How to Answer “Why”: 3 Tips for Fellowship Applicants

Jun 14, 2018

How to Answer "Why": Tips for Fellowship Applicants

By Deborah Vieyra

You’ve answered the question of what fellowship you’d like to apply to. But to compete for the fellowship, the next question you have to answer is “why” – why this fellowship, why now, why you?

While you may know your personal reasons for pursuing a fellowship, these can sometimes be challenging to articulate to a committee who are on the other side of the decision-making process. It may be difficult to gauge what exactly a committee is looking for when they ask this question. You may have simply known that pursuing a fellowship was something you’ve wanted to do your whole life. How do you invite others in to this passion, while at the same time displaying a structured vision for your future?

When answering the question of why you are applying to a fellowship, it may help to begin by brainstorming the answer. This will help you find a clarity of vision, allowing you to understand what being awarded a fellowship will do for your career and personal trajectory. Sometimes the answers to these questions can only be found through constructive introspection, allowing you to bring to the fore your deeper reasons for wanting to follow a specific path.

While your reasons for deciding to apply for a fellowship are ultimately personal, there are certain key areas that may help you structure your answer to this question. Here are 3 “why’s” that are common among fellowship applicants.

Why #1: The quest for targeted skills and experience

Defining a “Big Picture” for yourself is your first step to answering the “why” question. By articulating a vision for your career or future academic life, it is easier to explain why you have decided to pursue a specific fellowship. Identify the skills and experiences you would gain from the fellowship that would directly help you achieve your professional and academic goals.  If you can demonstrate that the fellowship is an integral part of a long-term goal, you will provide clarity in your vision that will also immediately set you apart from other applicants.

Why #2: Broadening your reach and amplifying what you are already doing

You may already be involved in work that is inspiring to both you and those around you. A fellowship can be an ideal way to take the work you are doing to another level, in terms of your expertise in the field you are in and in how far your work reaches. Whether you are currently in academia, the social impact sector, or have started your own company, fellowships’ opportunities for advancement and amplification are unparalleled. Let the fellowship committee know how the opportunity could enhance what you have already built and create a greater positive impact on the world.

Why #3: To move in a new direction that you are passionate about

There’s another great reason for pursuing a fellowship – the desire to change your current path towards something that you are passionate about. If this is your particular situation, be careful how you couch this change. Rather than express dissatisfaction with your current field, which will leave a negative imprint, can you demonstrate your passion for the new area you would like to pursue? Note that for a fellowship selection committee, it’s typically not enough to simply say that you want to change your career track – it’s important to show some current progress towards this career change through commitments like volunteer work and side projects.

Likewise, avoid statements that can be construed as a lack of focus, such as mentioning that you are not sure what you want to do long-term. Also steer clear of general statements such as, “It just sounds like a great opportunity!” Don’t tell the selection committee that you are applying because a fellowship will look good on your resume. Even though this is true, you may come off as opportunistic and lacking real interest in the fellowship’s mission.

At the heart of the question “why?” is your own personal journey. Defining why you are pursuing a  particular fellowship not only strengthens your application, but also helps you get the most out of it once you are in it.

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Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.

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