Things to Consider Before Applying for Fellowships

The fellowship application process involves

Building relationships

Begin by building relationships with faculty, other students, and the wider community on-campus and beyond. Form a good relationship with your faculty advisor, your professors in courses, work supervisors or other mentors, and seek their advice often. Volunteer with organizations, on campus and off, and take an active role. Display your initiative and leadership in service to others. Consider coaching kids or becoming a tutor to help with math or writing skills. Plan an overseas study experience at a Project Center to broaden your cultural awareness or improve your foreign language proficiency. Use your summers creatively, to learn research skills, master a foreign language, or perform community service. Devise imaginative ways to bring different aspects of your life together -- perhaps by finding a community service project that requires you to apply skills you have learned in classes, or by doing an off-campus project related to your interests. In your academic and extra-curricular activities, you will build relationships with many other people. The relationships that will make you a strong scholarship candidate are also the same relationships that will enrich your time at WPI and your life after graduation.

Perhaps the most important relationship to cultivate is with faculty. To make the most of college, you need to get to know people who can provide information and wisdom, candid appraisal as well as encouragement, and who are able to sing your praises in letters of recommendation. Faculty mentors can do all these things -- but you cannot expect them to track you down in your dorm room and hope that they get to know you. Most often, faculty are waiting for you to take the initiative. So, even if faculty members in your field of interest seem too busy or remote at first, take advantage of their office hours to get advice on a class assignment, or an internship, or foreign study, or any other topic that might help you to form a relationship and give evidence that you wish to make the most of your WPI education. And keep in touch with them. If you had terrific teachers in your first-year courses, continue to seek their guidance when you are a sophomore and a junior. Work closely with the advisors of your humanities and arts project, interdisciplinary project, and major project. Most fellowship applications require detailed letters of recommendation from three or more faculty members. If you build mentoring relationships with faculty as you go through WPI, it will be easy to meet this requirement. And along the way, you will have enriched your education and formed relationships that you will treasure long afterward.

Making connections

Self-reflection is the first step in the application process. Ask yourself, "What am I looking for?" and "What do I want to do?", and think about your answers in ideal terms. "What is the connection between my academic work and my interests outside of classes?" Such questions are fundamental yet too often forgotten. Perhaps you already have found your life's passion, but if you are like most people, you are taking the courses and projects that you like, in a major that you hope will help you to find a good job, and thinking vaguely about a career that will bring you wealth and happiness. So, ask yourself questions like these:

Personal essays addressing such open-ended questions are almost invariably required in fellowship applications. In essence, you present a selective life history and life plan. It is hard work, but it can also be a rewarding and intensely satisfying process. For what may be the first time in your life, you will be asked to put your deepest convictions into words, to step outside yourself, to think about where you came from, where you are standing now, and what your ultimate destination might be. You will be challenged to justify yourself by making connections between your academic and other interests. Simply put, who are you, and who do you want to be?

Dreaming about the future

As you look ahead, you will discover that there are many options available as pathways to your future. For some students, it may be appropriate to go directly into the work world. For others, graduate school may be the next appropriate and even necessary step. For still others, there is the lure of travel and exposure to environments different from and more exotic than Worcester. Postgraduate fellowships can be an exciting aspect of any of these directions. Dreaming about your future will help you to identify the fellowships that are appropriate for your personal goals and professional interests.

Take the time to prepare well. The benefit you receive from the fellowship application process will be directly related to the amount of care you invest in it. Take the time to give thoughtful consideration to your ideas, to do all necessary research and exploration, to consult with advisors poised to help you, and to prepare your application materials carefully and sensibly. In general, start early and do not underestimate the amount of time needed to complete an application. Most of the deadlines for the best-known fellowships come hot on each others' heels in September and October. Unless you get started during the preceding spring or summer, you may be too hurried to do yourself justice.

Represent yourself honestly, both on paper and in person, to ensure that you will get the most out of the application process. Selection committees will pay great attention to your sincerity and enthusiasm, and intelligent, honest proposals are universally more successful than those concocted to meet preconceptions about what a committee wants to see. The sincerity and tone of everything you submit must ring true with the person a committee would meet should they grant you an interview.

Understand and adhere to each competition's rules. Unlike some experiences in college, the fellowship application process is very much a part of the real world and is driven by the requirements of outside agencies. In essence, this means that you are not setting your own rules or pace: you must adhere strictly and faithfully to pre-existing standards and expectations. This guideline applies to everything from deadlines, to essay word limits, to submission of extra materials. You are ultimately responsible for every aspect of the materials you submit.

Remember the odds but consider the benefits. The application process is often complicated to the point where excellent applicants become discouraged, and the selection process may seem to be capricious. Because so many aspects of fellowship competition are unpredictable, even the best candidates may not receive awards. Nevertheless, the potential rewards are substantial. Most fellowships are worth from five-thousand to thirty-five thousand dollars, and the educational value of study at distinguished foreign and domestic universities is often beyond price. Even students who do not win awards (which, let's admit it, includes the overwhelming majority of applicants) report that their applications for graduate school or employment were much stronger as a result of the time and effort they put into applying for fellowships. Most importantly, fellowship applicants consider the application process a major catalyst for self-discovery and personal growth. You will identify the issues that matter most to you, weigh what you want your life to count for, and determine concrete steps toward achieving those ends. And that is precisely what a college education should do.

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Last modified: Dec 02, 2011, 13:45 EST
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