Being a successful applicant for an external fellowship demands research and planning in advance, providing yourself enough time to work through drafts and revisions of your materials, consulting with the many people who can help you through the process, gathering materials for all applications, following through with the entire application process, and persevering with multiple applications in case some are not accepted.

If you are reading this general information well in advance of when you hope to apply for a national or international fellowship, it’s worth it to consider applying for a Carleton-funded fellowship first. Each year, Carleton’s Office of Student Fellowships awards thousands of dollars of support for Carls to engage in research or other independent projects, make art, gain experiential learning, and pursue other activities. A Carleton-funded fellowship will look good on your record and the application process is good practice!

Marynel Ryan Van Zee, the Director of Student Fellowships, is available to help at any stage in the process, from researching opportunities to reading and commenting on drafts, to guiding you through the exciting steps of being a finalist.  You can contact Marynel or use her appointment calendar to schedule a meeting. You may also call ext. 4300 to make an appointment.

Research and planning

Know the fellowship and know how your qualifications, experience, GPA, and other things fit or don’t fit with it. ‘Fit’ is one of the most important elements of a successful fellowship application and nearly all fellowships have comprehensive websites with lots of information and advice posted on them to help you figure out whether that particular one is for you.  Pay attention to what kind of candidates they are selecting and what they post about their criteria. Many of those websites are linked from the Office of Student Fellowships webpages, but you can also search the internet for additional information.

Allowing time

Consult early and watch deadlines for things like pre-application forms, which are often mandatory.  Some external fellowships also have an on-campus competition before you can be nominated or endorsed for them.

Requesting Recommendations

All national/international fellowships require recommendations and these are a very important part of the application. Read the information provided carefully and ask yourself which potential recommenders are the right ones to ask for a particular award. What kind of recommendation is required? Who knows you best for the purposes of the award criteria? Is the award one where the title or standing of the recommender matters?

Recommenders are usually professors, employers or supervisors, mentors, or some combination of these. Marynel is always available to consult about choosing recommenders!

Once you have identified your potential recommenders, reach out to them using these guidelines for requesting recommendations.

Drafting and revising

National and international fellowship applications generally require you to present a personal narrative in the form of a personal statement and/or the answers to a series of questions. It’s great if you are able to describe a neat, consistent pattern of academic and extracurricular activities that fit the purpose of the fellowship that interests you. But we do not (and should not) construct our lives to meet the criteria of a fellowship!

What you’ll be doing is telling a story about who you are, keeping in mind what type of candidates the fellowship is designed to support. Try to connect your interests and experiences overall, linking what is more recent with what came before. Reflection on the ways you have spent your time and how those things fit together is an important part of preparing a fellowship application.

As early as possible, begin writing early and seeking feedback on your drafts.  For some national or international awards, our website includes detailed guidance on responding to the application prompts. Discover advice on the personal statement, the centerpiece of most fellowship applications.


Throughout the entire process, remember that there are people who can help you and do not hesitate to call on them.! Previous applicants can tell you what worked for them or what the program is truly about; advisors, mentors, and professors can share insights from years of experience; and your fellow students or applicants are good readers who also have a good understanding of you as a person.  The Writing Center and the Reference Librarians at Gould Library are also both excellent resources.

Gathering materials

Request your recommendations with plenty of notice and provide your recommenders with the materials (including your application or proposal!) they need to write a strong recommendation for you. Transcripts can be ordered free-of-charge through the Registrar’s Office; if you need to request transcripts from any previous institution, be sure you do it with plenty of time to meet the fellowship deadline(s).

Following through

Watch for and meet all the deadlines for submitting the application; prepare for and participate in practice and final interviews; provide any additional paperwork; meet with those who write endorsement letters, as requested; and be attentive to all the multiple, small things you will have to handle to complete the process.


Most importantly, applying for fellowships requires PERSEVERANCE.  Be prepared to write more than one application before you are successful. There is tremendous value in the process itself and you will learn a lot along the way — that’s its own kind of success and contribution to your future!