Gates Millennium Scholarship Essays Prompt

In the United States, many students from minority backgrounds are underrepresented among college graduates with bachelor’s degrees.

Despite increased racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses across the nation, the gap between students of color and white students is wide when looking at graduation rates at four-year institutions. The U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2012, six percent of those graduating with a bachelor's degree were Latina/o, nine percent were black, seven percent were Asian or Pacific Islanders, and 0.7 percent were American Indian or Alaska Natives.

The Gates Millennium Scholarship, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an excellent program that helps to close this gap by offering an extremely generous scholarship program, mentorship, and other resources to low-income, high-performing minority students.

The Gates Millennium Scholarship: An Overview

The Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS) provides funding to recipients for up to ten years of study, covering a bachelor's degree in any discipline and graduate degrees in any of seven funding areas: computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, or science.

For bachelor's programs, the GMS covers the entire cost of attendance except the expected family contribution, as decided by a school’s financial aid office and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). For graduate degrees, funding is capped at $37,379 per year for private institutions and $28,473 per year for public institutions.

The scholarship is administered through the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in partnership with the American Indian Graduate Center Scholars (AIGCS), the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF).

GMS also offers scholars leadership development programs, a mentorship program, and Academic Empowerment (ACE) services. The mentorship program gives alumni and graduate students the opportunity to mentor younger scholars. A mentor typically lives in the same city or has attended the same college as the current GMS student. ACE services help students navigate the different challenges they may face on campus, from giving academic support to students whose grades have fallen below a 3.0 GPA to helping students pay for graduate examination fees.

My Experience with GMS

My hands shook when I opened the envelope from GMS, and when I read the word “Congratulations” in script across a certificate with my name on it, I wept with joy. Not long after my first semester of college began, the GMS program sent the members of my cohort to a leadership conference outside of Washington D.C. They paid for the entire trip, and at the conference we heard inspirational speakers and learned more about our scholarships. It was amazing to be in a group of students of color who, like me, never thought they would be able to afford to go to college but were given a life-changing opportunity to pursue higher education.

The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement, but also with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. There is one speaker who I never forgot, who told us how amazing it would be for us to go on to earn a Ph.D. We would be able to increase our likelihood of employment, gain the respect of our communities, and represent diverse and often unheard voices in the world of academia. I decided then, as a freshman in college, that I was going to get a graduate degree, and now I am working towards just that.

GMS is more than funding for school. One unexpected benefit of being a recipient was that I was able to tailor my study experience to my needs. For example, I transferred to a distance learning program while pursuing my bachelor's degree so that I could live in Australia with my husband. I also was able to take deferments, postponing my scholarship and studies during each of my pregnancies. This flexibility allowed me to broaden the scope of my undergraduate experience by studying while living overseas, and also allowed me to start a family while pursuing my education. I didn't expect to receive such extensive help, and I am grateful.

Eligibility for the GMS Program

Students who are U.S. citizens or national or legal permanent residents are eligible to apply if they are African-Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islander Americans, or Latina/o-American. Applicants must also have a high school GPA of 3.3 or higher (on an unweighted 4.0 scale) or have earned a GED. They must also be enrolling as a full-time, degree-seeking student for the first time at an accredited college or university in the U.S.

Eligible students also must meet the Federal Pell Grant eligibility criteria and submit a completed application. Strong applicants will also show leadership skills through participation in community service work and other extracurricular activities.

The Application Process

The application opens in August and closes around mid-January. There are three forms in the application: the Nominator Form, the Recommender Form, and the Student Application, all of which can be accessed on the GMS website.

The nominator should be an educator familiar with the student's academic record, and the recommender should be someone familiar with the student's extracurricular, community service, and leadership activities. An educator can be both the nominator and recommender and would then need to fill out both forms. The applicant must identify the nominator and recommender on her own student application, but the nominator and recommender fill out their own respective forms online.

The student application asks questions about the student's academic record, employment history, leadership and community service activities, financial aid information, heritage, and personal information. It also requires that the student answer eight essay questions for students just graduating high school. For students who have graduated high school more than one year ago, there is an additional essay question. This application is intense, and successful applicants will take their time to to write coherent and compelling answers to the essay questions.

Advice for Students Applying

For students thinking of applying to this prestigious scholarship, here is some advice:

Prepare your nominator and recommender.

When I applied, I previewed the nominator and recommender forms, and wrote out a list of relevant qualities about myself and experiences I've had that my recommender and nominator could include on their forms. I also gave my recommender my transcripts and my nominator my résumé, so they could draw from that information as well.

Be thoughtful about your essays.

The essays seem like the bulk of the application when you are filling it out — they take a lot of thought and time to answer. I spent hours writing them and made sure each question was answered completely and that my responses were well-written. It’s also a good idea to seek out a teacher, writing tutor, guardian, or other adult to take a look at your essays.

I spent the most time on essay eight, which asks, “Is there anything else you would like to tell us about that may help us evaluate your nomination?” When answering this question, I focused on adversity I experienced in my life, how I overcame it, and how it shaped my life and goals. The essay showed that despite hardship, I was a high achiever in school, I was involved in my community, and, most importantly, I was inspired to make the world better so that others didn't have to endure what I did growing up.

Talk about how your background shapes your identity.

In my application, I discussed how I would work towards addressing specific issues that Native American youth (myself included) face. This showed I would be motivated and capable of making a real difference in my community. I wrote passionately and honestly, and I’m proud of what I submitted to the admissions committee.

Final Thoughts

Receiving this scholarship has changed the course of my life in tremendously positive ways. It has empowered me, through what I learned as a sociology major, to understand the many problems our society faces today. With my graduate degree in teaching, I hope to empower future generations, who must deal with these problems head-on in the coming years. I want them to be able to change the world for the better, too.

The Gates Millennium Scholarship Program was created to change the lives of students who may not have had the opportunity to attend college by providing financial, academic, and even emotional support to students throughout their educational journeys. The single most important event that affected my ability to reach my education and career goals was being awarded this scholarship. I owe my success to this program; I could not have afforded to attend college or graduate school without it! The application process is arduous, but the benefits of being a Gates Scholar are well worth it.

Want to learn more about different funding opportunities available to students? Visit the Noodle college scholarships page to find additional advice and honest answers from Nikki Morgan and other members of the Noodle Expert community.


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Digest of Education Statistics, 2013 (NCES 2015-011)

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


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