

Inclusive Scholarship Review Processes

When evaluating student applications for scholarships, maintaining an equitable reviewing process is essential for ensuring awardees are fairly selected. However, creating an equitable process is more complicated than just switching to a holistic review model. It involves identifying and addressing potential biases at every step. The following information and resources have been compiled from credible research studies. Scholarship coordinators and leadership can use this to create a more equitable review process and scholarship reviewers can use this to engage in a more equitable review process.

UW Statement on Diversity

“Diversity is a source of strength, creativity, and innovation for UW–Madison. We value the contributions of each person and respect the profound ways their identity, culture, background, experience, status, abilities, and opinion enrich the university community. We commit ourselves to the pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, outreach, and diversity as inextricably linked goals.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison fulfills its public mission by creating a welcoming and inclusive community for people from every background — people who as students, faculty, and staff serve Wisconsin and the world.”

Unconscious Bias, or implicit bias, refers to the stereotypes, biases and attitudes we unconsciously hold that influence our actions, understanding and decisions. These biases arise from our brain’s automatic mental processes that uses implicit associations to categorize information and stimuli we receive. They can help our brains quickly make decisions, which can be helpful in some situations and unhelpful in others. Everyone has unconscious biases and these biases do not always align with our conscious personal values.

There are many different types of unconscious biases that influence our judgement and decisions in a variety of ways. For example, confirmation bias leads us to seek out information that supports our pre-existing beliefs and to reject information that questions those beliefs regardless of the validity of the information. Another bias, out-group bias, causes us to negatively view people who are different from us (i.e. a different race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status).

While everyone has unconscious biases, the impact of those biases on others is not the same for every individual. Societal structures and historical legacies of inequality give more power to certain groups of people over others. This power amplifies the biases of the group in power and can have negative implications for the groups not in power.

If you are interested in potentially uncovering and exploring your own implicit biases, Project Implicit has an Implicit Associated Test. Project Implicit, founded in 1998, offers over 10 different implicit association tests that measure several different potential unconscious biases such as those towards gender, race, ability and age. It is important to note that this test works best in determining aggregate information and to get a more clear picture of your own implicit biases, you may find value in taking the test multiple times and taking the average of those results.

Unconscious bias can influence our decisions in many different areas- including our decisions when reviewing applications. They can make us unknowingly favor one type of applicant over others or discredit other applicants unfairly. In short, they can have real world consequences.

For example, a 2011 study found that White students have a 40% higher chance of receiving private scholarships than students of Color. When adjusting for differences in financial need, white students receiving Federal Pell Grants still received private scholarships more often than students of Color receiving Pell Grants. The same held true in regards to GPA. In terms of funds specifically designated as merit-based, white students received three times more grant and scholarship funding than students of Color.

A different study published in 2015 found the emails sent from prospective students signaled as White males received email responses sooner than all other categories of students. The study sent near identical emails from fake prospective students to over 6,500 university professors. The names used to sign the emails were randomly picked to signal gender and race (White, Black, Hispanic, Indian, and Chinese).

For both of these studies, it is possible that some of the individuals awarding scholarships or delaying their email responses were acting on their explicit biases. However, a larger portion were most likely acting on their own unconscious biases that ended up favoring White and male students.

When reviewing applications, unconscious biases can be provoked by an applicant’s name, test scores, letters of recommendation, extra-curricular activities and so much more. In most studies testing unconscious bias theories, the subjects or individuals that the unconscious biases favored tend to be from majority identities (white, male, higher socio-economic status, etc.).

Unfortunately, there is currently no way to completely and permanently eliminate biases in ourselves. Being aware that we have biases is important, but it is not enough to mitigate them. Although we cannot do much individually, we can work to reduce the impact of our biases collectively. When we are part of teams, groups, and organizations, we have more opportunities to mitigate and counteract the biases of one another. In other words, we can check each other’s biases and we can set up structures to reduce the influence of one’s individual biases.

There are several different strategies for addressing biases in organizations such as the SEEDS™ (similarity, expedience, experience, distance, and safety) model and the COST™ (corner-cutting, objectivism, self-protection, and time and money biases) model. Both models group different types of known biases (i.e. confirmation biases) into categories and then offer mitigating strategies for each categories.

From these models and the search committee guide created by Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), we adapted the following suggestions for reducing the impact of unconscious bias when reviewing scholarship applications:

  • Ensure your evaluation criteria is set prior to reviewing applicants. If you are not the one who sets the criteria, make sure you have a clear understanding of the criteria and expectations.
  • Before you start reviewing your applications, take a moment to engage in counter-stereotype imaging (i.e. imagine a woman who is a CEO). This will help reduce the influence of assumptions based on common stereotypes.
  • Take your time when reviewing applicants. Biases can be intensified when individuals are in a rush, mentally drained, or even hungry.
  • Take breaks and consider reviewing your initial evaluations at a later time and from a different perspective. This will give you the opportunity to see the applications with “fresher eyes” and a slightly more objective point of view.
  • Treat every applicant as an individual and evaluate their entire application qualifications instead of focusing on the groups to which they belong.
  • When reviewing applicants who may be from a different background than your own, take time to consider the similarities you may have with the applicant. While you cannot change your negative biases towards people that are not part of your in-group, you can expand your in-group to include more people.
  • Discuss your evaluation decisions with other committee members and justify why you accepted or rejected each applicant.
  • Tell your other committee members of any biases you have been previously made aware of and ask them to hold you accountable if they notice this bias in your evaluations.


You can find all the resources mention above and some supplemental ones below. Please note that these resources are not an exhaustive list about these topics. With so much research being done, there is always more to learn!

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