3 Ways to Use the Application Process to Find Your Strengths and Set New Goals 

Mar 26, 2020

By Guest Author Jenny Han Simon

You may be considering applying for a fellowship, already in the midst of the application process, or anxiously awaiting a reply about your status. No matter what stage of the application process you are in, you know that it is demanding. Despite all the energy, time, and discipline applying for a fellowship or scholarship requires, it is well worth the effort—even if you ultimately do not receive what you initially desired. 

Winning applications not only require a lot of hard work, but they also often display an applicant’s thoughtful consideration of their strengths and weaknesses, past experiences, and future endeavors. Here are three tips for both strengthening your current application and using the application itself to find your strengths and set new goals.  

1. Change your perspective from “personal statement” to “intellectual autobiography”

Just as a biography is the story of one’s life, an intellectual autobiography is the story of your academic and professional goals thus far. It requires you to recount when you became interested in a topic, how you have cultivated that interest, and where you need to go next to pursue that interest. As with any biography, there are pivotal people and events that have undoubtedly shaped you and your passions, and the application process is an ideal time to consider their collective impact on your life as a logical and comprehensive narrative.  

Start by asking yourself questions such as “when did I first become interested in this topic?” and “how has my interest evolved since then?” Think about why and when you realized that what you are applying for would be a necessary step for you to get to where you want to be. Though these questions may seem daunting at first, there is no right answer. You may find that what you thought was motivating you is actually artificial; you may uncover a new understanding of past events and be able to pinpoint exactly when you became passionate about something; you may connect two seemingly unrelated points or interests in your life that are exactly what you need to propel your application forward. 

Whatever it is that you are working on—personal statement, statement of grant interest, research proposal, etc.—it needs a narrative. Yes, you are applying to obtain a certain position or a sum of money, but this by itself is not enough to demonstrate why you want or need what you are applying for. You must also convince whoever is reviewing your application that you are the right person to receive this prize. 

Viewing your application materials as an intellectual biography raises the stakes, transforming a personal statement that exists only for one application cycle into a timeless reflection of yourself up until this point of your life. This creates something authentic and interesting for a reviewer while also giving you honest insight into your passions, experiences, and ambitions. 

2. Distinguish the benefits of a program from the program itself 

During the application process, applicants often find themselves obsessing about being the grantee of whatever it is they are applying to, thereby forgetting the opportunity they are actually applying for. For instance, receiving the title of “Fulbright finalist” may start to seem like the goal when, in reality, the opportunity to be a teacher, researcher, or scholar in a foreign country is the prize Fulbright offers. The prestige of some programs is significant enough that winning and getting to put their names on a CV or resume has obvious advantages, but this can also lead to intense pressure and stress. By focusing on the specific opportunities a program offers and how it will benefit your development, you can more clearly identify your goals while avoiding this undue stress. 

Think about what a program is truly offering you. Is it professional development opportunities? The chance to live or study abroad? Money? Education? Then, think about how the specific aspects of the program will enhance your general goals, why you need this opportunity at this point in your life, and the skills you will take away by the end of it. Answering these questions in your application will strengthen it by infusing your general goals into the specific advantages that come with the program you are applying for. In addition, the answers to these questions will give you a better idea of what you truly want outside of that one program. This means you may realize that this one program is the only program for you at this time—which may strengthen your application if you can convincingly argue how crucial it is for you. However, chances are that you will be able to identify and apply for even more programs that would be a good fit, which only increases the likelihood that you will get what you truly want and need. 

Similarly, focusing on what you desire independent of any program may help you develop a more realistic idea for the next stage of your life. Too often, the competitive world of scholarships, fellowships, and grad school applications dominates how we plan our time. It seems as if one year is for this internship, the next is a six-month fellowship with a summer language study program, the following year will be when you start grad school, all while preparing application materials for the next thing on the list. While being ambitious and strategic about your time is always a good thing, focusing too much on winning a specific grant or fellowship can be detrimental if winning for the sake of winning begins to overshadow what it is you actually need or want. 

Being able to discern what a program offers from the program itself means that you are more likely to be satisfied with the experience and eventual outcomes, as well as being more open to other options for now and for later. 

3. Realize that you have much more to gain than lose 

Cliche as it sounds, when applying for something, you are in a position to gain something, not lose what you already have. While you may not receive every opportunity you seek, the education, experience, and character you already possess are invaluable. There are not many advantages to putting everything on the line and devoting yourself entirely to one opportunity; it is far more advantageous to approach the application process with honesty, confidence, and an open mind. 

Unfortunately, rejection is often a part of the application process, though one rejection does not mean the end for your career, passions, or development in a certain field. Sometimes, it’s easy to pinpoint why we were rejected—an awkward interview, incomplete application materials, a less than stellar personal statement—but often, rejection can leave us feeling like we, ourselves, are inadequate. This is hardly ever the case. Any experience you lack can be acquired; imperfect writing can be refined; weak recommendations can transform into strong ones; your passion and drive can be further solidified. Being honest with ourselves about why we were not selected can often enlighten us on how to be better prepared for next time or even lead us in a different yet equally meaningful direction. 

Confidence is essential in being able to both put your best foot forward when applying for something and move on gracefully if the opportunity does not work out as planned. It is especially easy for those applying for a grant or fellowship for the first time to lack confidence, as it may feel like there is no historical merit in the forms of other grants, scholarships, or opportunities attained to validate their capabilities; however, many alumni of very prestigious and competitive programs have said, “I didn’t think I would get it until I got it.” Confidence during the application process is not starting an application whole-heartedly believing you will get it, but rather being assured in the skills, experiences, and desires you possess, as well as being able to convey how they match what the program wants and how you will live up to their expectations. 

Regardless of the outcome of your application, one of the most important qualities to possess is an open mind. By the end of the application process, you will have application materials that you can revise or reuse for another purpose. You can now continue researching other opportunities in line with your dream programs and apply for them. Realize that there are many different ways to get what you want so long as you are proactive with your time and resources. And, if you are awarded your dream fellowship, realize that the reality of living out that fellowship will likely be different than what you anticipated. This is not at all to suggest that such an experience will be bad, but that by being flexible with your expectations and outlook, you can walk away with an abundance of new knowledge, experiences, and connections that can take you in a direction you had never fathomed, maybe even granting you your next life-changing opportunity. 

Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.

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