Meet Ryan Sutherland: The US$170,000 scholarship recipient with 15 winning strategies

scholarships for students
Ryan Sutherland, currently studying medicine at Yale, lists the secrets to his success. Source: Ryan Sutherland

“Write three things you are grateful for and three reasons why you deserve a scholarship,” says Ryan Sutherland, MPH, MPhil, at the start of his fireside chat on US scholarships for students.

Answering these two simple questions is part of a confidence-building activity, he says.

It reminds you of what you are working toward with scholarship applications and that you are capable and worthy, especially when dealing with a string of rejections.

To give you an example of the answers we shared, here are mine: I am grateful for my friends, creativity, and emotional strength. I deserve a scholarship because I am hardworking.

“I also want you to think about your audience, where you’re trying to apply and what your goals are for applying for the scholarship and really be specific here,” Sutherland adds.

Will professors read your application? Or will it be read by an embassy officer? Is it regional? Is it because you have family, friends or colleagues in a particular location around the country?

How long are you willing to devote to your study? PhDs especially can last for many years.

“When you’re thinking about those programmes, you might want to ask yourself, ‘Am I willing to devote five or seven years to this programme?’” he says. “Think critically about that as well.”

This little taster at the start of Sutherland’s session is part of positive psychology, a technique he learnt from a professor as an undergrad.

Before the class would take a difficult test, they would have to answer a quick question about gratitude. It taught Sutherland an important lesson, especially when thinking about scholarships for students.

“When you’re thinking about finding your fire to apply for these scholarships, remember what you’re doing, remember who you are, think about your journey and why you deserve to be there.”

Sutherland then reveals that the first one was a trick question: “Every single one of you deserves a scholarship, and there is a scholarship for you.”

“There are grants available for students, not just national students, I’m talking about international students pursuing PhDs for free.”

With thousands of scholarships for students available, narrowing down where to apply can be tricky. It helps to be open and honest about what you want.

But why should we listen to Sutherland and his steps on how to find scholarship opportunities to be successful students?

scholarships for students

Sutherland has received over US$170,000 in scholarships for students to date. Source: Ryan Sutherland

Scholarships for students guru: Why should we believe him?

Sutherland is not short of degrees and certifications.

In fact, it would be much easier just to list them in bullet points:

  • Emory University: Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Music Performance
  • Yale University: Master of Public Health – MPH, Social and Behavioral Sciences (Concentration in Global Health)
  • University of Pennsylvania: Executive Programme in Social Impact Strategy
  • University of Cambridge: Master of Philosophy (MPhil) Development Studies
  • Yale University School of Medicine: Doctor of Medicine (currently underway)

His work experience is even more extensive, but here are the highlights:

  • Currently Research Fellow, Solomon Centre for Health Law and Policy Research Fellow at Yale Law School. He is also the Study Coordinator.
  • Research Scholar at Global Environmental Health LAB.
  • Cambridge Development Initiative

Sutherland has also received over US$170,000 in scholarships to date. So clearly, his expertise in scholarships for students is sound.

“You have to be consistent with your application, and you have to make sure that you keep recycling your information for searching, pursuing those options, and maintain that sort of competitive spirit with all of this,” he says.

Over the years, he has been giving his advice informally but has slowly developed clearer guidelines.

The talk we had the pleasure to witness — titled “How to find scholarship opportunities and be a successful student in the US” — has been presented in around four countries.

scholarships for students

There are many scholarships for students, if you know where to look. Source: Ryan Sutherland

Ryan Sutherland’s winning formula: 15 proven tips for scholarship triumph

1. Start early

Start extremely early if you want to get a competitive scholarship.

There are scholarship deadlines most of the year. However, most international study deadlines fall between August and December in the US.

They might say February is the application deadline, but December is the scholarship deadline.

So if you don’t get it by December, you can still get in, but they just might not have that golden pot of money waiting for you with your name on it.

