Getting Started

Most fellowship applications will require a personal statement, transcript, resume, and a minimum of two recommendation letters. Some applications even require a research proposal. Our office is available to help you frame your essays and talk through your options for recommenders.

The personal statement often distinguishes top candidates from the rest of the applicant pool. Yet, distilling your life into a compelling, informative personal statement is an extremely challenging task. Approach the process as an opportunity to reflect calmly and creatively on who you are, who you want to be, and what you hope to do with your life.

Think of the statement as an intellectual autobiography.

Tell a story about you that makes the selection committee members want to invest in you. There is no single formula for writing a successful personal statement, just as there is no single profile of a fellowship recipient. The selection committee will want to see that the threads of your life–your academic and personal interests and experiences–have brought you to a place where your chosen opportunity is a clear next step for which you are prepared and qualified. The committee will also want to understand how the fellowship itself will help refine or launch the next stages of your life and career.

In order to write a compelling essay, you will need to think in-depth about your life and goals. If you apply for multiple opportunities, you will need to prepare multiple essays, each one crafted specifically in terms of length and the qualities desired in the candidates.

Your statement does not have to be entirely academic.

Some successful candidates discuss influences on their intellectual development in their statements, others will focus on their personal growth or even challenges that they have overcome. All successful personal statements show a side of the candidate that a list of accomplishments could not. It is not appropriate to discuss information that is so personal you would not want it published in a newspaper should you receive the award.

Talk to your readers about the things that motivate, inspire, and shape you.

Although a personal statement should not come across as bragging, many students need to overcome their modesty in order to write compelling personal statements. Do not write to impress by using overly flowery language or complicated sentence structures, and avoid clichés. Fellowship selection committees have seen and heard it all! Instead, let your credentials speak for themselves. Help the readers to understand what specific accomplishments have meant to you, or how they have shaped you and your life goals.

The purpose of a research proposal is to demonstrate to a scientifically literate, but non-expert, audience that your work deserves funding. Readers will want to evaluate your ability to define and approach a fundamental problem that is unresolved in your field. Once you contextualize the importance of what you study, demonstrate that you have a sound methodology and adequate time to answer the questions you have posed. If there are individuals or facilities that are critical to accomplishing your research, mention them and the role they will play. Be sure to make clear that you possess, or will learn quickly, all skills necessary to complete the proposed project.

In addition to working with our office on your research materials, we expect disciplinary faculty members to provide necessary input. Applicants for research opportunities should discuss the technical approach and feasibility of the research plan with their current research mentors.

Having the required number of letters of recommendation is not sufficient. Instead, you want to present a collection of strong letters of recommendation. A strong letter not only corroborates what you discuss in your written materials, but it also amplifies your accomplishments. A strong letter assesses your accomplishments and aptitude against others in your age group or field, providing the reviewer with a lens through which to understand the significance of your career.

  • Choose recommenders who are familiar with you and the criteria on which you are being evaluated, and who can articulate your strengths. Seek ranked, established recommenders to write for you. Avoid requesting letters from high school teachers, graduate instructors, or professors who do not know you well enough to write letters.
  • Discuss your plans with your recommenders in person. Communicate to your potential recommender why their letter would be valuable and important. Invite them to ask questions about your candidacy and your goals. This conversation may feel awkward at first, but it will only make you a better candidate. They may even have suggestions or advice to help improve your plans for the future.
  • Give your recommenders enough time. Approach recommenders about writing a letter of recommendation at least two months in advance of a deadline.
  • Provide your recommenders with clear and accurate directions. No two applications are alike. Make sure your recommender knows what their letter should address, when the letter is due, how the request for a letter of recommendation will arrive, and how they should submit the letter.
  • Provide your recommenders with a copy of your application materials. In order for a recommender to write you a strong letter, they must know what you are planning to discuss in your application. Plan to share materials with your recommenders as soon as you have solid drafts of them, at least two weeks prior to the fellowship's deadline.
  • Do not worry about asking the same faculty members for multiple letters for different opportunities. In many cases, a skeletal letter can be tailored for a range of different fellowship applications.

For information on how to write a strong letter of recommendation, please review our accompanying section for mentors.

In addition to preparing a complete application, some opportunities require applicants to participate in a campus evaluation process. For these opportunities, our office typically sets an internal (campus) deadline two months in advance of the national deadline.

The purpose behind a campus evaluation process varies. For the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and Boren Awards, the goal is to offer an assessment of the fit between the applicant and the program. For the Goldwater and Astronaut Scholarships, as well as many of the post-graduate U.K. fellowships, applicants must be identified as University nominees in order to move forward and compete at the national level.

Students are always encouraged to meet with our office to discuss their interest in applying and to learn more about whether their fellowship of interest includes a campus evaluation process.