Understanding the Application

All applications, whether for graduate study, grants, or fellowships, have certain elements in common. The following is a summary of some of the more important points. These guidelines generally apply to both Direct Apply and Nomination/Endorsement Awards.

First Impressions

Your written application is the “first impression” on which you are judged. Despite good intentions to treat all candidates fairly and equally, review committees find it difficult to give forms and essays that are sloppy or otherwise hard to read the same consideration as those that are neat and legible.

Application Forms

Most awards are very competitive. Your application should not only be superior in content but in presentation as well. Make sure that the reader has all the necessary information in a format that is as easy to read as possible. As reviewers read, they often put applications in three piles: “yes,” “maybe,” and “no.” Carefully filled out applications are more likely to end up in the “yes” or "maybe" pile for further consideration. An incomplete or incorrectly filled out form is almost certain to end up in the “reject” pile. Pay attention to details such as whether you should or should not staple pages together. Every instruction is a measure of your ability to follow directions!

  • Photocopy the application and create a working draft; even simple forms require careful thought.
  • Try to answer all questions on the form itself.
  • Don’t use additional pages unless absolutely necessary (and not at all if the instructions prohibit it).
  • Have a friend or advisor read through your draft of the form to look for clarity and completeness.
  • Sign your application!
  • Avoid phrases or titles that won’t be understood by a reader outside Mount Holyoke.
  • Incorporate relevant summer activities, internships, work study.
    NOTE: Many forms can now be filled out on the web. Know if this is required or preferred.
  • Keep a photocopy of the complete application for your files.

Resume, C.V. (Curriculum Vitae), Annotated Resume

The format of the resume may change depending on the application requirements. You may be asked for a standard ("bulleted") one-page resume, a listing of your activities and experiences, or as is the case with the Fulbright, a C.V. described as an “intellectual biography in narrative form.” Despite the variety of presentation styles, it is important to use this opportunity to account for your time and demonstrate the breadth of your experience outside of the classroom. Again, depending on the specific application requirements, this may be the place to list awards won, skills, such as language or computer proficiencies, work and/or research experiences. Be sure to follow directions and submit the format requested. CDC counselors and Peer Career Advisors (PCAs) are available to provie critique on resumes.

Essays and Personal Statements

The essay is often the most important part of an application because it offers you the opportunity to demonstrate how your goals, interests, and background are a good fit with the program for which you are applying. A poorly written essay suggests not only that you don’t care about the award, but that you lack the ability to prepare a convincing and competitive application and to carry your project through to conclusion. A well-written essay, on the other hand, can tip the balance between two similar candidates, or help compensate for some other weakness in your application.

  • Break down the questions and answer each part.
  • Review the sequence of your answers.
  • Fine tune your arguments.
  • Follow the format and length instructions (spacing, font size, margin requirements, word count).
  • Avoid formulaic openings (“I want to study abroad because . . .”) and don’t repeat the question!
  • Be original - use the essay to express the unusual or special events in your life that have made your interests and capabilities what they are and who you are.
  • Write a longer draft and then condense your essay, so that in editing you eliminate unnecessary descriptive words and sentences but keep all the important ideas.
  • Ask your advisor, another faculty member or trusted friend to read it and make suggestions. Ask people who know you if your voice comes through and if it is something only you could write.
  • Take it to the Speaking and Writing Center for further assistance.
  • Neatness, spelling and grammar counts; proofread for spelling, grammatical, and typographical errors. Read backwards to detect errors. Do not count on spell check!
  • Have others proofread (never rely solely on the spell checker).

Joe Schall, former writing tutor at Penn State and author of Writing Recommendation Letters: A Faculty Handbook and Style for Students Online has developed a new handbook entitled Writing Personal Statements Online Chapter five of this handbook discusses personal statements and application essays for national scholarships including sample personal essays.  These selected personal essays are most useful for targeting scholarships that are best suited for the student.  Sample essays are available for the following scholarships:  Udall, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Fulbright Grants, Goldwater, Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Mitchell, and the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Project Proposals

Some award applications require a written proposal for a plan of study or research. After the members of the selection committee reads a proposal, they should have a clear understanding of your goals, commitment to your project, and ability to complete it.

The following is a description of how to write a comprehensive project proposal and is a good guide for writing both long and short proposals. The project description should be written without jargon, in plain language, and should no be no longer in length than the application stipulates. Try writing it like a newspaper article which may include an initial grab. It should include:

History and Definition of the Project

Describe the specific program of study, research or other work planned for the period of the proposal, explaining the basic ideas or questions to be explored and illustrating the planned approach or line of thought. In addition, explain how the project was conceived and how it will contribute to your intellectual development and/or career plans. Describe the history of the project: whether it was initiated by you, or whether it is part of a pre-planned institutional program or part of an institution’s, organization’s or other individual’s larger work.

