Writing Fellowship Applications

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Writing a strong fellowship application involves an idiosyncratic style that eschews modesty.
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The skills and techniques used in writing a successful fellowship application diverge significantly from what trainees are taught when writing a research paper.

By: Scott Rich, ORT Science Writer

Mastering the conventions of writing research grants and fellowship applications is essential for a successful academic career. However, many training programs place a focus on teaching the conventions involved in writing academic manuscripts, often at the expense of the intricacies of fellowship and grant writing. Many trainees thus fall prey to a common but crippling fellowship-writing mistake: assuming that techniques used in writing a scientific article can be directly translated to fellowship applications. In fact, fellowship writing (which represents a valuable opportunity to cultivate skills for grant writing later in one’s career) involves its own idiosyncratic style that is often antithetical to best practices for writing a research article. These contrasts are highlighted in the writing tips below.

Highlight your responses to the specific questions posed in writing prompts

Fellowship guidelines typically ask the applicant to address specific questions or points in their writing. In a personal statement, these might be leadership skills or how your education has prepared you to be successful; in a research proposal, this might be the novelty and impact of your proposed program. While stating the novelty of your work is typically taboo in a scientific paper, being this explicit in fellowship writing will help differentiate you from other applicants. Remember that fellowship evaluators are reading dozens of applications; thus, making their job easier can only improve their opinion of your work. In this vein, applicants should take every opportunity to ensure the reader will not overlook their responses to specific prompts. If allowed, using subheadings is a useful tool to draw the reader’s attention and make it clear that the writer has thought in detail about the specific questions laid out in the guidelines.

Advertise and emphasize your qualifications

While modesty is a laudable personal characteristic, it can undermine your chances of winning a fellowship. As gauche as it may seem, emphasizing how and why your accomplishments are impressive is a key element of fellowship writing. There is a line between well-earned pride and over-exaggeration that must be navigated, but being overly humble serves as a self-imposed handicap. Instead, take the opportunity to emphasize the strongest elements of your skillset and experience wherever and whenever possible. To this point, remember that fellowship evaluators may not share your exact background, so be sure to clearly explain the quality of your research in an easily digestible manner.

Say what you “will” do, not what you “may” do

Peer reviewers often criticize inexperienced writers for overexaggerating the impact or implications of work presented in a scientific manuscript. However, in fellowship writing it is vital to present these points as strongly and actively as possible. Instead of writing about what experiments you “may” do or what the impact of the results “might” be, clearly state what “will” be done and what the impact “will” be. This subtle word choice projects confidence, which helps to convince the reader that the applicant can accomplish their goals.