For the past few years I have been working as a graduate student mentor for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program at UCLA. My main job there is to guide the fellows through the process of applying to graduate school. In the summer between junior and senior year, the fellows are drafting statements of purpose for MA and PhD programs. At the same time, they are applying for fellowships like the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, and the Fulbright research abroad fellowships.
Here are some of the fellowship application tips that I give to Mellon fellows and to first year students in my department. The advice here should be general enough for most applications for US graduate school fellowships. (Note that the programs listed above are open only to US citizens or permanent residents at US institutions.)
1. Start early
Summer is definitely the time to start working on US fellowship applications, most of which are due in November. Those of us on the quarter system are at a special disadvantage here. If you wait until late September or early October to begin working on your applications, you won’t have very much time to get them all together.
2. Apply to all the things
Apply to anything and everything for which you are eligible. This is easier said than done, of course, so do prioritize applications at your discretion. You never know what the outcome might be. One of my biggest regrets from my first year in graduate school was not applying for the Ford, thinking that it was just too much work. In reality, the essays were very similar to the other fellowships I was applying for that year. It would not have taken more than a few hours to modify them for that application.
Furthermore, the application process itself is incredibly helpful when you are just starting out. It forces you to think about your project in a sustained manner before a very concrete deadline. It also encourages you to build relationships with people who can give you research advice and letters of recommendation. Too intimidated to reach out to professors? Don’t know what you would say to them? Research proposal drafts can help break the ice.
3. Apply to all the things again
If you get rejected, try again next time if you are still eligible. I applied to the NSF GRFP three times: before starting graduate school, in my first year, and in my second year. I got a flat rejection the first time, honorable mention the second time, and the coveted prize the last time.
Each time I applied, I got great feedback from the reviewers. I also got feedback from people who helped me revise my drafts during the application process. All of their comments helped me learn how to write a competitive proposal.
4. Organize yourself
Save your recommendation writers a lot of grief by deciding early on in the application season which fellowships you will apply to. Be sure to give them plenty of notice (three weeks minimum). You should also give them your CV and a draft of your research proposal. Make it clear to them when the letters of recommendation are due, and how to submit them. Note: the recommendation due dates may not be the same as the due dates for the rest of the application!
5. Write and rewrite
Do not submit a first draft of any of your application essays! Finish a first draft early in the fall, get feedback, revise, get more feedback, and revise again. The extra effort is well worth it.
Personally, I would not be able to submit a first draft of a fellowship essay because it would be far too long. If you’re verbose like me, I would suggest writing everything that you want to write, then taking a step back and cutting mercilessly until you reach the word limit. After that, revise again.
6. Ask for advice
Get feedback from people you trust. Your recommendation writers will have ideas for you after looking over your drafts. If your department doesn’t have a peer feedback system going for fellowship applications, start one. Go to the writing center if you have one available. Ask some well-educated friends to read it. Better yet, sit them down while you read it aloud–it’s a fantastic way to find awkward clauses and repetitive word choices. Advice from outside of your field and subfield is especially valuable, since the applications are generally reviewed by readers from many disciplines.
7. Let it go
Once that application has been submitted, let it go. Think about other things for a few months, and don’t worry about whether you’ll get it. Your mental health and productivity will thank you.
8. Pay it forward
Give back by helping others with their applications. Even if you don’t believe in karma, you should believe in learning through teaching. Your own grant writing practice will improve through helping others think through their problems.