Understanding Fellowships

Below you will find the answers to some commonly asked questions. For more information, see our individual pages on major fellowship opportunities, getting started with an application, and more.

Are fellowships and scholarships the same thing? What is the difference between a scholarship, a fellowship, a grant, and a loan?

Scholarships and fellowships are often used as interchangeable terms. When used interchangeably by an organization or institution to refer to funding for education-related experiences, the awards are given to recipients and do not have to be paid back. This is also true of grants.

Here in our office, we take a more nuanced approach. We like to think of fellowships as opportunities that fund professional and/or education-related experiences. For the opportunities that we coordinate, the funding comes from outside of Penn State. Some require the recipient to work for the federal government or in public service after completion of the fellowship. These opportunities are generally not regular vehicles for paying tuition and fees at Penn State or supporting your study abroad plans.

Possible education-related experiences include paid research opportunities, overseas language-learning experiences, and travel to non-traditional locations. Although some fellowships are for tuition only, most of our fellowships include a specific experience and range in duration from three weeks to one year or more. Profession-related experiences include teaching and internship placements and are often closer to one year in duration.

Please keep in mind that there are always exceptions to these definitions. Should you have any questions, please contact our office at urfm@psu.edu or call (814) 863-8199.

What are the odds of receiving a fellowship?

Prestigious fellowships are often very competitive, and the statistics can be discouraging.

To get the most out of the application process, we recommend that you meet with our office. Throughout the application, you will define your goals, strengthen your technical writing skills, and think deeply about your current and future role in the world, which is an accomplishment regardless of your fellowship status. We can help maximize your potential by offering feedback as well as by identifying fellowships that match your ambitions. The more closely your goals are aligned with those of the funding agency, the specific opportunity, and the selection criteria, the more likely you are to be awarded a fellowship.

In addition to meeting with our office, you might also consider applying for more than one opportunity. Some fellowships are compatible with others. If you are offered multiple awards that cannot be held simultaneously, you always have the option to decline. However, be sure to consider the time it takes to complete a given application, whether you are a good fit with the fellowship, and how much work you want (or are able) to put into the application process. You want to direct your effort toward producing the strongest possible application(s) rather than applying to as many fellowships as you can.

Do I need to be a full-time student when I apply for fellowships?

While eligibility requirements for individual fellowships vary, most of the fellowships listed in the Fellowships Search require that applicants be full-time students. There are also fellowships that are open to alumni (e.g., Fulbright) or individuals looking to return to school (e.g., NSF Graduate Research Fellowship), although there may be specific age or year-of-graduation limits. Some opportunities require the recipients to have one or more years of undergraduate education ahead of them, so read the application criteria carefully.  

Do I need U.S. citizenship to apply for fellowships?

Many of the fellowships in the Fellowships Search do require U.S. citizenship, but our list also contains several research, study, and teaching opportunities that are open to international students.

Are there academic criteria for fellowships?

Most fellowships prefer students who demonstrate academic success or an upward trajectory in their grades at the time of application, particularly in their chosen field of study. Be aware that individual opportunities have different perspectives on what qualifies as "academic success." Some fellowships have specific GPA requirements.

Is financial need a criterion for fellowships?

While most fellowships that we coordinate do not take financial need into consideration, there are several opportunities listed in the Fellowships Search that are interested in funding students with significant financial need. 

Does it matter what field I want to study?

Yes. A fellowship should complement and extend your developing areas of interest and expertise. While many fellowships appeal to specific disciplines or majors, a conversation with our office can help identify how a variety of fellowships may relate to your interests.

When should I begin the process of applying?

You should begin the application process several months in advance of any deadline. An early start ensures that you have enough time for introspection and revision, to plan out and contact your letter writers, and to meet with our office and go over your application materials. You can find upcoming deadlines on our Calendar.

How should I begin the process of applying?

Once you know the fellowship for which you want to apply, you should read the eligibility criteria and the aims of the program very carefully. Make sure that your interests align with the program goals. If you are not sure which fellowship would be the most appropriate to pursue, it is a good idea to start by reviewing our Major Fellowship Opportunities page or scheduling an advising appointment with our office. Current students can schedule an appointment with a member of the office using Starfish and alumni can contact us directly at urfm@psu.edu.

After you study the eligibility criteria and aims of the program carefully, you want to study what materials are required of the application. In most cases, a background form is not enough. Instead, fellowship applications often require a personal statement, transcript, résumé, and a minimum of two recommendation letters. Some applications even require a research proposal. If recommendation letters are expected, choose your recommenders wisely. Try to approach senior professors with whom you have established good working relationships and who can speak to your fit with the eligibility criteria of the chosen program. Give them plenty of time to consider your request.