2. Make it a job

Make searching for scholarships like a job. Spend a lot of time looking online at different departments.

Reach out to professors because they’ll know the department’s layout and where to point you towards to get financial aid.

Sutherland won his scholarships by asking around his community and in different organisations I’ve been part of.

“They know students. They know that you’re hungry for education, and they know that you’re broke. I mean, that’s part of what being a student is; it’s awful, right?” he says.

Everyone knows studying in the US isn’t cheap. “So people will not be offended by you asking them about scholarship opportunities in your local communities because everybody has to,” he says.

“It’s just part of the job.”

3. Know your deadlines

Sutherland always had an Excel document with all the deadlines. “Some of these scholarships are really easy to complete in 30 to 40 minutes, sometimes 15 minutes. Others can take a long time to complete,” he says.

For his Fulbright scholarship, he went through three rounds of interviewing on top of “a huge, hefty application.”

“Remember your deadlines, please, because you don’t want to miss out on these opportunities,” reminds Sutherland.

4. Check your eligibility

When considering scholarships for students in the US, don’t let some small things stop you from getting the scholarship.

Look at the eligibility requirements. Make sure you’re matching all of them.

“And if you don’t know, email them. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen eligibility requirements change online, where I’ll have one from 2022 and one from 2023. Some wording has just slightly changed,” says Sutherland.

scholarships for students

Unsure about anything? Email or call the university to go through the finer details of their scholarships for students. Source: AFP

5. The more the merrier

If you’re applying for scholarships, don’t just apply for those in your discipline.

Don’t just apply for public health scholarships if you’re in public health. Think about your other “identities.”

“I’m thinking about organisations like the UN who offer scholarships or your job, if you’re working for one of those organisations, may offer a break,” says Sutherland.

“Some of these companies say the benefits are if you work for us for five years, we give you a master’s degree for free.”

Sutherland recalls a friend in the UK who’s getting a double master’s for free from her company because she’s worked there for three years.

“Maybe it’s not a master’s degree, maybe it’s a certificate programme. Maybe it’s something like a short course in the US. Please do not limit yourself. Identity scholarships are out there for everybody,” he says.

“There was a scholarship for people interested in playing basketball in the US. There are scholarships for people who are African American or African or African descendants.”

scholarships for students

When looking at scholarships for students, getting the right recommendations from someone you know well personally can boost your application. Source: AFP

6. Find good recommendations

Find good recommenders. “I can’t tell you how many times somebody comes to me and goes, ‘Well, I’m applying for a scholarship, and I got the Dean of Admissions at my university to recommend me to go to the US’,” says Sutherland.

The problem with this is the dean knows nothing about about.

Recommenders should be someone that you know very well personally.

“Deans are very busy people. And how many times have I had people request a recommendation letter, and the deadline is a week out, and they still haven’t gotten a letter back?” says Sutherland.

“It’s better to apply with someone in mind who you know personally as a recommender, who can follow through with that deadline and stay in your application timeline.”

7. Do all the entry tests

Give yourself plenty of time to think about the entry tests as well.

The good news is a lot of US schools are going test optional — this means you don’t have to submit your results for the ACT or SAT.

“Make sure that you know if their test is optional or not. I would hate for somebody to be heartbroken and be like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t do my SATs’,” says Sutherland.

“You have to do those things if they require them. And sometimes they require things like the SAT2 which is a subject test, so make sure you know the schedule for those.”

scholarships for students

Not all scholarships for students require your SAT or ACT results anymore. Some US universities, like Stanford University and all eight Ivy League schools, now have test-optional policies. Source: AFP

8. Make your application unique, but don’t do twice the work

Make your application unique. Don’t submit the same essay again and again.

“Having said that, similar applications, you know, similar scholarships, they’re not going to check. So recycle, reuse, and reduce effort,” says Sutherland.

“Try to make your application relevant to how your career has developed currently and relevant for the times.”

