Judith Rowland, 2010 Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship Winner, with Scott Handley, University Fellowships Coordinator
Fellowships are competitive-application grants that provide funding to allow recipients to pursue graduate study or advanced academic research, often overseas. The duration and dollar amounts vary from program to program, but the most competitive fellowships provide funding for one to two years’ time. Some fellowships are tied to specific graduate research institutions; others may require a period of service or include an offer of employment.
Fellowships are not general scholarships for graduate study. Each sponsoring organization has very specific programmatic goals designed to promote awareness, service, or scholarship in a particular field. Fellowship selection committees are not merely seeking candidates who are prepared for success in graduate school; they are seeking the most outstanding candidates who will advance their dedicated cause. This is very important to keep in mind when considering fellowship programs. In order to be a successful applicant, you must demonstrate that you have a very specific end goal in mind that advances the goals of the sponsoring organization.
- Fellowships offer significant funding to facilitate your graduate education or to enable you to conduct academic research culminating in publication-quality work;
- Fellowship recipients enjoy unprecedented access to some of the world’s finest educational institutions. For example, recipients of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship are far more likely to secure admission to a graduate program at the University of Cambridge than the average applicant;
- Fellowship recipients are very attractive candidates for Ph.D. programs. Fellowship winners have not only demonstrated their all-around academic and professional potential, but they also bring significant external funding to graduate programs, freeing up scarce scholarship resources to fund additional graduate students in the department;
- Fellowships facilitate opportunities to live and study overseas, providing invaluable academic and professional experience that can advance your career;
- Fellowship recipients belong to an elite community of scholars and professionals, providing unparalleled networking opportunities and allowing you to benefit from the prestige associated with participation in an elite program;
Some fellowship programs are accompanied by employment offers or dramatically increase opportunities for placement in affiliated agencies. For example, Harry S. Truman Scholars are required to enter public service upon completion of their graduate studies. Truman Scholars are highly sought after by a wide range of governmental agencies.
The application process in and of itself is valuable preparation for competitive application opportunities that you will encounter as you pursue graduate study or as you enter the employment sector. Students who go through the rigorous process of applying for a fellowship must be articulate, concise, and goal-oriented. They must propose complex long-term projects and demonstrate the benefits of their work to organizations or to the scholarly community. They must be able to speak thoughtfully about their work and to respond to challenging questions in stressful interview situations. These experiences prepare students to be critically evaluated in the future and increase their confidence levels as they pursue their academic and professional goals.
Fellowship programs are prestigious and highly competitive. Applicants will be compared against hundreds, sometimes thousands, of applicants from top universities and honors programs. Universities (including Missouri State) often have rigorous internal screening processes designed to narrow the applicant pool down to the most outstanding applicant for regional or national nomination. There is no set formula for identifying the most promising candidates, but selection committees often look for the following characteristics:
- An institutional GPA of 3.75 or better;
- A record of rigorous academic course work. Students who take the path of greatest resistance and enjoy success will be rewarded. Alternatively, a class schedule that is deemed soft can undermine an application, regardless of grade performance;
- International experience and foreign language skill sets are highly attractive for all candidates and are critical for students interested in international study and research opportunities;
- Participation in intensive research programs is highly desirable. Working in a lab, serving as a Research Assistant, completing a thesis, and presenting original work at undergraduate conferences and symposia will help to position an applicant for serious consideration;
- High levels of faculty support. Successful applicants have strong relationships with their faculty mentors. These professors demonstrate an applicant’s potential for success in graduate study, international research, or competitions for publication. The ability of recommenders to influence evaluators is critical in determining an applicant’s success. If you are not certain who to approach for a recommendation letter, the Fellowships Office can help you determine who to talk to. Don't worry if you do not have names of faculty members to ask, by simply having a conversation with them a relationship can begin to form that can become a great asset for fellowship applications.
