• Ivan Gonzalez-Soto

Telling Your Story: Tips on Writing Fellowship Applications

Updated: Apr 2

Last week, I was awarded a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship. I’m the third grad student in UC Merced’s sixteen-year history and the first humanities PhD student on campus to receive this prestigious award. Quite frankly, I’m still in disbelief.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship (as I was when I started grad school) consider this: each year, over two-thousand doctoral students apply for this fellowship from across the country and the foundation boasts a 5% acceptance rate. As a first-gen Latino student from California’s Imperial Valley, I’m thankful to have received this award. I’m especially thankful for the mentors, family, and friends who helped me get this far. And while I do have a long way to go to reach my dream of becoming a university professor, this fellowship will provide the time, funding, network, and opportunity to do the important work I’ve set out to do.

In this post, I’ll share tips on crafting your story for a strong fellowship or graduate school application.

In this post, I’ll share tips on crafting your story for a strong fellowship or graduate school application. It’s part of a series I’m writing for fellow first-generation college students in the humanities, and you can access that previous post here. I outlined sections below that I find important for most applications. Like most writing, this will take time and several drafts before something really starts to come together.

Schedule time into your weekly routine to write/work on applications: It took me two attempts before I landed a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship. The first time I applied, I received alternate status and an honorable mention. I’ll admit that was bittersweet. At the time, I felt really hopeful yet slightly defeated. However, I was fortunate to have had a strong support system to remind me the following: my worth is not defined by academic recognition. Please keep that in mind. Your worth is not determined by anonymous reviewers. What matters most is that you find value in your project. If you can do that then others will be better able to see that, too. That said, I'm glad I didn’t give-up and that I did my best to schedule “Fellowship Fridays” in which I set aside time each week to redraft and refine my fellowship application. My partner and I kept a similar “Fellowship Friday” schedule and that helped us hold each other accountable to our weekly writing routine. It is certainly easy to push fellowship applications on the back burner—especially when you're already balancing so much in grad school. However, the weeks of determination will add up and you’ll have a stronger application in the end because of the time you dedicated to the process.

Proofread Persistently: I don’t know how many drafts I went through on my predoctoral application. That’s good because my essays went through several iterations before they developed into something I felt confident about. And, I didn’t only work on my application during my allocated “Fellowship Friday” schedule. Sometimes, I'd gain inspiration in the evening or late at night on other days of the week—those moments helped me work towards my final version. In that process, I split sentences apart and combined others for clarity, I moved around entire paragraphs, and I cut as much as I possibly could before my thoughts really started to flow on paper. An important part in that process was a second pair of eyes. If possible, I highly recommend asking someone else to read your writing. This can start once you develop a strong first draft. If you’re able to find a friend/reader, be sure to ask them for honest thoughts and specific feedback. This will help in the long run because honest feedback will help you draft a stronger application. I do my best to avoid vague feedback when I read a peer’s paper and I can only hope that my reader will provide blunt comments that challenge me to expand and clarify my thoughts.

Note: I’ll edit this post soon with more tips. For now, hope these two sections offer a good starting point for anyone planning to apply for fellowships at the end of this year.

Next month, I'll continue this series with “Graduate Work to Benefit Your Community.” I’ll share why I chose to pursue a project with a personal connection and why I find this approach fulfilling.

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