Tips on Preparing a Winning Fellowship Proposal

from Introduction to Fellowships, Brown University 1997

(In no particular order)

  • Each fellowship or scholarship is different and requires different kinds of preparation, but all take hard work.
  • Start early and do not underestimate the amount of time needed to complete an application.
  • Distinguished scholarly achievement is a prerequisite for almost all fellowships.
  • Do not be deceived by the vagueness of some of the application forms and think that you do not need to make detailed plans for your study abroad.
  • Letters of recommendation may prove to be very significant. But it doesn't help to be recommended by a Nobel Prize winner if she or he does not know you or cannot produce the appropriate superlatives.
  • Think of your recommendations as a package that covers your various strengths from various angles.
  • Any variety of means that can be found to demonstrate your academic achievement and potential are worth including in your application. There will usually be space to mention prizes, publications, or performances.
  • Essays offer a unique opportunity to demonstrate thoughtfulness, modesty, and creativity, and are your only opportunity, at least initially, to "sell" yourself to the very demanding fellowship committees.
  • Selection committees differentiate among hundreds of candidates with superb credentials by usually giving preference to someone who seems to has the soundest reason for doing the work they plan.
  • Although a research project may be conceived independently of the university in which it is to be carried out, it gains credibility if planned for a specific institution or place. The more detailed your knowledge of the site at which you propose to work, the better; it is helpful if you are familiar with the names and special strengths of faculty or other experts. The best approach -- the one that will give you an edge over other similarly-qualified candidates -- is to establish a liaison with an institution or specialist before you apply and to include in your application some welcoming communication from a university or faculty member "over there."
  • It is very important that your proposed program fits your academic preparation to date.
  • Institutions paying all this money and going to all this trouble to send Americans abroad are looking for something more than high I.Qs. They want people who will make a lifetime contribution to the welfare of humanity or at least to the U.S.A. Extra-curricular achievements may count heavily in your favor, especially those that demonstrate leadership, initiative, social consciousness, and sense of responsibility.
  • The application forms for each fellowship become available at different times and places. Pay attention and get the right forms.
  • Almost all applications require biographical data, transcript, recommendations, and an essay. Some require photos, medical certificates, requests for laboratory space, and birth certificates. All applications should be typed, and neatness counts. Correctness and style are vital.
  • Most fellowships require one or more essays, and they are not easy to write. You may be asked to describe "your study or research plans and your reasons for wishing to undertake them in the country of your choice" (Fulbright)
  • Research projects and courses of study should build on the skills and knowledge you have developed throughout your academic career, particularly in relation to the subject you are proposing to study.
  • Look for reasons that your project is uniquely suited to the site at which you propose to study.
  • Less straightforward are the autobiographical essays and the statements explaining why you want to study x or y. There are no easy formulas for writing about yourself. It does not hurt if your autobiographical sketch is witty, insightful, charming, intelligent, humble, realistic, and moving. Remember that your audience is just as smart as you, probably better educated, and probably fatigued. Particular facts and anecdotes catch the attention more easily than unsupported generalities.
  • Why do you want to study x or y? The way you approach such questions is important (ponderously? pontifically? timorously?). Your own personal values and goals will be expressed in such essays, either explicitly or implicitly. Public service in some form is held in respect by most selection committees; nest-feathering and ego-tripping are not.
  • Regardless of your background, course of study and accomplishments, the essay is the one aspect of the application process over which you have total control. Rather than rehash your resumé, present yourself according to the overarching themes in your life. Why have you made the decisions you have made? What are your goals? What path will you take to achieve them? Remember, this is your one opportunity to present YOU without the filter of someone else's judgment about you.

From Introduction to Fellowships, Brown University 1997.