- Demonstrated record of activities on campus or in the surrounding community, with a premium being placed upon leadership experience. The quantity of experiences is far less important than the quality of the experiences. A successful applicant can demonstrate how he/she benefitted from participation in a certain activity and illustrate how that experience can be used to facilitate success in a fellowship program.
- Perhaps most important, attractive candidates have the ability to articulate very specific aims, goals, and interests and to demonstrate how a fellowship will enable the applicant to achieve those goals. The strongest applicants illustrate how their own interests and goals complement those of the sponsoring organization. If you want to win a competitive fellowship, you need to recognize exactly what it is that you hope to accomplish.
Each fellowship program has specific eligibility criteria that should be carefully considered before beginning the application process.
- Apply yourself from the first day that you arrive on campus. The grades that you earn early in your career will be an important part of your permanent academic record;
- Take challenging courses throughout your academic career. Students who take the path of greatest resistance and enjoy success will be rewarded. Alternatively, a class schedule that is deemed soft can undermine an application, regardless of grade performance;
- Develop strong relationships with faculty members. Your professors will not only help you to develop as a scholar, they will also play a critical role in the evaluation process by providing you in-depth recommendations for fellowship opportunities;
- Seek out exciting learning opportunities: take service-learning courses, complete internships, volunteer to serve as a Supplemental Instruction Leader. If you participate in unique and interesting learning opportunities, you are more likely to become a unique and interesting fellowship applicant;
- Get involved. Participation in activities demonstrates that you can manage your time and responsibilities, that you have ideas and skill sets to contribute to organizations, that you work effectively with others, and that you are aware of what is happening in your community and you are interested in making a positive impact;
- Seize research opportunities, write in your academic field, and get published if you can. Fellowships support academic scholarship. If you have a demonstrated record of success in your chosen academic discipline, you are far more likely to be considered for funding than applicants who are unproven;
- Study foreign language. If you cannot communicate across cultures, you will not be considered for international fellowships. Language study opens up research opportunities to you and allows you to conduct primary research while living and studying abroad. Keep in mind that many Ph.D. programs require you to have knowledge of one or two foreign languages in order to graduate;
- Study abroad. Nothing demonstrates interest in international issues more than stepping outside of your own comfort zone and living and studying overseas. Study away participants are responsible, motivated, self-reliant, and confident. These same characteristics are valued in fellowship applicants;
- Complete the Departmental Distinction Program in the Honors College. Students who execute long-term original research projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor are doing the exact same things that graduate students do. If you can demonstrate that you have the skills and experience to complete such projects successfully, you are far more likely to be considered for funding;
- Take advantage of the Career Center. The skill sets that you will use to market yourself in a cover letter are similar to the skills that you will use to prepare a fellowship application. Begin working with the Career Center during your first-year so that you will be experienced and comfortable with self-marketing by the time you begin to make your post-graduation plans;
- Set goals for yourself. If you can articulate what you want to accomplish, how, and why, you can prepare yourself for specific fellowship opportunities. Outlining goals takes time. You won’t be able to successfully articulate your future plans in one week;
- Take advantage of the University Fellowships Office. We are here to help you learn about opportunities and to prepare yourself for the application process. You can visit us as early as your first-year!
Fellowship application deadlines range from September through March, with the most competitive programs having early autumn deadlines. If you would like to apply to a fellowship program during your senior year, you should begin researching opportunities and seeking advice in the spring of your junior year. You will need time to consider your options, articulate and refine your goals, and work with your advisors to begin preparing a competitive application package. By fall of your senior year, your ideas and goals should be clearly developed, so that you may concentrate upon completing the administrative mechanics of your fellowship application.
Missouri State has internal application deadlines for many competitive fellowship programs that are earlier than the national application deadlines. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the application procedures for the program that interests you so that you are not disqualified from consideration.
