Excellent letters of recommendation are critical for successful fellowship applications. I can’t stress this enough; without strong letters, you will not win a fellowship or scholarship. The readers of fellowship applications depend on these letters to give a fair evaluation of your achievement and your potential in the context of their professional experience. I once had a letter (another institution many years ago) from a faculty member who thought a fellowship applicant was an amazing student with tremendous potential. “Pick this one,” he wrote in his letter. And guess what? She was picked. (Of course, there was much more in the letter, describing the student’s fine intellectual qualities, academic achievement, her potential as a scholar, and it was all stellar.)
So how do you get a letter like this? I’ll start at the beginning.
1. Get to know your faculty. This takes initiative on your behalf, and it may be easier for some students than other, but it is critical you do this. Most of your letters of reference will come from faculty members who have taught and/or advised you, so it’s a good idea to start getting to know them early on in your college career. If these folks have known you for more than a semester, have spent time talking with you and evaluating your work, they will be able to write detailed, knowledgeable letters about you. And this is the kind of letter that is essential for a successful application. There may be occasions when you need letters from employers or research supervisors (more frequent for alumni), but the same holds true. If people do not know you very well, their letters are of limited value.
2. Select your letter writers appropriately based on the requirements and selection criteria for the fellowship. Look at the goals you outline in your application. What projects do you talk about? Which intellectual interests? Are you writing a thesis? The faculty who are closely connected to these activities are good candidates to write for you. Someone who knows you very well in another context–say a former high school teacher or work supervisor–may be your biggest fan, but s/he is probably not be such a good choice unless they can speak to qualities you possess or work that you have done that is relevant to this scholarship application. You might be a fabulous camp counselor, for example, but if you’re applying to a master’s program English, your camp director won’t be much help in getting you there. Make sure you choose people who know you well and can speak knowledgeably about you in areas that matter for the competition you are applying for.
3. Discuss your fellowship ideas with your faculty early in the process. Whether you’re applying for a graduate program or creating an independent project, they can be extremely helpful in suggesting excellent programs given your interests and refining your thinking about project ideas.
4. When you ask anyone to write on your behalf, provide them with a current resume, a transcript or degree progress report, information about the fellowship (and the selection criteria!), a draft of your statement of purpose/research proposal/personal statement and clear instructions about when, where, and how the letter is to be delivered. These are all very important, especially since fellowships differ in what they are looking for and how they want letters submitted. Make sure you and your letter writers know these details. In many cases, the fellowship advisor will also ask for a courtesy copy of the letter for her files, but letters of recommendation are typically confidential.
5. Make sure you give your writers plenty of time to get this done. When I write letters for students, I appreciate at least three or four weeks of advance notice. If the deadline is early fall, talk with your writers the previous semester about your plans and find out what would work best with their schedule. Talking with your recommenders well in advance also helps you adjust for their plans. If the professor who knows you best of all happens to be on sabbatical in a far away place with limited email access when you need that letter, you’re in a tough spot. So better to have talked with them well in advance and made arrangements so that you can indeed get that letter when you need it.
6. Problems or questions, talk with your fellowship advisor! And typically, she will want to talk with you about recommender choices prior to your final selection of your writers.
If you’re interested in applying for Watson Fellowship nomination in the fall and we haven’t yet talked, now is a great time to connect! I am in and out of the office during the summer, so my ability to respond to you may be faster or slower depending on when you contact me. You can reach me at email@example.com and/or 802-443-3183. Remember, you are only eligible for this fellowship as a senior/super-senior. All citizenship types are eligible and there is no GPA minimum. What matters is you, your passion and your project. If you haven’t sent me a preliminary Watson application or spoken with me yet about your interest, now is a great time to do so!
Middlebury can nominate four students for the Watson. To be considered for nomination, you must submit the following as a single pdf file by Tuesday, Sept. 13 at noon. No exceptions!
- Watson Application Cover Sheet (at go/watson)
- A proposal explaining what you want to do, your background/experience, and the source of your interest in the topic. Please consult the Watson Foundation Web site; this statement should be a blend of the Personal Statement and the Project Proposal. Draft proposals must be no more than 5 pages long, double-spaced, double-sided, in 12-point font. Do not deviate from this format. (If nominated, you’ll rework this into two separate essays.)
- Academic transcript, printed from Banner Web (provide the chronological format, NOT the degree audit format. We do not need an official transcript for this. The advising transcript works well.)
We will invite a group of applicants to interview with Watson campus committee members; that group will select up to four nominees and one alternate.
Application Process and Timetable:
By June 30: Have read through carefully information on the Watson fellowship site—both at go/fellowships (click on Watson in list) and at http://watson.foundation/fellowships/tj .
By July 20: Draft of cover sheet and combined proposal/ personal essay for nomination application (see materials above) to me for feedback. Do also share with other relevant people for feedback.
Early September: Talk with those you would want to write letters of recommendation for you, just giving them a heads up. Note: letters are only needed IF you are nominated! But you do want to start the conversation with those you would ask.
By September 13 noon: Email your nomination materials to firstname.lastname@example.org as a single pdf. And yes, this is right after the start of classes.
Late September/early October: We will hold Watson interviews for a subset of applicants. Dates/times TBD.
Early November: Watson foundation application deadline
Summer deadlines above are guidelines to help you organize the different parts of the application and get everything done so that you are ready to go by the September deadline. The campus submission and foundation deadlines are hard deadlines. No exceptions.
A few important notes about the Watson:
- Read through (and think through) the Watson website, especially the eligibility section. There are lots of good questions for you to ask yourself and your project idea to see if this is a good fit.
