Advice for Fulbright Applicants

So you’ve managed to find this page outlining my (admittedly humble) advice for Fulbright applicants. Chances are, you’ve stumbled across my blog in a desperate, panic-induced attempt to solve the mystery of Fulbright acceptances. You may be bleary-eyed, your fingertips numb from all the keyboard surfing you’ve been doing for the last six hours, and yet nearly every Fulbright blog you’ve come across makes you want to tear out your hair and scream “No one cares how you haggled with the cabbie!”.

Don’t worry – I’ve been there.

In an attempt to calm your nerves and give you some nutritious food for thought on your application, I am presenting here a few of the things that I think improved my application and may have contributed to my success. Disclaimer: I can’t promise that if you follow my advice you are guaranteed a Fulbright. Far from it. But I can tell you the tidbits that I learned over the course of my application process that weren’t listed on the Fulbright website.

The first piece of advice is: everything hinges on your project. Seriously. Everything.

One of the best things about the Fulbright program is that you can propose to do literally anything; the only limiting factor is your imagination. Unfortunately, one of the worst things about the Fulbright program is that you can propose to do literally anything, and that means that it is difficult to figure out what is a good project versus a crappy project. So your project must be original, important, timely, well-designed and relevant for the country you are applying to. Simple, no?

The right project will make everything – including most of the rest of the advice below – fall into place. It will make good use of your qualifications and previous experience; it will be geographically specific enough to warrant your travel to a foreign country, but not so specific that it isn’t relevant to the U.S. government; it will be valuable for your personal and professional growth; it will be culturally sensitive and promote cross-cultural mutual understanding; and it will be feasible and can be completed in just nine months.

A word of warning: feasibility is critical. Sure, it would be cool to dart and collar a dozen lions and track their movements around livestock farms in the Shorobe District and interview local livestock owners to see how the local lions make them feel. But do I really believe I could do all that and gather enough data to make a persuasive argument on my results in just nine months? Nope. The Fulbright Program is not staffed by idiots. They have seen Fulbright applications and tracked the success of Fulbrighters for years. They know what will and won’t work – so don’t assume you can sneak a grandiose project by them. Talk to experts in your field, talk to your affiliate, talk to your professors and ask them what they think. Then listen to and heed their advice and refine your project, even if it would be cool to cuddle with a lion.

An important facet of the project is the affiliate institution. Even if you aren’t required to have one when you submit your application, I strongly urge you to find an affiliate before submitting your application. More than providing in-country support, your affiliate can help you shape your project, provide detailed background information on other factors that may influence your field and give your application weight by adding their voice in urging the Fulbright Program to support your research or work. I looked at my affiliation letter as a de facto fourth recommendation letter; BPCT included supporting evidence on the importance of my project, the value of the research for Botswana, their ability to provide logistical and intellectual support for me, and their impressions of me and my ability to complete the project. This was especially valuable given that I applied at-large and didn’t have the extra evaluation of a Fulbright Program Advisor.

Don’t be afraid to approach an organization before you have a concrete project. I contacted BPCT and indicated that I was interested in working with them, provided a copy of my resume and offered a few ideas about potential projects. BPCT came back with a different set of ideas, one of which pertained to compensation, and we agreed on that one because of its value and feasibility. I think in some ways, having your affiliate help you design your research project is really important because it ensures that your proposal is relevant and timely for the country (your affiliate will know best what is going on in your field in their country) and helps create a relationship between you and your host before you even arrive. Be courteous, responsive, knowledgeable and flexible and it will work out.

Following closely behind the project in terms of importance is you. My second piece of advice: convince the Fulbright Program that you are the only person in the entire world who can complete this project. If you are a market economist who specializes in Asian markets, don’t propose a sculpting project in Italy…unless you are looking for a career change and have the skills to back it up. Take the time for critical self-assessment; ask yourself, “Self, what can I demonstrate that I am capable of?”. Demonstrate is the key word here – what knowledge can you show you have? What skills can you prove you’ve accumulated through the course of your experiences? Odds are high that you aren’t going to propose a project that is wildly outside your abilities, but the key is convincing the Fulbright Program of that. They don’t know you from Adam, and all they have to go on is what you tell them in your application. Anyone can claim to be able to do anything; the key is proving it.

