Advice for Applicants 

Before You Apply

  • Your classes: Embarking on an intellectual journey
  • Your Professors: Let them get to know you
  • Language Study & Study Abroad: Cultivate a cross-cultural perspective
  • Extracurricular Activities: Get involved!
  • It's Never Too Early to Apply: Going for it

While You’re Applying

Preparing for an interview

Before You Apply 

Your Classes: Embarking on an intellectual journey

The classes with professors who challenge you and make you think differently will figure into application essays, which should chart your personal and intellectual journeys.  If, along your path, you discover a passion for research, discuss with a relevant professor the possibility of working as research assistant. You should also try to become a preceptor for a class you enjoyed to see if you like teaching.


Your Professors: Letting them get to know you. Go to office hours.

To apply for almost anything, you’ll need letters of recommendation and most often from professors. For some fellowship applications, letters from internship or service experiences can be highly relevant. The strong letters come from professors who clearly know you well outside of the 100-person lecture class and can provide information about you not captured elsewhere in an application. Because of this, it is wise to cultivate relationships with your advisors and professors, who might become inspired to mentor you. Attend their office hours  and converse with them about readings, their interests and yours, and advice about the best way to approach their course.  Once you decide which fellowship(s) you will apply for, ask faculty at least one to two months in advance to write a letter of recommendation. (See "While you're applying" for more useful advice about recommendations.)


Language Study & Studying Abroad: Cultivate a cross-cultural perspective

A number of fellowships give grantees the chance to study, work, or research abroad, requiring at least some knowledge of a foreign language. Just because you fulfilled your language requirement or are tired of studying the same language you did throughout high school, do not assume that you should discontinue studying a language because you fulfilled the language requirement or that language learning is not for you. The Modern Languages department has plenty of well-trained instructors and offer more languages than your high school perhaps did. Try studying a less commonly taught language such as Arabic, Chinese, German, or Russian,  for which there are fellowships to learn or continue  learning. (Full disclosure: Professors Cable and Bond know Chinese and Russian, respectively). You give yourself more options by learning a language or multiple languages, not just for  fellowships but also for finding a job after college. 

As a natural complement to language study, pursue studying abroad, which naturally demonstrates your firsthand experience with the challenges of adapting to life in a foreign country as well as, more generally speaking, your curiosity about the world. Start looking into study-abroad opportunities AT LEAST ONE YEAR BEFORE you would like to go and consult F&M's International and Off-Campus Study Office.


Extracurricular Activities: Get involved

What you do outside the classroom matters as much as what you do in it. Some fellowships are not necessarily looking for students with the highest GPA but rather students who have cultivated their personal and academic interests through a deep level of involvement in a small number of extracurricular actvities. 

F&M has some 90 clubs, and one of them is bound to interest you. Cultivate leadership experience by serveing on the e-board of one of the organizations. Many fellowship applications are looking for evidence of effective leadership  and service. Pursue internships and consistent volunteer work connected to the courses interesting to you. The Ware Institute for Civic Engagement can connect you with such opportunities., which can make a fellowship application stronger.  Speak with a professor about getting nominated as a sophomore for The F&M Marshall Fellow Program, which awards recipients with $4000 to pursue academic enrichment and/or a community service projects.  If you are a great writer interested in teaching, apply for a tutor position at the Writing Center. Students who have some teaching  or tutoring experience are in a better position for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. Regardless of whether or not you apply for a fellowship, get involved in the community in ways that are meaningful to you to get the most out of your F&M experience. 


It's never too early to try for a fellowship: Going for it!

While many fellowships require that students are in their senior year at time of application, a few awards are geared toward first-years and sophomores. See if there is a fellowship that appeals to you by looking through the list of fellowships for first-years and sophomores, and take the steps listed above to put yourself in the best position possible to apply.  You can also book time with Dr. Cable to see if there is a fellowship that's right for you. Gaining experience in applying for fellowships early on will help you apply for others down the road.

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While You're Applying

1) Read the FAQ Section: Do NOT ignore it!

