Fellowship Application Tips

Tip 1: Identify fellowships competitions for which you are eligible.

Which government agencies or private foundations fund research in your field and subfield? Which graduate fellowships have the more advanced students in your field applied for? Your faculty advisors will have grants and contracts from government agencies that may also have graduate fellowship competitions. Many graduate schools have searchable fellowship databases that allow you to search using key words for funding sources by topic.

Tip 2: Consider if you are competitive for a fellowship.

There are three primary kinds of graduate fellowships: The first kind are those that support students as they begin graduate school, so you should market your potential for success as a researcher and scholar. The second kind supports students once they begin their research, so your research statement must present a strong, convincing project and demonstrate that you have both the skills and the passion to complete it in a timely way. The third category is a dissertation writing or completion fellowship that supports students in the final year of writing their dissertation. Once you identify the funder and kind of fellowship, determine if your advisor and other faculty familiar with your research believe you will be competitive and if they are willing to write a very strong letter of support for your application. (Don’t just ask for a letter; ask for a very strong letter.) If they agree, then you are ready to apply.

Tip 3: Read the application requirements and make a list of steps and schedule for completion.

Read the application requirements and make a list of steps and schedule for completion, including interim deadlines for each component, e.g., requesting support letters, compiling your CV (curriculum vita), securing requested transcripts and drafting required essays, including time to get feedback from multiple reviewers. Applications that don’t meet the requirements, or the deadline, are never considered.

Each fellowship funder, whether a government agency or private foundation, will release, usually three to six months before the application’s due date, a request for applications (RFA) that describes the requirements, eligibility to apply, deadlines, and criteria for review. Some competitions offer a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) and tips for preparing a submission. Some will provide lists of past winners; others feature brief bios of their successful fellows. An online search can bring you to these graduate students’ websites where some post their own winning strategies and sample essays.

Start early enough to gather as much information as you need to write, revise, and improve your chance of success. At Cornell we maintain folders of winning graduate fellowship applications across disciplines and competitions. If your graduate program, graduate school, or writing center maintains sample copies for review, use them to help you develop your own checklist or rubric for a successful application. Reading enough sample applications can help you determine commonalities among winning essays and help you write your own successful application. This effort allows you to go beyond just knowing that an application is good. Figure out what makes it good by compiling a checklist of the qualities of the “winning” application and use it as a guide to producing good, persuasive writing in your first or second draft rather than by a fourth or fifth draft of a fellowship application.

Tip 4: Draft your research statement or proposal.

Don’t just tell; show your experience, skills, and enthusiasm for your research. Provide specifics, explain your role and responsibilities in collaborative projects, and be succinct (so you maximize every word, given the word limits on most fellowship applications).

Tip 5: Draft your personal statement.

Most students write an acceptable research proposal. The personal statement is often what distinguishes a winning application from the others. A reviewer for one of the most prestigious fellowships in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) told me: “We don’t need to fund more researchers who stay in the lab all the time. We want to fund students who excel in the lab but who also engage with the larger community to raise awareness about the importance of research for society. We want students who tutor high schoolers, advise middle schoolers on their science fair projects, visit elementary school classrooms with cool math activities, write letters to the editor about science policy, or participate in legislative advocacy days to argue for the importance of science education funding.” Some fellowship competitions refer to such engagement as “broader impacts.” Review carefully the mission statement of the agency to which you are applying. Show how your research, scholarship, and community engagement align with their mission and funding priorities.

Tip 6: Request feedback on your drafts from faculty and peers.

Request feedback on your drafts from faculty and peers familiar with your research topic. Consider their comments and revise accordingly. Get as many reviews as possible so you can anticipate the questions and critique of the agency’s panel of reviewers and address these as you write subsequent drafts. Remember your audience. It’s likely a panel of brilliant scholars and researchers who may or may not be experts in your specific subfield. So write for a more general audience than you might when preparing a manuscript to a journal in your specialty.

Tip 7: Own your research.

In reading hundreds of graduate fellowship applications over the years, I find one big challenge for many students is finding a strong, confident voice. Graduate students’ writing can sound tentative. For example, a faculty member might write, “I study the effects of social interaction on children’s moral reasoning.” A graduate student writes, “The purpose of my research is designed to find whether there is any impact of children’s social interaction on their moral reasoning.” In addition to being wordy, it sounds tentative, almost like you would consider changing the direction of your life’s work if the reader found fault with it before reaching the end of the sentence. Find the right balance, however. Don’t sound cocky or overly confident. (The faculty sentence above is also stronger because the subject and verb start the sentence. A one-two punch.)

There’s another way to own your research. Reviewers know whether a student wrote their submitted fellowship application or whether it was written by a faculty member or lifted from a faculty-drafted research proposal or manuscript. As one reviewer told me, “We want to fund students, not their faculty advisor.” So avoid submitting work that is not your own. If your proposal reflects collaborative work, make that clear, and specify your role, in both prior and proposed research. 

Tip 8: Start early.

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program director, Dr. Gisele Muller-Parker, reports the primary mistake students make when applying for the NSF GRF: They don’t start early enough. How does she know this? From the number of reviewers who say, “Wow, I really liked this application, but there were too many typos and easily corrected errors in it. The student must not have started early enough.” “I really wanted us to fund this one, but I wish there would have been more detail in the methods section. If the student had only worked a little bit more. It was almost there!” If your proposal is so close to being placed in the “definitely fund” pile that even your review panel wishes you had started early, do yourself a favor, and start early to draft and revise your proposal.

Ready to get an early start? Today? Even before you decide which fellowship to apply for, you can develop a first, general draft by answering the questions below. Then revise and customize your draft or almost any graduate fellowship application you later identify:

  1. What is your research question? What is the purpose or aim of your proposed research?
  2. What is the relevant literature and research (both yours and others) that serve as context and springboard for your proposed research?
  3. What methods will you use?
  4. What do you expect to find? What are your anticipated outcomes?
  5. What is the significance of your proposed research? What will it contribute to the field and to society?
  6. Do you have a compelling research or life experience that makes you especially well-suited to succeed with this project?
  7. Have you won awards, recognition, or other fellowships to support your research? And what were you able to accomplish with these awards? (You likely will list awards on your CV. Use the narrative to show what you have gained by winning these awards. Did you broaden your network of collaborators? Gain an additional mentor?)
  8. What makes you so passionate about or compelled to do this research? Why you? Why fund you?

All tips are from Jan Allen, former associate dean for academic and student affairs.