Diana Jue-Rajasingh

Tips for Applying for a Fulbright Student Research Fellowship

Posted in Fulbright by Diana on September 11, 2013

Fulbright application season is in full swing, which I know because of the emails and phone calls I get about how to apply, how to write a stellar research proposal/personal statement, how to secure and choose a host affiliation, how to ace the interview, and so on. I’ve even written a recommendation letter for an applicant. Since I Googled for tips on how to apply for a Fulbright two years ago, I thought I’d share some hard-earned wisdom and advice.

For those who are interested but don’t know, the Fulbright application process when applying through your university looks like this:

  1. Talk with your campus representative about applying.
  2. Secure a host affiliation in your host country.
  3. Find three people to write you recommendation letters. These people should know you and/or your project well. Preferably both.
  4. Write two essays: your research proposal and your personal statement.
  5. Fill out the application.
  6. Submit your essays and application for your university’s internal review.
  7. Interview with your university’s selection committee. At my university, the committee consisted of people who have won prestigious grants before (e.g. Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Fulbright). Interviews are more helpful than scary, even though your interviewers are evaluating you. Their scores will contribute to an internal ranking within your university, which is passed on to the national selection committee. The higher the internal ranking, the better.
  8. Revise your essays using feedback.
  9. Submit online for the national round.
  10. Hear back about the national round in December/January. You either make the cut or you don’t. It’s a form email.
  11. Troll GradCafe for months. Lots of people are waiting for host country decisions along with you.
  12. Hear back from your host country. The decisions are made country by country, so you might have to wait awhile — like April or May. You’re either accepted, rejected, or wait listed.
  13. If you do get the fellowship, congrats! If you don’t, then no problem — apply again next year. There are no penalties for repeat applicants. If you’re wait listed, go through the grueling process of deciding whether to hold out for the Fulbright or to carry on with other plans. I have known of people who have gotten off the wait list, so I’d advise to not give up hope.

Cool? Aiyte, good. Now here are some tips that I can recommend from my application experience:

1. Do not insult the host country. After talking with a number of American Fulbright applications and reading their applications, I was struck by how many people basically insulted their host countries — especially if the country was an emerging economy and was struggling with socioeconomic/political issues. Applicants want to study where the country has failed in a certain area (e.g. health, sanitation, poverty) and want to apply their knowledge to “fix” these issues. Even if unintended, these applicants come off as having a “savior complex.” And that’s pretty unattractive to the host country.

If your’e studying a relatively touchy topic (like, ahem, public administration), then one strategy could be to identify “stellar examples” of initiatives/people/organizations that have made a difference in the host country. Perhaps you could study these and discuss how to scale them up. Bring your own background, knowledge, and skills to the table, too.

2. Demonstrate that you will be a good cultural ambassador for the US. This helps you get past the US round. Something I realized after arriving in India for our Fulbright Orientation is that the US side cares more about the cultural exchange than the research. Most of our introductory sessions were about how to adapt to a foreign culture — what to do and not do in different situations, cultural norms with respect to gender differences, how to dress, how to stay safe, how not to offend, etc. Even though the application asks for a research proposal, the research is secondary. Honestly, there weren’t too many checks on my research throughout my time there. I almost think that the US Fulbright staff in India assumed that most of us wouldn’t be able to complete our research because of the difficult environment. I believe that, for the most part, this was true.

Therefore, in your essays, discuss how you’d be a great cultural ambassador. Write about your times abroad or times when you were exposed to and adapted to different cultures, whether internationally or in the US. Write about how you want to make friends and get involved with people outside of research. Your explorations and learnings should move you beyond your realm of studies.

3. Write your research proposal and personal statement as if they were a New York Times or New York Magazine article. This was the best piece of advice that I got. It was from a professor in my department who won a Fulbright to Vietnam back in the day. Your evaluators are not experts in your given research field, but they’re smart. Avoid the jargon but don’t treat them like dummies. Engage them fully. Definitely include your personal story — what motivated your interest in the topic, how your personal/academic career led up to this research project, and why your topic is important to study during the next year. I wrote my research proposal in the first person, asked a lot of seemingly simple questions, and began smack in the middle of a story. In a group of essays, an easy-to-read, entertaining essay stands out among the boring ones.

4. Do not freak out about the interviews. Instead, take full advantage of them. What’s unique about the Fulbright is that so much of the application process relies on your written submissions — your research proposal and your personal statement. However, in my experience at least, there were two interviews at the university level. What I found, though, was that my interviewers were more interested in helping me write a better application than picking my application apart. After all, more Fulbright wins for the university ups the university’s prestige. My interviewers asked smart questions of me, and I replied to the best of my ability. They wanted to see if I had what it took to carry out my research — in terms of my skills and my connections.

What’s super cool about the Fulbright application process is that you can take all of these comments from your interviewers and edit your essays before submitting your application to the US round online. I benefited greatly from the viewpoints and opinions of my interviewers. I recommend that you take advantage of them, too.

5. Do your due diligence on your host affiliation and talk about expectations. Some host affiliations are great. Some are not so great. But the definition of “great” greatly depends on the Fulbrighter. Some folks need hands-on guidance; others prefer to work solo and occasionally check in. I’ve seen relationships thrive and relationships die. Know who you are, and know what your host institution can provide. Most organizations are open to having Fulbrighters — it boosts their prestige, and they even get some money out of hosting them (I found this one out later).

Actually, more important than your host institution is your research adviser who is sitting at the host institution. Snoop him/her out if you can. You can read up on previous Fulbrighters’ research topics and host affiliations online, so get in contact with alums. We’re usually more than ready to help.

Well, that’s that. At least, these are the application tips that first come to mind. Good luck!

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  1. […] you are reading this and working on an application for a Fulbright, I highly recommend this to give you an idea of things you should be thinking about (and things you should have been […]


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