In August 2015 I made a decision that rerouted the course of my life. I decided to apply for a Fulbright Grant to get my MA in Irish Writing and Film at University College Cork.
Since applications opened in April, I was admittedly late to the game, so over the next two months I threw myself into my application. Filled with trepidation over my graduation, exodus from college, and the understanding that it was very unlikely that I would achieve my postgrad Plan A, I sought out any piece of advice that would provide me with the reassurance that I was making my proposal as strong as it could be.
There is not a set of rules that anyone can provide to guarantee that your application will be selected. Nonetheless, in writing this blog I wish to offer strategies that helped me. These suggestions are a synthesis of tips I gained from my advisors, professors, and from my own reflections on this period.
Get to Know the Program
The first step I took after I decided to apply was to exhaustively research the MA program. I went online and read all of the available material on the courses and lecturers. This research helped me to articulate in my proposal how the program related to my undergraduate research interests, and more importantly how it would provide me with the opportunity to expand upon that research.
I recommend conducting a similar exploration and taking the time to consider how you and your research fit into the program. If you are not entirely certain of your research topic, this probe can help you narrow your ideas. A strong proposal will clearly express how your research relates to the content of the program.
Get to Know the Lecturers
It is beneficial to mention which lecturers you are interested in working with and how their research areas align with your thesis idea. It not only exhibits the care that you have taken to investigate the program, but also helps you to focus your research topic.
When I re-read my application during my Fulbright year, it was indescribable to realize that I was learning from and working with the lecturers that I had written about in my application. In fact, the first lecturer that I mentioned was my thesis advisor.
Many grants require that you demonstrate an affiliation with your desired university. Even if the application does not require affiliation, you should contact the program head to express your interest and let them know that you are applying for a Fulbright. Emailing with two lecturers allowed me to familiarize myself even more with the program.
Use your Academic Resources
I was very lucky to attend a university where there was a department that specialized in advising students with their applications for scholarships. If your university has a similar resource, I urge you to use it. It was my first time writing a grant proposal, so it was beneficial to me to have an experienced advisor explain the content and structure required of an effective proposal. Even if you have graduated, you should still be able to avail of such resources as an alumna/us. I cannot stress enough how necessary it is to have other people read over your application, especially people who have written grant proposals.
If there is no such department or organization, there is another crucial way that you can use your university to your advantage. When you begin your application, Fulbright will ask if you are applying through your current and/or most recent university or if you are applying alone. I strongly encourage you to apply through your university as it provides the credibility of being backed by an academic institution.
Use your Professors
I recommend that you use your professors for more than just their academic recommendations. Ask your professors to read your application. It will ensure that their recommendation can speak more specifically to your proposal. More importantly, they will have likely applied for grants before — perhaps even a Fulbright. It was a great surprise to discover that one of my referees had applied for a Fulbright three times. The trial and error of applying for grants had taught him how to write a successful proposal. Again, it never hurts to have a set of experienced eyes on your writing.
Statement of Grant Purpose
With your Statement of Grant Purpose, you need to fit a lot of critical information into a limited space. I recommend that you cover the following topics:
· Make a persuading case for why you need to be in this exact program and why you cannot go anywhere else.
· Explain how Fulbright and the MA fit into your future plans.
· Pitch your dissertation proposal and explain how it relates to the program. Discuss lecturers and courses that would benefit your research.
· Describe a project or plan to engage with the community outside of academics and how your contribution to the community is both unique and needed.
These varied topics should be formatted in a methodical yet engaging manner. Structure your statement as you would an essay. In your first paragraph, you need to have a strong thesis statement that lays out your argument and convinces your readers that you deserve this grant. Again, as you would in an essay, structure each paragraph under the topic sentence of a clear statement. Allow your paragraphs to build off of one another into a powerful finish. Remember that every applicant will be arguing that they are the best candidate; so having an effective thesis and structure can set your work apart.
Leave Room for Growth
You will submit your application almost a year before you begin your graduate program. The idea you pitch will change as the MA informs, shapes, and develops your research in ways that you cannot predict. Therefore, I suggest that candidates leave room for growth in their proposal.
In my application, I described the area I wanted to research, the types of literature and film I wanted to explore, and how this idea had developed out of my undergraduate thesis. I then listed and explained the program resources and courses that I wanted to use to further develop and narrow my idea. My final dissertation engages with the same themes I pitched, but my final topic grew out of the MA. If you explain how you will use the program to evolve your idea, you allow yourself the great gift of having flexibility once you begin the program.
Remember the Purpose of The Fulbright Program
The Fulbright Program centers on the international exchange of people and ideas. For your research pitch, it would not hurt to think of an idea that shows a consideration of the purpose of Fulbright. My proposal engaged with the relationship between Ireland and Irish-America in film and literature. While this was a topic that I had researched in my undergraduate thesis and I wanted to continue researching, I also knew that it reflected the goal of Fulbright.
Since the Personal Statement does not have a prompt, I was advised by the scholarship office to give myself a prompt in order to focus my ideas. They told me to write about “where I have been, where I am, and where I want to go.” As you most certainly did with your college admissions essay, the goal is to take a generic format and make your statement as distinct and compelling as possible. But just like with the Grant Purpose, you need to include a powerful thesis statement and prove the thesis in your following paragraphs. You should write a focused, structured, and cogent reflection of who you are. I recommend choosing a few personal anecdotes that illustrate your thesis and make your statement feel more distinct. It also would not hurt to think about who you are in relation to the tenants of The Fulbright Program.
Make Every Word Count
The Statement of Grant Purpose and Personal Statement have rigid page limits. This means that you have no space to waste when articulating your ideas. As you edit, scrutinize your writing and diction to ensure that every single word is working to build your case in the most effective manner possible.
In March 2016 I was filling out an application for a scholarship at UCC. I had not heard back from Fulbright, but I wanted to do this MA program, as I believed that it provided the best opportunity for my academic development and research. But that same afternoon, I opened my email and saw the words from Fulbright that changed my life. I could not have foreseen in that moment the impact that my Fulbright year and the MA program would have on my future. The program enhanced my academic abilities tenfold and led me to a project that I would like to develop into a PhD. I was able to gain access to resources that I could not have accessed in the U.S. For example, I had the opportunity to go filming locations of John Huston’s film Moby Dick, which was the focus of my dissertation. This is not something that I could have done without the grant and the MA at UCC. Furthermore, the friendships I made and the experience of living abroad have enriched my personal life in ways that I will continue to discover and appreciate for the rest of my life.
If you are reading this blog, you might be seeking the same feeling of reassurance that I was looking for during that stressful period. Again, there is no set of rules that anyone can offer to guarantee that your application will be successful. While I cannot offer you such a guarantee, I can offer some reassurance. If you are already taking the initiative to seek out advice from others, then you are most certainly working to ensure that your application is the best that it can be.
-Annie Curran, MA Irish Writing and Film Fulbright Awardee, 2016/17