National fellowships are competitive, merit-based awards that fund graduate study, usually in research programs (such as study leading to a Ph.D. in history-or study leading to a master's degree when the master's is the highest degree awarded in a given discipline). Some fellowships fund study for professional degrees (such as study leading to a law or medical degree). Other fellowships support study abroad or experiential learning following the bachelor's degree. For students who plan to pursue a graduate degree, a few competitive national scholarships fund the last year or two of undergraduate education.
Developing a strong application for a fellowship should begin long before you decide that a given fellowship is the one you will pursue. Ideally, you should meet with the fellowship advisor in your freshman or sophomore year to develop a plan of action for your undergraduate years that will build your skills and credentials (achievements for which you have been recognized or which are worthy of recognition). These skills and credentials will enhance your choices when you apply to graduate school, and will help make you an attractive candidate for scholarships and fellowships.
One way to view prestigious fellowships is that they reward an "ideal" undergraduate education. While your professors and mentors at Pacific can help you design such an education, you are its true architect. With that in mind, plan to:
Strive for excellence in your coursework.
- Choose courses that are challenging.
- Choose diverse courses that allow you to grow in knowledge outside your major.
- Find something, in each course, about which you can be passionate-and make that passion evident in your work.
- Go "above and beyond" what your professors explicitly require in your written work, class participation, and preparation for each class session. Remember that such excellence will be reflected not only in course grades, but in how your professors think of you when they write letters of recommendation.
- Remember that grades are not "the end of the story." A less than perfect performance in a course, or on a given essay or exam, can be rescued by a willingness to revise the work, or better understand the material, even when such improvements will not be reflected in your course grade. Faculty admire students whose ambitions extend beyond grades. Show that you are such a scholar.
- Seek opportunities to know and be mentored by faculty.
- Go to office hours. Discuss with your professors aspects of their courses or their field of study that you want to understand better, or to ask questions about how to develop the quality of your coursework. (If you produce "A" work in a course, invite your faculty to tell you what you can do to take your work to the next level of excellence.) Be open to their input and try to use it. Check back with them for further guidance.
- Learn about your professors' research-by reading it, and/or by discussing it with them, even if it it's mostly "over your head." You will gain a greater understanding of the field, and of graduate study generally, from the opportunity to dialogue with these authors and experts.
- Actively seek opportunities to do research under the supervision of your professors. If you are unsure of what types of research activities are conducted in your field-ask faculty in your department. You might join an ongoing research program, or develop an independent research project of your own. Your professors can help you refine your thinking about a project you propose in your major. Remember that expenses associated with independent research projects may be funded by the university.
- For students who study abroad, take time to cultivate relationships with faculty there with whom you might want to work after college, supported by an international fellowship or scholarship such as the Fulbright.
This advice has been adapted, with the permission of Jim Hohenbary, from Becoming a Strong Candidate for Scholarships.
Pay attention to etiquette
The way you conduct yourself has consequences for how your mentors regard you. Reliability when you make commitments, and graciousness in your communications go a long way toward encouraging faculty and other mentors to have confidence in you as a mature person to be enthusiastically recommended to graduate schools and fellowship foundations. Consider sending an appreciative follow-up email or note for a helpful reference or an insightful meeting with a professor. Remember, too, that when you ask for letters of reference, courtesy demands that you explicitly thank your recommenders after they have submitted letters on your behalf, and that you keep them informed about the status of your application(s).
Expand your knowledge of the world
Enrich your perspectives on people, places, and events. Entertain fresh viewpoints by participating in intercultural events, attending lectures, following the news, and reading broadly. Read one major daily paper (The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal). Check out weekly magazines like Harpers, The Economist, The New Yorker, all available at the library.
Conduct undergraduate research in your field
Whether you are working on an independent research project or as part of a team, as a researcher you are positioned to be an active contributor to knowledge in your field, rather than merely a recipient of knowledge. In the process of conducting research and writing about your ideas and findings, you will gain an understanding of your field and its methods far and above what you could gain by classroom experience alone.
Fellowship boards want to know that you not only have an interest, but that you are doing something about it. Intern, work, or volunteer to gain experience in your field. Use every summer productively. Start looking for such experiences now. The fellowship advisor is available to assist you in developing your application for internship opportunities.
