National Fellowships

Fellowships – What They Are & How to Apply

What is a Fellowship?

A fellowship – or award, scholarship, or grant – is a funded opportunity to do something big! One “big thing” might be traveling to a country very different from your own and living among, working with, learning from, and even teaching people who live there. It might mean taking courses or pursuing research at the master’s or doctoral level, and networking with people who are formulating new questions or finding answers to long-term problems in your chosen academic field. It could involve planning and implementing a project that will make the world – or just one small corner of it - a better place. Or it could entail working alongside the people who shape national and international affairs, and becoming one of them. Because fellowships provide the funding and often other kinds of support for such endeavors, they may open doors for you that, with your own means, you could never walk through. 

Where does the money come from?

Some of the money to fund fellowships comes from wealthy individuals. These philanthropists create a foundation in order to support people who want to do the kinds of thing the donor feels are important for the betterment of society.  Other funding comes from governments, supported by citizens’ taxes, and administered by government or contracted agencies. It is important to understand who is funding a fellowship and why. Knowing this helps you understand the criteria and goals for the award.

Why are fellowships competitive?

The people or agencies who support recipients of fellowships are really not just giving you money. They are making an investment. They believe that if they support worthy people, those people will then do good things for the country and the world. As with any investment, it is important to make sure it is a wise one. This involves asking a lot of questions, such as: Does this person have the aptitude to undertake this endeavor? Is she smart enough? Is she responsible? Is she mature? Does she have the personal motivation and drive to get her through setbacks? Is she stable? Can she get along with other people? And so on. The purpose of the application competition is to help donors determine who is most likely to be successful in the endeavor the fellowship is funding. It is in everyone’s best interest – including the applicant’s – to make sure the answer is a resounding “yes”!

What is involved in applying for a fellowship?

Fellowships applications vary, depending on their purpose. For most fellowships, some or all of the following components will be required:

  • An online or paper application form requesting biographical information
  • A personal statement – a long essay explaining why you are pursuing the fellowship and why you are suitable for it
  • Short essays – one or two-paragraph statements answering questions specific to the fellowship
  • An “issues essay” – where you answer a question that may involve knowledge of current events or particular kinds of coursework
  • Transcripts (usually official) from all undergraduate institutions, including study abroad
  • Recommendations – from 2-3 professors and sometimes professionals who know you well and can attest to your academic and personal qualities
  • A language evaluation
  • An interview – either over the phone or in person

Why do some fellowships have a “campus process” and others are “direct apply”?

For certain (often very prestigious and competitive fellowships), the foundations or agencies rely upon administrators and faculty on campuses to do preliminary work in preparing and sometimes even selecting applicants for the award. For some awards, only students from designated colleges and universities are even allowed to apply. “Direct apply” awards, on the other hand, are open to students from any campus, without an internal process, and the student may apply with no one on campus even knowing she is doing so. At Mount Holyoke College, the fellowships office focuses on promoting a selection of “campus process” and certain “direct apply” awards we think our students are particularly well suited for, and that will serve their goals and interests. These fellowships are also in keeping with the goals and values of the College. Click here for a Quick Listing of Major Fellowships promoted by the Mount Holyoke College Fellowships Office. (link to webpage 2)

Do “campus process” awards require additional steps?

Yes, they do! With campus process awards, you must tell the fellowships advisor (by the advertised deadline) that you intend to apply; submit your initial application materials to her on time; and usually participate in an interview with a committee of faculty members (the Committee on Fellowships) chaired by the Dean of Studies. The committee then decides whether or not to endorse or nominate you to the foundation or agency administering the award. A college representative must then write a letter endorsing you on behalf of the institution. It is a great honor (and responsibility) to be endorsed by the College for one of these awards.

The campus process benefits you, the applicant, in important ways. You will receive feedback and coaching from the fellowships advisor on your essays and on every aspect of the application. You will also receive guidance from the faculty committee members, who will carefully review your materials and discuss your goals with you. You will receive coaching from the fellowships advisor, and also from faculty in preparation for any interviews. You will receive encouragement and support throughout the entire process. Finally, the Fellowships Office staff will ensure that your application is submitted in a timely and professional manner to the fellowship foundation or agency.

For some “direct apply” awards, the fellowships advisor can offer you similar kinds of support. Faculty members, as well, may be available to offer guidance on fellowships pertinent to their fields.

What steps can a student take to be a strong fellowships applicant?

Even a year or two before you apply for a fellowship, there are things you can do to prepare. If you are targeting a specific opportunity, it is important to read the requirements and make choices in terms of courses, activities, and development opportunities that fit the goal. Of course, no one should focus her entire future on the goal of winning a fellowship. But the qualities of a fellowship’s ideal candidate – outstanding academic achievement, intellectual focus, demonstrated leadership ability, a commitment to community engagement, and a habit of global awareness -- are worth cultivating, whether they result in a win or not.

You should also consider pursuing opportunities for research through summer internships or independent coursework. Attending lectures by visitors to campus will broaden your understanding of current events and world issues. Reading respected newspapers and journals, including opinion pieces, will help you learn to think broadly and critically.

Finally, cultivating strong relationships with faculty members will help you secure strong recommendations. Take more than one class with professors in your major so they can get to know you. Tell them about your interests, goals, and dreams.

These awards are so competitive? What do I get out of it if I don’t win?

Students who have applied, but not won, have found the work on the application was beneficial to them in several ways. First, learning about fellowships opportunities broadened their understanding of global connections being made throughout the world in every arena. The process of writing essays and investigating programs enabled them to achieve much greater clarity about their educational and career goals. Receiving the support and guidance of faculty advisors bolstered their confidence in their own abilities. Participating in interviews spurred them to learn to both prepare and think on their feet. Working with the fellowships advisor and faculty on essay drafts inspired them to aim for more concision and precision in their writing. Finally, they were able to use substantial portions of work they done on their major fellowships applications for other fellowships, graduate school, internship, and even job applications.

If you are interested in applying to a major fellowship, click on Make an Appointment with the Fellowships Advisor, Christine Overstreet to discuss your intentions.

Mount Holyoke College is once again a top producer of Fulbright Grant recipients!