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Writing for External Fellowships

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Tackling Essays​

In addition to or instead of a proposal, some fellowships ask you to write a personal statement and/or other kinds of essays. Most of these are external awards, some of which have rather daunting reputations. Don't be daunted: these essays are do-able, if you give yourself enough time to do your homework, sketch out different ideas, and try several drafts.

For particular details and advice about individual awards, see the official websites (which often give specific guidance and very helpful advice, as do, for example, the FulbrightTruman and Udall), as well as tips below for writing essays for scholarships for postgraduate study in Britain and Ireland.  There is great advice from past Yale applicants available to the Yale community here.

A note about sample essays

    If you are tempted to read sample essays, before you do so you should make a serious attempt at your own draft. It can be very hard to hear what you have to say when other people’s voices are in your ear.

    There is generally no one right or wrong way to write essays like these. (Even if there were such a thing as a "winning formula," imagine the poor fellowship committee member who would have to read the same essay hundreds of times.) The challenge is to find the best way to say what you want to say in your own way.

Tips for any application

What's the best way to begin?  Start early and do your homework.

It takes more time than you might think to explore options, seek advice from busy mentors, and put together a good application, with the best possible letters and with application materials that have been written and re-written until they say what you really want them to say.  (See elsewhere on our website for advice about asking for letters, crafting a résumé, and more.)

Some key questions:

  • What are you proposing to do with the fellowship, where, and why? The right fit will make your applications stronger—not to mention that it will make the opportunity a better experience if you should be so fortunate as to win a fellowship to pursue it..  If you cannot find the right fit, then do something else.  There are lots of options out there.
  • What is the fellowship for?  What is its history?  What are the stated selection criteria for the fellowship? What is the audience for whom you’re writing?  (The answers to these questions will be clues to the kinds of questions a fellowship committee may ask of your application.  The official websites of fellowships often contain a wealth of helpful information, so take the time to read them carefully.  Audience: usually a faculty committee on-campus; and there are often faculty and other experts on national committees, especially for fellowships for graduate study, but national committees usually include former winners of the fellowship, who may work in any field.)
  • What does the fellowship application request?  What is the essay prompt?  (Always answer the question asked.)

Many external awards are interested not only in what you're proposing to do with a given fellowship, but also in how this fits into the your big picture. Some fellowships only want to know what the next step after the fellowship might be and how you'd put to good use what the fellowship could help you gain. Others are more interested in longer-term aspirations, like what kind of work you might hope to do in the world, over the course of your career, and how what you're proposing to do with the fellowship might help you toward those goals.

Think of your application as a whole

First, what are the points you really need/want to get across overall?

Next, consider what will best be conveyed by which part of your application: the letters of recommendation, the language evaluation, the letter of affiliation, the transcript, résumé/cv, short-answer questions, and essays, as applicable.

  • What can be said only or best by you?
  • What might better be said for you by other people (e.g., in a letter or language evaluation), or by your transcript, résumé, etc.?
  • Considering each essay prompt, what might you put into each answer?
  • Do essays/other pieces of the application complement one another to create a coherent narrative?
  • Be strategic about what is included.  What sheds light on key points or advances your argument?  What is interesting but not particularly relevant to the application/proposal, and therefore might be omitted at need?

As you write

Remember that audiences vary. It is usually a good idea to aim a fellowship application at an intelligent, well-educated non-specialist, but remember that a specialist in your field might happen read your application.  Moreover, some committees are more likely than others to contain specialists, e.g.: Goldwater applications are read by people in STEM fields, Hays-Brandeis applications by people in arts fields, and graduate school applications are read by the scholars who might be teaching you; in these instances, write for experts in the field.

In general, an application should make readers want to invite you for an interview so they can hear more, and should set you up to have a good conversation in an interview.  Your application is your first contribution to that conversation, and if there's no interview your application is your best chance to make your case:

  • Does your application start the conversation going in the right direction and open up interesting possibilities for further discussion?
  • Does it open any subject you’d rather not discuss? (Be prepared to be asked in an interview to say more about any detail you include in your application, however minor.  If it’s in there, it’s fair game—so it should be something it might be good to talk about in a brief interview…)
  • If there’s an obvious potential weakness in your application it’s often better to tackle it up front, in your application, so that concerns are defused and questions don’t detract from your strengths.  (There are different ways to do this: talk to an adviser about the best strategy.)

Re-read what you've written

After you've written a draft, leave it alone for a while, and come back to it with fresh eyes. Will someone who doesn't know you get the right ideas from what you've written? Does your draft say what you want it to say, clearly and concisely, in your own voice? Have you made the points you need to make, and is there an important aspect that you take so much for granted that you forgot to spell it out?

Remember to proofread, and if you can have someone else proofread for you do that, too. Typos say that you are not taking an application seriously, so the reader need not either.

You have nothing to lose

Yes, working on these essays takes a lot of time and energy, as does applying for fellowships, and yes, fellowships are competitive so the odds are usually against winning.  The good news is that if you put in the time and thought, no matter what happens with your fellowship applications, the least you’ll get out of engaging properly with the application process is a clearer sense of where you’re going and why, and a stronger application—not to mention terrific letters—for your next application, potentially for graduate/professional school or for a job. Now that's a real win.

All best of luck.

Writing essays for fellowships for postgraduate study in Britain and Ireland

The advice above applies to these fellowship applications, too, so start there.

Key questions for fellowships for postgraduate study in Britain and Ireland include:

  • What are you proposing to do with the fellowship, where, and why? 
  • Have you found the right graduate program for you, to suit your preparation, interests, and longer-term aims?  Why do it in Britain/Ireland (specifically, rather than simply "abroad")?  Why not study in your home country?  Why propose the university/degree course you have and not another?  How will this help prepare you to do the work you’ve said you want to do in the world, and, ideally, prepare you to do it more effectively?  
  • Why are you applying for this particular fellowship? Why does it seems like a good fit? What might you bring to the fellowship, to contribute to the community of scholars and to the mission of the fellowship?

The right fit will make your applications stronger—not to mention make graduate study more fulfilling if you have the chance to pursue it.  If you cannot find the right fit, then do something else. There are lots of options out there, for other kinds of fellowships, graduate or professional school, interesting jobs, etc. 

Find more particular advice in our handout, below.

Other writing resources


Books on Writing

Writing Personal Statements, by Joe Schall

Sample essays provided by Schall

Style for Students, by Joe Schall

Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr.

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Manual of Style, University of Chicago