How to Apply

Winning a fellowship requires planning and effort, which are in your control. Experience shows that if you follow these steps, you will greatly increase your odds of securing an award.

Fellowship applications are a time-consuming proposition. Students should be clear about their goals; choose the right program; draft a project proposal and usually a personal statement, and then line up their references. And all of this must happen before the deadline.

Students should, therefore, allow plenty of lead time. Find out the due dates for the awards that are of interest, and come in to meet with the GS Fellowships Office well in advance—six months beforehand, if possible. This will give you the chance to focus on the process. When the time comes to submit your application, you will be ready to put forward your best thinking.

Once you get started with the application process, you will need to stay mindful of deadlines. These have a way of creeping up on you while you are occupied with other things. The Fellowship Office has created a Fellowship Planning Log to assist you as begin the planning process. Enter the final due dates as well as your own process deadlines in your calendar and take gradual but consistent steps toward your goal.

Find an Overriding Objective

Successful fellowship applicants know what they want. For example, they want to go to Gujarat and learn Hindi. Or they want to go to Berlin and study filmmaking. Their single-mindedness gives them the power to focus their efforts on just one goal.

Many wonderful students, however, have two pressing ambitions. Such ambivalence thwarts productive effort. The first step in applying for a fellowship, therefore, is to figure out what you most want for the year ahead. There is no need for life-long renunciations; you must simply identify where, in the coming year, your priorities lie.

Give Yourself Options

You may find yourself in a position to submit multiple fellowship applications for the same project.

For example:

  • If you want to do a master’s degree in history in the UK, the Marshall, Gates-Cambridge, Clarendon, and Fulbright would all be plausible options.
  • If you want to learn an Asian language overseas, the Luce, Boren, Bridging, and Princeton in Asia programs are possible targets—as are the English-language teaching positions offered by Fulbright and the Japanese and Korean governments.

If several, mutually consistent fellowships are available the wise course is to apply for them all. You will enhance your chances of success and—what is more important—you will be affirming to yourself the seriousness of your intention to bring your plan to fruition.

Do the Digging

Throughout the application process, you will need to explain your plans for the future. You can answer convincingly only by knowing exactly what it is you are proposing to do, as well as where and with whom you are proposing to do it.

Find out, therefore, all you can about the fellowship programs that interest you and, where applicable, the course offerings of the universities where you propose to study. Seek out previous winners as well as professors who are informed about the awards you are seeking. Plan to attend one of the GS Fellowship Information Sessions held throughout the academic year to learn more about the opportunities that interest you.

Focus on Process

Regardless of whether you ultimately secure a fellowship, making the effort to is bound to help you in the long run. To organize a good application you must:

  • Articulate your long-term goals and the steps you will take
  • Present your most sophisticated ideas in accessible prose
  • Fashion a compelling narrative out of your past decisions
  • Adapt to the selection committee’s criteria while remaining true to your own priorities  

The act of applying, in other words, virtually guarantees that you will gain self-awareness and lucidity of expression. This is why we urge you to focus on process, rather than on the chances of being chosen. If you approach the work in a process-oriented spirit, you will end up with more insight into yourself, greater clarity about your goals, and greater ease in the presentation of your ideas, acquisitions that can be transferred to any context.

Get Help

Although it is possible to apply for fellowships on your own, the GS Fellowships Office urges you to utilize the vast resources available.

Benefits of working with the GS Fellowships Office
  • Guidance about which competitions to enter
  • Step-by-step assistance as you develop a workable proposal
  • Constructive criticism of your draft essays
  • Structure and moral support

Applying to a Fellowship

Many fellowship applications require two essays: one explaining a student's background and goals, or the personal statement, and one setting forth a project or research proposal. Ideally these two essays should work together, supplementing the other with essential information about students and their project.

Make Your Passion Manifest

Your personal statement should convey the essence of your passion—the core of your personality, the well-spring of your commitment and drive. You do this by telling a story about yourself, one in which key moments of self-discovery and self-realization set you on a rising path that culminates, for the present, in the fellowship application. It should also be a path that you plan to stay with for many years to come.

