National Fellowships

What They Are & How to Apply

What is a national fellowship?

A national fellowship – or award, scholarship, or grant – is a funded opportunity to undertake a major educational experience or goal. It might involve traveling to a country very different from your own and living, working, learning from, or even teaching English to 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. National fellowships provide substantial funding and other kinds of support for these endeavors, but they are usually awarded without regard to financial need. Rather, they are awarded on the basis of merit.

Where does the money come from?

Some of the money to fund national 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 national fellowships competitive?

The people or agencies who support recipients of national 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.” Still, even the most qualified applicants sometimes do not win, as with any competitive process. Still, if you are a viable candidate, it is worthwhile to apply.

What comprises an application?

National 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 National Fellowships Advisor in the Academic Deans Office focuses on promoting a selection of “campus process” and certain “direct apply” awards for which we think MHC students are particularly well suited, and that will serve their goals and interests. While there are hundreds of fellowships available to students, the National Fellowships Advisor is limited to advising mainly on these particular awards.

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 often be interviewed by a committee of faculty members chaired by the Dean of Studies. The committee usually must then decide 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 also receive coaching in preparation for any foundation interviews. You will receive encouragement and support throughout the entire process. Finally, the National Fellowships Advisor and Senior Administrative Assistant will ensure that your application is submitted in a timely and professional manner to the fellowship foundation or agency.

For the listed “direct apply” awards, the fellowships advisor will offer essay feedback and guidance. Faculty members, as well, may be available to offer guidance on fellowships pertinent to their fields.

What steps can a student take to become a strong national fellowships applicant?

Even a year or two before you intend to 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.

Consider pursuing opportunities for research through summer internships or independent coursework. Attend lectures by visitors to campus. This will broaden your understanding of current events and world issues. Read respected newspapers and journals, including opinion pieces, which will help you to learn to think broadly and critically. Finally, cultivate relationships with faculty members by meeting with them during office hours. 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. This will help them to be able to write strong recommendation letters on your behalf.

Read the information provided about national fellowships, then request an appointment. Read the brief descriptions of national fellowships and then read the individual webpage on those that particularly interest you. Once you have a sense of what you might like to pursue and for which opportunities you meet the requirements, request an appointment with the National Fellowships Advisor.

Christine Overstreet, National Fellowships Advisor, Academic Deans Office

Marianne Taylor, Senior Administrative Assistant, Academic Deans Office