Above and beyond the requisite skills and knowledge, you must show the Fulbright Program that you are the only person in the world with your unique combination of education and experience. In some ways, no two people are ever exactly alike. There will never be another person with exactly the same life history as you, the same education, the same experiences, the same strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, chances are there have been and are other people who are interested in the same research project you are proposing. The intersection of those two things is what is important: your application should simultaneously convince the Fulbright Program that this is an important issue of international concern that the government should be involved in, and that the tens or hundreds of other interested researchers are not as qualified as you are perform the study.

That sounds daunting, mostly because I increased the scale for the sake of my argument. In reality, what you have to do is convince the Fulbright Program that you are more qualified to do your project than Joe Smith is to do his project on sculpture in Italy, because chances are slim that two people are going to apply for the same project at the same time in the same country. Don’t be intimidated by this part – take a deep breath, honestly assess your demonstrable skills and knowledge, and use those to guide your project development. For me, the major connections were: previous experience in Southern Africa, previous experience in carnivore conservation, and previous experience conducting multi-lingual interviews about attitudes toward conservation. Although my project focuses on compensation, I hadn’t focused on that particularly before applying for Fulbright.

Nearly as important as the match between you and your project is the match between your country and your project. You have to show the Fulbright Program why this particular country is the only one in the world where your research or project can be completed. A project investigating attitudes among livestock owners toward lions is too broad; that could be done in any number of African countries. But a project that examines the impact of flooding in the Okavango Delta on livestock depredation rates by lions and leopards is specific to Botswana.

Do your homework on Fulbright in your country. What languages are required by your country? What degree level do they prefer (Botswana prefers advanced degree candidates, and some other Sub-Saharan Africa countries don’t take non-graduate students)? There is a goldmine of information available in the archive of former Fulbrighters, you just have to make use of it. For instance, I was able to figure out that Botswana generally hosted between 3 and 5 Fulbrighters per year. I also found that of those 3 to 5, generally 1 had an environmentally focused project and the others were mostly public health related. If you can, differentiate yourself by doing something unique; one past Fulbrighter was a debate champion who worked at an international debate competition in Gaborone and researched the impact of debate clubs on higher education in Botswana. Applying to a common field (i.e. public health in Botswana) can be both good and bad; good because you know that it is an issue of concern for that country, bad because chances are your competition will be stiffer than for outliers (see below for a guesstimate description of the selection process). In that case, make sure your application stands out some other way, and that you have thought carefully and critically about this field in your country; is there some facet of your field in your country that is particularly pertinent to your project? Emphasize that. I made no secret of the fact that Botswana was (at the time) the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa running a national, government-funded compensation program.

I recommend that you think of your application as one entire entity rather than separate pieces in a packet. When I started writing my Statement of Grant Purpose (SoGP) and Personal Statement (PS), I found that I was writing the same things in both documents, which was redundant and frankly a waste of space. So I wrote out a list of all the salient points I wanted to cover in my entire application – pertinent previous experiences in Southern Africa and elsewhere; how these impacted my thinking about the research I would be doing; why this research is important, timely and valuable; why the results of my research would be relevant here in the U.S.; how I would ensure cross-cultural understanding in my work; and what the project would mean to me personally and professionally – and then decided which application segment each item belonged to. A list of my previous experiences? The application form itself. The impact of those experiences on me as a researcher and conservationist? Personal Statement. And so on.

The fact is your application is reviewed as a single entity, so you should write it that way.

