Advice for Applicants

Here I’ve compiled a list of helpful tips and advice that I found to be useful to me in my application process. Please keep in mind that these are just my opinions, and are not meant to be one-size-fits-all or result in a grant. Also, this info is geared more towards ETA applicants, as that is what I am. I don’t doubt that study or research candidates could benefit from the info though! Some of my tips are psychological in nature. The wait from pre-application to acceptance is a LONG one, and people (including myself!) can easily go nutty during the interim.

I would say that some of the advice is applicable to other large-scale/international scholarships as well. There are a ton of great advice blogs out there, and I hope to not only include some common themes, but also add to them as well. May you be inspired, refreshed, and renewed! Hang in there guys, because it is SO worth it! 🙂

1. Picking a Country

This can be a tricky one. For some, it’s the easiest part of the process. They have a very clear idea of precisely where they want to go, and the path is clear. For others, there are more tiresome obstacles. Language requirements are a biggie. Most Latin American (and Spain) countries require fluency, as do other, more “popular” countries. Now, when I say fluency, I am not referring to kitchen talk. Be prepared to carry on an intellectual, college-level conversation. For me, Moldova had a preference for candidates who spoke Russian or Romanian. If you know that you are less competitive in this area, applying to a smaller country with a language preference, rather than a requirement, can give you an edge. 

Also, look at dependent allowance if you are bringing one or more (dependents are legal spouses, qualified same sex domestic partners, or a relative like a child, parent, or siblings who is financially dependent on you). Some countries do not allow any dependents whatsoever, some will let them come but will not give an allowance, and some (like Moldova) are very welcoming and allow them to come, give them an allowance, and assist with visas. It’s interesting to note that we tried to see if Oz could come as a common law spouse, but Fulbright did not allow this. Therefore, we had to have a civil “marriage” before we left, and will do the real thing when we return. Thankfully, the Catholic church doesn’t recognize civil marriages, so we’re all good on that front.

In addition to these considerations, I would also look at how well you match with your country of choice. How relevant is your country to your future career goals? This question would also apply to selecting a program as well (ETA, study, research). How easy is it to conduct research in your country? While in Russia, I made friends and conducted quantitative and qualitative work pretty easily. Moldova was about the same, although in the end I didn’t end up doing any formal research because I was so swamped with teaching and all of my projects. Maybe I’ll do something someday with all of my data that I collected. We’ll see! Anyways, while I was an ETA, I thought that even a small amount of research work would enhance my experience, so ease of paperwork was a big consideration for me. Look at other factors too, such as how well your personality would work within the local culture, how open the country is to LGBTQ’s (if that’s an issue for you), whether or not you could stomach the local cuisine, etc.

2. Relatable and Relevant

Ensure that both of your statements (Personal Statement and Statement of Grant Purpose) have information that is 1) relatable and 2) relevant. You only have a page per statement, so it’s really imperative that you trim as much fat as possible. This was true for my Gilman essay as well. Address issues like these:

  • Is your essay coming off as whiny, petulant, or depressing? It’s so easy to fall into the “woe is me” trap. In my original Personal Statement I had a little blurb about my parents’ deaths, how I had to deal with so much and had so many disadvantages. You know what I learned in the peer review process? EVERYONE has problems! Complaining about your shortcomings, whether they be personal, financial, or whatever, only highlights the fact that you are the type of person who focuses on the negative. Focusing on your “lack of’s” also runs the risk of making you appear as if you are asking for the grant simply because you’ve had a hard life. This is harsh, but look at it this way: how many times have we seen that typical performer on some kind of tv competition bring on the waterworks and we’re just like, “Oh, come ON!” The people reviewing these applications read sob stories all day long. Therefore, if you write your essay in such a way that shows how you have overcome, or better yet dealt with your obstacles in a healthy way, then it’s like a little release for those poor souls. The result? Your story stands out.
  • Do your research. Examine your country’s relationship to the U.S. How will you have a positive impact on both soils, foreign and home? While it’s important to mention how Fulbright will benefit your personal and professional life, it shows maturity and strong intellectual consideration when you articulate the ways your role will positively affect BOTH countries.
  • Address how your future career goals will continue to yield positive dividends. For me, my future plans for a position in education lent themselves very well to this issue. The study of critical languages and little known cultures has become vital for the U.S. due to globalization being a current reality and not a dream of the past. In order to keep pace with the world, the next generation must be prepared. Unfortunately, there are not many individuals with first hand (or even second hand) knowledge to aid in this cause.
  • Get to know yourself. Ask friends, family, and professors who know you well to give you honest feedback about your strengths and weaknesses as a potential representative and ambassador for the U.S. When I did this, there were of course many things that my loved ones mentioned that I was already aware of. However, there were a couple that I had forgotten about! Little things like, “There was that one time you…” can easily get overlooked, especially when you’ve analyzed yourself and your work for hours on end.
  • What aspects of American culture would you be able to effectively communicate to foreign students about? Government? Politics? Film? Music? Ponder on how you will do this.

