Getting Started: Information and Advice

Getting Started: Exploration to Application

A fellowship is a merit-based type of grant—financial support awarded to an individual for some specific experience, usually in a competitive context. Other terms, such as award, scholarship, and studentship, are essentially interchangeable in describing funding awarded for a special opportunity.

Define Your Goals
The first step in the process is self-assessment. Consider the type of experience you wish to have. Do you want to conduct research? Attend graduate school? Pursue a project of great personal interest? Serve a community in need? Immerse yourself in a foreign culture? If your goals have clarity, substance, and merit, fellowships can help make them a reality.

Research Suitable Opportunities
Identify fellowships that best serve your unique interests. As you explore the many fellowships, pay careful attention to the purpose of each award and consider how it aligns with your goals. Info sessions will expose you to the wide variety of funding opportunities available through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (URAF). And from the start, always make sure that you meet the specific eligibility criteria.

Consult Knowledgeable Resources on Campus
URAF staff can help you identify fellowship opportunities related to your goals. In addition to the resources at 77 Dunster, every residential house on campus has at least one dedicated House Fellowships Adviser (HFA) with whom you can discuss funding opportunities. And later on, HFAs will assist you with many aspects of the application process. Your professors, thesis advisers, and TFs are also excellent resources with whom you can discuss your postgraduate academic goals, project plans, and essay drafts.

Apply for Fellowships!
When you have decided which fellowships to apply for, your application materials will influence selection decisions. Each application has its own requirements, but your application essay and the recommenders you choose  ultimately will be most influential in determining outcomes. In some cases, you may also be invited for an interview.

Applying for Fellowships

The Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships administers both national and Harvard-specific fellowship competitions that fund graduate school programs in nearly any field, purposeful travel experiences, public service projects, laboratory and field research, and more.

Applying for fellowships requires careful thought and preparation, especially if you hope to learn from the process. It requires defining your goals, researching suitable opportunities, presenting your case, and marshaling supporting materials.

Whether or not you win a fellowship, the application process will have certain benefits. From beginning to end, it asks you to think about your goals and why achieving them would be fulfilling. It helps you clarify your thoughts and gain experience expressing them—and it builds your confidence in each of these abilities. We wish you the best in these pursuits!

Finding a Fellowship for Your Unique Interests

As you carefully consider your personal or intellectual postgraduate goals, be clear about a couple of things as you get started:

  • Fellowships are means to achieve your goals, not the ends or goals in themselves. They offer unique opportunities to do something important at a given time in your life, but there’s no way every qualified candidate can win one. Staying focused on your goals will ultimately help you benefit from the application process.
  • Done well, applying for fellowships takes time, effort, patience, and a willingness to learn from the process. While applying for grants, you may also be working on activities, writing a thesis, looking for a job, applying to graduate school—maybe even going to classes. Budget your time accordingly, and don’t spread yourself too thin—give yourself room to give your best efforts to this process.

Researching Suitable Opportunities
With your unique goals and interests defined, begin your search of relevant fellowships. The Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships administers both national and Harvard-specific fellowship competitions that fund graduate school programs in nearly any field, purposeful travel experiences, public service projects, laboratory and field research, and more. Deadlines for both Harvard and national competitions are nonnegotiable, so work backward from that date to ensure that you budget enough time to thoughtfully compose and compile all application components.

Pay attention to eligibility criteria and application procedures as you compile your list. Do you need to be a US citizen? Is there a GPA cutoff? Do you need to be nominated by your institution? Is financial need a requirement? Some of these restrictions and procedural requirements may narrow your list.

Fellowship Application Essays

Every fellowship application requires a statement from you. No matter how impressive your accomplishments or recommendations may be, this essay will be the core of your application. Whether it takes the form of a personal statement, a project proposal, a topical essay, or some combination, it is the only element in your application over which you have complete control.

Remember that your essay is essentially an exercise in expository writing, but with a twist—it also needs to be persuasive. As you get ready to write, think about the following questions:

How will you demonstrate the match between yourself and a particular project?

  • What inspired or motivated you for this project?
  • How are you prepared? Language proficiency? Coursework? Contacts? Organizational affiliation? Experience traveling alone?
  • Consider the project's intellectual validity. Why there? Why now? How is it important or meaningful?

How will you demonstrate a match between yourself and a particular fellowship?

  • Does the fellowship seek specific personal, academic, or extracurricular qualities or accomplishments?
  • Can you provide strong, persuasive evidence to support your candidacy?