I also implore you to remember to whom you are applying, i.e. the U.S. Government. Your application needs to demonstrate why the USG should care about this issue and invest in it via your Fulbright grant. Do I think that the government really cares about disgruntled livestock owners in rural Botswana? Hell no. But I do think the government cares that in 2009, the USDA registered wolf attacks on livestock resulting in $20.5 million in damages. So I included facts about livestock depredation by grey wolves in the U.S., a species that is protected by the Endangered Species Act and a recognized thorny issue in Western politics. I didn’t promise to come back to the U.S. and run a government compensation program in Colorado, Utah and Montana. But I did emphasize that my research findings would be published in scientific journals targeting conservationists and that my recommendations could be implemented by U.S. organizations and state governments that are currently running programs (i.e. spending money).

The final piece of advice I have is: the Fulbright selection process is, unfortunately, not an exact science. Even if you have a fantastic project, with the perfect host and a background that seems designed for your proposal, you still may not get the grant. Your selection may not have anything to do with you…as odd as that sounds.

I’m not going to write much about the first round of selections, which occurs at the end of January. To be honest, I’m not sure how that selection is made. My best guess is that it is an evaluation of you as a potential Fulbrighter. I don’t know if that means they have thresholds or if it’s just subjective. In any case, if you make it past the first round of eliminations you deserve to be congratulated.

Having scoured the interwebs, I have been able to piece together an approximation of the process for the second round. Keep in mind, this is from various sources that sometimes conflicted; in those cases, I picked the version that I thought sounded more likely or made more sense, which I know is not confidence-inspiring. And knowing how the process works and getting through it are two separate things.

After the finalists are selected, their applications are simultaneously sent to two places: the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FSB) and the in-country selection committee (either a Fulbright Commission or U.S. Embassy). The FSB meets in groups of 2-3 members at a time and they review applications by country. Your application is only reviewed once, so not every member of the FSB will see your application. From what I gather, the FSB either says “yes” or “no.” If you get a no from the FSB, it’s the end of the line; they have veto power over the in-country committee. The Commission or Embassy likewise reviews the applications, and recommend “yes” or “no” for each applicant, and I think they also rank the applications. Your selection by the in-country group is impacted by factors out of your control – are there 18 people applying in your field or just 3? Did someone else do the exact same project last year? (If you did your homework then the answer should be no). Is this an issue of concern for the government of your country? Then the results are sent back to IIE and the results from the FSB and in-country reviews are reconciled.

At this point, the program managers at IIE have an idea how many grants they will be giving. So let’s say that there are 7 finalists to Botswana, and those ranking #3 and #7 got “no’s” from the FSB. The IIE program manager emails the State Department for final approval on the number of grants to be awarded – let’s say they hear back it should be 3 grants. Then the applicants ranked #1, #2 and #4 would receive grants. Applicants #5 and #6 are alternates, and #3 and #7 were rejected. If #1, #2 or #4 turns down their grant or more money becomes available, then #5 and #6 may be offered grants.

Now, the process I just described really only applies to countries with their own quota for grants; for regional programs, like Sub-Saharan Africa, there is no magic number and it is even more subjective than outlined above because none of the countries have a designated number of grants. In regional programs, IIE has to wait until all the decisions on all applications for all countries are received from both the FSB and in-country committees before emailing the State Department. And there is no knowing how long that will take. I heard in mid-April, but two years before they heard at the beginning of March.

What does any of this mean? Only that the selection process is long, complicated, and non-linear and that you shouldn’t get discouraged if it takes forever to hear back on your application. Please, whatever you do, don’t be that person who calls your IIE program manager twice a week begging for details on when you might hear. If you must, email or call them once but then button up! The more time you spend bugging them for results the less time they have to bug the FSB and/or in-country committees for results.