- Your application should really reflect YOU. This is not an academic fellowship. It’s about a deep, abiding personal interest you have and it’s also about you as a deeply curious, independent, courageous person. The Watson foundation is looking for fellows who are independent, imaginative, resourceful, responsible, bold, and self-motivated. Your project is just that—your project and should embody, reflect a passion you have. It does not have to be unique to you but definitely can be. It should grow organically from your life—things that you’ve done, explored, studied, wondered about, are inspired by—and should be personally significant to you. Watson priorities are person first, project second. It does not matter if this project is similar to something someone else did; what matters is that it’s the right project for you.
- Selecting countries: you should be choosing places that are new to you (the stretch factor). You may have been inspired by a period of study abroad or travel in a certain place, but depending on the amount of time you spent there (more than 3 weeks typically), you should not include that country/area on your project list. (And often there are ways to adapt a particular interest to a different set of countries/areas). Also, some countries are of such a broad and diverse scale, you may be able to justify a visit to a different part of that country. China or Russia might fall into the latter category. The Netherlands would not. For some of you, this is an area we may need to discuss further and think about how you might adapt your proposal. And any country on the US state department warning list (NOT travel advisory), you may not include that country on your list. And as you develop your proposed travel itinerary, keep in mind, this may be ideal and you should have back up plans. Sometimes things won’t work out, or the money won’t stretch that far—all possible. I don’t expect you have figured out everything with respect to the feasibility of all components for the nomination process, but I do expect you’ve given serious consideration to different ideas and are prepared for some shifts in your plan. The list of countries ultimately may change between application for nomination, application for Watson, Watson interview and departure, and actual fellowship year. Any country on the US state dept warning list may be listed provisionally in case it changes (and of course, countries may also shift in the other direction too).
- Contacts abroad may take some time to identify and connect with, so definitely allow for that. What you want from them may differ according to your project, but they should provide a resource and a kind of grounding for you in the community/country/project focus. You may also be contributing to them as well—but make sure that your mission, your project is still your own.
- Recommendations—if you are nominated, you will need 2-3. If two, both can be from Middlebury or one from Middlebury and one external. If three, one must be from Middlebury, one external. If you are nominated, I will talk with you further about what is most helpful in these letters for the Watson selection committee.
- Language ability: you will definitely propose going places where you do not speak the language—and you should. But do think about how you will conduct the work of the project in these spaces. Guides/interpreters may be essential in some cases.
- In thinking about your blended personal/project statement for the nomination application, you want to describe the following: Your plan for the 12-month fellowship year, including a description of your project and details about how you intend to carry it out. (In addition to focusing on a topic you are passionate about, the project should be personally challenging (yet feasible), independent, and sustainable over 12 months.) Discuss why you chose your topic, how it developed out of previous interests or experiences, and how it represents a new challenge. You may also want to describe your background, your college years, your professional goals and aspirations, and your reasons for seeking a Watson Fellowship.
This is a frequent question from Fulbright applicants: how do I find an affiliation? What should a letter of affiliation say? Here are some guidelines:
Finding an affiliation:
1. Review the country-specific information about affiliations. A majority of Fulbrighters will affiliate with universities, although in some countries it is possible to affiliate with other types of organizations, such as research institutes or government ministries. Make sure your proposed affiliation is acceptable for your country and appropriate for your project.
2. Talk with faculty here or at schools abroad about ideas for potential affiliations. They may know people who could be helpful and be willing to facilitate a connection.
3. Review the list of Fulbright scholars at http://www.cies.org/ . This is a list of academics who are/have recently spent time at institutions in the US. Both the scholar and the US host may be helpful in identifying potentially good affiliation contacts in country.
4. Organizations you have worked with (in country and in US) may also have connections. Inquire!
What the letter should say:
1. The letter should come from the institution/individual in the host country with whom you are proposing to work. It should be written in or translated to English (and you can translate it yourself), printed on official letterhead and signed by the author. Email correspondence is not acceptable, but you can receive a letter as a scanned document to upload to your application.
2. The letter should confirm that you will be able to affiliate with this organization and describe ways in which they provide resources or assistance to you for your project. This may include the ability to audit courses, access archives, labs or libraries, participate in research conversations, or be part of a research group–really anything that will support your project. If organizations/individuals have not had experiences with Fulbright grantees in the past, you may need to advise them about what to include.
3. Make sure the affiliate understands your project and it’s great if they can speak positively in support of your project and the importance of this work.
How to ask for a letter of affiliation:
- In most cases, this is done via email. Write a brief email introducing yourself, that you’re applying for a Fulbright grant, your project, ask whether they would be willing to let you affiliate with them and explain what you hope they may be able to provide. If this is person has not worked with Fulbright before, you should explain that the affiliate host does not provide any financial support to you, but may provide some of the things identified in the previous section (#2).
- Yes, it is fine to send out a few requests at once. Some people may be slower to respond than others. Some may not agree to help you.
Give yourself ample time for this process. August is generally a difficult month to get responses from academic institutions in particular. And review the Fulbright website, both your country-specific information and in the application tips. There is a lot of great advice there! Fulbright also has a webinar coming up on July 26 talking about letters of affiliation and research/study grant proposals. See http://us.fulbrightonline.org/applicants/information-sessions .
For those thinking about the Rhodes in particular, Frank Bruni’s recent column about second-term mayor Pete Buttigieg is an interesting read:
Webinars for Potential Fulbright Applicants in June
Check these out!