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Writing a Successful Graduate Fellowship Application

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graduate fellowship applications and scientific writing grants

The most obvious benefit of a graduate fellowship is the generous monetary support that pays for your stipend, tuition, and/or travel expenses. The not-so-obvious benefits of writing a graduate fellowship application come from being forced to analyze your research project and set realistic goals. This activity alone will make you reflect about who you are as a scientist, what motivates you in research, and what you expect of your future career. Equally important is that you will develop your skills in writing a convincing and impactful scientific proposal.

The process of scientific grant writing or writing an application demands a well-thought-out and polished product. Therefore, it is not a one-weekend project and can be overwhelming even for those who plan ahead of the deadline. Based on my experience as a graduate fellowship awardee and as an instructor of a fellowship writing class, here is some advice for managing your writing process in preparation of a great application.

Thoroughly Research the Grant Fellowship Application Process

Before you start writing, learn everything there is to know about the application process. Familiarize yourself with the fellowship announcement and website. Pay close attention to the evaluation criteria. Take time to list required materials, instructions, and restrictions for the preparation of your application. Be aware that every fellowship has its own guidelines. If you apply for multiple fellowships, for instance a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a National Institutes of Health F31 NRSA, then you will need to tweak your applications to address the requirements and mission of each program.

Find External Sources for Guidance and Grant Fellowship Application Samples

Many institutions hold seminars or workshops specifically to help you write graduate fellowships, grants, and personal statements. If at all possible you should attend these events but also go a step further and hunt down examples of successful applications. Search for winning applicants at your institution, and meet with them to ask for advice. Many fellow students will be willing to share their application with you, as well as their reviewer comments, where you will see the evaluation of their application. Online sources such as blog posts or websites dedicated to offering advice can also provide sample applications.

Write an Outline of Your Application’s Structure and Logic

Start with an outline to organize your application. Follow the suggested structure of the application and always keep in mind that your thought process should be easy to follow. Again, looking at the structure of winning applications can help you decide how to organize your application. Your outline does not have to be formal—you can quickly write one for your eyes only. List main ideas, order of paragraphs, and even your thoughts. Outline key concepts you want to address in each paragraph to keep your writing focused. Without an outline it is easy to be repetitive and lose track of logic.

Break Your Application into Sections

Use your outline to break your application into sections, and approach your task of writing in stages. Organize your writing process by following a timeline to complete your application in cumulative, smaller goals. This strategy can also help you with writer’s block. You can tackle sections that are easier to write and not strictly from top to bottom. For example, you may want to start with your Specific Aims, because it frames your research goals and rationale. After completing this section, you can move on to the other parts of the application that support this section.

Write Clearly and Concisely

Reviewers have very limited time to read applications. Do everything in your power to make yours easy to read to capture and retain the attention of your reviewers. Succinct and clear prose will help you communicate your message efficiently and with impact. Choose your words deliberately, and write your sentences carefully by following these tips for effective, concise writing.

Write a Visually Appealing Application

Your application will have better chances of being successful if it is easy to digest. Huge chucks of plain text will simply hide your message in a fog of words. Avoid this by breaking your document into short paragraphs. Write informative headings to make your application easy to navigate, and use bold print to emphasize key concepts. Bullet points and numbered lists are also effective for organization, particularly to quickly identify specific aims and methods. Visuals such as figures, schemes, or diagrams simultaneously increase appeal and understanding of your text. Choose them wisely to complement the text and not repeat information to make the best use of space.

Make Your Application Materials Work Together

Essays (such as a personal statement, biosketch, statement of purpose, and/or research summary), letters of recommendation, and transcripts will accompany your proposal. These supporting documents are necessary for the reviewers to evaluate the probability of your research plan to succeed as well as your potential to excel in your career. Your goal is to make your application materials work together as one unit. For instance, avoid re-narrating previous research experiences in the research strategy of your proposal to demonstrate that you have experience with a particular technique. Simply emphasize key aspects of your background and refer the reviewers to the supporting document with all the details.

Draft, Edit, Rewrite, and Rewrite Again

You first draft will never be the best application you can produce. Your first draft will probably be overwritten, repetitive, filled with jargon, and contain grammatical errors. You should plan on editing the first draft on your own. Put the draft away for at least a day, if you can, and then edit it again. A well-polished document will often have at least three-to-five drafts.

Get Feedback from a Wide Range of People

Perhaps the most important way you can help yourself is to get other people to critique your proposal. As many people as possible: ask your advisor, professors, labmates, and friends to go over your application.

Why? You’ve lived, breathed, and thought about this proposal every single day for a while now. That hole in your logic on page three? You won’t be able to spot it, but your advisor or friend will be able to see it.

An additional experiment that will make your proposal stand out? One of your professors, who has a different perspective on your proposal, will be able to suggest it.

In our experience, this is one of the most common ways people make life more difficult for themselves in fellowship writing. Be conscious that outside input will help. Most people you ask will be happy to help, and your advisor has a vested interest in your success. Be willing to accept suggestions and make changes to maximize impact within the limits of your application.


Scientific grant writing or preparing a graduate fellowship application can take months, from writing down your initial ideas to turning your draft into a clear, focused, and coherent product. You will need time to brainstorm, speak with your advisor, research the literature, outline, draft, get feedback, and revise. It will take energy and organization, but the extra effort will be worth your final product and, hopefully, an increased stipend. There is no one formula for writing a graduate fellowship application, but we hope our tips will help you ease your writing process. We wish you the best of luck!

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Image Credit: Christophe BENOIT

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