Prestigious fellowship applications are complicated and time-consuming – and designed to weed-out applicants who aren’t serious. The best way to craft a competitive application is to give yourself plenty of time to work through each section. Don’t rush. Meet with the faculty advisor for the program. Study the program. Map out your ideas. The longer you give yourself to revise, research, and polish, the stronger your application will be.
Getting to know the organization and the purpose behind the fellowship will help you craft a more meaningful application. Take some time to read up on the history of the program, the projects of past recipients, and the profiles of the professors/researchers with whom you will be working. This will allow you to make a specific, convincing case as to why (and how) you would fit perfectly into this program.
Some fellowships (the Fulbright, the Marshall, etc.) require an applicant to have a relationship with the host site. In order to establish a connection, start by researching a variety of potential sites and make your initial contacts well before the program deadline. This will give you time to develop professional relationships and lay the groundwork for your research. Contacting a variety of sites/researchers will also give you some flexibility, in case one site is unavailable or unwilling to sponsor you.
Find a mentor
Taking your passion to the next level requires insight, encouragement, criticism, and guidance from an experienced professional. In addition to working with your scholarship advisor, consider working with an additional mentor to keep you focused, who will help you explore your strengths and weaknesses, and who will also help you select experiences that best demonstrate who you are and what you hope to accomplish. Establish a set meeting time and make your time together a priority.
Create a separate folder for each application and keep copies of all your necessary materials (and drafts) in each folder. This will help you manage your revisions and track your progress.
Become an advocate for yourself
One of the most difficult aspects of applying for major awards is being able to speak persuasively on your own behalf. Keep track of your accomplishments, activities, leadership experiences, and professional opportunities in a journal. This will give you a pool of experiences to draw from when crafting your application. Also, pay attention to how other people promote themselves. Take notes. What phrases are effective? What sounds pompous?
Build your resume/CV with someone who knows you well
Chances are you’ve had a number of influential experiences (leadership positions, research opportunities, extra-curricular activities), but over time it’s possible to forget one or two, or fail to see how they are “important.” Sit down with someone who knows you well (or who can at least ask you effective questions) and ask them to help you get these experiences down on paper. If you already have a CV or resume, be sure to keep it updated.
Draft your personal statement
Often what makes students nervous about crafting a personal statement is it is an essay about them. Think instead of your personal statement as an intellectual autobiography. How did you get where you are now and how is the fellowship the natural next step towards realizing you academic/career goals? Make a list of your evidence and talking points, and then write a messy first draft. Remember first drafts are supposed to be lousy. Then revise, revise, revise.
After you finish one application, start searching for other opportunities – and apply for them. Each application will be easier than the last, because you will be able to use much of the same material. There are lots of wonderful, exciting opportunities out there. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Ask around for new ideas. Set time aside each day to search for new opportunities.