Below is a compilation of tips from past applicants to provide prospective candidates with insight into the fellowship application process beyond the University endorsement stage:
Cheyenne Siverly, Udall Scholar, 2017
At first glance, the Udall scholarship looks like an easy 10 questions but it truly requires a lot of time and more drafts than you can keep count of. What is most difficult about this application is that there are very loaded questions with a medium-small character count. I found it difficult because I had so much to say with very little room to say it. For my first draft I free-wrote all of my ideas down and they ended up being more than triple the character limit. From there, I kept trimming it down and getting rid of “fluff” and putting more emphasis on the question that they asked.
My biggest suggestion is not to hand your application over to ONE person to read. In fact, I wouldn’t even suggest having multiple people read it over. Although it was good to have people read it over for grammatical errors, I found that I got quality content from having conversations with people about the topic I was discussing in the specific application question. I called around ten people over the span of six weeks to discuss topics in the application. I didn’t read them my answer, but I would try to explain my thoughts of the topic in question. I found that a lot of the times my answers were things that only made sense to me in my head. Additionally, I discovered that whenever I was making an argument/statement for part of an essay, a lot of the people I talked to found holes in my argument of which I did not see before. I had a disagreement with one person about a point I was trying to make, and even though I did not take any of her suggestions, her argument led me to find a few words and sentences here and there that I was able to fix slightly to make my application answer even stronger.
Talking through my application with people of different ages, different majors/careers, and from different parts of the country opened up my mind greatly and I discovered better ways to answer the questions for the Udall scholarship. I think that bringing in so many different perspectives to help sharpen my own ultimately played a great role in my success of being granted the scholarship.
Nathaniel Kaneshige, NIST SURF Grant Recipient, 2017
From talking to other Physics majors who have been accepted to similar programs before, I learned that Research Experience for Undergraduate programs (REU) and Research Fellowships generally look for applicants who will get the most out of the program. What they specifically look for can be summarized with three main points.
- Evidence that the applicant is actively pursuing graduate school in Physics and ultimately a career in Physics research. This starts with the applicant getting an idea of whether theoretical or experimental research would interest them.
- A high level of academic and professional responsibility, which can be expressed through a high GPA, their Letters of Recommendations, or through extra-curricular activities like being an active member of the Society of Physics Students at UHM.
- And lastly, many REU’s and/or Fellowships look for prior research experience or an ardent interest for a specific field. They want to know that the applicant will be a great fit for the research projects available and that the applicant would quickly overcome the learning curve. It is strongly encouraged that the applicant does some investigating on the research projects available at the target REU program/fellowship.
For SURF specifically, I strongly encourage applicants to ask for Letters of Recommendations as early as possible (i.e. at the end of the Fall semester) and to send regular reminders as the deadlines approach. The requirements for SURF are more complicated than other REU programs because it is funded through a grant for the UHM and not the host University/Organization, so it is important to get in contact with the Scholarship and Fellowship Office (SFO) at the end of the Fall Semester as well.
The applicant can be made aware of the application requirements as well as receive an internal deadline for the materials. I found that the internal deadline was an indispensable point of assistance that the office gave me. And I will reiterate again that the applicant thoroughly researches the programs, projects, and requirements for the application.
Sakaria Auelua-Toomey, Luce Scholar, 2017
The sense I got from the Skype interview, which lasted a little over an hour, is that the Luce Scholars Program Director really wanted to get to know me as a person beyond my application. The interview didn’t seem very structured; rather, the questions were guided by things I mentioned in my responses. The Director was genuinely curious about my background; he asked me questions regarding my involvement in the Air Force, my research experience in Thailand, how it was growing up as a half-Samoan, half-Irish, about a gap I had between high school and college, how I see my role as a minority in academia, and mentors whom have inspired me, among other things. My perception was that the Director wanted to figure out if I would fare well and succeed in Asia if selected for the program. He seemed interested in learning about my interactions with others, how others perceived me, and how I overcame adversity and hardship in my life. When asked about my interest in Asia and where I hoped to be placed and gain from the experience if selected, I talked about potential placements in South Korea or Thailand, backing these choices up with my research experiences; however, I also stated that I was open-minded. This showed that I have a sense of what direction I wanted to head toward but am still able to remain flexible and essentially willing to learn about a new and different culture than my own. I think the personal history that really provided me with a grounded understanding and therefore motivation to increase minority representation also shined favorably. And lastly, I felt that bringing out who I am and really being myself helped me in this interview.
Alexandra McDougle, Luce Scholar, 2016
Luce is unique in that they’re really looking to invest in people rather than résumés. The interview is really tailored to your essay and your background. The Program Director focused primarily on my long-term goals. He wanted to know about my plans for a PhD. He asked if I would be willing to take out loans for graduate studies if need be and I said that I was, but that I also wanted to work as a TA with French departments and exhaust all sources of funding before I depended on loans. He asked me what schools I wanted to go to for my PhD. I said that I was still looking into programs because I wanted to get more experience in the field before I made definite choices, but that I had been following the schools of some of the anthropologists whose work I’d like to follow (Sabrina Agarwal- Berkeley, Zoe Crossland- Columbia and Clea Koff- Stanford and Arizona). He also asked personal questions that threw me off a bit. He asked if my GPA would stop me from getting in to schools that I wanted. I said that I understood my GPA would be something I’d have to overcome but that I was working hard to get experience in the field and studying for strong GRE stores, and fostering relationships with future advisors so that I would have the best possible chance (I assumed I had no chance of making it once he asked this question, but it turned out he was genuinely curious).