Situate Yourself on a Trajectory

If the second essay, or project proposal, is task-oriented, the personal statement should have a developmental emphasis. In the project proposal, you want to get across all that you intend to do in the fellowship year. In the personal statement, you want to talk about the decades leading up to that year, as well as those that will follow. The goal is to present the fellowship award as both an affirmation and a boost. As an affirmation: it will ratify all of your efforts to realize yourself so far. As a boost: it will give you the experience and knowledge to make a larger contribution to humanity in your coming career.

Show the Origins of Your Desire

The earliest point on your personal time-line is often the most resonant. When did you first realize that you had the consuming passion that animates your application? Often enough, this moment of epiphany lies in the past, somewhere in childhood. Sometimes, however, it can be found in a recent course at Columbia or in last summer’s trip to another country. What book, what teacher, what taste of adversity or of unexpected success revealed your purpose to you? What encounter with the world, willed or accidental, set you on the course that you say you want to take?

Recount One or Two Moments of Triumph

Generally the fellowship applications will offer you plenty of blank boxes to list your honors, awards, publications, and other badges of merit. It would be a mistake, therefore, to use valuable space in the personal statement to reiterate these successes. Instead, establish your qualities of persistence and motivation by focusing on one or two smaller but indicative moments of triumph. These can be times, for example, when you helped solve an intermediate step of a large, intimidating problem; or when you silenced someone who was skeptical of your abilities with an incontrovertible display of competence; or when you managed to communicate your passion to a previously indifferent colleague or classmate.

The nature of the obstacle counts for less, in this context, than the fact that you surmounted it. Keeping technical details to a minimum, and focus on yourself and how you managed to surpass the limits of your own expectations.

Paint a Picture of Your Future

The selection committee is likely to view their award as an investment in your future—and by extension, in the future of the nation or of the world. Help them believe that you are a person of genuine promise by painting a picture of your future self. Explain how you will continue to build, after the fellowship year, on the interests and enthusiasms you have already set forth. Where do you hope to be ten years from now? What kinds of responsibilities do you foresee yourself having? Through the specificity and conviction of your prospective self-portrait, let the selection committee know that you will make them proud of their choice down the road.

Stay Anchored in Your Story

Unlike academic papers, the best personal statements are anchored in earthy details. You are presenting yourself as an individual with a particular, rooted, and contingent life history. It is likely that there was little of the predictable or the generic in your experiences before GS. You made unusual choices, took big risks, and overcame long odds. To anyone who knows you, these may be self-evident truths—but the selection committee doesn’t know you. You can help them recognize and appreciate your uniqueness by capturing the details of your story in your personal essay.

Many fellowship applications require an essay setting forth a project or research proposal.

State the Problem

Every research project seeks an answer to a question or the solution to a problem. Before you can begin to do anything during your fellowship year, you must know what the question or problem is that you hope to resolve. That is why the first step in writing a convincing project proposal is to articulate your question clarity and precision.

Everything that follows in the proposal statement is a function of your question. You will get the award only if the selection committee is convinced that you have posed a question (or identified a problem) that they think ought to be explored. And yet, paradoxically, the question is always open to change. If you arrive at your destination and become convinced that you have gotten it wrong, you are free to modify it (within reason) and begin again.

Think of the question you put forward as the starting point for an agreement with the selection committee about the fellowship year. If they sponsor you, you will work hard within your chosen field. Your question indicates where you currently plan to focus your energies. Even if it should become necessary for you to alter your focus, you will still put in the promised effort, although the precise lines of your inquiry may change.

Emphasize Feasibility

Getting the scope of the question right is a central part of the grant proposal. Your question should suggest ambition, not grandiosity. It should be big enough to warrant a fair amount of work, but it should not court the impossible. How do you know if you have made your question too large or too small?

First, a good question suggests a concrete plan of action. If a question is too big, it won’t be clear how you could go about solving it within the allotted time frame. If a question is too small, the answer will appear trivial or obvious.  

Second, a good question promises that its resolution will shed light on other, larger questions. A good question never ends with itself, but begets more questions as the inquiry it initiates gathers force.  

Stating a feasible question is important because it gives the selection committee confidence that you will actually get your project done. It shows that you understand the complexity of your field and that you honor your own limits as a researcher.

