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Have you ever thought about traveling to a foreign culture to learn something about yourself? Pursuing a research project over the summer? Working to serve a community in need or to gain practical experience? Continuing your studies after you graduate? Something else important to you?
Every undergraduate should at least consider applying for fellowships. These awards represent unique possibilities of support for your aspirations. Applying for them will almost certainly be beneficial for you, since clarifying your goals and learning how to present ideas—on paper and in person—both prepare you for job searches, graduate school applications, and much else in life.
DEFINING YOUR GOALS
RESEARCHING SUITABLE OPPORTUNITIES
PRESENTING YOUR CASE
ORGANIZING SUPPORTING MATERIALS
SUBMITTING THE APPLICATION
A fellowship is a merit-based type of grant—financial support awarded to an individual for some specific experience, usually in a competitive context based on how well you demonstrate your need for it. Other terms—such as award, scholarship, and studentship—are essentially interchangeable in describing funding awarded for a special opportunity.
Applying for fellowships—a process known as grantsmanship—requires careful thought and preparation, especially if you hope to learn from the process. It requires defining your goals, researching suitable opportunities, presenting your case, and organizing supporting materials.
Your first step will be self-assessment. Think about what you want to do in broad, ideal terms, and take stock of the skills, aptitudes, and other qualities that might qualify you for that experience. Your next step will be research. Grant and fellowship directories, on-line and in print, can help you identify appropriate funding sources—and so can faculty members and campus fellowship advisors.
Once you’ve decided to apply for fellowships, and which fellowships to apply for, your own application materials will influence selection decisions. Each application has its own requirements, but your application essay—and the recommenders you choose—ultimately will be most influential in determining outcomes. In some cases, you may also be invited for an interview.
If you’re fortunate and receive a fellowship, you’ll get to pursue a dream. And success in grantsmanship tends to breed success—future applications will be easier for you, and you will bring a proven track record to each of them. If you don’t receive a fellowship, do what you can to learn from the application process. Ask for advice and feedback—could you improve your application in any way? Are there other avenues you could pursue?
Whatever the outcome, you will reap certain benefits in applying for fellowships. You’ll find that your thoughts about yourself and your future will be clearer, and that you have more confidence in exploring and pursuing possibilities for your future.
DEFINING YOUR GOALS
The first step in the application process is self-assessment. Think about what you hope to do, in ideal but authentic terms. If your goals have clarity, substance, and merit, the world of fellowships really is a place where dreams and reality can coincide.
Consider the broad questions at the beginning of this introduction as an invitation to imagine all sorts of possibilities when you think about your goals—and notice that these questions all point in some kind of direction. As you think about such questions, and others they might prompt, pay attention to the ideas that resonate most strongly with you.
At the same time, take an honest look at yourself and what you can bring to meeting these goals. This may be certain abilities and skills, or aptitudes and talents, or convictions and interests—or some combination. But your ability to reach for your goals realistically will be important in fueling the application process.
Be clear about a couple of things as you get started: fellowships are means to an end, not ends or prizes in themselves. They offer unique opportunities to do something important at a given time in your life, but there’s no way every qualified candidate can win one. Staying focused on your goals will ultimately help you benefit from the application process.
Done well, applying for fellowships also takes time, effort, patience, and a willingness to learn from the process. While applying for grants, you may also be working on activities, writing a thesis, looking for a job, applying to graduate school—maybe even going to classes. Budget your time accordingly, and don’t spread yourself too thin—give yourself room to give your best efforts to this process.
RESEARCHING SUITABLE OPPORTUNITIES
Once you’ve clarified your goals, the next step is to identify the grant opportunities that serve your interests best and for which you are eligible. This is where published fellowship and grant directories (on-line and in print) come in handy. As you browse through them—or search using indexes or other tools—pay attention to the purpose of each award to compile a list of possible matches, either to yourself as a potential applicant or to the sort of project you want to pursue.
Be sure to pay attention to eligibility criteria and application procedures as you compile your list. Do you need to be a citizen of a particular country? Have a particular GPA or take a particular standardized test? Demonstrate financial need? Do you need to be nominated by your institution? Some of these restrictions and procedural requirements may narrow your list.
Fellowship and grant directories will provide most of the basic information you need as you do your research, and many of these will offer helpful advice and comments. But don’t hesitate to ask for additional help along the way. Use the contact information in these references to raise your questions directly with the people most familiar with a particular program.
You may also find it helpful to consult with instructors or administrators familiar with your work, or with campus fellowship advisors or program liaisons. These individuals can offer another perspective on your questions and can help you reality-test your ideas. They may even suggest possibilities you haven’t yet considered.
PRESENTING YOUR CASE
After you determine which fellowships are appropriate to pursue, you ultimately have to present your case to sponsoring organizations. The application materials you submit for review are essential to everything that follows in the application process—they will give selection committees their first impressions of you and your candidacy, and you should consider them accordingly.
