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On Becoming a Fellowship Candidate

National merit-based scholarships, fellowships, and grants are one reward — a potentially transformative one — of a diverse, rigorous undergraduate education. Your professors and advisors will help you design such an education, but you are its architect. While there is no blueprint to a major fellowship, scholarship or grant, several elements ensure a competitive application and final consideration by selection committees. 

Excellence in coursework

Maintain excellent grades, a prerequisite for success with any fellowship. At the same time, remember that grades are but one element of a strong application. 

Take challenging, diverse courses in and beyond your major. Expand your base of knowledge so that it stretches across academic disciplines and professional fields. 

Find in each course something that connects to your curiosity, interests, direction. Convey that curiosity and focus in all of your work, especially your writing. 

Go above and beyond what your professors explicitly require. Your engagement will be reflected in recommendations from those professors. 

Opportunities with faculty and academic staff

Take advantage of office hours with your professors. Discuss aspects of your courses and related areas of study that you want to understand better. Learn about their research in order to spark your own in the future.

Share your academic and career plans. Challenge yourself and invite your professors to take your work to the next level of knowledge and standard of excellence. Establish an ongoing dialogue with them, one that conveys your expanding intellectual range, self-awareness and awareness of the world.

Seek opportunities to conduct research under the supervision of a professor. Determine what types of research activities are conducted in your field. Join an established research program or develop an independent research project. Take advantage of summer research opportunities such as NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

If you study abroad, cultivate relationships with faculty at the institution where you are placed or organization with which you are affiliated. If you work with a community group or nongovernmental organization, speak with your supervisors about needs of the organization that you might address in the future as a Fulbright grant recipient or through another international award program.

Visit the Fellowships and Grants Office (Hunter 309 and 305) to talk to staff, learn about opportunities and use the office’s reference library.

Communication skills

Take writing courses to develop your ability to capture your thinking on the page. Take courses that involve public speaking, as many fellowships require interviews in addition to essays. 

In your contributions in the classroom and interaction with peers, be mindful to articulate your positions clearly, succinctly, and with specificity. Your goal is to develop your intellectual voice and capacity for critical reasoning and reflection. Risk explaining your logic. Remain open to different perspectives. 

Knowledge of the world

Enrich your perspectives about people, places, and events by following the news, reading broadly, and exploring informed blogs. Consider travel and study abroad. At the same time, remember that fellowship committees recognize that many students cannot afford to study abroad. There are many ways to travel intellectually and culturally without boarding a plane to another country. 

Participate in intercultural events. Attend lectures. Read scholarly and professional journals in your field of interest. Consider volunteer work or an unpaid internship in an arena that exposes you to populations or social issues beyond your usual experience. Sophomores and juniors may apply for a stipend from Whitman to fund an unpaid internship. Also note programs that fund study-abroad opportunities.

Research in your field

Independent or collaborative research positions prepare you as an active contributor to knowledge in your discipline. In the process of conducting research, you will gain a wealth of insight into your field and its precise methods. Your experience will allow you to talk concretely and authoritatively about your work in your applications for fellowships and scholarships.

Consider, again, applying for a summer REU.

Experiential learning

Fellowship committees want to know that you not only have various interests but also that you are engaged in them. Seek internships to gain experience in your field. Use every summer productively. Look for these opportunities sooner rather than later, knowing that others are on the same track. 

Initiative and leadership

Work to improve the world. Give generously of your time in public service or volunteer programs dedicated to addressing social problems or needs about which you care most. Think about what you can do beyond "lending a hand," and dedicate yourself to doing it. If a service or program does not yet exist to address a particular need, consider developing one that will. Seek out professors and other mentors to help you implement your ideas.

Participate in extracurricular activities that are meaningful to you. There are no "best" activities. The important matter is that the activities reflect you.

Submit essays for prizes, undergraduate conferences, and undergraduate journals. Revising your essays for submission will also have a salutary effect on your writing.

Faculty in your major are good resources for these opportunities. The director of Fellowships and Grants is available to work with you on your essays suitable for submission to journals and other outlets.


Take time to reflect on your interests and experience. The process may well clarify which scholarships, fellowships and grants best suit you. 

Visit the Office of Fellowships and Grants. It is a vital resource for you. Meet with us to discuss your plans, your goals, your life of learning in general.

Consideration, appreciation and commitment

Consideration, respect and reliability go a long way toward gaining the support of faculty and other mentors who will advise you and write recommendations on your behalf. Send a note of appreciation to professors for a helpful reference or an insightful meeting. 

When you ask for letters of reference, common courtesy dictates that you give your recommenders several weeks' notice. (We recommend four.) Thank them before and after they submit their letters, and keep them apprised of the status of your application.

Adapted, in part, from Jim Hohenbary's "Becoming a Strong Candidate for Scholarships."

Fellowships and Grants Team
Career and Community Engagement Center

Jess Hernandez, PhD
Director for Fellowships and Grants
Hunter Conservatory 403

Jenny Stratton, MS
Administrative Assistant for Fellowships and Grants
Hunter Conservatory 305

Fellowships and Grants
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