Be, in your own way, a leader
Work to improve the world beyond the classroom. Give generously of your time to support public service or volunteer programs dedicated to addressing social problems or needs about which you care most. Think about what you can do beyond "lending a hand," and then dedicate yourself to doing it. If a service or program or does not yet exist to address a need you see, consider developing one that will. Seek out professors and other mentors to help you think through how to implement your goals. Convince likeminded folks to help. As needed, apply for internal or external funding.
Get involved in extracurricular activities that are meaningful to you
There are no formulaic "best" activities. What is important is how you think about these activities: what value you see in them.
Consider submitting essays for prizes, undergraduate conferences, and undergraduate journals
Faculty in your major are a good resource for these opportunities. Prior recognition by boards that vet other competitions can enhance your profile in the eyes of foundation selection committees. Note that working to improve your essays for submission will have salutary effects on your writing. The fellowship advisor is available to give you feedback on your essays in preparation for submission to journals and other venues.
Consider competing for smaller scholarships
Benefits are much like those for submission to prizes, conferences, and journals.
Work on your communication skills
Many fellowships require interviews in addition to essays. Take courses in the liberal arts to develop your oral and written communication skills and to learn how to construct effective arguments. The skills you gain will help you develop strong fellowship essays-and, if your fellowship application process requires an interview, will help equip you to speak effectively about your ideas.
Reflect upon your credentials and goals
Take time to reflect upon what it is that most speaks to you and most nourishes you in your various activities and pursuits. Doing so will help you clarify your direction in life, and help reveal what steps you should follow to reach your goals. It will also help you determine which scholarships, fellowships, internships, or research opportunities best fit your situation. The fellowship advisor is a prime resource for you: meet with her to develop new ways of thinking about the significance of your activities, goals, and priorities.
Letters of Recommendation
Strong letters of recommendation greatly influence who will become a fellowship finalist or be admitted to the best graduate schools.
Develop relationships that will lead to strong letters
The best letters of recommendation are an outgrowth of longstanding relationships you have developed with faculty members or other mentors. You will want your letters to speak not only to your academic and other public accomplishments, but also to your character and to your development over an extended period of time. The best letters legitimate and round out the picture you provide of yourself-and your recommenders will only be positioned to write such letters if they have had more than superficial exposure to you. One way to get to know faculty and other mentors is to approach them as advisors. Discuss your larger interests and goals. Ask for their advice about potential projects, reading, courses of study, graduate programs. These conversations will be invaluable in themselves, and they will allow you to judge who are likely to be your most enthusiastic recommenders. These meetings will also allow those who write for you to write more informed and more personally engaged letters. Invest in your future by getting to know faculty and other mentors: help them to see your best qualities, your strengths, growth, and interests.
Before you ask, look at the big picture
Before you approach anyone for a letter of reference, identify the number of recommenders that you will need for each application. Use the application material to help you choose the best letter writers. Consider what aspects of your background you will want each recommendation to comment on to support your application to a particular program or foundation. Seek a mix of letter writers, each of whom will play a different role in rounding out a portrait of your candidacy. Collectively, your letters should present a balanced picture of you. It is helpful to letter writers if you tell them you hope they will comment on you from a certain angle in their letter.
Choose recommenders you know well
Recommenders (even famous ones) who are only glancingly familiar with you and your work will, at best, write generic recommendations that will not help your cause. Ask faculty who know you well and who will be able to discuss in detail what distinguishes you. Normally, these are faculty who worked with you in a small group setting, on a specific project for an extended period of time.
When to ask
Ask well in advance of the deadline. If at all possible, you should ask the writer for a letter of recommendation at least two months before the deadline. Three weeks before the deadline should be considered the minimum advance notice.
Where to ask
Avoid asking a potential recommender for a letter after class, in the hallway, or via email. Instead, make an appointment to discuss what you are applying for and the kind of help you need.
Ask directly, tactfully
Ask: "Do you feel you know me (or my academic record, my leadership qualities) well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for . . . ?" Most faculty will be more than happy to write enthusiastic recommendations on your behalf, but you want to give them the opportunity to decline gracefully.