For more tips on writing your application and planning out your application timeline, please visit our section on Getting Started.

If you have a quick question or aren’t sure whether you need a full appointment, you can always email us at urfm@psu.edu.

Can I get feedback on my written application materials?

Yes, you can. We provide substantive and targeted feedback on application materials to help students be successful. For instance, we work with students to draft and revise their materials, helping them to best describe their experiences, interest, and fit for the opportunity.

The last day to submit materials for feedback is two weeks in advance of the application deadline. This cutoff allows us to give you feedback so you can have at least a week left to incorporate suggestions into your materials before you submit. If, after the cutoff, you have a specific question about your written materials or a question on the submission process, you are encouraged to email us at urfm@psu.edu.

What does “university nomination” mean?

Some fellowships require that a student receive university nomination before the individual can apply to compete. These fellowships either limit the number of students a school can nominate or require the school to carefully select the students best suited for the given award. Please note that if a fellowship requires university nomination, students must meet our deadlines and participate in our evaluation process to be considered for the fellowship. Campus deadlines are generally set well in advance of the national deadlines. For more information on how to receive university nomination, please see the section on Campus Evaluation Processes. You can find upcoming deadlines on our Calendar.

Where do I obtain an official copy of my transcript?

Pay attention to whether a fellowship application requires an official transcript. An official transcript is different than an unofficial or advising transcript and must be requested from the Office of the University Registrar. You can request delivery electronically or by mail, depending on the requirements of your specific fellowship application. It may take several days for the transcript request to be processed, so plan ahead and make your request on time.

Is an interview required as part of the application process?

Some fellowship programs involve interviews by phone or in person as part of the application process. In these meetings, the selection committee wants to see the person behind the project and probe the depth of an applicant’s knowledge and commitment. If you receive the opportunity to interview for a major fellowship, contact our office at urfm@psu.edu so that we can help you prepare.

What's the difference between a résumé and a CV?

There are three major differences between the résumé and CV formats: purpose, length, and layout.


CV: In general, a CV (short for curriculum vitae) is for academic or research-related positions where the employer is interested in original research, presentations, and publications. It is often more like a biography of your total life experiences and accomplishments.

Résumé: Outside of academic and research-related positions, you will be asked for a résumé. Rather than documenting all of your accomplishments, a résumé highlights only the skills and experiences that make you a competitive and qualified candidate for the particular position. A résumé should be adapted carefully for every application.


CV: In general, there is no limit to length of a CV. While some opportunities may request a maximum number of pages, the length typically depends on your experiences.

Résumé: In general, a résumé should be only one side of one-page. In only rare circumstances, a second or third page is acceptable.


CV: Since the CV covers the course of your life, there are many more headings and subheadings under which to organize your work. These headings may shift in terms of priority for the position.

Résumé: Contact information, work history/experience, and education will be the main components of your résumé. Depending on the position, you may also want to include skills, such as language proficiency or computer software.

Do you offer graduate school advising?

No. We provide insight only when choosing a graduate program is part of a fellowship application process. Otherwise, a trusted faculty mentor, academic or honors adviser, or member of Career Services would be best able to help you with graduate school decisions.

Where can I look for fellowships?

You are in the right place! If you are not sure what fellowship is a good match for your academic and life goals, we encourage you to review our Major Fellowship Opportunities page and use our Fellowships Search. We also regularly offer workshops and information sessions for specific programs, which are listed on our Calendar. Your faculty advisers, mentors, and peers may be familiar with relevant fellowships as well.

Current students can schedule an appointment with a member of the office using Starfish and alumni can contact us directly at urfm@psu.edu. Alternatively, if you have a quick question or aren’t sure whether you need a full appointment, you can contact our office at urfm@psu.edu.

How can I be notified of upcoming fellowship deadlines?

In addition to visiting the Calendar section of the website, subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media (@PSU_urfm) where we share student stories, announcements, and upcoming deadlines. We are on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Some fellowships also have their own newsletters and social media accounts to which you can subscribe to get the information directly.

What is the Spark Program?

The Spark Program offers select first- and second-year undergraduates the opportunity to learn about high-impact educational experiences, campus resources, and fellowship opportunities. This program also provides participants with the tools to develop competitive fellowship applications. For more information, visit the page on the Spark Program.