My essay talked about a lot how I want to work on increasing representation of minorities in academia and he asked if I was prepared for how emotionally taxing it would be if I ended up at a predominantly white institution (again, a question that threw me a bit at first). He also wanted to find out how I would handle being in graduate programs that tend to have low retention rates for African-Americans and females. He asked about how I would deal with the culture shock of being an African-American in Asia and how I would feel if my experiences were different than that of my peers. Overall, they were topics I felt comfortable talking about because I discuss them frequently with my mentors (Robert Benitez and Zakea Boeger). I focused on the fact that as a minority I have a unique responsibility and opportunity to represent myself and my culture to the best of my ability. I talked about working in Kiribati and in the Philippines in areas where people have often never seen African-Americans before but how I used these experiences as opportunities to represent diversity in America and lead by positive example. I talked about using my platform in science and in academia to pave the way for students who come after me. I explained that I can’t control the way other people think but that I can make a positive impact by excelling in everything I do and being diplomatic in otherwise frustrating situations. I said that while I value my voice as a minority, I am more concerned with being remembered for my work as scientist and for making a small but concerted effort to make the world better. I mentioned that it can be frustrating working on field projects as the only female or minority but I understand I’m working to make things easier for other minorities and that regularly talking about these things with my mentors keeps me from becoming overwhelmed or isolated.
He asked about where I’d want to work if I got into the Luce program and I said that Cambodia and Vietnam were my first two choices. I also said that I was interested in the fellowship for the chance to grow as a leader and immerse myself in another culture to challenge the ways that I thought. I said that my placement didn’t have to be necessarily academic/archaeological in a nature. I was open to non-profit/community outreach work as well. I talked about how Southeast Asia and America have different ways of conceptualizing anthropology but that we have a lot to offer each other. I talked about how working with Luce would help me bridge this gap because it would help me to learn another way to think and encourage more cross cultural connections in research.
When he asked if I had any questions I asked about past anthropologist in the program, he said they were assigned to a lot of community outreach type work. I closed by reiterating the fact that I shared the Luce values of leadership and excellence and innovation and that I was incredibly interested in working with this program.
I was worried I may have talked too fast at the beginning of the interview, but I made an effort to slow down and make sure my points were heard (we talked for a little over an hour). In preparation for the interview, I did a bunch of practice ones with my mentors to help get more comfortable before my actual interview and it really helped. In fact, I practiced the night before with one of my mentors over Skype to go over some of the questions I anticipated having to answer. Overall I felt confident afterwards.
The best advice I have is to be as open and honest as possible. It sounds corny but it’s honestly what got me through my interviews. Everyone who makes it to the interview round in Luce is pretty high achieving in some way or another. The best way to stand out is to let them get to know who you are as a person and as a leader and make them want to invest in that.
Henry Cheng, Luce Scholar, 2010
For the interview, pretend you are having conversation with someone who knows you very well so you can be yourself, but still has a level of authority (such as a professor or a family member from an older generation) so you should still be more formal than relaxed in the interview. Have list of examples where you can go into your experiences or qualities you have (eg. leadership, research, how you overcame adversity) and be ready to talk about them; you can often use these examples to answer a variety of questions. Make sure you don’t describe yourself in adjectives, have concrete examples and let committee decide for themselves the traits that you exhibit. For the in-person interview, the committee is usually comprised of individuals who are accomplished in the Asian community (eg. Luce Scholars program alumni, Head of Asia Foundation, Executive Chair of another Asian agency, etc).
Eli Tsukayama, Rhodes Finalist, 2006
I found out about the Rhodes Scholarship when I applied for the Truman Scholarship earlier that year (2006). A lot of students who apply for the Truman apply for the Rhodes, and I kept on seeing references to the Rhodes when I was researching the Truman. The Rhodes seemed like a great opportunity, so I decided to apply, but applying the year of is kind of late. The application process is long and requires a distinguished background (i.e., outstanding academic achievement, leadership qualities, community/volunteer service, sports accomplishments), so a lot of students are groomed for the Rhodes from a young age. The application itself was relatively short/easy (a 1000 word personal statement and a resume/CV) compared to the Truman (several essays), but it was still nontrivial (e.g., 40+ hours for the personal statement). I first contacted Dr. Ruth Bingham since she was UH’s campus representative for the Truman Scholarship. She helped me initially, but then found out that Dr. Lee Putnam was the UH’s campus representative for the Rhodes. Dr. Putnam gave me feedback on my personal statement, and then when I was selected as a finalist, she put together a mock interview panel composed of former Rhodes Scholars from Hawaii. Besides that mock interview, I set up several more practice interviews on my own with professors, elders from my church, and friends grilling me about politics, current events, my research, etc.
For prospective applicants, it’s important that they have great academic records (e.g., perfect or at least close to perfect GPAs as well as academic awards/honors/distinctions), leadership roles (founding an organization and/or being the president of an organization), community/volunteer service (a lot of the other finalists had done service projects in Africa…I had mainly volunteered through church, RAPS, and honor societies), and some sort of involvement in sports (I heard this was the least important, but it’s good to have). For applicants, I would recommend getting a lot of feedback on their personal statements (which will probably require many revisions) and doing several practice interviews.
Note: Rhodes Scholarship applicants are no longer allowed to receive feedback on the personal statement, but this advice is applicable (and very useful to follow) in regards to other fellowship applications that students may be considering.