Top Tips for Capturing That Career-shaping Fellowship

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Dickinson alumni, fellowship advisor share success stories and tips

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Every year, students around the world pursue life-shaping educational and research opportunities with funding provided through prestigious and competitive fellowships. So how can you do the same? We spoke with a fellowship advisor and three successful professionals in vastly different fields about their own experiences with the fellowship application process.

  • Bernadette McFadden Stout ’07, a consultant and partner at McKinsey & Co.’s D.C. office, majored in policy management  and was awarded the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, funding graduate study in Ireland, and a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA). She accepted the Mitchell fellowship and researched homelessness at Trinity College, in Dubllin.
  • Janel Pineda ’18, a Posse scholar who majored in English and Latin American studies, earned a Gilman Scholarship, funding undergrad study abroad; and a Marshall Scholarship, funding graduate study in the U.S. She used those experiences to launch a career as a poet and literary critic, pursuing creative-writing education.
  • Olivia Wilkins ’15, a former double major in chemistry and math, is a recipient of a Goldwater Scholarship for undergraduate study, a Fulbright Award, scholarships through the National Science Foundation and NASA. She’s recently completed her Ph.D. and has started a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA, researching astrophysics in the lab and performing observational research.
  • Amity Fox, Dickinson's dean and director of internships and fellowships, is the advisor who brought these three Dickinson alumnae together to share advice with students interested in fellowships.

Here are their tips.

Part I: Get inspired!

Tap into your passions.

“I believe that you can make almost any [field of study] work, as long as you are passionate about it.” —Pineda

“If you’re passionate about the subject, your authenticity shines through in the applications." —Fox

Research, research, research!

Educate yourself about available opportunities, including the fellowships that peers have been awarded, and reach out to your professors and Advising, Internships & Career Center staff members to learn more.

“Let your professors know you’re interested in these opportunities. They know about you and your work, and they know about the opportunities that are out there.” —Stout

“Research the kinds of fellowships and opportunities that are out there—you’ll be surprised what you might find. Doing that work earlier than you expect you will need to can be helpful, because those opportunities will be in the back of your mind as you figure out the kinds of things you want to do.” —Pineda

“Getting ideas of what is available out there and just being aware of the names of the program is a good first step.” —Wilkins

Get out of your own way.

“Don’t be intimidated by the process. Talk to your professors and the staff at the Career Center. If you have a big of a concern that your grades might not be good enough, or you don’t have a good enough story, don’t take yourself out of consideration. Let the process tell you that.” —Stout   

Part II: Prepare.

Cultivate relationships.

“Get to know your professors and advisor. Your professors and advisor will be your biggest cheerleaders. They will be the first to answer your emails and provide those letters of recommendations. “ —Fox

“When I was studying abroad at Oxford, I ended up gravitating toward American grad students who were Marshall and Rhoades scholars. There was something about knowing people who’d won fellowships that illuminated the possibility for me.” —Pineda   

Keep your grades up, and consider additional ways to shine.

You probably already know that your grades are an important consideration for fellowship awardees. But they’re also looking for other indicators of who you are, what matters to you, and what you can do. Do not discount your volunteer work and extracurricular activities, and the ways that these experiences can help illustrate why you are an exceptional choice for this opportunity.

“It’s better to be involved in meaningful ways in a few things that you are passionate about than being involved in everything.” —Pineda

Part III:  Put the Pieces Together!

Hone your narrative.

You’ve read the application, and you know the kinds of things that the fellowship committee is looking for in a successful applicant. Now’s the time to craft a story that tells the application reviewers why you are right for the job. Draft out of a few ideas, and run it past trusted mentors and friends.

“Get feedback from as many people as you can. Different people will ask different questions, and that will help you think it through.” —Stout

“For me, I need to talk about things out loud to figure out what I’m thinking. Most of my process was talking to different people about why I was pursuing that opportunity. Explaining things multiple times helped me get closer and closer to knowing what I wanted to do, and closer to crafting a narrative that worked for me.” —Pineda

Start earlier than you think you need to.

You will be asked for letters of recommendations and transcripts. You may write multiple drafts of an essay, a personal statement and/or a research statement and respond to writing prompts. Some fellowships require institutional endorsements—recommendations from your college or university (at Dickinson, the deadlines for these recommendations are at the start of August and September). You’ll need time to get all of these things together and get feedback, so consider starting the process three to six months in advance of the deadline.

“As soon as I think I’m interested in an opportunity, even if I might not apply for a couple of years, I copy the information into a Word doc and make a check list so I won’t ever be in a position where it’s two weeks before deadline and I'm worried about missing it.” —Wilkins

Think carefully about letters of recommendation (and give professors time to write them).

Read the application carefully and think about the experiences you’ve had that relate to what they’re looking for. Now identify persons who can write letters of recommendation for you that address those qualities and experiences.  Consider different themes for each letter. And be sure to let your letter-writers know if there’s something in particular you’d like them to mention.

“I give them bullet points, listing things I would like them to include. They don’t need to include it, of course, but it can be helpful to them, especially since they may not know what your other recommenders will write.” —Wilkins

Don’t forget your campus resources!

“I used Dickinson’s Writing Center and Career Center extensively throughout the application process.” —Stout

“We love to work with students on fellowships—whether it’s talking through opportunities and narratives, or polishing the application or doing practice interviews.” —Fox

Part III. Practice interviewing.

Some fellowship interviews are daylong; others may be 15 minutes, requiring you to make your case quickly. Your campus fellowship experts can help you prepare to think through unexpected events, like interruptions or abrupt topic changes, and can help you become comfortable in what is objectively an uncomfortable situation.

“For my Mitchell Scholarship interview, one of the interviewers in a group interview was Samantha Power, now the U.N. ambassador. I felt prepared to meet [with high-profile interviewers] and answer questions because of the work that the Career Center did with me on campus.” —Stout   

Part IV: Embrace the process …

… no matter the outcome.

“The process helps you clarify your goals, and it prepares you for grad school applications, because you’ve already done the work—you’ve gotten the recommendation letters, you’ve written the essays. Apply, apply, apply!” —Stout

“It surprised me how much I learned about myself throughout the application process. I had the time to reflect on where I come from, where I’m going and what my goals are. That’s something you don’t always have an opportunity to do.” —Wilkins

The process is so illuminating, because it forces you to dream on paper and convince someone else to fund those dreams. That allowed me to get closer and closer to understanding what I actually wanted to do.” —Pineda

And if you don’t get selected, try, try again.

“Being rejected from two of the four fellowships I applied to was hard, because as a high achiever academically, I hadn’t been rejected from many things at that point. But it’s a valuable experience. If you don’t get it the first time, do something else for the next year and apply again.” —Stout

“I applied twice to the Goldwater Scholarship, my sophomore and junior years. After the first time, my professor got a phone call from someone on the committee who said I didn’t have as much advanced coursework as the other applicants. It’s important to use that feedback and keep trying.” —Wilkins

“When I found out I was an alternate for the Fulbright ETA, senior year, I was devastated. I ended up spending that summer in El Salvador, doing really meaningful work around poetry and organizing. That work became the basis for the fellowship I later applied to and got.” —Pineda


Published May 12, 2022