If there’s some sort of political movement that’s happening at the time or you’re involved in activism or public service that’s relevant to a particular scholarship, or your interests have changed based on the sort of timeframe of the application, apply with that.

“Be authentic. But if you’re proposing something, particularly for grants or something, make sure it’s feasible for that country,” says Sutherland.

“I do a lot of spicy research myself. So I kind of know what I can get away with and what I can’t. For scholarships, it’s always good to make sure you know what the committee is looking for.”

9. Talk to past scholarship winners

Many organisations will publish the names and biographies of past scholarship winners to show off what they are up to.

“As someone who reads admissions essays a lot, I love it when I have somebody who reaches out and says, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in Emory. I don’t know much. Can you tell me a little bit more about it? Here’s what I know, and here’s what I want to do’,” says Sutherland

“This person has done all the hard work for me, right? Because I already know 1. This person has read the website, 2. They’ve looked at programmes 3. But they want to know beyond just what the website says they want to know what I think.”

scholarships for students

Check your applications for scholarships for students once. Go to sleep. Wake up the next day and check it again.  Source: Getty Images/AFP

10. Proofread everything, then proofread it again

Writing is the process of rewriting. That’s all it is. You do not want to make a mistake in your application essay.

“I had a friend who applied to Standford University, do you think she heard back from Stanford? She indeed did not hear back for obvious reasons,” she says.

“Expressing your interest and going to Harvard in a Columbia essay not the best place to start with Columbia admissions, right? So please proofread your application essays.”

11. Finish your applications early

Do not miss a deadline. It is 100% not worth your effort, and definitely not worth the stress.

“Don’t start the essay 11:48 pm when it is due at 11:59,” says Sutherland.

12. Organise applications on your computer

Keep all your files for the scholarships you’re applying to in the same file folder on your computer.

“Definitely recycle. That is the way that you have a winning chance,” says Sutherland.

And if you’re lucky enough to have won scholarships before, think critically about what it was successful.

“Think about what you said in the essay, right? Think about the admissions criteria, why they accepted you for it, and see if you can replicate that in future essays or even borrow some of the structure and future essays,” says Sutherland.

“I can tell you very much as someone who’s won a lot of scholarships myself and coaches a lot of students, once you start winning one, it snowballs, so keep on that original train of scholarships for sure.”

scholarships for students

Scholarships for students come in all forms and sizes. There may be one especially designed for Indians, another that covers just cost for air travel. Source: Narinder Nanu / AFP

13. Small awards add up

Small, non-competitive local scholarships add up.

“Some people really want just to hit big and apply for Fulbright and Rhodes. You will never get scholarships if you only do that,” says Sutherland.

“Do not forget your local scholarships. When you get four local scholarships, guess what? That adds up to a big, major national scholarship.”

14. Embrace “no”

Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found about 10,000 ways that it won’t work.”

“Many failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up. So don’t give up early,” advises Sutherland.

“You’re going to hear a lot of noes. I hear no all the time. I embrace no, it’s part of life.”

This is part of the process of hunting scholarships for students. And not only will you hear “no” a lot, you’ll sometimes not even hear anything back.

“I applied for a grant in January but have not heard back from that grant. I sent them a little angry email. I was like, ‘Excuse me. I’m still here’,” says Sutherland.

scholarships for students

Students walk through Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale’s scholarships for students can vary from a few hundred dollars to over US$70,000 per year. Source: AFP

15. Get tips from the people in charge

There’s value in cold-calling or cold-emailing someone. These strangers have even become lifelong mentors to Sutherland.

There may even be an entire community of graduates from your home country at your dream US college or university.

And they’re ready to meet you over coffee to share their secrets on how they won scholarships for students.

“At Yale, where I’m at currently, it’s very open to collaborations. It’s very open for people to reach out,” says Sutherland.

“Obviously, you have to have a good reason to do it. It’s also a really good option to use things like Education USA.”