A feasible proposal need not be a diminished one. You can, for example, sell your project for the fellowship year as the first phase of a larger plan. If you hope to do a long-term ethnographic portrait of a Mexican village, tracing what happens to family ties there as the younger generations emigrate, your fellowship proposal can involve identifying families that will lend themselves to a prolonged study and making a preliminary inquiry into their existing structure.

Or again, your proposal may seek to offer clarity about one small piece of a larger puzzle. Suppose you are interested in the health care system in Germany and whether it can be used as a model for reform of the American system. You focus on a particular diabetes clinic in Bremen, and ask how its results-based compensation system affects the outcomes for patients between the ages of 55 and 70. You explain that your findings will be valuable in themselves, because results-based compensation may soon have its day in the U.S. You also point out that this one clinic will shed light on the entire German movement to bring economic rationality to the field of medicine.

Establish the Significance of Your Project

You are plainly drawn to your question—for the reasons, more or less subjective, that you will have set down in your personal statement. But why should anyone else care about it? Let the selection committee know why they should care. By demonstrating how your question fits into a larger field of intellectual or practical endeavor, implicating bigger questions, touching on problems of greater import, you will prove that the project is significant not only to yourself, but to others—and merits, therefore, the committee’s support.

The significance of your question needs to be intelligible even to people outside your immediate field. Although there may be experts on the selection committee, you should strive to state the meaning of your endeavor in terms any educated person can grasp. This may require you to think outside the immediate boundaries of your discipline.  

Suppose, for example, you were applying to study certain aspects of the tonal language of a long-isolated West African tribe. You believe that your findings may serve to refute elements of Chomsky’s thesis that there is a single, knowable grammar underlying the various languages of all human communities. For purposes of a fellowship application, you should explain what it would mean to the world if Chomsky’s proposition were (at least partly) disconfirmed. Would there be implications for language instruction? For artificial intelligence? For our understanding of how other species communicate? The more convincingly you can show how your narrow question touches other spheres, the more appealing it will be.

Describe Your Approach

How do you propose to answer your question? What are you going to do from day to day during the fellowship year? This is the occasion for putting your practical, grounded side on display. You need to show both that you have a plan and that all the pieces are in place for you to carry it out. If you will need the support or sponsorship of particular individuals, you should know who they are and, optimally, have contacted them already.

Suppose you hope to consult the files concerning a famous dissident in the national archives of a Central European country. How many boxes await you? At what pace will you work through them? Do you know for sure that you can inspect them without restrictions? Or suppose that you want to make a documentary about how criminal trials are still run by village elders in rural India.

What technology will you use to make your recordings? How will you keep the equipment powered up and in working order? Did the elders agree to let you capture everything on film?

Whatever the particulars of your project, the goal is to reassure the selection committee that you have thought things through. If there are foreseeable problems, show that you have addressed them. Establish, by implication, your capacity to face down new obstacles with determination and creativity.

Justify Your Choice of Place

To work on certain projects, you must be in one place rather than another. To study the migratory pattern of the spectacled bear, you must go to the Andes. To learn about the prospects of Flemish nationalism, you must go to Flanders. Once you have made clear what you propose to do, the question of why you must be at a certain location answers itself.

But many projects—notably in literary criticism, philosophy, mathematics, and other abstract disciplines—can plausibly be pursued anywhere. If you are proposing to travel for such a project, you must justify the displacement as well as the project itself. Why must you be at Oxford to study the influence of Catholicism in Shakespeare’s thought? Why go to Berlin to study the development of editing techniques in midcentury narrative cinema?

Preparation is everything here. You need to show that you have investigated all the different places where a person with your interest might go—and that the destination you are proposing is the best place to seek an answer to your particular question. Invoke the pertinent archives, research centers, exhibit spaces, and other features of the city or university you wish to visit. Show how the interests of a number of the professors or experts there coincide perfectly with your own research agenda. Ideally, you will be able to append a letter from one of these very experts, expressing enthusiasm for your proposal and a willingness to supervise you should you win the award.

Make the End Product Tangible

What will you have to show when the fellowship is at an end? Will it be a research paper or the outline of a book, a photographic essay or the blueprint for a building, a statistical analysis or a complete policy report? Describe the actual end-product of your fellowship and explain how you hope to make use of it in succeeding years to propel your creative and professional growth.