Before you start filling out the application and drafting statements, be prepared to make the time to read--not scroll through, not skim, but rather really read each word attentively and re-read if necessary--this site and the site of the fellowship(s) to which are you applying. While Professors Cable and Bond are here to guide you, you are the one ultimately responsible for determining and verifying your eligibility, knowing the fellowship's timeline,  and what the fellowship wants to see in your application.  All of this information you can often find in the FAQ section on a fellowship's website, which contains extremely pertinent information that could save you time from applying to a fellowship that you are ineligible for or could help you understand what the fellowship committee is looking for in the application statements.  Some fellowships have unusually specific eligibility requirements, such as no travel beyond 6 weeks within the last five years, and that information is underscored in the FAQ. Most fellowships give applicants a timeline of the application process as well as the approximate announcement of fellowship recipients. Some fellowships bury pertinent application information in the FAQ, such as which application essay should adopt an academic tone. (That information was not mentioned anywhere on the actual application!) You should check the FAQ section before you email either Drs. Cable or Bond a general question about a fellowship. 


2) Secure Letters of Recommendation

After you verify your eligibility and decide to apply for a fellowship you should request as soon as possible--either in person or by email--letters of recommendation from the requisite number of individuals. 

Whom should I ask to write a letter of recommendation?

Good recommendation letters provide concrete illustrations of how you are the best candidate for a particular fellowship, providing application readers a glimpses into your character, intellect, and potential not captured elsewhere. That is why it is imperative that you solicit letters from people who know you extremely well and not from people solely because of their title or position. You should request recommendations from professors who view you favorably as a student and know you well as a person, (i.e., you have made the effort to attend their office hours and interact with them outside of the classroom), and/or who know your research well. 

When should I request a letter of recommendation and how?

Approach your referees early, at least one to two months in advance of the fellowship deadline. If possible, involve them in the early stages of your application process by soliciting their feedback on what you're planning to write in your application statements. Their insights might be invaluable and their knowledge about your application will inform them of the gaps in it, thereby compelling them to perhaps include any missing information in their recommendations. In  some cases, it may be more beneficial to make an appointment to speak with each prospective referee in person and begin the conversation with a discussion of your goals and interests before asking for a letter of recommendation.

Why shouldn't I ask for a recommendation one week prior to the due date?

The answer depends on whether or not you want your writer to submit a thoughtful and well written letter, which takes more time than many students realize, even for a skilled writer. Some professors (like Dr. Bond) like to write multiple drafts over the course of several days to make sure that it includes all of the relevant information and to allow time for proofreading. To budget the time to do that on top of teaching and advising students requires more than just a one-week lead time.  

What kind of information should I provide my referees to help them write strong letters?

Once your recommender has agreed to write you a letter, ask your recommenders the following:

  1. How would they prefer to receive additional information about the fellowship and your application: by email or in person?
  2. Is there is any other information they would like to have in order to help them as they write their letters?

Whether in person or by email, briefly give your writer information about the fellowship and you: 

  • submission instructions and due date (make sure you give them the campus deadline instead of the national one if that is the case)
  • a brief description of the fellowship for which you are applying from its website or ours so your writer can tailor the letter, detailing the characteristics of that fellowship (e.g., its mission and the personal qualities it is looking for in its recipients) and how you would to use the fellowship.
  • a link to the fellowships' tips for letter writers if there is one
  • draft of fellowship essays, most often a research proposal and personal statement, to help them tailor the letter to your objectives (print out or email as an attachment). If you haven't written them yet (more likely the case), tell your recommender that they are forthcoming.
  • résumé/CV (print out or email as an attachment)
  • If your recommender is a professor whose classes you haven’t taken in a year or two or a supervisor whom you haven’t worked for in a while, bring that person up-to-date about what you’ve been doing. Remind them what papers you wrote in their class and the grades you got.

What should I do if my recommender hasn't submitted a letter and the deadline is fast approaching?

It is YOUR responsibility to make sure that your writers stick to the deadline; do whatever you have to do (e.g. create multiple reminders in Google calendar) to make sure that you remember to remind your recommenders of deadlines. All of the fellowships make NO EXCEPTIONS for late letters. So it behooves you to remind your writer at least one week prior to the deadline. 

What should I do after the recommender submits the letter?

