ST. PETERSBURG — It took Eckerd College sophomore Amy Esser three months to prepare her winning application for one of the more prestigious undergraduate scholarships in the nation.
The months she spent writing and rewriting two essays, getting recommendation letters, in short, making her entry perfect, earned her a $16,000 scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a paid internship next year, among other perks.
The cash, which would help pay for her junior and senior years of college, is a big help.
"I know for me it's nice because school is expensive," she said. "Now I don't have to feel as stressed, that I have to get certain amount of hours in at work to get a certain amount of money to pay for food and everything else."
Esser, 20, and five of her classmates from Eckerd snagged six of the 105 Hollings scholarships from NOAA this year, beating many sophomores from 68 institutions nationwide.
This year's winners also put the private St. Petersburg liberal arts and science college at the top of the list of schools with the most winners of the scholarship, said Eckerd officials. With 39 winners over the years, the college tops Penn State, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Miami and Cornell on the list.
Having a strong marine science undergraduate program helps with the chances, said Dick Hallin, Eckerd's dean emeritus of admissions and financial aid.
About 140 to 150 freshmen come to Eckerd to take marine science classes every year, said Bill Szelistowski, a marine science professor. Many end up majoring in it.
However, there's more than just having a program that attracts students from around the country.
For starters, Hallin was persuaded to stay on part-time after his retirement solely to help promising students prepare their applications for national scholarships. Eckerd also offers a marine science-related research program to freshmen so they would be able to put that on their resumes.
"They get to do research in their first year at Eckerd, and that is very unusual," Szelistowski said.
Students who show the most promise in their freshman year were encouraged to apply. Such preparations take a couple of years of planning by both college staffer and students, Hallin said.
"It's good for them know about (these scholarships) early and develop strategies to become competitive," he said. "It's clearly important for students to think about their own strengths … and to present themselves in a way as to stand out from others."
This year's scholarship recipients understand this. Most heard of the scholarship before they were encouraged to apply.
"As soon as I found out they wanted me to apply for it, I started," said John Morrissey, 20, from Massachusetts. "It's a lengthy application, and they want to make sure you do it right, so I took as much time as I needed."
To the winners, the scholarship means less worrying about money and loans. It means being able to study what they love.
"This shows I am competitive to go to grad school. So long as you work hard, you can do whatever you want in life," said Ben Belgrad, a 20-year-old from Ohio. "I want to do what engages me and wake up doing what I like."