Have you ever wished to take your research or career to a new level—and travel internationally for an extended period of time? Consider an international fellowship. Anywhere from three months to a year or more and for students, researchers, or young professionals, fellowships intend to enrich your experience, understanding, and outlook on the world. And they’re especially worth applying to if you have a truly international idea or want to take your academic career across the globe.
Whether you want to study pitcher plants in Borneo, teach in a foreign country, or snag a prestigious international graduate fellowship (such as the Mitchell, Marshall, or Rhodes), here’s what you need to know about acing the application process.
1. Identify Your Goals
First off, while a fellowship can be a fantastic opportunity, don’t apply just because it sounds fun or you’re looking for something to fill your time. My friends who’ve gone after fellowships without clear goals have often felt listless when it comes time to launch their projects.
Instead, do it because you know you’ll enjoy the opportunity, get something out of it, and do work while on it that will allow you to further your interests or enhance yourself professionally. To make sure it’s the right fit, ask yourself: What will this experience offer me? What do I expect to learn and accomplish? How will it impact my career when I get back?
2. Understand Your Eligibility
Many fellowships are based on your academic record, but don’t stress out about that tough Organic Chemistry class or that one rough semester sophomore year. Selection committees aren’t interested in your GPA itself—they’re looking for it to confirm that you’re responsible, perform well, and have achieved at a certain level. They’re also often more interested in well-rounded candidates than in those with perfect grades.
If you’re still worried, know that fellowships tend to post their eligibility requirements well in advance of the application deadline. While some require all-around outstanding scores, others are much more flexible. For example, the Rhodes, Gates, and Truman fellowships are for those who excel in academic research and graduate work, while the Fulbright is for those who want to get into the field (and Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships are for those who may want to teach). You should be able to find something that’s a good fit.
3. Put Yourself Out There
Your personal statement, essay responses, and portfolio all provide the opportunity for you to show who you are and why you’re a great fit for this fellowship—so give them a lot of thought. Don’t be afraid to take risks, and definitely don’t stick to a canned response of the sort you think the selection committee wants to read.
Think about what sets you apart from the other candidates. Do you have experience in startups that you want to build on while learning about microfinance in India? Or perhaps you’re interested in public health and want to work in a clinic in the field. Let your application reflect who you are. Ask your mentors, advisors, and friends to give you input as well. You’ll likely see common themes—and that’s what you should play up in your application.
4. Plan an Amazing Project and Pitch
One of the most important parts of your application is your project proposal. You need to sell the selection committee on your plan and how you will make it relevant to the real world.
Be realistic about your goals. How would you make your project happen? What would you consider a successful outcome? Also understand the time constraints on the ground. Within the fellowship’s time frame, how much can you accomplish? What contacts do you already have in the area? What experience do you have conducting similar work in the past?
You’re aiming to make the case that you can do great work if given this fellowship—and it’ll go a long way if you can show that you’ve already done the necessary background research and that you’ve got the skills to carry this out.
5. Get Great (Honest) Recommendations
Great recommendations are essential to your application. Make sure your recommenders are people who have known you for at least a year, and can truly attest to who you are and what your strengths and successes are. (I can’t tell you how many students I’ve been teaching for two weeks who ask me to write them recommendations. I’m always forced to turn them down, since I’m unable to say anything meaningful about their work.)
I recommend sitting down with your recommender over coffee to go over why you want this fellowship and the strengths and skills you would bring to the role. And do this well in advance. Your recommenders will most likely be flattered to be asked and will be able to share great advice, but they’ll need time to write a thoughtful recommendation.
6. Be Real in Your Interview
During the fellowship interview, you can usually tell who has received formal coaching and who hasn’t. Those who have are great at sticking to an approved script—but they’re often ineffective in explaining why the fellowship matters to them personally.
The lesson here is: Be true to yourself and honest about what you want to accomplish. If you only try to be the person you think the judges want you to be, they’ll see right through it. Even if you don’t have all the “right” answers, if you can convey your passion for your project, you’ve got a good chance at winning a slot.
That said, there’s no secret recipe for winning a fellowship. One of my former fellowship advisors suggests that it really comes down to a mix of a few factors: meeting what the committee is looking for (and how you fit in with their goals), the strength of your application, and, honestly, a bit of luck.
So don’t let yourself get caught up trying to be perfect or trying to fit some imagined mold. Clearly define your goals, put your heart into the application, and you might just find yourself conducting the project of your dreams.