3. Be Specific!

This is not the time or place for vague, half-baked ideas. The readers are not going to share your rosy view of the “someday” you are envisioning if you don’t back it up with reasonable, doable goals with steps that clearly show the path. Avoid telling a story. Instead, detail a plan. Your application is very much a marketing pitch. It helped me to envision Fulbright as a business client. I wrote with the intent to get them to understand why investing in me was a sound idea (though not in those words of course).

Be careful of being so specific with your goals that you back yourself into a corner though! Naming specific organizations or cities you’d like to work with is unwise, as you are not the person determining these factors. This is different for the research folks of course, as you need an affiliation. For ETA’s though, you want to create projects that are plausible, unconventional (read: don’t give the same old project that Fulbright has heard of a million times), and meaningful.

4. Online Writing Tools

Here are a few of the best websites that I’ve found that aid in getting that initial draft going. While I’ve always found it easy to express myself through writing, it never hurts to have a little extra help when writing essays that could affect the course of your career and life!

  • This is perfect for those times when you are scratching your head for a certain/better word and just can’t think of it. Varying sentence structure and word choice dramatically affects how it is perceived. Think of it in likeness to the way actors will vary a sentence to sound different depending on delivery elements such as speed, intonation, inflection, etc. Write your sentences a few different ways to find the perfect fit. Is it tiring to write this way? Yes, of course. Keep in mind that you are only constructing two pages though, and when you become tired remind yourself of what you stand to gain from an extra revision here or there.
  • This is a neat little site where you can paste your text into a box that calculates your writing’s readability according to four different, well-known scales. Basically it tells you what level of education/arguable intelligence a person would need to have to comprehend your writing. Obviously, if you are writing at, say, a 6th grade level then you may want to take a second look. 😛
  • I would recommend this only to those who are not very comfortable/questioning their grammar, as there is a price attached. It’s about $12 a month for the annual, or $30 for month to month. There is a 7 day free trial, so I suppose you could just use it for Fulbright and then be done with it. In addition to writing, it can also be used as a fantastic aid in teaching! It checks for plagiarism, and you could also use it for live editing. Picture you, typing in students’ sentences, then having the website catching all of the issues, displaying them for you to clearly explain. Brilliant.
  • This one is just for fun, haha. Paste a decent amount of your writing in the box to see what famous writer you share a writing style with. I use this often just for the giggles, and my results are usually either Vladimir Nabokov or H.P. Lovecraft. I think it’s funny because I’ve never read anything by these authors, so there’s no influence there or anything like that. For the record – my favorite author is L.M. Montgomery. Anne for life!!! 😉

5. Gradcafe!

Ah, Gradcafe. I found this lovely little oasis from the start, when I googled something like, “Fulbright forum,” or “Fulbright community.” What can I say? It’s simply amazing. During the course of this insanely long process, you will begin to feel alone in the wait. Even close friends or family members will break away after a month or so. My own fiance, who is coming with me, was boggled by my obsessive email checking. My grams would ask about it in passing, and when I replied that there was no word yet she’d chuckle and say, “Okay, I’ll try again next month!” Trust me, there is no one “in” this in the same way that you are except other applicants who are experiencing the same manic agony of second guessing and waiting.