Send a thoughtful thank-you note, ideally handwritten but email is fine, too, thanking them for their valuable time and for whatever else you think is appropriate. (Writing thank-you notes is a necessary life skill that is especially handy after job interviews.) And do not forget to update them on your progress through the stages of the competition, even if you’re not selected. Should you need a recommendation in the future, this kind of follow-up communication will continue to foster a close, positive relationship with your letter writers. If you are selected, you ought to share that news personally with your recommender and thank them again for the role that they played.

3) Request a transcript

After you have dealt with securing letters of recommendation, you should request a transcript from the Registrar as soon as possible to get this easy task out of the way. It is not always possible for the Registrar to provide an official transcript to students overnight, so request one at least two weeks in advance. Keep in mind that depending on the fellowship, you will most likely have to request transcripts from any other institutions from which you received credit. 

4) Write the Application Statements

Many fellowship applications require at least two primary essays: a personal statement and a statement of purpose, sometimes called a grant or research statement. These essays are intended to complement each other and should not contain duplicate information. These essays should connect your experiences--personal and academic--in such a way as to constitute a compelling, plausible narrative about why you are applying for a particular fellowship (usually covered in the personal statement); and what you would do with the felowship and why the fellowship should take you (statement of purpose).

There is an art to writing a successful essay, which is usually the umpteenth version. We urge you to start the writing process early, and to get as many people as possible to read it to give you feedback. Statement readers tend to be astute and experienced application readers. Generic phrases, such as "I have a passion for...," "outside my comfort zone," etc..., are counter-productive. Ask close professors and friends to critique your essays; visit the Writing Center and request a tutor who has applied for a fellowship if one is available; and meet with Prof. Cable to get feedback or email Prof. Bond a Google doc of your statement. As you write these statements, keep in mind that the majority of fellowship committees are non-specialists, so avoid technical jargon people outside your field would know. (See the bottom of this page for more advice on writing personal statements). 

No matter which type of fellowship you apply for, be sure to CHECK OUT(!!) the fantastic suggestions made by author Joe Schall in his book “Writing Personal Statements and Scholarship Application Essays.” Not only does he go through the nuts and bolts of writing all sorts of application essays, but he provides you with examples of successful essays! 

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Preparing for an Interview

Some fellowship competitions require an (on-campus) interview (such as the Fulbright, Gates Cambridge, Rhodes, Marshall). Some programs require finalists to interview with an external committee (such as the Rhodes, Marshall, Truman).

A successful interview requires hours of research, preparation, and practice even if the interview will be 15 minute . Also, the best interviews are the ones that turn into conversations. So before we give you some guidelines, remember that you should prepare beforehand thoughtful questions, the answers to which Google cannot give you.

Here are some general guidelines to consider before the intervew:

  • Reread your application to refresh your memory about what you wrote. Interviews can take place several months after you handed in your application, yet the interview panel likely has read your application the night before and might ask precise questions about details of what you wrote. At the same time, be ready for the possibility that the interview strikes out in a new direction and only barely references your written application materials.
  • Look through the fellowship's website and be able to succinctly explain its mission and requirements. (For Fulbright, it is imperative that you reread the country summary page as well.) 
  • Consult Dr. Cable or Dr. Bond to get a set of interview questions and then schedule a mock interview. 
  • Arrive at the interview with two or three strengths in mind—specific examples what make you an excellent candidate for the particular fellowship. Be sure to get these in, whether in response to an interviewer’s question or at the end when given the opportunity to add anything else.
  • Don't just be on time, be early, at least 15 minutes early. If you are late and miss your interview there are no make-ups.

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Writing a Personal Statement 

Good personal statements are vital. But they are tough to write. Here are three ideas to help you keep the task in perspective:

  • Space constraints are often frustrating . . . but your competitors face them too. (Here is a GREAT site that provides excellent tips on getting an essay down to the required number of words. 
  • A good personal essay comes in handy. You can rework it for many settings.
  • Many students find that writing the personal statement helps them clarify who they are and where they are going. This is inherently good.