Trust your intuition
If a potential recommender seems reluctant, seek someone else. The person may be inappropriate, too busy, or may not know you well enough to write a good letter. A lukewarm recommendation can only hurt your candidacy.
Allow the recommendation to be confidential
On an application form for a scholarship or graduate school, you will be asked if you wish to waive your right to access your letters of reference. Do so. The letter writer will likely be more comfortable and probably more forthright, and the selection committee will respect this.
What to give your recommenders
It is essential to give the letter writer all materials that will help her or him write a specific and detailed letter. These include:
- Background materials
- Relevant descriptions of the program or fellowship to which you are applying-including a synopsis of selection criteria and a link to the fellowship's or program's website
- Any instructions provided by the program or foundation for recommenders
- A current resume or curriculum vitae (academic resume) [link to document]-or an informative description of your activities and honors, research experience, community service, conference papers/presentations, creative or leadership experiences
- Your transcript (unofficial is fine)
- Past papers or exams are especially helpful
- A draft of your personal statement
- A draft of your project proposal, if applicable
- A brief statement of anything you would like the recommender to be aware of-including, if you haven't addressed it elsewhere, your career plans, foreign travel experience, non-academic interests, or extenuating circumstances (family or other responsibilities, etc.) for less than stellar grades
- Reminders about the work you have done for this professor that highlight what makes you a strong candidate.
- Forms, mailing instructions and supplies
For each recommendation letter, provide:
- An exact deadline for the letter's completion. Be sure to distinguish between a "postmark" and a "received by" due date. Remember that when a fellowship requires an "institutional nomination," [link to definition] or requires that your application materials be forwarded by your academic institution, Pacific's internal deadline for receipt of materials will be before the foundation's deadline.
- A recommendation form with your identifying information filled in, and signed by you. You must also indicate whether the recommendation letter will be non-confidential (you will have access to it), or confidential (you will not have access to it). Waiving your right to view the recommendation is strongly advised, as selection committees usually do not take non-restricted letters seriously.
- As a professional courtesy (and to ensure that you, rather than your reference, are in charge of getting the address correct), give the writer a stamped, addressed envelope in which to mail the letter.
If you are asking for more than one letter-for graduate schools or multiple fellowship applications, provide:
- Arecommendation form or coversheet (filled out and signed by you, the applicant) for each graduate school or fellowship application
- A stamped, addressed envelope for each graduate school or fellowship application
- A list with the following information:
Date recommendation must be received or postmarked
To whom each letter should be addressed (individual or committee, relevant titles, mailing address)
Whether recommendation should be mailed directly to the graduate school or funding agency (as in the case of the Rhodes, NSF, or Soros), sent to the campus advisor for inclusion in the application packet (for fellowships such as the Marshall, Goldwater, Truman or Udall, or for medical schools or other similar graduate applications), or submitted online.
Invite feedback on your materials
Use your recommenders' suggestions to improve your application.
Follow up before the recommendation deadline
It may be helpful to ask your recommenders whether they would like you to remind them of the deadline in a week or so. In any event, gently remind the letter writer of the due date until you know that the recommendation has been sent.
Be communicative about your candidacy
Express sincere appreciation to your letter writers (handwritten notes are an appealing way to convey your thanks), and keep them informed of your progress. Regardless of whether or not you receive the fellowship, are admitted to your top graduate school, or develop new plans for your life, maintaining follow-up contact with your references is both courteous and professionally smart.
This advice has been adapted from a handout provided by Jane Curlin, Willamette University, as well as from Joe Schall's article, "References Available Upon Request," Graduating Engineer and Computer Careers Online. This site is worth visiting as Schall has some interesting stories to tell about his experience as a recommendation letter writer.
Successful applicants spend a minimum of three months, and an average of six months to a year developing applications that are nationally competitive. Please make an appointment with the Fellowships Advisor to develop a timeline appropriate to your application.
The Fellowship Advisor is available to assist you in:
- Thinking through your graduate school plans
- Strengthening your candidacy for fellowships
- Developing strong applications for undergraduate research opportunities, internships, national scholarships and fellowships
The Fellowship Advisor can also give you feedback on essays you submit to undergraduate journals, and writing samples you submit. To make an appointment, contact:
Susan Weiner, Ph.D.
Raymond Lodge, 2nd floor