Advice for Applicants

Basic Considerations / Before You Apply

1. Selecting classes. The classes that you choose during your undergraduate career should both reflect the passions and interests that you will write about in your application essay and demonstrate a strong foundation for pursuing graduate studies and/or an independent research project. While your GPA is important in scholarship competitions, so is your selection of classes.

2. Research profile. From your first semester, you should work to build up your research profile. Depending on discipline, this could mean working in a lab and co-publishing an article; developing an original research project and applying for undergraduate funding such as a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award (PURA) and a Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship; or writing an undergraduate thesis.

3. Extracurricular activities. Active participation in volunteer work and internships is an essential component to a strong fellowship application. From your first semester, volunteer for an organization linked to your interests (for example, community service opportunities and internships organized through the JHU Center for Social Concern). Once you have researched fellowships, you may choose to involve yourself with the specific type of service activity that increases your chances for that fellowship. For example, students wishing to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship will want to engage in tutoring or teaching activities that offer experience working in a classroom and/or directly with students. The key is not quantity, but quality—a deep level of involvement in a smaller number of experiences linked with your interests and thus the narrative of your application.

4. Faculty recommendations. From your first semester, cultivate relationships with your advisers and other professors, particularly those in your field. Attend their office hours to discuss papers for their classes, share your interests and goals, and ask their advice about coursework. Inquire about serving as a lab assistant, research assistant, or teaching assistant for them. Seek their counsel about applying for fellowships and graduate school programs. Once you decide which fellowship(s) you will apply for, ask faculty at least two months in advance to write a letter of recommendation. For this type of fellowships (with the exception of the Fulbright ETA), letters written by professors—and not graduate students and instructors—carry the most weight.

5. Languages/Studying abroad. A number of fellowships give grantees the chance to live abroad; some require at least some knowledge of a foreign language. By studying abroad during your undergraduate career, you will have the opportunity demonstrate in your application and interview your ability to adapt to living in a foreign country during a post-graduate fellowship. By learning one or more languages, you open the door to additional fellowship opportunities and you can facilitate conducting research and transitioning to a new country.

6. Research fellowships early. While most prestigious fellowships require that students are in their senior year, some fellowship competitions are geared toward sophomores (with deadlines as early as the middle of the year). Begin researching fellowships during your freshman year and take the steps listed above to put yourself in the most competitive position possible. Please note that some internal deadlines for fellowships fall up to six months before the official deadline.

During the Application Process

Application Essays

Many fellowship applications require two primary essays: personal statement and research statement (not always named as such). It is crucial to note that these essays are intended to complement each other. Therefore, be sure to read over your drafts with an eye for avoiding repetition and ensuring that you write a consistent narrative in both essays, a narrative that aligns with all parts of your application.

The winning essays that are available for you to read in our office or the career center are the tenth, twentieth, or even thirtieth draft. We strongly encourage you to start early, ask your friends and advisors to critique your essays, send us your essays so that we can provide you feedback on drafts, and schedule an appointment with the writing center to work on the mechanics of your writing. It is not necessary to ask people who know your topic well to critique your work; in fact, sometimes it is better to ask a non-specialist to examine your essays since such people often compose the majority of a fellowship committee.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation are a crucial part of your application. The letters serve to complement your essays and the rest of your application; they allow for a fellowship committee (often made up of the same type of people who write letters) to hear impressions of your character, intellect, and drive from someone else. It is advisable to select professors who know you well as a person (i.e., you have made the effort to attend their office hours and interact with them outside of the classroom), who know your research well, and on whom you have made a favorable impression. The best-known professor in your department is not the best selection, unless she/he fulfills the above criteria. The strongest letters are those that demonstrate knowledge of the student’s project and, therefore, highlight the project’s significance and that can give precise, memorable examples of how *you* are a superior candidate for the particular fellowship.

We advise approaching faculty to ask them to write a letter of recommendation at least two months in advance of the fellowship deadline. Please email or hand professors a packet that comprises: fellowship essays (most often a research proposal and personal statement), résumé/CV, unofficial transcript, and a brief description of the fellowship for which you are applying.


Certain fellowship competitions—Fulbright, Gates Cambridge, Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Truman—require an on-campus interview. Some of these—Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Truman, Fulbright for certain countries—require finalists to interview with an external committee. While the NFSP will provide candidates with more precise information about on-campus interviews and work extensively with finalists who have external interviews, here are some general suggestions.


  • Ask a friend to conduct a mock interview with the questions that we supply and ones that you find through a Google search, etc. You can also make flashcards with interview questions to practice on your own.
  • Be sure to carefully read the website of the fellowship for which you are applying so as to be as familiar as possible with its requirements and the goals of the fellowship. For example, for the Fulbright grant each country has slightly different requirements (even if the application is the same across the board). You should be prepared to answer, for example, what you will do during the fall semester if applying for a program whose start date is in January. Moreover, you should be able to succinctly answer how you fit in with the goals of the fellowship.
  • Arrive at the interview with two or three strengths about how you would be an excellent candidate for the particular fellowship. Be sure to get these in whether in response to an interviewer’s question or when given the opportunity to add anything else.
  • Arrive at the interview knowing what you wrote in your application backwards and forwards. Interviews can take place several months after you handed in your application, yet the interview panel likely has read your application the night before or the same day and might ask precise questions about details of what you wrote.
  • Be on time. In fact, be at least 15 minutes early. Interviews are conducted back-to-back with interview rooms reserved for a limited time. If you are late and miss your interview there are no make-ups.


  • The informal talk that takes place before and after the interview itself is also important to committee’s learning about you as a person. Be sure to remain professional from the moment you walk into the room until you leave.
  • Greet each interviewee individually (by shaking their hand, making eye contact, and smiling).
  • Be sure to regularly make eye contact with all members of the interview panel, not only the person who asks you a question.
  • Keep your answers concise and precise. Interviewers will ask follow up questions if they wish to know more.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask an interviewer to clarify a question or to answer with “I don’t know.”
  • Don’t preface your responses with statements such as “It’s just my opinion” or “I’m biased in my response, but…” Such phrases undermine your answer before you even get to it. The committee wants to know your opinion. 
  • Keep relaxed, smile, and take your time. The people interviewing you want to be there and are excited to learn about you and your research.
  • When the interview is completed, thank the panel for their time.