What elements will you draw on to be persuasive?

  • Does the project seem feasible?
  • Connect the fellowship opportunity to your past experiences—compelling moments in your personal and/or academic life, interesting anecdotes, something that shaped your outlook or motivated you. Focus on relevant experiences. Your essay should not be a narrative resume.
  • How will this project/experience impact your future goals/pursuits?

Selection committees want to learn about you and how well you and your project mesh with their expectations of an ideal fellowship recipient. Clarity and authenticity are essential in application essays. Avoid unnecessary jargon. Tell the committee who you are, what you’re about, what makes you tick, what you want to do, how you plan to do it, and why it’s important—and do so in an honest voice and style.

Consider your audience. Selection committees typically are comprised of faculty from a broad range of academic disciplines, so write for an intelligent reader, but someone who’s probably not an expert in the field.

Letters of Recommendation

Nearly every fellowship application requires letters of recommendation from individuals who are in some position to assess your qualities as a candidate. These references provide independent corroboration and support for the claims you advance in your application. Think about a fellowship’s orientation when you consider possible recommenders, as well as how each person knows you. Your chemistry thesis adviser may know you very well as an accomplished scientist, but she may not have much to reveal about your preparedness for a deeply personal purposeful travel fellowship.

The ideal reference will come from someone who:

  • knows you well in the context of the specific fellowship;
  • can evaluate your performance and potential in detail;
  • and will write on your behalf with obvious interest and enthusiasm.

While you’re a student, you will usually find such individuals among your instructors, advisers, coaches, administrators, and supervisors. When you have to narrow your choices to two or three recommenders, consider who knows you best. Selection committees weigh many things in reviewing letters of recommendation, but they always focus on what recommenders can actually say about you, based on their experience.

The more informed your recommendation writer is, the better the letter will be. Share your application essay with them. Set up a meeting beforehand to explain your goals and the fellowship opportunity in detail. This also provides an excellent opportunity for you to receive valuable feedback on your application essay draft or fellowship proposal.

Give your recommenders ample time (ideally 3+ weeks) to prepare their letters before competition deadlines, and be sure they know how to submit them.

The Interview: What to Expect and How to Prepare

Typically, before they make their final decision, selection committees will call a short list of candidates to interview. This part of the process is equally important as the written portion, and you should give this interview as much preparation as you did the application. Fellowship selection committees are regularly comprised of faculty and staff from around Harvard College and Harvard University. Selection committees at the national level are similarly made up of successful academics, professionals, and former scholarship winners. Generally, committee members are fascinating people, and you should count yourself among them!

The following are some simple steps you can take to prepare yourself to interview successfully:

  1. Reread the fellowship description/website and your application. Selection committees are looking for someone who is a good fit for the fellowship, meaning, someone who knows what the fellowship is about and can argue their harmony with those goals.
  2. Read the news and any other major publications on your topic/region of interest. You will likely be asked questions that test your knowledge of the critical issues/theories underlying your intellectual interests, as well as the current prevailing opinions on the matter. (e.g. If you’re proposing to travel to Thailand, what are the issues affecting the Thai people/region today? If you’re proposing to do academic study, what are the most exciting developments happening in this field?)
  3. Practice answering mock interview questions, even the easy ones. At some point during the interview, you will have a chance to talk about yourself in an open-ended way. The committee is genuinely curious about you. Candidates often stumble on this question, because they haven’t practiced simply explaining who they are and what they like to do. This prompt is not designed to challenge you, although others are, and you should prepare for both types of question. You should also expect that at some point during the interview, you will be asked a question which challenges an assertion you’ve made, or generally puts you off balance. These questions are designed to see how you respond to pressure. Stay calm, take a breath, collect your thoughts, and respond in a respectful and collegial manner.
  4. Practice the art of redirection. It may occur that you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer. Don’t panic. Acknowledge that you understand the question, but then direct your response toward something about which you do have knowledge. (e.g. “I haven’t read that particular article, but Edward Said had some interesting thoughts on the matter…”) Alternately, the committee may ask you a question to which they expect that you won’t know the answer. (e.g. How would you cure the common cold?) This is your opportunity to be creative and think on your feet. Whatever answer you give, be confident and sell it! Never leave a question un-answered.


