Components of the Application
Each application typically solicits basic biographical information such as address, citizenship, educational institutions attended, proposal title, etc. The form and style are unique to each opportunity and generally are the first pieces of information the selection committees review. Most applications are now completed online, but those that aren't must be typed neatly and professionally. While you may be inclined to focus all of your energies and efforts on writing and editing your proposals and essays, any actual application form should not be overlooked in its importance. Prepare it with care and precision.
Generally, most applications require you to write at least one essay. While this component can be the most difficult, it may also be the most fulfilling, as it requires you to answer many of the most challenging questions. A thorough essay will help you to evaluate your goals and ambitions, how you plan to accomplish them, why they are important to your past, and how they might influence your future.
It's hard to know where to start when writing personal statements and research proposals. Fortunately, there's a superb handbook available online that can offer you assistance in thinking through how best to approach your essay and that talks about the specific requirements of essays required for a number of nationally competitive fellowships. This should be your very first stop when you sit down to begin planning your personal statement: Writing Personal Statements Online: A Handbook for Students Applying for Scholarships and Graduate Study.
Many "research project" essays are straightforward in that they link directly to a student’s past academic experiences, interests and extracurricular activities. While these essays tend to be rather cerebral and academic, other essays entail more soul-searching and self-reflection. Essays that require you to describe why you want to pursue a given proposal are sometimes difficult for students who are not comfortable writing openly about themselves and their passions. For this reason, personal essays can prove a more challenging task.
Personal writing allows you the freedom to express your values, unique gifts, and beliefs – a freedom that some find paralyzing. While there is no "right" way to express these important entities, by avoiding generalities you can separate yourself from a pool of stellar candidates. Instead of telling them you are passionate about human rights, show them by using examples or past experiences. Instead of being the student "interested in human rights," you then for example become the student who volunteered with the UN peacekeepers or organized Amnesty International Committees at high schools throughout Minnesota. Rather than opt for the general aspects of your candidacy, personalize it. This is your chance to tell people who you are, what you stand for, and who you want to become.
Write, write, and rewrite. You should share your essay with your recommendation writers, your professors, and others to get their feedback, hear their suggestions, absorb their compliments, and listen and respond to their criticisms. Anticipate and plan the time for seven, eight, or even more drafts.
Your proposed project should grow out of your past interests and preparation in a particular field of study. Although in-depth expertise is not always necessary, some evidence of prior experience or ambition is typically expected.
For the most part, priority is given to well-grounded and feasible proposals. For example, identifying a particular itinerary or specific university is more credible than a vague and ambiguous proposal lacking specifics or tangible goals.
When creating a proposal you should be able to detail the curriculum that may be involved for a research project or course of study. You should also be able to articulate how and why a certain university/college fits your abilities and interest.
When proposing a course of study, “not only should you have read catalogues and web sites thoroughly and be able to show how that department or degree program matches your abilities and interests, but you should have found out who teaches what, where, how their research relates to yours, specific assets and liabilities of that set of courses or program, etc.” (Gunzburg, Brown University Fellowship Guide) Your goal should be to detail the various courses, activities, etc. of your proposed project while connecting those deliberately and thoroughly with the aims of the fellowship or scholarship.
You should consider the following questions while planning your proposed project:
- Is this feasible?
- Is it in line with my background, preparations, and ambitions?
- Do I have the skills to succeed?
- Is this proposed project relevant to the place of proposed travel or study?
- Why would I value this experience?
- Why would others value this experience?
When it comes to recommendation letters one fact cannot be overstated: The more personal the letter, the better. Likewise, the more tailored a recommendation is to your strengths for a particular scholarship, the more helpful the recommendation. You need to be sure your recommenders understand the selection criteria for your particular fellowship or scholarship. To be certain of this, photocopy materials and provide those upfront before they begin writing for you. Think about soliciting recommendations from people who have encountered you and your strengths in numerous ways and in a variety of venues.
You should meet with your recommender to discuss the specifics of the fellowship and the letter of recommendation. The letter should be rich in content and personal examples and/or anecdotes. You ought to begin collecting evidence supporting your candidacy even before you identify your recommenders. Such evidence can include: résumés, publications, news articles, past recommendations, and even a list of anecdotes illustrating your strengths. Don’t be shy. These will help the people you select to write your recommendations be more specific and persuasive.
Many students inquire if it matters if a faculty member is a visiting, assisting, adjunct, or full professor who writes their recommendations. Again, so long as the professor can attest specifically to your character, strengths, and scholarship, you should be well served by your professor’s recommendation no matter what his or her status.
If you plan on soliciting a recommendation from a faculty member from abroad, ask early. For the most part, recommendations coming from afar are slow to arrive. Please note that some processes require an original copy on letterhead, so an electronic or photocopied letter may not be acceptable.
But it’s up to you to choose your references and to make sure they have everything they need to write you the best possible letters. Although these tips are especially useful for scholarship and fellowship recommendation letters, most are also useful for graduate school and employment recommendation letters. Here’s what you can do to help your references help you reach your goals.
Before asking someone to write you a recommendation letter, research the specific scholarship or fellowship and get your résumé and statement of purpose in order. Consult the application packet and see what qualities and accomplishments the selection board is seeking. Compare your own qualifications to those sought and take notes. If your recommender asks for some backup information, you will have everything ready.