A couple of other notes:

  • Alumni vs. at-large? If you, like me, have already graduated with your BA/BS and are trying to decide whether to apply as an alumni or at-large, I would recommend that you think critically about your relationship with the Fulbright Program Advisor on your campus. You are less available to them (and vice versa) than a graduating senior is, so you may get less attention because you aren’t in their face all the time. Is the FPA a person who knows you well enough to give really valuable feedback? Is the FPA a person you trust to give writing critiques that substantially improve your SoGP and PS? Even more importantly, do you have the time to get your entire application in by the earlier on-campus deadlines? In my case, I knew that conservation wasn’t a field that the FPAs would know much about at Villanova, given that it isn’t offered as a major, concentration or minor. I had other reviewers who DID know the field of conservation with whom I could confer on my project. And I wanted to have the extra time to keep working on my application. So I applied at-large.
  • Formatting? As a scientist, I am familiar and comfortable with grant proposals and research papers that follow a linear introduction-research question-methods-results-conclusion formula. So that’s how I wrote my Fulbright SoGP, with section headers in bold and everything. It wasn’t all in narrative paragraph form, although there’s nothing wrong with that format. Ultimately, it’s up to you and what you are comfortable with. My project is scientific in nature, so I used the time-tested outline of scientific writing. But one Fulbrighter to Tanzania, who photographed wildlife for her project, wrote a narrative SoGP. So go with your gut on this one.
  • Other resources? Where else is a desperate Fulbright applicant to go? The Fulbright website does contain a lot of good information, when you can find what you’re looking for. I recommend the podcasts and YouTube videos as these typically include frank discussions of the process by program managers and former Fulbrighters. I listened to every podcast I could get my hands on, especially the “My Fulbright Life” series which features current and former Fulbrighters. The infrequent posts on the Fulbright U.S. Student Program Blog are also handy; most of the posts include pointers and tips for applicants. Try to find successful applications from former Fulbrighters. I am not going to be posting mine, but Duke’s Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows used to have a bunch of examples posted. It looks like the website is temporarily down so check back there to see if they re-post them. If you can’t find any examples online, talk to former Fulbrighters. Google them, look them up on LinkedIn, find out where they are and what they are doing now, and interview them. These are the single greatest resource for applicants; they know what you’re going through because they’ve been through it. I was able to talk with two former Fulbrighters, and from those discussions I: a) picked between two potential affiliates and countries I was contemplating applying with/to; b) found the best resources for language training in Setswana; c) learned more about the organization with whom I was applying and the work that they do; and d) received a bunch of additional sources for my research.

If you’ve made it this far, congrats and thanks for sticking with me. I realize now, at the end of writing this, that I had a lot more to say on the topic of Fulbright applications than I thought. I hope you find this helpful and that it gives you something to think about while you work on your SoGP and PS. Good luck!       – kelly

9 responses to “Advice for Fulbright Applicants

  1. A

    I just want to say thank you for providing some details about how the committee actually makes decisions! I’ve been looking everywhere with little success finding info. I know it’s still pretty mysterious, but I appreciate the insight!

  2. Neha

    Thank you so much for this insight- I’ve been looking for this sort of advice for quite some time now!! Really gave me a piece of mind, thank you, lifesaver!!!

  3. This is very informative! Thank you!

  4. Wow! This was well written, entertaining, and a tremendously helpful resource – you are the spotted owl of development blogs! Thank you for taking the time to do this! I will be passing along to my networks.

  5. Regina

    Thanks, Kelly. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into providing this information. This is very helpful (and has stopped me from even mulling over the idea of emailing the program contact). I learned in November that I made it past the first level, so the spring will be spent in limbo but it’s nice to have some insight into what is happening.

  6. Robert

    Very thoughtful, Kelly. Thank you. For many of us, this process is daunting, foreign and unexplained. Your perspective is vastly both helpful and comforting.


  7. Thank you for writing this Kelly. I have started seriously considering applying for the Fulbright and this post has given me a lot to think about the application process.

    • Hey Kelly, after thinking about the application for a while I am pretty sure I know what I want my project to be. However, I can’t find the grant winners for the country I am applying to (India) from past years. Do you know where that would be on the Fulbright? Any help would be super appreciated 🙂 Thanks!

      • Hi Julie, thanks for your question! I’ve written you an email to explain everything, because there’s more to say than I can fit in a comment 🙂

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