5 Tips to Create a Stand-Out Fellowship Application

Nov 19, 2014

Richelle ThomasBy Richelle Thomas

Guest author Richelle Thomas is an industrial scientist and a multi-fellowship and award winner. Richelle recently completed her PhD in the McKetta Department of Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2010, Richelle earned the highly-competitive GEM Fellowship for doctoral students in science and engineering. She was also a 2012 Fulbright Scholar in Barbados, where she conducted research at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill.  In the following article, Richelle gives her insider tips on developing a stand-out fellowship application.

One of the questions I get asked a lot from perspective fellowship recipients is how to make their fellowship or award application stand out among the hundreds (or thousands!) of applicants. There are a few key attributes to keep in mind when preparing application documents so they will not get buried among the masses. Below are five ways you can make your application get to the top of the stack:

1. Know your audience

In any written work it is important to know who the intended audience is for the document. When preparing this article, I thought carefully about what topic would resonate with the ProFellow community and add value to the majority of visitors to the site. Similarly, think carefully about the audience for your application materials. For example, who is the funding agency? Are they the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) or the local Rotary Club? The NSF will likely have professors and other key administrators in the academy as application reviewers. So the audience is an educated expert. Most likely the applications are reviewed by experts in the field who can provide pertinent feedback on the scientific merit of the project proposal. The Rotary Club, on the other hand, may care more about the social or interpersonal impact of a proposed project than its technical rigor. The supporting documents for the same proposed work can read different based on the funding body and the demographics of the reviewing audience. Other qualities to keep in mind are the mission of the funding organization and the purpose for their giving. What are they trying to accomplish by funding grants and fellowship opportunities for students and/or professionals? The most important takeaway is that the application process is not all about you, the applicant. It is really about the funding agency and their mission. Your job is to communicate your desire in language that resonates with the application review committee for that funding agency.

2. Know your purpose

An important distinction to make is the difference between your purpose and the subject prompt. The subject is primarily a summary of points that are to be discussed. A purpose, however, has a much deeper meaning. It resonates with the reader, draws them in, and gives them the perception that the topic being discussed is important and serves a greater mission. It is important to clearly state your professional or personal goals that directly relate to the award you are pursuing. Your role as the applicant is to paint a picture of your master plan and clearly outline how the award will help you reach that goal.

Continuing on with the NSF vs. Rotary Club award examples, let’s say that you are an undergraduate biology major who wants to student infectious disease in the developing world during your graduate work. While the prompts for the specific award applications may be different, your purpose is the same; to become a world-renowned infectious disease expert

3. Connect the dots

Let’s face it. Serving on an application review committee is a tough job. These poor people have to read personal statement after personal statement from hundreds of students who have all wanted to do (insert fancy sounding role here) since they were five years old. By the time they reach your set of documents – file number 372 – their eyes are glazed over with fatigue. After a marathon of reading all of these documents from the promising leaders of tomorrow, they just might not be able to pick up on the fact that you are a Nobel Laureate in the making. With this in mind, please do the reviewers a favor and make your claims clear. Blatantly state why you are the most promising student for the award and how being selected as a recipient would catapult your future career.

Directly make the argument for why they should select you for the award. The argument should be simple and logical. Progress your proposal by going from your known successes to the proposed work.  In the case of our biologist in the examples above, you would start by highlighting your work as a research assistant in a biology lab at your university. Point out the success you’ve had by taking on progressively more ownership and input into the projects you work on in the lab. Next you mention your participation in a summer volunteer expedition to the mountains in South America to show rural nurses some new bandaging techniques. With these combined skills, you are equipped to study infectious disease and communicate your findings to locations of greatest need after finishing your graduate studies and becoming a professor at a research one level institution. It may seem that the your ultimate goal is a bit of a jump, but keep in mind, you are trying to show a track record of success for the reviewer to gauge your future potential performance.

4. Be specific and clear

We understand that a lot of time and research is invested in preparing a fellowship application. When we become passionate about a topic we may forget that everyone else may not be as passionate as we are. Furthermore, the person reading your application may not have spent the past 4 months studying your topic in the level of detail required to create a plausible research proposal. With that in mind, avoid using jargon or technical slag. Explain your proposal in clear terms that anyone can follow. I suggest having someone who is not working in your field read the proposal.  If they can follow what you are saying and understand the points you are making, then you’re on the right track.

While avoiding technical jargon, you should maintain language that is as specific as possible. Words that have a high degree of specificity show confidence. Vague words present the author as unsure and can shed doubt on their ability to execute the proposal. You want to show confidence and assure the reviewer that you are a sound investment of their award dollars. Use clear, concise terminology to convey your ideas more accurately and present yourself as a strategic investment in the future of their field.

5. Show an authentic commitment

Finally and arguably the most important point of all is to be authentic in your writing and show commitment to the funding organization and their mission. Authenticity shines through in an application. Funding agencies are typically interested in more than a one-time transaction. They are interested in funding someone who they will be proud to call a past recipient of their award and who will continue to support their mission long after their financial support has stopped.

Keep these pointers in mind and you will be on your way to a stellar application package!

Need more tips? Read ProFellow’s Step-by-Step Guide For A Competitive Fellowship Application.

© Victoria Johnson 2014, all rights reserved.