Most fellowship competitions have their own application forms. These typically outline instructions and require basic biographic and demographic information from you. Follow application instructions carefully, and make sure that you provide all the information required. Remember that neatness and attention to detail count throughout your application—proofread everything carefully.
Almost every fellowship application requires a statement from you. No matter how impressive your accomplishments or recommendations may be, this essay will be the core of your application. It may be a personal statement, a project proposal, a topical essay, or some combination—but it’s the only element in your application over which you have complete control.
Remember that your essay is essentially an exercise in expository writing, but with a twist—it also needs to be persuasive. As you get ready to write, think about the following questions:
- How will you demonstrate the match between yourself and a particular project?
- How will you demonstrate a match between yourself and a particular fellowship?
- What elements will you draw on to be persuasive?
Give your essay the same kind of thought you gave to your college admissions essay—think about what you want to communicate, and then give yourself over to writing.
Selection committees want to learn about you and how well you and your project mesh with their expectations of an ideal grant recipient. Clarity and authenticity are essential in application essays. Tell a committee who you are, what you’re about, what makes you tick, what you want to do, how you plan to do it, and why it’s important—and do so in an honest voice and style.
Plan to write several drafts of your essay—and to solicit comments from others—before you’re satisfied with a final version and an authentic tone. This involves work, but the confidence you feel in representing your candidacy and the overall strength of your application are directly related to the time and effort you put into your essay. Career Services can give you advice about your essay! Just make a career counseling appointment and select "Graduate School/Personal Statement" for the type of appointment and mention in the notes that you are applying for a fellowship.
ORGANIZING SUPPORTING MATERIALS
Most fellowship applications require you to submit a resume to document your activities, experiences, and interests. While you may use a resume you have on-hand, it’s smart to consider preparing a resume for each application. If selection criteria focus on academics, or leadership, or service, you can use your resume to highlight such achievements and save yourself from repeating them in your essay. Check out the resume writing section of our website for more information on creating a strong resume.
Many applications also require you to submit an official transcript as a record of your college academic career and student standing. Even when academic achievement is not a major factor, your transcript tells selection committees something about your interests and personal growth. Be sure to give your registrar ample time to process transcript requests before competition deadlines. Check out how to request a transcript for more information.
Nearly every application requires letters of recommendation from individuals who are in some position to assess your qualities as a candidate objectively. These references serve to provide independent support for the claims you state in your application. Think about a fellowship’s orientation when you consider possible recommenders, as well as how each person knows you.
The ideal reference will come from someone who knows you well, who can evaluate your performance and potential in some detail and with obvious interest. While you’re a student, you will usually find such individuals among your instructors, advisors, coaches, administrators, and supervisors. When you have to narrow your choices to two or three recommenders, consider who knows you best.
Selection committees weigh many things in reviewing letters of recommendation, but they always focus on what recommenders can actually say about you, based on their experience, as well as the degree of enthusiasm they express. Choose your recommenders accordingly. Be sure to give them ample time to prepare their letters before competition deadlines, and be sure they know how to submit them.
SUBMITTING THE APPLICATION
Applying for fellowships is a venture into the real world. While the substance of your application will carry you far, so will presentation and adherence to pre-existing rules, including deadlines. Since your application will be your formal introduction to a selection committee, proofread everything you write, follow instructions carefully, and make sure all of your materials are submitted on time.
When you do eventually submit your application, it will be evaluated by a selection committee the fellowship sponsor has assembled for this purpose. Selection committees consider objective information in every application, but subjective considerations always come in to play, including an assessment of the investment potential their fellowship might represent for your future.
After evaluating applications, selection committees sometimes invite a small group of finalists for interviews before making their decisions. Directly or indirectly, interview questions will prompt you to go over your application materials in person. Most questions will be fairly straightforward, but some will be deliberately challenging.
Although an interview is an extension of your application, there’s no way to anticipate every question or script every answer—all the more reason to be authentic and honest from the start. Committees hope to meet in person the same individual they’ve already met on paper. If you get invited to an interview, try to relax and enjoy the chance to share your thoughts and aspirations. Need help preparing for an interview? Then check out the resources on interviewing, set up a mock interview appointment, and/or do a virtual mock interivew (we even have question sets geared for the fellowship process)!
A recent graduate who submitted several applications as a senior wrote, "I didn’t get any fellowships—too bad, I had some good ideas—but I’m glad I applied because now I have more ideas of what I want to do, and I will pursue them." Another student, a fellowship recipient, also found the application process illuminating: "I haven’t yet answered all of my questions, but I now have a much better picture of where I want to go in my life and a clearer idea of what matters to me."
Whether or not you win a fellowship, the application process will have certain benefits. From beginning to end, it asks you to think about your goals and why achieving them would be fulfilling. It helps you clarify your thoughts and gain experience expressing them—and it builds your confidence in each of these abilities. We wish you the best in these pursuits!
Resource: Harvard University