First of all, it is important to note that finding sources on how to develop a strong Fulbright application is not difficult. There are many other unofficial guides by students and institutions significantly more qualified than I am. I personally made frequent use of the Stanford University Overseas Resources Center’s Guide, given that Stanford has such an incredible acceptance track record with the Fulbright Program.
That all aside, I thought it might be helpful to condense some of the points I found most helpful to keep in mind at various points during the process. Some of the tips I learned stuck with me, and continue to be of great help now that I am applying to MA programs. There are other categories of Fulbright Grants, but I am going to focus on the academic/research ones for graduate students. The other categories are for visiting scholars and professors, artists and journalists (including all media), and for doctoral dissertation research (for PhD students enrolled outside the United States).
- Start early! Even if you aren’t exactly sure what you want to do (my project proposal must have changed at least a dozen times before I submitted the application), Fulbright involves so much planning and communication that you cannot afford to procrastinate. Don’t apply unless you know what you are in for–read the official site very carefully to ensure you are up for almost-continuous paperwork and bureaucratic communication for many months to come. Successful Fulbright candidates prepare early and thoroughly (I started thinking about it second semester junior year, and I still had some cramming to do), know exactly what their goals are, and know how to define them in detailed terms relevant for the task at hand.
- Choose your country with care. Some countries are much more competitive than others. Great Britain offers 34 grants, but this year there were almost 700 applicants vying for them. Unless you are extraordinarily qualified and have strong institutional connections, avoid the most popular countries. Others, like Paraguay, Moldova, and Malaysia give you much better odds, provided you can prepare yourself. For example, if you studied Classical Greek archaeology in undergrad, you might actually be better off applying to Macedonia, which has a higher acceptance rate yet shares much of its history with Greece. Sometimes you can make a thematic connection, i.e. an “oblique experience” (if you have studied immigrant issues in France, you can apply those skills on a similar project in Korea).
- Have many people read your written components, in and out of academia. Different people will notice different things–one reader gave me a lot of input about content and field-related jargon, while another helped me enormously with my tone (I am not always the most diplomatic of writers). It is best to have at least two professors. Professors who have known you for a while have witnessed your development as an academic. Some of my best advice, however, came from a professor I had only known for two months. My biggest problem was sharing my personal statement because it’s, well….personal, but everybody in the academic world has trouble negotiating the dreaded personal statement and it’s best to get over the squeamishness about sharing, as you only stand to benefit from it.
- Have a clearly defined project with a timeline and tangible goals that indicate preparation. Address the questions asked of you, provide proof of experience and interest, and leave it at that. One of my professors was a former Fulbright admissions reader, and she said she dreaded project proposals and statements that included phrases like “I’ve always loved/been interested in the culture of [country].” To the Department of State, passion is great–but simple fascination with a country or culture is certainly not worth $20,000 or more in resource allocation. Be specific in your project proposal: mention the places you are planning on working, plans for publications, and the names of people and institutions overseas with whom you have been communicating. A timeline is highly recommended. Of course, allow for flexibility because things inevitably turn out differently on the ground. But you need to prove that yes, this project will takes months to complete and each month will roughly contain certain feasible tasks. Also, do not neglect the big picture–why are you doing this? What benefit will your project be to your host country and the academic community at large?
- Take language into consideration. If your project requires knowledge of the country’s language (or a local dialect), prove to Fulbright that you have and will continue to make efforts to learn it. Applicants with language skills are much more likely to become finalists. That said, Fulbright committees tend to understand if your chosen country has an obscure language for which it is difficult to find instruction in the U.S. (Bengali, Georgian, Catalan, Uzbek, Dari, Mongolian). Apply for a summer language program, find a tutor (perhaps a member of the diaspora community, if you live in a city), or find online resources. Make sure Fulbright knows about your efforts and how dedicated you are to learning the language.
- One of the most important things is your host country affiliation. This involves perseverance, patience with often-delayed overseas communication, and often audacity. You may end up cold calling (or emailing) universities, cultural institutions, or NGOs until you find someone willing to work with you. The earlier you do this, set up a plan, and build a relationship with this person/institution, the better. This is extremely difficult to do for countries like Georgia, where adults don’t have Blackberrys and faculty/staff email addresses are hard to find online. The reality is that in the rest of the world, most networking is done in person, and this will be your role as a Fulbright Grantee anyway. I ultimately ended up going to Georgia the summer before and making connections with the National Museum by working on an archaeological dig. It was expensive, but it gave me the opportunity I needed to literally get in peoples’ faces (in addition to being a good addition to my CV).