Advice for Students

For high-achieving students, national fellowships and scholarships can create opportunities for advanced study or engagement, such as experiences abroad, research in important laboratories, and internships in government.

In addition to the experience itself, these fellowships and scholarships carry a certain amount of prestige, which can advance a person’s career and enhance a person’s credentials. These opportunities, however, can be extremely competitive and the application process can be taxing. All of the effort may not result in a fellowship or scholarship, but that does not mean that it is wasted. It will also yield deeper self-knowledge, stronger relationships with mentors, valuable engaged learning experiences, and useful materials for graduate school, professional school, and job applications.

Liz Bibb and Gene Mitchell won Fulbright Grants to Moldova.

Applications for fellowships and scholarships should germinate for years. In your first year or two of college, develop a record of academic achievement—most applications require a GPA above 3.7—and explore your intellectual interests. Once you have identified an interest, pursue it aggressively through coursework, engaged learning opportunities, and extracurricular activities. For example, if you find yourself interested in science research, join a professor’s lab, conduct experiments, and present at conferences. If you find yourself interested in social problems, take courses relevant to the issue and get involved in real-world solutions. If you find yourself interested in international study, take courses relevant to your interests, study foreign languages, and take advantage of study abroad programs offered through Mercer. Think of yourself as building a trajectory of achievement.

Most importantly, begin to develop an intellectual agenda. Your agenda is the answer to the question “what do you want to do?” The answer shouldn’t necessarily be an occupation. Rather it should be what topic you want to study, what problem you want to solve, or what issue you want to explore. Fellowships and scholarship should be a means of progressing on your agenda, not an end in themselves.

Your second and third years are a good time to think about what you want to do and what fellowship or scholarship opportunities would help you reach your goals. Some awards, such as Goldwater Scholarships, Gilman Scholarships or Truman Scholarships, are intended for use by undergraduates before graduation. Other awards are intended for use after graduation, and a few are available to recent graduates. Consider all of the opportunities available to you and select the fellowships or scholarships that would be appropriate. Make an appointment to consult with the Director of Fellowships and Scholarships during this process. We can discuss your interests, opportunities for personal development, and give advice on applications.

When you have selected a scholarship or fellowship, begin the application process early. Deadlines can approach rapidly, and many applications involve multiple components. It will take longer than you think. Some awards require sponsorship by Mercer, so you will need to apply through the Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. As you move through the application process, stay organized and keep track of all of the pieces of the application. Ask your recommenders to write on your behalf as early as possible, at least two weeks before the application deadline, and be sure that they have a copy of the award’s selection criteria and your application materials.

The key element of most applications is the statement of purpose. In this document, you explain why you are applying for the fellowship or scholarship and why you think that you are a viable candidate. The statement is especially difficult because it must be strictly concise while telling a story about your intellectual development, describing your agenda, and making a case for why you fit the requirements for the award. Expect to write several drafts of the statement, and have other readers critique the statement, especially the Director of Fellowships and Scholarships.

Some fellowships require interviews. In some cases, the interviews will be conducted over the phone or remotely, and in other cases, the interviews will be conducted in person. Making it to the interview stage in any fellowship competition is a major achievement. It can also be the most stressful part of the application process. Fellowship interviews showcase your ability to engage with other highly intelligent people on matters of significant import, and they are often the deciding factor in a committee’s final selection of fellowship recipients. During an interview, you may be asked about the history or mission of the award for which you are applying, you will be asked about yourself and your study plans, you could be asked about current events, particularly the issues and events related to a country in which you plan to study. For the interview, dress formally, shake hands, and make eye contact. The best interviews are conversations with energy and enthusiasm on both sides, not interrogations. The Director of Fellowships and Scholarships will arrange a mock interview to help you prepare.

Bear in mind that each research and fellowship opportunity has its own identity and set of ideal qualifications. Your job as an applicant is to convince the selection committee that your personal qualities, interests, and goals genuinely match the opportunity for which you are applying.