How To Win A Fulbright: Be Extraordinary

Aug 16, 2013 • Views 55,098
Sean O’Connor teaching English to non-native speakers during his 2012-3 Fulbright ETA in Sri Lanka

By Guest Author Sean O’Connor

Every year the Fulbright Program enables 8,000 people to travel abroad to study, research and teach. Fulbright fellowships fund individuals, not projects. As a program of the United States Department of State, the fellowships are a diplomatic tool.  When deciding on applicants, Fulbright chooses people who they believe will be effective cultural ambassadors.

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) is an opportunity to spend one year abroad working in a kindergarten to university-level classroom supporting English language learning for non-native English-speakers. These fellowships are not just any job – English Teaching Assistants are expected to represent the United States. 

Every applicant must submit a personal statement, which outlines their qualifications and why they feel qualified to apply for a fellowship. Too often I see people fumble on this step of the application. The personal essay is your chance to show the application committee why you are the best candidate for a specific project in a specific country at this specific time.

Every sentence in your personal statement should reaffirm the fact that you are the best choice for the fellowship. It has to seem like the universe has conspired for your entire life to build to this moment. This means that you have to support your applications with examples of how you have spent years preparing for your proposed project.

If you’ve only recently thought of applying for the Fulbright, this doesn’t mean that you should lie. The application committees will see through that. You have to look back on your life and connect the dots forward. Craft a compelling narrative that shows how qualified you are. Make it obvious that the Fulbright fellowship is the next logical step for you.

When I applied for my Fulbright ETA to Sri Lanka, I reached back to my days in Boy Scouts to talk about how I hoped to find a Troop in Sri Lanka to work with as a side project. I used my experiences consulting on fair trade businesses in Kenya to talk about my desire to work on economic development issues in Sri Lanka. I also used my experience tutoring English while studying abroad in China as an example of my teaching skills. I talked about the Fulbright as a way to set myself in corporate America, and how I view business as a way of creating positive social change.

My essay took me weeks to write, but after extensive revisions I had an essay which weaved together a lifetime of experiences that supported my grant application.

To make your application as strong as possible be sure that every sentence reaffirms why you are the best fit for this project and country. Craft your narrative to show the application committee that you’re not applying for this grant on a whim; you’re applying as a result of applicable life experiences. Talk to former fellows from the host country to see what tips they can provide you about the feasibility of your project and other ways to strengthen your proposal. Keep tweaking your essay until it conveys who you are and why you’re extraordinary.

For more application tips, download a copy of Sean’s Fulbright Application Guide.

Sean O’Connor graduated from Fordham University in 2012. He received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Sri Lanka, where he worked in the Eastern province of Trincomalee. He just finished an internship with Seth Godin and is looking for opportunities in the startup community.

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved

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  • me

    i got the main points of your statement–and congrats! it got you an award. but it’s kinda generic and vague. is this the kind of personal statement they like? or do you think your overall application is what helped you?