Work Plan, Methodology, and Schedule

Outline the work plan, methodology, and schedule for the grant period. Issues that will be pertinent to evaluators include any preliminary work (reading, study, research) that you have done or will do on the project prior to the beginning of the project; the planned stages, weekly or monthly, if possible, for completion of the project; the critical approaches to be employed; the location of the project, and what travel might be conducted for the project. If a foreign language is involved, cite specific experience with the language and have a reference letter that attests to your adequacy in that language for the project.

Note:   One common reason for rejection of a proposal is the judgment by evaluators that the project could not be completed during the time allotted. The work plan must be feasible reflecting a realistic approach to the completion of the project and if it is an on-going project, the plan must describe how you will summarize, conclude and present your portion of the project.

Statement of Qualifications


  1. your educational background;
  2. specific project-related courses and experience; and
  3. your major intellectual interests. Provide your current academic status and graduation year. This statement need be no longer than one or two paragraphs. Usually, the fellowship or competition will request and official transcript.


Prepare a one-page, carefully selected, bibliography of the resources that will be used and a listing of organizations sponsoring or advising the project. For organizations, provide names of specific authorizing individuals and telephone numbers. Although not every application will require you to submit a bibliography, you will have, at least informally, compiled most of the information while writing sections 1 and 2. It is an invaluable resource if you are selected for an interview.

Letters of Recommendations

Communication is key in collecting a winning combination of letters! Know what you want your writer to focus on and tell them. Often letters should discuss specific experiences or qualities you possess. Be sure to provide clear instructions. For Nomination/Endorsement Awards or other programs for which individual letters are required, give your letter writers:

  • A minimum of three weeks notice; be clear about the deadline-impose earlier deadlines if desired.
  • Detailed information about the award/program for which you are applying.
  • A copy of your resume, transcript, and essay/personal statement.
  • A copy of the papers you have written for his/her courses, with grades.
  • Clear directions about where and how to send the letter, and a stamped addressed envelope if necessary.

Letters should be written on department letterhead if no special form is provided. If a form is provided, it is essential that YOU fill out (type) all the sections that pertain to you (name, Social Security number, etc.). It is your responsibility to ensure that letters are received by the stated deadline. It’s a good idea to send a polite reminder a few days before the deadline, and to follow up a few days after to make sure the letters have been sent.

Consider waiving your right of access to your letters of recommendation; in most cases, doing so will not affect what someone writes about you, but many selection committees believe that a confidential letter is more honest than one that is not confidential. Pick those you trust who will say what you want them to say well. Know why you are asking them. If you have concerns about whether a particular person would be willing to write a supportive letter, ask first; most people would rather have an opportunity to decline to write at all than to write a negative or lukewarm letter.

References for Project Proposals

Letters of reference should address your ability to complete the project. If possible, letters should speak about the specific fellowship or program, and not be general letters of recommendation. Where necessary, letters should describe previous experience, internships, or academic work. Follow the guidelines of the application instructions for the number of references required.

Transcripts - Plan Ahead!

An “official” transcript, issued by the Registrar on special paper with an embossed seal, of all undergraduate work is almost always required. (See this page for further information. Please note, transcripts can only be issued upon receipt of a signed request. Additionally, payment must accompany the request, and, therefore, they cannot be ordered by telephone, fax or email. )

  • Only your Mount Holyoke (and Five College) grades appear on your Mount Holyoke transcript, so you will need official transcripts from any other schools/programs at which you have studied, including institutions abroad.
  • Some applications require that the transcript be sent directly by the Registrar; others that the transcript is given to you in a sealed envelope, signed on the flap, and included with your application forms and essay.
  • Mount Holyoke usually requires 5 working days, but other institutions can take up to four weeks to send out a transcript. Request both early and be prepared.
    Mount Holyoke’s fee is $4.00 for each official transcript; other institutions may have higher fees. Some institutions accept charge cards and also may arrange for overnight delivery (for an additional fee).
  • Type or neatly print the transcript request form - it is used as a mailing label for the transcript. If it is illegible or incomplete, the transcript may arrive late or not at all.


It is your responsibility to ensure that all parts of the application reach the appropriate office by the stated deadline. Decisions must be made on the basis of whatever information has been received, and incomplete applications almost never receive full consideration.

Most deadlines are for receipt of application, unless “postmark deadline” is specified. Be sure it’s not a state or national holiday and that the post office is open. 

Do not assume that you will be notified if any items are missing; if appropriate, call to make sure your application is complete.