Win that fellowship


Fellowships for experienced professionals are short-term assignments in various specialties that feature training, lectures and networking events. Fellows gain eye-opening experiences, expand their talents, and collect grist for their résumés and Rolodexes — all of which may enhance their effectiveness or help them land promotions.

Some federal organizations run fellowships that exclusively recruit current feds, and some private organizations run fellowships that recruit from all sectors.

Some tips from hiring managers on how to craft winning fellowship applications:

*Make deadlines. Fellowship applicants are often rejected because they miss deadlines or submit applications that were “obviously dashed off on a last-minute lark,” observes one hiring manager. Start your applications early enough to avoid last-minute manic-panics and to give yourself time to craft thoughtful applications.

*Research programs. After reviewing your target program’s marketing materials, impress the program manager with your enthusiasm and seriousness by calling him or her to discuss the program. Ask the manager to help connect you with fellowship alumni. Then, interview those alumni and incorporate your resulting program knowledge in your application.

*Customize applications. Don’t answer essay questions with excerpts from your résumé or submit the same generic application to multiple programs. Many applications are rejected because the name of the wrong fellowship program is mindlessly incorrectly copied from one application to another.

When reviewing your application, hiring managers will seek evidence of your desire to contribute and benefit from the fellowship. Begin your application with a purposeful, energetic statement, explaining why you are eager to receive the fellowship. Explain how your academic and professional credentials, people skills, multitasking abilities and other strengths would support the program and enhance other fellows’ experiences. State your commitment to giving your all so that you will maximize your benefits from the fellowship. Review how your long-term interests jibe with the fellowship. For example, if you apply for a fellowship on Capitol Hill, emphasize your history of reading about politics, describe campaigns you worked on, and explain your attraction to the rough-and-tumble of politics. Describe what types of fellowship projects you would like to pursue, if appropriate. But also convey your flexibility and expectation of surprises.

*State explicitly how you would accommodate the fellowship’s structure and goals. For example, if you would be expected to return to your home agency after completing the fellowship, confirm in your application and interviews that you would indeed do so, provide reassurances that you would not use the fellowship as a stepping stone to a new career, and explain how the fellowship would enhance your post-fellowship contributions to your home agency. If your target fellowship is half time, explain how the demands of your current job would be reduced to accommodate your absences for the fellowship.

*Treat your application as a writing sample. Good communication skills are a requirement for most fellowships, and your communication skills will largely be evaluated by your written application. Proofread your application for logic, typos, grammar and conciseness. As one fellowship manager warns, “Don’t make me read three pages that could be condensed into three sentences.” Also, eliminate potentially confusing verbiage, such as acronyms; your application should be an easy, clear and fast read.

*Don’t lie. Sell yourself with gusto but without exaggeration.

*Prepare your references. Review with your references, including your current boss, the nature of your target program, its appeal to you and your credentials. This information helps your references propel your application with a compelling, hearty endorsement. Poor or unenthusiastic references can, by themselves, be deal-breakers.

*Practice for interviews. Prepare answers to common and anticipated interview questions, and role-play interviewing.

*Be persistent. Rejected from your target program? Call the hiring manager and ask how you could improve your chances next time. Then, apply again.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.


About Author

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Ask your career questions by email to or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.

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