In a Nutshell

Most good personal statements share three core elements. You need to:

  1. Share your goals. People are looking to invest in your potential so they need to know your plan. They need to know that you have a sense of purpose.
  2. Connect your goals to the opportunity for which you are applying. Demonstrate the synergy between their goals and yours
  3. Share your story. The reader needs to know:
  • How life experience has formed and shaped your goals . . . to see your commitment.
  • How you have pursued and prepared for those goals thus far . . . to see your potential.


Good Storytelling

Good museums arrange interesting artifacts and/or exhibits into a coherent floor plan. And history unfolds as the visitor walks through. Personal statements aim for the same thing. You need to present telling details about your life in a logical narrative order.


Telling Details

You should not rehash your resume. Strive to make you and your life experience vivid in ways that complement the resume instead. Provide details that reveal important things about you:

  1. What has led you to embrace your future goals.
  2. What makes you care about those goals right now.
  3. What personal traits you possess.
  4. What items on your resume and transcript actually mean.
  5. Why you are ready for the opportunity at hand.
  6. What personal challenges you have faced.
  7. What has shaped your identity and/or outlook.


Narrative Order

Organize those telling details to help you articulate the core elements sketched above. Develop a logical narrative thread that will tie the paragraphs together. Several samples to illustrate:

Sample One

  1. I hope to do X in my career.
  2. A was my first encounter with X.
  3. B and C confirmed my desire to work in X.
  4. I believe your opportunity will help me accomplish X because . . .
  5. I feel that D and E have prepared me for this opportunity

Sample Two

  1. I experienced A recently.
  2. It changed my mind about career X.
  3. It got me thinking about career Y.
  4. B and C confirmed that Y was right for me.
  5. D and E will prove valuable even though they were related to X.
  6. Your opportunity is the right next step because . . .


How to Generate Detail

Show, don’t tell; anecdotes help you share important details. They are specific slices of personal experience that help the reader get a mental picture of you in your world. And they make the essay much more memorable and more fun to read. Here are five examples to illustrate:




I interned in DC.

I learned a lot about government working in DC last summer.

We stayed far into the night, drinking coffee every half hour and scouring budget amendments. I began to see how much the Senate needs youth.

My family was a big influence on me.

I saw how hard my family worked to ensure that I did well in school.

My mom used to pass out math worksheets to keep me occupied on the long drive to see Grandma. And then grandma would grade them!

I have integrity.

I tried to discourage cheating when I worked as a tutor.

When I tutored in Geography, I noticed that a student was drawing a map on his hand before a test. I confronted him about it . . .

I changed my mind about being PreVet.

I did not like working at the animal clinic and dropped PreVet.

After having to euthanize a healthy beagle, per the wishes of its callous owner, I decided I could never run a veterinary clinic.

I really grew from my time abroad.

I became more independent by living alone in Hungary.

I knew my time in Budapest had changed me when I found myself helping Americans navigate the Munich subway during a weekend trip.

Note that the Better column presents scenes you could film. Good anecdotes help the reader see something in their head when they read.



So now you know what to do. How do you get the pen moving or the keyboard rattling? A few ideas:

Scribble down a list of things that readers might be interested in.

  • How do you spend your time? What accomplishments are you proud of?
  • When did you display your best personal traits?
  • What are your most interesting life experiences? Your most powerful memories?

Use the writing process as a vehicle for discovery.

  • Consider writing several different drafts. Experiment.
  • You might try outlining the points you intend to make / anecdotes you might present.
  • Try banging out whatever pops into your head for thirty minutes and then return later to see what seems promising.

Consider the stories behind your resume.

  • What do items on your resume mean to you? What have you learned from them? What was the highlight of each?
  • Jot down these insights and cons ider how they might build into anecdotes that will bring your record to life. 


Cutting and Polishing

Good writing is a recursive process that requires revision and careful editing.

  • Try not to fall madly in love with your first draft. It is probably not very good.
  • Set your draft aside if time permits. Read it later with fresh eyes.
  • Get input from critical readers. “Looks good” is not actually helpful.
  • Sweat over the editing. Worry about word choice and word economy (as well as grammar and spelling) once you are happy with the content overall.


Don’t forget to consult personal statement and general essay guru Joe Schall and his FABULOUS website. His Chapter 5 has examples of successful Fulbright, Marshall, Rhodes, etc. essays!