Advice for Applicants

Listen Up

We advise students —so we’ve got lots of advice for you. Below you’ll find our guidelines about what to do before you apply, while you’re applying, and if you’re preparing for an interview. Preparing to apply for a nationally competitive fellowship begins long before the actual application. It starts when you get to Hopkins.

But why not hear it straight from students who’ve already gone through the application process?

Mark standing in front of the ocean with waves crashing on rocks.Crafting that one 1000 word essay gave me a mandate to synthesize all the experiences that had shaped my values and commitment to service to-date…
Mark Brennan, Mitchell Scholarship

Listen to Your Peers

Before You Apply

Selecting Classes

The classes that you choose during your undergraduate career should reflect the passions and interests that you will write about in your application essay. And they should give you a strong foundation for pursuing graduate studies and/or an independent research project. While your GPA is important in fellowship competitions, so is your selection of classes.

Research Profile

From your first semester, you should work to build up your research profile. Depending on discipline, this could mean seeking research training working in a lab; developing an original research project and seeking the support of a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award (PURA), Dean’s Undergraduate Research Awards (DURA), or Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship; or writing an undergraduate thesis.

Extracurricular Activities

Internships and active participation in volunteer work are essential components of a strong fellowship application. From your first semester, volunteer for an organization linked to your interests. The JHU Center for Social Concern can connect you with such community service opportunities and internships. Once you have explored fellowship options, you may choose to involve yourself with a specific type of service activity that increases your chances for that fellowship. For example, students wishing to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship will want to engage in tutoring or teaching activities that offer experience working in a classroom or one-on-one. The key is not quantity, but quality—aim for a deep leve of involvement in a smaller number of experiences that are linked with your interests and thus the narrative of your application.


To apply for almost anything, you’ll need letters of recommendation. These are most often academic letters of reference. From your first semester onward, cultivate relationships with your advisers and other professors, particularly those in your field. Attend their office hours to discuss readings for their classes, share your interests and goals, and ask their advice about coursework. They can also provide helpful advice about selecting graduate school programs. Once you decide which fellowship(s) you will apply for, ask faculty at least one to two months in advance to write a letter of recommendation. For most nationally competitive fellowships, letters written by professors—and not graduate students and instructors—carry the most weight. And not all recommendations are academic references. For some fellowship applications, letters from internship or service experiences can be highly relevant.

Language Study & Studying Abroad

A number of fellowships give grantees the chance to live abroad; many require at least some knowledge of a foreign language. Studying abroad during your undergraduate career naturally demonstrates your ability to adapt to life in a foreign country during a post-graduate fellowship—something you’ll want to emphasize in your application for that fellowship. By learning one or more languages, you not only open the door to additional fellowship opportunities, you also facilitate your ability to conduct future research in your chosen country.

Look into Fellowships Early On

While most nationally competitive fellowships require that students are in their senior year at time of application, a few award programs are geared toward freshman and sophomores. Begin researching fellowships during your freshman year, and take the steps listed above to put yourself in the most competitive position possible. Please note that some internal JHU deadlines for fellowships fall up to six months before the official deadline.

While You’re Applying

Application Essays

Many fellowship applications require two primary essays: a personal statement and a research statement (though not always titled as such). These essays are intended to complement each other. Therefore, be sure to read over your drafts with an eye for avoiding repetition and ensuring that you write a consistent narrative in both essays, a narrative that aligns with all parts of your application.

The winning essays that are available for you to read in our office or the Office of Study Abroad are seventh, tenth, or even twentieth drafts. Therefore, we strongly encourage you to start the writing process early. Ask your friends and advisors to critique your essays, send us your drafts so that we can provide you with feedback, and schedule an appointment with the writing center to work on the mechanics of your writing. It is not necessary to ask people who know your topic well to critique your work; in fact, sometimes it is better to ask a non-specialist to examine your essays since such people often compose the majority of a fellowship committee.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of support are a crucial part of your application. They serve to complement your essays and the rest of your application; they allow a fellowship committee to hear impressions of your character, intellect, and drive from others.

It is advisable to select professors who know you well as a person, (i.e., you have made the effort to attend their office hours and interact with them outside of the classroom), who know your research well, and on whom you have made a favorable impression. The best-known professor in your department is not the best selection, unless she/he fulfills the above criteria. The strongest letters are those that demonstrate knowledge of the student’s project and, therefore, highlight the project’s significance and that can give precise, memorable examples of how *you* are a superior candidate for the particular fellowship. When considering whom to ask for a letter, the key question is: Who is motivated to write on your behalf?

Approach your referees early. Whenever possible, ask them in person to write a letter of recommendation at least one to two months in advance of the fellowship deadline. We highly recommend involving them in the early stages of your application process, while you are deciding how to present yourself in the application materials. Their insights will prove invaluable and they will be well-informed of your interests when they write their recommendations. Make an appointment to talk with each prospective referee and begin the conversation with a discussion of your goals and interests before asking for a letter of recommendation.

