Prepared by Paula Warrick, Senior Director, Office of Merit Awards

With contributions from Professors Michelle Egan, Max Paul Friedman, Vidya Samarasinghe, and Richard Sha  


1) Does your central research question shine? 

Faculty members who have served as reviewers for nationally competitive fellowships agree that a compelling research question is the most important element of the application. In the best proposals, the questions asked are so engaging that the reviewer cannot stop reading.  On the other hand, if the central question is weak or unclear, the rest of the application may be given short shrift by readers. Due to the volume of material they have to evaluate, they will be pressed for time.


Panelists will ask themselves:


–Does your question convey a sense of urgency?


–Does it demonstrate a knowledge of/an engagement with the key thinkers in your field?


–Is there an intellectual “spark” or twist in your thinking that captivates the reader?


–Is your question clear and written in a lively manner?  AU faculty who have reviewed fellowship applications stress that you should avoid jargon, especially if the competition is interdisciplinary.


–Does the framing of the question take into account the needs of the audience (interdisciplinary panel as versus a discipline-specific group of readers)?


Potential pitfalls:  It is no easy task to strike a balance between saying something substantial and meeting the needs of your audience, which may consist of scholars from different fields.  You will need to assess what you should explain and what can be left unsaid. Be aware, however, that sometimes you need to provide basic information about the subject of your research.


Additionally, to develop a good question it helps to have an eye for what is new.  Many applications are deemed “bad” because they take part in stale debates. Others are unsuccessful because the author is working in an area where a good deal of scholarship is emerging but the applicant does not clearly identify his or her contribution.  The potential pitfall here is that what is new or relevant to your discipline might not be appreciated by reviewers from other fields.  If your application will be read by an interdisciplinary committee, therefore, it is important to seek advice from colleagues outside of your department.


2) Is the fellowship program a good “fit” for you, and vice-versa?


You should keep the fellowship program’s objectives in mind as you frame your scholarly agenda.  You may need to do some analysis to understand the traits of an ideal candidate. Faculty members who have served as reviewers and who have written successful proposals recommend that you:


–Read the sponsor’s Website analytically. What buzzwords appear in the mission statement? How is the application form designed, i.e., what qualifications or criteria appear to be emphasized?


–Find out what other information is available on the Internet. Some programs, such as Fulbright, have developed online advice for prospective applicants on the elements of a successful application. In addition, successful applicants sometimes post their winning essays on the Internet.


–Make sure that readers can clearly and easily determine whether and to what extent you match the fellowship’s criteria.  Keep in mind that reviewers are pressed for time. They may read your application with a checklist of the selection criteria in hand, and they do not want to have to hunt for this information.  Think about where you place information in your proposal in order to convey your qualifications. And note that your CV is a critical element of the application. It can be tailored to the fellowship’s specific selection criteria.


–Finally, investigate the competition statistics before you apply. If the competition statistics are not posted on the sponsor’s Website, you usually can learn them from the program officer. Be on the lookout for awards that have limited applicant pools. On the other hand, for the most competitive opportunities, you may want to learn more about the elements of a successful candidacy before you commit to applying. For highly selective fellowships, only 3-5% of candidates in the national applicant pool receive awards.


3) Have you assessed the time management aspects of the application process?


To apply successfully, you need to carve out time to develop your application. Resist the temptation to see writing for fellowships as an optional activity.  Before you begin to draft your proposal, there will be an up-front investment of time. Faculty reviewers recommend that you:


–Make a master list of awards you intend to apply for over the next several years and note their deadlines. These deadlines may fall at different times of the year, and owing to variations in your work load, each due date will present its own set of time management challenges.


–Apply judiciously. One colleague recommends applying for no more than two awards in a single year, due to the time commitment involved.


–Make a master list of steps that have to be accomplished to apply for the fellowships that you will pursue in the near future. You will need to allow time for learning about the fellowship–what are the criteria and how are the applications read? Other potential steps include securing recommendations and letters of affiliation, developing a budget, and sharing drafts of your proposal with colleagues.


4) Do you have a network of support?


If possible, gather advice from former recipients of the fellowships that interest you. American University has a number of successful applicants for various awards. In addition, fellowships Websites often publicize their recipients, and many awardees teach at area universities.


5) Are you prepared to make the most of rejection?


Forge ahead if your proposal is not accepted; do not assume that your project is not viable. Instead:


–Obtain readers’ comments if possible.


–Take your own steps to determine what to do better the next time. Distance from submitting your application can help; make the time to take a second look at your materials.


–Keep in mind that serendipity plays a role in selection processes – both in favorable and in unfavorable decisions. In some cases, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, reviewers can serve only once. If you reapply, you likely will have a new audience, who will approach your project with fresh eyes.


“Bonus” Tips from AU Faculty Reviewers/Successful Fellowship Applicants


Analyze the writing of the thinkers you admire most. Also examine publications in top journals in your field. How do the authors make their case for the significance of their work?


Be intentional about the timing of your applications. Figure out how to leverage other opportunities you have for academic leave, if any, in order to build a successful candidacy. Apply for funding in a year when you have a sabbatical so as to convey to readers that you have a “match.”


If the chance arises, sit on fellowship review committees (even for student fellowships).


Read the vitae of scholars who are a few years ahead of you; see what awards they have received.


Always ask for feedback on your proposal, even if you win!


Initiate contacts with scholars in the Washington area who share your intellectual interests. Coming together to attend a talk or discuss a work of scholarship can lead to fruitful discussions about your own research agenda.


Finally, find ways to convey in your application that you have the ability to complete projects. Your CV and application form can play an important role in conveying this message.  They should make clear what projects you have completed, where they have been published, etc.