Make a Fellowship Application Plan

May 7, 2015

You may have heard of a student who decided to apply to a fellowship two weeks before it was due, dashed an application together, and received the fellowship.

Sometimes this happens. But not often. Although it makes for a less interesting story, most successful applicants plan well ahead of the deadline, work strategically towards making themselves good candidates, and then systematically apply.

As summer approaches, consider putting together a plan for fellowships to which you might apply. Below you will find a general guide to help you think about process.  

One Year Ahead

  • Identify three or four opportunities to which you might apply in the coming year. Carefully review the goals of each fellowship and the eligibility criteria and determine if each one is a good fit for you.

  • Go over the review criteria for the fellowship. Ask yourself what is important to the reviewers and if there is anything you can do in the coming year to make yourself a more competitive applicant.

  • Find some successful applications. Look over them for content, voice, and organization. Then save them to reference when you begin to write the application.

  • Contact one or two successful applicants and ask them about the process. Again, ask them if there is anything you should do before the fellowship is announced (e.g. take language classes, do a pilot study, submit an article for publication or a poster at a conference, give a talk at a museum, etc.).

  • If you plan to conduct research abroad, this is a good time to undertake preliminary research and make local connections who can serve as future references or affiliates.

Six Months Ahead

  • Update your CV for the specific fellowship to which you are applying. Remember that conventions for CVs vary according to context and change with time. The UA Career Services is a wonderful resource for help with your CV.

  • Begin working on your essays. Although the fellowship will likely not yet be announced, most applications are fairly similar from year to year. Even if you have a goal to only have a rough outline of what you plan to write, you will be well ahead of other applicants if you simply get some of your ideas down.

  • Make an inquiry to the organization to which you are applying. Organizations vary, but some are very helpful to applicants. One Fulbright program officer told me that she will even read drafts and give comments if contacted well ahead of the deadline.

  • Talk with your professors about your application. Here are some questions to ask:

    • Do you have any previous students who have applied for this fellowship whom I could contact?

    • Do you know of any other students applying for this fellowship with whom I might work?

    • Here are my ideas for my essays. . . What do you think? Do you have recommendations for books or articles that might help me develop my ideas?

    • May I ask you for a letter of recommendation once the competition is announced?

  • Begin a writing group. A graduate student in Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies who was awarded three major fellowships this spring attributes much of her success to a writing group to which she belongs. While she acknowledges the importance of feedback from faculty, she says, “It can be a great advantage to receive feedback from people with academic backgrounds and experiences divergent from your own - especially for writing grants that will likely be read by people from all different fields."

    • Writing groups also serve to keep participants accountable to the writing goals that they make. The student explains that in her group, “Not everybody submits every week but we know we can. It keeps us accountable and we can decide how much we want to submit for feedback. I can't recommend it enough!”

  • If you will need transcripts for the application, go ahead and get them now. Some applications require official transcripts.

  • If you will need a letter of affiliation from another institution, begin the process of obtaining the letter. This process will likely take much longer than you anticipate.

  • If your research has no clear connection to any pressing issue, begin making connections between your research and current issues. If you do not regularly do so, begin reading the New York Times or the Christian Science Monitor or some other popular news source and thinking about the connections with your research. If your research has no clear connection to issues in your field, talk with professors and read journals in your discipline to research the relevance of your topic to major issues in your field.

Three Months Ahead

In general, a fellowship competition will be announced three months to six weeks prior to the deadline.

  • Make note of deadlines. Plan to have a complete draft at least a month prior to the deadline so that you can receive quality feedback on your draft. Plan to finalize your application a week before the actual deadline.

  • Request letters of recommendation as soon as possible. If they agree, ask what they need from you to help them write the letters. Ask them to submit their letters a week prior to the actual deadline.

  • Write your drafts and have at least three people review them, including someone in a different subfield than yours.

  • Begin filling out all necessary forms.

One Week Ahead

  • Finish revising and submit all materials.

  • Remind your referees to submit their letters. Every year we hear several very sad stories of competitive applications not getting read because of missing letters of recommendation. If you can have everything submitted ahead of time and request that the letters also be submitted early, it is less likely that this will happen to you.

  • Celebrate your successful submission!

  • Thank your referees!


The GradFunding Newsletter is a service of the University of Arizona Graduate College, Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement. You may reuse this article but please acknowledge Shelley Hawthorne Smith and the University of Arizona Graduate College Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement.

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