Preparing a successful fellowship application will require a considerable amount of your time, multiple visits to the University Fellowships Office, and numerous conversations with your faculty mentor(s). You cannot prepare a strong application in two weeks’ time. Plan ahead and start early!
Each sponsoring organization has very specific programmatic goals designed to promote awareness, service, or scholarship in a particular field. Fellowship selection committees are not merely seeking candidates who are prepared for success in graduate school; they are seeking the most outstanding candidates who will advance their dedicated cause. This is very important to keep in mind when considering fellowship programs. In order to be a successful applicant, you must demonstrate that you have a very specific end goal in mind that advances the goals of the sponsoring organization.
We recommend that students begin by concentrating upon their own intellectual and professional goals and outlining what it is that they wish to accomplish. Once a student is able to clearly articulate what he/she is trying to pursue, it is straightforward to match the student’s goals to available opportunities.
A common mistake that applicants make is to identify a fellowship that appears attractive and then to try to fabricate a proposal that meets the parameters of the fellowship. This is challenging to do and the lack of intellectual substance driving the application will usually manifest itself very early on in the review process. The fact that it would be great to win a Rhodes Scholarship does not mean that you will make a great Rhodes Scholarship applicant! Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole.
- Build upon the work that you have already done. You are more likely to win a fellowship in your major discipline than you are if you attempt to make the jump to a new field where you have no prior experience. Talk to the faculty mentors in your department. They will be familiar with fellowships in your field and understand what the expectations are for graduate candidates in the discipline.
- Be realistic. Thousands of students may be competing for a single prestigious grant. If you have a 3.5 GPA and limited participation in activities, you are unlikely to emerge as a top contender for the most competitive awards. Your fit as an applicant is very important. A student who is not competitive for a Marshall Scholarship may make an excellent Fulbright candidate. Play to your strengths!
- Ask for advice. The University Fellowships Office is available to help students explore available opportunities and to assess their potential competitiveness for various awards.
Each fellowship program has specific aims and goals that a candidate needs to address if he/she wants to be considered for selection. This makes it difficult to reuse application materials and apply to multiple programs. An outstanding application essay for the Mitchell Scholarship will make a poor essay for a D.A.A.D. grant. A student who is serious about competing for multiple grants will have to invest substantial amounts of time and energy into each application and call upon faculty mentors to contribute their time as well. It is usually best to focus upon producing one outstanding application rather than to prepare multiple mediocre applications.
Keep in mind that if you are considering multiple programs, your own goals are probably still evolving. If you cannot articulate precisely what you hope to accomplish during your fellowship tenure, you are probably not ready to begin the application process.
The University Fellowships Office provides a variety of services to Missouri State University students and alumni:
- Providing information on fellowship opportunities, program requirements, and application procedures;
- Reviewing and critiquing application essays, recommendation letters, and other application materials for applicants and faculty members;
- Providing institutional endorsements for applicants nominated by internal selection committees;
- Collecting and submitting institutional materials on behalf of applicants;
- Staging mock interviews and committee panels for candidates selected for regional or national interviews;
- Matching candidates with fellowship program alumni for mentoring purposes.
- Beginning the process too late; underestimating the amount of time required to prepare a strong fellowship application;
- Being vague and failing to articulate specific goals;
- Failing to match personal goals with the stated goals of the sponsoring organization;
- Selecting fellowship programs that are a poor match for an applicant’s strengths, interests, or goals;
- Failing to develop strong relationships with faculty references;
- Failing to thoroughly proofread all materials;
- Failing to highlight skill sets. For example, every Missouri State student has completed Computers for Learning/Introduction to Computing, yet many students fail to mention in their applications that they have advanced computer skills and are proficient with a range of software applications;
- Trying to guess what the evaluation committees want to read or hear instead of discussing one’s own interests, goals, and strengths;
- Failing to seek feedback and formally submitting first drafts as final application materials;
- Failing to follow application instructions;
- Failing to take advantage of the services provided by the University Fellowships Office.