Particulars count, and examples are crucial. Your recommender may remember that you were a “hard worker” but may have forgotten that you set up a new lab on your own. He or she may have forgotten that you not only made straight A's in class, but tutored some of your fellow students as well. Your résumé and statement of purpose should serve as reminders of these details.
Choose the right people to write the letters for you. Choose a professor who knows you rather than the department head who doesn’t. Good sources for letters are your academic advisor, professors of classes in which you were active or people for whom you’ve worked. It may be a good idea to have at least one letter written by a faculty member from a department that isn’t your major.
Schedule a meeting with each writer to talk about the scholarship or fellowship. Use the meeting to explain why you think you could be competitive. Then ask if the professor is willing and able to write a supportive and positive recommendation letter for you for this particular award.
If possible, inform the professor a semester or so ahead of time that you are considering applying for a scholarship or fellowship and would like him or her to write you a recommendation letter. The professor will pay closer attention to your actions and accomplishments and will perhaps keep a running file on you to use when it comes time to draft the letter.
Speak to the professor early enough so that he or she will have about a month to work on the letter. Since each recommendation letter must be tailored to the individual and to the award, your recommender will need plenty of time to complete it. Everyone at Gustavus has a lot of work to do, and allowing your professor ample time to complete this task is both a courtesy and a necessity.
Neatly and thoroughly fill out any portion of the recommender’s form that is necessary. This could be as simple as typing in your name and social security number. You want to make the task of recommending you as easy as possible for your recommender.
Although the decision is up to you, selection committees virtually always recommend that you waive your right to see the letter when completed. Waiving your right to see the letter is thought to lend more credibility to the recommender’s statements.
Make sure that you provide the recommender with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope if necessary or with other directions if the letter is to be returned to you.
Follow up with the writer a couple of weeks before the letter is due to see if he or she needs any additional information. A call or an e-mail note from you also will serve as a reminder if the writer has forgotten the commitment to write the letter.
Finally, thank your recommenders for taking the time to write the letters and share with them the outcome of your application.
Many students read the list of fellowships and scholarships and immediately think, “These aren’t for me.” The common misconception is that the most competitive fellowships are reserved for only the most academically gifted students whose GPA never dips below a 4.0. While perfect grades are not required, academic engagement and intellectual curiosity are at the heart of most prestigious fellowships and scholarships. Consequently, selection committees will be interested in a record that clearly demonstrates these attributes. Aside from a transcript, you may be asked to provide a list of academic achievements, awards, prizes, or publications.
For the purpose of submitting final materials to particular foundations, you will generally need offical Gustavus transcripts from the Office of the Registrar. Be aware that the Office of the Registrar cannot procure off-campus study transcripts for you. Contact the off-campus institution directly to request a transcript from them. Obtaining transcripts quickly from overseas (and even on-campus) can be difficult and frustrating, so to avoid the stress, request these early.
Some fellowships and scholarships don't ask Gustavus to select you as one of our top candidates prior to your application to the foundation, but they may ask for a nomination, rating, or institutional endorsement. These fellowships and scholarships usually ask you to apply directly to the foundation but to include a nomination form or institutional letter backing your candidacy.
Generally these letters or forms are required to come from the President or the Provost at the institution. If the fellowship or scholarship to which you are applying requires a nomination or endorsement form, you should discuss this very early on with the Fellowships Coordinator, who will help to coordinate this request.
While these forms are usually separate from the required recommendations, they should be equally as rich in content and personal examples or anecdotes. Even before you identify the person who will nominate you, you ought to begin collecting evidence supporting your individual candidacy to share with him or her. Such things can include: résumés, publications, news articles, past recommendations, and even a list of anecdotes highlighting your strengths as a candidate. This is not the place to be humble. The more examples of your unique gifts and accomplishments the nominator can have, the more specific and more persuasive the letter of nomination or endorsement can be.
A common misperception about the most competitive fellowships and scholarships is that they are reserved for only those students with the highest GPAs and IQs on campus. While a few have GPA requirements, you will find that most are looking for very bright and very involved students. Since most of these opportunities are geared toward nurturing, cultivating, and educating future leaders, it should not be surprising that they also take into account your moral awareness, personal ambitions, and unique talents when considering your candidacy.
Essays, résumé, and interviews are all opportunities to convey your particular strengths outside the classroom. Therefore it is generally important to demonstrate your ability to affect change and thus, to interact well with others, communicate effectively, and lead by example.
Most fellowships and scholarships do require a résumé or a CV. Generally, it is important at this stage in your life to develop one regardless of your post-graduation plans. While obviously your résumé preparation and presentation will vary depending on your ambition, there are some sound strategies for preparing good ones.
As one former Fulbright National Screening member commented, CV’s “…probably received less weight in our considerations, although good style and a tight, informative piece of writing are plus factors.” (2000 Fulbright Manual, 9)
Gustavus’s Career Center is a wonderful resource for résumé reviews and critiques. Make an appointment early in your application process to discuss your résumé.
Additionally, certain competitions may require some or all of the following:
- Birth certificates
- Creative portfolio
- Foreign language reports
- Standardized test scores
- Physical exam
- Proof of sponsorship
- Letter of acceptance from a graduate institution
- Sponsorship affiliation from an organization/institution