Finding a Focus: Fulbright Application Tips from Jesse Appell

Aug 27, 2012
Fulbright Fellow Jesse Appell doing stand-up in China (Photo by NPR)
Fulbright Fellow Jesse Appell doing stand-up in China (Photo by Anthony Kuhn/NPR)

Fellowships like the Fulbright allow you a great deal of freedom to describe the focus of your project and how you will do it. The key is to take advantage of this flexibility to give your application an edge in the Fulbright competition.

Last fall, I applied to a Fulbright Research Fellowship in China with a proposal to study and perform traditional Chinese standup comedy. The purpose of the project is to better understand Chinese humor through performing Chinese comedy and to seek ways of improving cultural communication through humor. For those interested, I posted the entirety of my “Statement of Grant Purpose” on my LaughBeijing blog, which is one example of what a finished project proposal might look like.

I’ve prepared a few points that I think gave me an edge, and that I also saw reflected in the other winners of the fellowship.

1)   Know your audience.

Fellowships are special because they tell you up front what their purpose is. Because they are funded by government grants and private donors, rather than for-profits, fellowship organizations have freedom to choose the applicants they feel best embody the spirit of their organization. So remember that when you’re putting together a project to win a fellowship, first you want to make sure your project fulfills the purpose of the organization.

It’s a good idea to make this connection explicit in one of your application essays. It’s a great way to construct an opening paragraph. State what you believe the core of the purpose of the organization is, then state how your project fulfills this purpose in a novel way. You can find out this core purpose by looking on their website and talking to people who have won fellowships previously.

Also, it might be a good idea to check if anyone else has won a fellowship from the organization recently on a similar topic. The Fulbright website allows you to search for previous grant winners and see their topics. If you apply to do the exact same thing as someone else, you should think to tweak or redesign the project accordingly.

2)   Make it interesting.

I know this seems a bit simple, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s very important. It’s the applicant’s job to use their essays and other application tools to suck in the interest of the application reader. The Fulbright fellowship is about engaging other cultures in educational exchange, which means that ultimately you need to be able to convince the members of the other culture or country of the worth of your project. The application readers know this, so if you can’t get someone from your own culture interested immediately in the project, they won’t put you through to the next round.

Creating an interesting fellowship application requires strong writing skills. Good action verbs, vibrant descriptions of foreign places and arts, energetic and heartfelt appeals as to the deep importance of your project. But I think that higher level applications play up human dramas wherever possible; ultimately, we relate to stories about other people, and our deepest interest is sparked from stories that touch our human nature. If you have the core of a project but are struggling to convince others of its relevance, find the human stories involved and draw them to the forefront. Details on what classes you will take or what degree you plan to get can wait.

Also, bold and new directions are interesting in and of themselves. Add a little circus producer cavalier attitude into your project. Do something bold, because not only will it help your application, a fellowship like the Fulbright lends itself towards eclectic, interesting projects.

For instance, in my project, I think that the extra interesting step was training directly with a Chinese performer rather than sitting on the sidelines merely doing “research”.  The reaction I got from the Fulbright staff showed that they believed this was a big, interesting step that set my application apart. Which leads me directly into another point…

3)   Make the project fit you.

I would be lying if I made the decision to train as a performer consciously to win points on my application. The power in my application came not from the idea of performing, but from the clear match between my project and me. The truth is that my own passion about comedy made sitting on the sidelines for a whole year as a pure academic inconceivable. I, as a person, couldn’t idle by while other people were doing comedy, that I would need to engage them. That’s a big selling point to an organization that’s about to set their fellows loose with government funds and minimum oversight.

Consider the strange situation fellowships find themselves in. Companies need to make money, so the task that needs to be done is placed foremost, and then a person is found to match. But fellowships are in the business of giving away money. So in order to ensure the greatest success rate amongst their fellows, they will attempt to maximize very different things than companies: they will consider how close the match between the proposed project and the applicant is, regardless of the specific task. Given that it is difficult to say what topic in the arts or sciences is “more important” than another, fit is crucial, regardless of what topic you choose.

In my case, I had had eight years of comedy acting experience through high school and college. I asked for a letter of recommendation from my high school drama teacher, who also happened to be my employer in college when I taught comedy at my high school part time. My Chinese credentials were laid out by my time studying abroad and a recommendation from my Chinese teacher. I think it would be safe to say that nobody applying to China Fulbright in 2012 would be more qualified to do a Chinese comedy project than I was. And for a group whose job is to give away money to the people they are most sure will be able to do what they apply to do, this fit was surely to my advantage.

So if you’re at square one in creating a project, where does this leave you? Firstly, learn what the fellowship organization wants from their fellows. Fulbright wants cultural exchange, so design a project that will naturally allow you to talk to and interact with people in the host country. Secondly, take the chance to do something interesting with your application. This doesn’t mean you need to study something flashy or intense. By drawing out the human drama from your subject matter, from math to biology to performance art, you can prove that your choice is interesting. And finally, show that you, and only you, can do your project the way you designed it. This doesn’t mean you need to be the best in the world at anything. Rather, think of all your hobbies and interests, your education and experiences, and mold a space where your life has left you perfectly positioned to do what you want to do.

I wish you all luck in finding the right fit for you!

Jesse Appell is a comedian, China nut, writer, and entrepreneur. He is a graduate of Brandeis University and seeks to find the funny side of everything. Visit to hear stories about comedy in China and laugh while learning about the world’s largest country.