Some general advice:

  •  Arrive early, especially if you are traveling a long way. Anticipate that your flight will be delayed, there will be traffic, the subway will get stuck, your shoe will break, etc.
  • “Appropriate dress” applies to your behavior too. In addition to wearing appropriate clothing (conservative business attire is usually fine), be sure to sit up straight, make eye contact, and smile. Don’t hold anything in your hands while talking unless you’ve been asked to take notes.
  • When answering a question, don’t just respond to the person who asked it, address the entire selection committee.
  • Play well with others. If your interview involves an opportunity to meet the other candidates, genuinely show an interest in them, as well as the committee members.
  • Have fun! Even if you’re feeling anxious, try to let yourself enjoy the process and the company.

The Project Budget

Some grant and fellowship programs—at Harvard and beyond—require applicants to submit a budget with their application materials. The main purpose of a budget is to answer an important selection committee question: what will it cost for you to complete the project you outline in your grant proposal?

Your application as a whole must demonstrate the significance and feasibility of your project.

  • You demonstrate its significance by addressing basic questions such as: How does the project benefit a community? Contribute to a body of knowledge? Enrich you as a person?
  • You demonstrate its feasibility through basic mechanics such as: Where will you need to go and what will you need to do there? How long will it take? Do you need a visa or research clearance? 

To many reviewers, the budget you submit will be an important indication of your project’s feasibility. With that in mind, take time to research your funding needs appropriately.

Basic Questions

For every budget you submit, you will be asked to address three basic questions:

  • What are the legitimate expenses required for you to complete your project?
  • What assets do you have to commit to the project?
  • Subtracting assets from expenses, what do you need to support the project?

Expenses include any legitimate costs required for the successful completion of your project. For most returning undergraduates, major expenses will include travel (to and from the site as well as site-specific travel associated with the project), room (housing expenses throughout the project), board (expenses for food throughout the project), and major incidentals (such as archival fees, film, a passport, or vaccinations). If you’ll be living at home, or if your organization provides housing, you won’t need to list these expenses. In any event, let your project determine what you ask for.

Some funding sources—not many—allow students on financial aid to factor summer earnings expectations into their expenses. As a general rule, however, lost income is not considered a legitimate expense. 

Assets include any sources of income you know you can dedicate to the project. These might include a part-time job, family contribution, another grant, or a loan—but they should only be sources you can devote to your project. For example, if you’re willing to allocate $1,000 from your savings to the project, say so in your budget. But if that $1,000 is earmarked for books next year, or is a gift from your grandmother for educational expenses, don’t feel obligated to include it as an asset. Don’t worry if you really have no assets to contribute—committees only look for honest assessments of circumstances.

Need is essentially the result of a simple equation subtracting assets from expenses. If there are complicating factors in the equation, be sure to tell committees about them somehow. If a selection committee thinks your project has competitive merit, it will typically want to help meet your need if it can.

Guiding Principles

Every budget you submit should follow three guiding principles:

  • Be consistent—nothing in your budget should be at odds with the project requirements described in your proposal, or vice versa.
  • Be conservative—selection committees have limited funds to disburse and usually want to award as many grants as possible, so consider your request accordingly, and economize whenever you can.
  • Be careful—that said, be sure to provide adequately for basic needs such as food and shelter, as well as any special needs for your health and safety. 

Higher Education in the UK

The Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships administers a number of fellowship competitions that support graduate study in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Prestigious national fellowships include Rhodes, Marshall, and Mitchell. We also offer Harvard-endowed funds for graduate study and research opportunities in the UK.

General Resources for Studying in the UK and Ireland

British Council’s Education UK
Maintained by the British Council. Provides an informative overview of higher education in the UK, with information on courses, student life, funding, advice for prospective students, and other useful information.

Higher Education in Ireland
Information and links from the US-Ireland Alliance particularly helpful for those considering the Mitchell Scholarship.

Times of London Good University Guide

Guardian Higher Education Guide

Courses of Study
Provides extensive information on graduate courses of study and student life at British universities. Allows both browsing and searching of postgraduate course databases. Commercial site

Maintained by the Higher Education Career Services Unit. A guide to postgraduate study in the UK, with information on courses, research opportunities, and funding.

UCAS Handbook
Maintained by the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service. Provides a guide to all undergraduate courses of study in the U.K.

Additional Information on Universities and Courses

The Complete University Guide

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Qualitative assessments of degree courses in the U.K., focused on teaching and student experience, indexed by institution and subject.

Research Assessment Exercise
Research quality results of the UK-wide Research Assessment Exercise conducted in 2008. Peer-reviewed government ratings of UK programs and institutions.