Should I have revised that? How does that work again? Omg, I JUST found a typo! Ahhh, I found out the time that applicants for my country found out acceptance results last year! Why, here’s a chart detailing the dates and times for the event for the past three years. What’s this?? A spreadsheet with real-time info about recommendations and acceptances for me to check every day?! Yis, yis!

Yep. You’ll get dragged in, and you’ll love it. Everyone is empathetic and supportive, and willing to listen and respond to any/all venting. It’s a magical, non-judgmental place where you can play with all the other Fulbright crazies.

6. Recommendation Letters

Proceed with caution. I’ve read many blogs, and apparently poorly written recommendation letters are more common than you’d think. For my letters, I only had one professor who sent me a copy. I thought, “Oh, that’s nice!,” but never asked for it or even thought about asking! It seems to be a general consensus that it’s not a bad idea to ask to see recommendations before they send them off. I would worry about offending the professor though :/

In any event, I recommend selecting those educators who 1) have  impressed you with the effectiveness of their teaching delivery (after all, if they speak well then it stands to reason that they write well too), and 2) have been impressed by you. Any other option is a waste of time. Don’t make the mistake of being overly concerned with getting a big-name academic who you’ve only had one class with – and likely only truly worked with their T.A. It’s better to employ a lower level prof who really knows you, who can attest to your assets when Fulbright starts asking specific, sometimes personal questions about your character, demeanor, and work ethic. Others may disagree with me on this one, but it worked for me!

7. Statement of Grant Purpose vs. Personal Statement

If Fulbright wanted a two page long essay, then they would have asked for it, right? Be careful of repeating yourself. The Personal Statement should be somewhat anecdotal in nature. This is your chance to show the reader the “real you.” In my PS, I wrote about what it was like to be an informal ambassador of sorts when I traveled to Russia on the Gilman. I included lines from our conversations, complete with the Russian students’ grammar mistakes! I shared how it meant so much to me to exchange ideas with them. Here’s a bit:

“Hello! You are one of the Americans come to study, yes? You and your friends want maybe to come and have meal and talk tonight?” I couldn’t believe it! I’d been in Russia less than two hours, and our study abroad group had already received a warm invitation to dinner by the native students in our dormitory! This was a far cry from the stereotypical Russian coldness for which the country is supposedly famous. How did they even know who we were? Despite my shock, I accepted the invite. My fellow University of South Florida classmates and I met with the Russian students later that evening for some nourishment and very enlightening conversation.

After a few hours fielding questions and firing ones of our own, both sides began to realize that the ideas we had grown up learning about each other were baseless stereotypes. For instance, the Russian students assumed that I must be rich because I could afford to come so far across the world, and that I must hate my black president because I’m from the south (they had “heard” that people from the American south are all racist super-conservatives). Suddenly dinner began to feel like an exceptional opportunity to act as an ambassador, tasked with the weighty job of setting the record straight. My new Russian friends were very surprised to find out that 1) the only reason I was able afford the study abroad trip was because I was awarded a Gilman scholarship, 2) that I voted for President Obama in both of his terms, somehow managing to be proud to have a person of color lead my country while also maintaining reverence for southern American culture, and 3) that I could explain these matters in detail and with grace, which went against all the ideas they previously held about “dumb” Americans. This first exchange, and many more that came afterwards, represent a significant reason why I would like to represent the U.S. as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Moldova.

When it comes to the Statement of Grant Purpose, it’s all business. This is where you show Fulbright the blueprint for those plans that I mentioned in tip #3. 😉

For ETA’s, it helps to give examples of how you will instruct your students. Offer concrete, well-planned ideas for your projects. Make it clear that you’ve done your research, and that your goals are in line with those shared by the folks at Fulbright. Again, here’s a taste of what I went with:

Some might believe that experience in music education might not be relevant to an ETA. However, I know from firsthand experience that music can be thought of as a language. As a private and group music instructor, I have had considerable realistic experience teaching “non-native” learners. The symbols, sounds, and concepts are all foreign to my students, and it’s my job to ensure that they learn how to use them to communicate ideas in a meaningful and pleasant way. With my primary instrument being voice, I know very well how diction, articulation, and vowel shaping play certain roles in pronunciation. I could even use my skills to alter my voice by affecting different accents as a fun activity to either aid or challenge learners, depending on their level.

