Frequently Asked Questions

There are many factors to consider when applying for nationally competitive awards, and sometimes it can be easy to feel like you’re “behind the ball.” Referencing these Frequently Asked Questions & Answers makes it easy to connect all the parts of your life where you find energy and passion.

Getting Started

When should I start applying for fellowships?

Now? It’s never too early—or too late—to start thinking about applying for nationally competitive awards. Some awards are only available during your first or second year of undergraduate study, so sophomore year is the ideal time for especially focused students to start thinking about fellowships and scholarships. At the same time, for students whose intellectual and personal goals come into focus later in their career, senior year or even after might be the ideal time to apply. Get started as early as you can, since the best way to increase your competitiveness is to keep applying for things, but you don’t need to worry that you’ve “missed the boat” even if you don’t apply for any awards until after you’ve graduated.

What resources are available to help me put together applications?

Any of the staff in the office of Scholar Development can support you in identifying opportunities that might be a good fit for you; we can also give you feedback on your application materials at any point in the drafting process, from brainstorming to the final polish. The Graduate Writing Consultants at the Academic Resource Center are also specially trained to give feedback on personal statements and fellowship applications.

Can I still get support from Tufts for fellowship applications after I've graduated?

Absolutely! Up to 20% of the students who receive help from our office are alumni. We are happy to help you apply for anything you’re eligible to go for!

Do you work with graduate students?

We do indeed! We have a database of opportunities specifically for graduate students, and are happy to give you feedback on application materials for dissertation funding, travel grants, external grants, or anything else you’re looking for.

I'm not a U.S. citizen. Are there any fellowships for me?

Yes. You can also use the fellowships database on the home page of our web site and indicate your citizenship status in your search terms. 

I don't want to go to graduate school. Does it even make sense for me to be thinking about fellowships?

 Yes. There are a number of fellowship opportunities that offer post-graduate service or professional experiences with no expectation that you are necessarily going on to graduate school. Profellow.com is a great resource for these professional opportunities. 

Which fellowship is the fanciest? How can I win that one?

Stop asking that question. Prestige is much less important than your specific fit for the fellowship in question. A program that is a perfect fit for your interest and skill set is going to be a better launching pad for you into a future career than a super-prestigious fellowship that you aren’t as strong a match for. Also, if you’re focused on prestige over content, that will come across in your application materials and compromise your competitiveness.

The Application Process

Personal statements are the worst! How can I find a way to talk about myself without being cliche or braggy?

I KNOW, THEY’RE THE WOOOOOOORST! The best way to put together a strong personal statement is to give yourself time to write multiple drafts which you go over with a friend or trusted mentor (Graduate Writing Consultants and people from the Office of Scholar Development have both received special training in helping with personal statements). The specifics of the personal statement vary greatly with the opportunity—for applications to graduate programs or for academic awards, it makes sense to focus on your intellectual development over your personal or moral development, but service-oriented awards are likely to be more interested in these personal qualities. Look to the criteria of the opportunity you’re seeking for guidance as to where you should focus. Once you’ve done that, think of a core quality about yourself that you want to illustrate, and then think of an incident or series of incidents from your life that illustrate that quality. Use that as a jumping off point for free-writing, and then work with a tutor or friend to revise, revise, revise.

What on earth do people mean when they talk about "leadership," and how important is it?

The best way to think about “leadership” is impact. What have you done that has changed things for the better at Tufts or in your community? How do you help bring out skills/positive qualities in others? Start by considering these moments of impact that you’ve had some proximity to, and then lay out your place in that narrative. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to create a story where you are the sole star. The actual duties of activist and public service work are ideally spread out among a group of committed people—what you want to do in an application that is asking about leadership is be clear about what you contribute and why the work matters.

How important is my GPA, anyway?

It really depends on the opportunity. Some awards have an explicit GPA bottom limit, while others take a more holistic view of the applicant. If you look at the criteria for the award, this is a good way to get a sense of how much weight they afford grades.

Wait, the deadline already happened? How does someone stay on top of these things, anyway?

It is best to start an application for a nationally competitive award at least a month ahead of time—this way, you can give your recommenders time to put together the strongest possible letters, and you give yourself time to put together the best representation of yourself you can. Most deadlines happen in the early fall or early spring semesters, so the end of the previous semester is a good time to look ahead and plan for the coming months.

What About Research, Anyway?

How important is independent research?

It depends on the opportunity. If the award has a strong academic focus (funding for a PhD program, for instance), independent research is likely to carry more weight. Independent research can never hurt your chances for an award, as it is a good way to articulate your strengths and demonstrate intellectual maturity.

I'm a Humanities student. What does "research" even mean? I don't have a lab coat...

Most research in the Humanities takes the shape of a longish article for an academic journal. That being said, one of the great things about being an undergraduate is that there’s often a lot of room for innovation. People have done their senior honors thesis work in a series of forms: a documentary film, an animated zine, a curriculum for a course, etc. Talk with your advisor about the range of possibilities within your field for a final product.

How do I find ways to do independent research?

The best place to start is to read the faculty profiles for professors in your major. This is where you can get the details of what they work on. Choose someone whose work you find interesting and stop by their office hours. Tell them about your research interests, ask for a reading list, whatever—get a conversation started. From there, you’ll have a clearer sense of what will be the best next steps for your research.
For students in the lab sciences, faculty will often indicate on the websites for their labs whether they are accepting new students into the lab. If you’re looking for a position, come to the faculty member ready to tell them what you find interesting about their work and what you think you can bring to the table.

Letters of Recommendation

Who should I ask for letters of recommendation?

There are three factors for choosing a recommender: relationship, relevance, and prestige. Ideally, you would choose a professor/supervisor who knows you well, who can speak directly to the selection criteria, and who is well-known in their field. It goes without saying, however, that few people fit all three factors. Relevance and relationship are most important, by far. Prestige matters a lot for some awards, but most don’t care. That being said, it is rarely a good idea to ask a graduate student for a letter of recommendation. And you should never ask a family friend or fellow undergraduate.

What is the best way to ask for a letter of recommendation?

Always give your recommender room to say “no.” A weak letter of recommendation can tank an application, so be sure to ask if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. Once you’ve established that, you should be clear with them about why you’re asking them to write for you and give them a copy of your resume and a draft of your personal statement (or give them a date by which you will send them that draft). Additionally, give them a timeline and a specific due date. Letters of recommendation are almost always the last priority for your writer, so help them out as much as you can with as much information upfront as possible. 

Faculty FAQs

How do I write a strong letter of recommendation?

The short answer is this: be specific. Say how you know the student, and what makes them stand out among others. If you can have some basis of comparison, that’s good (for instance: “in my X years of teaching, this student stands out among the top Y %”). Make specific reference to the selection criteria if you know them. Watch out for gender and racial bias in your language

What kinds of students should I recommend for nationally competitive awards?

Anyone who stands out as particularly creative, committed, and/or innovative. While grades are very important for some scholarships, others are much more concerned with factors such as leadership and public service, so don’t let less-than-stellar grades keep you from recommending a student.

What are ways I can support students interested in independent research?

Approach students to work in your lab or on their own research through Summer Scholars. Recommend them to me for nationally competitive awards. Follow up with them about applying for awards. The support of a respected mentor goes a long way in helping students to take themselves seriously enough to apply for an award of this kind.

I would love to be more involved in selecting/coaching students for nationally competitive awards. What should I do?

There are lots of ways to get involved with the Scholarship Committee, from helping select students for nomination to supporting our Fulbright applicants. Reach out to me directly if you would like to know more.