Once your recommender has agreed to write you a letter, please ask if he/she would prefer that you email or deliver in person, a packet that comprises:

  • draft of fellowship essays, most often a research proposal and personal statement
  • résumé/CV
  • unofficial transcript
  • submission instructions
  • a description of the fellowship for which you are applying from its website or ours

The last item is very important, as each program has a different nature, purpose, location, and focus. You want to give your referees the information they need to write the best letter possible for the specific fellowship you’ve chosen.

And keep in touch with your recommenders after the fellowship process. Send them a brief thank you note and give them updates on your progress through the stages of the competition, even if you’re not selected. Should you need a recommendation in the future, this kind of follow-up communication will continue to foster a close, positive relationship with your letter writers.

Preparing for an Interview

Some fellowship competitions that the NFP coordinates require an on-campus interview (such as the Fulbright, Gates Cambridge, Rhodes, Marshall). Some programs require finalists to interview with an external committee (such as the Rhodes, Marshall, Luce, Truman). The NFP provides candidates with more precise information about on-campus interviews and works extensively with finalists who have external interviews. Here are some general guidelines to consider:

Before Your Interview

  • Ask a friend to conduct a mock interview with the questions that we supply and ones that you find through a Google search, etc. You can also make flashcards with interview questions to practice on your own.
  • From your first practice interview onward, use the timeframe of the actual interview. If the real interview is 25 minutes, make sure each practice one runs only 25 minutes. You need to develop a sense of how much – or how little – can be covered in a given time span.
  • Be sure to carefully read the website of the fellowship you are applying to, in order to become as familiar as possible with its requirements and goals. For instance, for the Fulbright grant, each country has slightly different requirements even if the application is the same across the board. For another example, you should be prepared to answer what you will do during the fall semester if applying for a program whose start date is in January. And, of course, you should be able to succinctly answer how you are equipped to fulfill the particular goals of the fellowship.
  • Arrive at the interview with two or three strengths in mind—specific examples what make you an excellent candidate for the particular fellowship. Be sure to get these in, whether in response to an interviewer’s question or at the end when given the opportunity to add anything else.
  • Arrive at the interview knowing what you wrote in your application backwards and forwards. Interviews can take place several months after you handed in your application, yet the interview panel likely has read your application the night before and might ask precise questions about details of what you wrote. At the same time, be ready for the possibility that the interview strikes out in a new direction and only barely references your written application materials.
  • Be on time. In fact, be at least 15 minutes early. Interviews are conducted back-to-back with interview rooms reserved for a limited time. If you are late and miss your interview there are no make-ups.

At the Interview

  • The informal talk that takes place before and after the interview itself is also important, because the committee is learning about you as a person during this time. Be sure to remain professional from the moment you walk into the room until you leave.
  • Greet each interviewer individually by making eye contact, shaking hands, and smiling.
  • From the start, treat the interview like a discussion. Don’t be on the defensive and remain calm, even if it feels like the panelists are challenging you.
  • Be sure to regularly meet eyes with all members of the interview panel, not only the person who asks you a question.
  • Keep your answers concise and precise. Imagine a 60-second initial response to each question. Interviewers will ask follow up questions if they wish to know more, but it’s hard to interrupt you. You want them to find out as much as possible about you, which more questions can facilitate.
  • Answer the question directly in the first couple of sentences. If a yes/no question, state “Yes, I find that…,” etc. If seeking a piece of information, let us know this information right away: “The biggest challenge to US national security in East Asia is…” Stating your answer up front allows you to better organize your response and to let the interviewers know immediately what they’re listening for.
  • After answering the question in the first couple of sentences, give well-chosen *precise* examples, statistics, or evidence to support this answer. Don’t be afraid to use “first, second, third” to help your audience stay with you. At the end of your answer you can reiterate your main point or end on a statement that could prompt a deeper line of questioning on what you just said–steering the interview.
  • When choosing which information to include in your responses, focus on complementing the information found in your paper information, rather than using the same examples. This will allow the interviewers to learn more about you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask an interviewer to clarify a question. It’s also perfectly acceptable to answer with “I don’t know.” At the same time, try not to stop at “I don’t know” but instead pivot to another related topic you are comfortable talking about. This can keep the interview’s conversational tone intact.
  • Don’t preface your responses with statements such as “It’s just my opinion” or “I’m biased in my response, but…” Such phrases undermine your answer before you even get to it. The committee wants to know your opinion. An effective way to state your opinion is “In my experience, the issue of x is about……” or “From what I have seen [in context x], I believe….”
  • Avoid saying “never” or “always,” as they invite assured challenges from the interviewers.
  • Keep relaxed, smile, and take your time. The people interviewing you want to be there and are excited to learn about you and your research.
  • When the interview is completed, thank the panel for their time.

Justin standing in front of the White House.[T]he NFP helped expand the vocabulary with which I could discuss the places I hoped to go and those that I had come from…The inward benefits of piecing apart ideas and putting together applications were as great for me as those outwards ones.
Justin Falcone, Truman Scholarship