Committing to an English Teaching Assistantship would afford me the opportunity to apply the pedagogical knowledge that I have attained through the pursuit of my dual degrees in English and Music Education at the University of South Florida. While the English language is not typically thought of as an especially beautiful sounding language in comparison to others, I plan to create an “English Through Spoken Art” club in my assigned city, where anyone can come and listen to and critically ponder excerpts of prose, poetry, drama, and even film in English. I will use these excerpts to lead discussion in a way that will not only teach the intricacies of the language’s grammatical and structural rules, but will also show the beauty of the English language and impart American and British cultural knowledge.

While it could be said that these pedagogical ideas could be applied to any country, I specifically chose to employ them in Moldova out of practical reasons. After studying Russian at USF for two years, I was awarded a Gilman scholarship in Summer 2013. I spent six weeks in Moscow studying intermediate/advanced Russian language with native instructors. The lessons were entirely in Russian, so I know from personal experience how nervous my students in Moldova would be in an English-only classroom. I would also be aware of certain tactics that would work in not only an immersive language learning scenario, but also in an Eastern European classroom in general. Additionally, I’m looking to diversify my Russian knowledge and cultural experience by examining them through a Moldovan lens, a former Soviet Union country.

While in Russia, I collected data for a quantitative independent research project that seeks to compare the creative identities of pre-service music educators in the U.S. and Russia. The endeavor  is a collaboration between myself and my undergraduate research mentor Dr. Clint Randles, who has already completed studies comparing the U.S. and England, and the U.S. and Finland. During the Fulbright ETA to Moldova, I plan to duplicate the study using data from my area of placement. I believe a side project such as this would be relatively easy to accomplish, and the contribution to research concerning Moldovan music education would be notable, as there is currently very little literature concerning modern Moldovan music education (especially in comparison to other countries). I would also love to find a music school where I could volunteer as a visiting educator, and exchange pedagogical methods with the teachers there while both observing and leading music lessons.

I attribute a lot of my success to the uniqueness of my projects. Find something that is not only a good fit for you and the countries involved, but that also affects the world in a larger capacity and that hasn’t necessarily been done before.

8. Read, read, read 🙂

Reading is directly linked to writing. That’s no secret. Nevertheless, I still feel the need to preach it. Reading influences your speaking and writing skills in a way that nothing else will. More specifically, reading of past applicants’ statements will help you become familiar with the tone and language that Fulbright readers find appealing. Make note of interesting transitions, use of language, and ideas. Bonus! Reading other applicants’ writing is also a great way to test the uniqueness of your project, especially if you are applying to the same country! Don’t forget to read articles published by former Fulbright scholars, and of course blogs too. For me, reading the blogs of former Moldovan ETA’s gave me a fantastic image of what life would really be like if I followed this path. I could envision myself, with such mental clarity, doing the same amazing, meaningful work that they were doing. The more I read, the fuller my heart got. I began to think about it almost daily, imagining myself receiving the good news of acceptance, making the physical journey with a fiance and two cats (lol), and teaching in Moldova. And…it became reality. Yup, that’s the power of reading!


4 thoughts on “Advice for Applicants

  1. Thanks so much for this advice post. I’m just starting the process of applying as an ETA to Bulgaria and this definitely gave me some ideas for how to approach my statements!

    • Hey, Kate! Thank YOU so much for reading and commenting! It’s always good to know when your efforts really do end up helping others. What made you choose Bulgaria? Have you been there before?

      • I’ve been interested in Europe ever since I took a trip to the UK and France in college, so I knew I wanted to go to one of the European countries. I did research on each of the countries in the region I’m qualified for and chose Bulgaria, because the culture sounds fascinating. Also, it looks like Bulgaria has a developing national library system, and since I’m a librarian it sounds like a good “in” for my side project.
        I’ve never been there before, but that just gives me more motivation to be able to go!

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