Some fellowships require a resume, curriculum vitae, or activities list as part of an application package. Format for this list should follow a professional model, but unlike professional resumes, this list does not need to be confined to one page—most fellowships specify page allowances.

Because fellowships usually allow for a couple pages of activities, you should use the allotted space to present your activities in an organized yet detailed format, meaning that each activity should include a description of what it entailed and your specific role. Do not sell yourself short. Emphasize your leadership and substantive involvement as much as possible.

Initially it will be helpful to put together a broad list of possible activities, ranging from clubs on campus to volunteering events to language skills or sports activities to publications and honors and awards. In your initial draft, try to include as much information as possible. We will work with you to both pare down and elaborate this initial list. Part of the editing process is to prioritize what is most important to you. It also allows you to craft the resume in such a way as to have your activities reflect and embody the core values of the fellowship to which you are applying.

Once you have an initial draft, you will want to form your list around specific categories. By breaking your activities into three or four different sub-groups, you both make your document more accessible to the reader as well as highlight the diversity of your interests. Sometimes this organization will be determined by the particular fellowship’s goals, core values, or orientation. For example, if you are applying for a fellowship founded for the encouragement of public service, then you will want to highlight your volunteer activity or your internships in the public sector. On the other hand, if the fellowship emphasizes international understanding, you may want to highlight your language skills and study abroad experiences, thus making this an integral subcategory with more illustrative descriptions.

Possible categories to think about include athletics, research activities, publications, discipline-specific activities, public service activities, employment, leadership positions, and language proficiency.

Recommendation letters give you the chance to highlight aspects of your character not otherwise apparent in your application. The people who are most qualified to do this are faculty members who know you well (who will not necessarily be the most famous professors on this campus).

Ideally your recommenders will be able to affirm your many outstanding characteristics: for example, your breadth of intellect, seriousness of purpose, generosity with other students, and constant desire to improve. Second, they will line up behind your project or study proposal and explain why they believe you will definitely be able to achieve your goals.  

Give each recommender a brightly colored folder with your name clearly marked on it, well in advance of the first deadline. The folder should contain:

  • a draft (even if preliminary) of your personal statement and research proposal
  • your CV
  • for each fellowship to which you are applying: a brief description; the deadline for the recommendation letter; and the internet link for uploading it
  • a copy of the best paper that you wrote for his or her class, preferably with the professor’s comments

Do not forget to thank all of your recommenders for writing on your behalf, and keep them apprised of how you are faring in the various competitions.

Although most fellowships seek only faculty recommendations, some invite letters from others who can speak about non-academic skills, such as leadership ability or dedication to public service. For these contests, you may ask internship, employment, or volunteer supervisors.

It is probably best to avoid seeking letters of recommendation from graduate students. As they are also students, not unlike you in many respects, their words may not carry the same authority as those of full-time faculty.

If you’re called in for an interview in a national fellowship competition, you’re in great shape. It means that you’re one of the top candidates. Your goal at this point should be to show that you can make excellent use of the opportunity.

To prepare for the interview, carefully reread your application, as well as the fellowship’s website. You may have changed since completing the application; you do not want to surprise the interview panel by seeming inconsistent or ungrounded in your goals. You will also want to refresh your knowledge of the fellowship’s philosophy. Interview panels are interested in finding a candidate that will best embody, and instill in others, the values of the fellowship. Because of this, you should be fully prepared to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of those core values and to explain how your future intellectual and professional goals are compatible with them.

Read the newspaper every day as current events can often be springboards for interview questions. Recruit your fellow students to test you about your area of expertise. Arrange for mock interviews with the GS and OGP fellowships staff. Panels for these mock interviews will consist of administrative staff, faculty members, and past winners, all of whom will try to simulate the atmosphere of a real-life interview.

Be prepared for all kinds of questions about your discipline, your proposal, current events, and your future plans. Your goal should not be to answer all questions correctly—sometimes there may be no correct answer—but rather clearly, concisely, and directly.

Dress formally, meaning a suit and tie for men and a suit or nice skirt and jacket for women. Arrive early for the interview, allowing extra time for traffic or delays. Carry yourself confidently, sitting with straight but not stiff posture. Because the interview will consist of a panel, be prepared to make eye contact with all members and not just the one asking the question directly.