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College Admissions: Think About Graduate Fellowships Your 1st Year of College

Thursday, August 06, 2015


If you’re a college freshman heading off to school or university, it may seem awfully early to consider what comes next. After all, you have four years! And between the wide range of graduate schools and careers that exist, there are a lot of options. For most of those, it’s fine to wait a few more years to narrow down your choices. But if you’re interested in prestigious international fellowships, I encourage you to start thinking about them now.

Let me clarify what I mean by “prestigious international fellowships.” These are well-known, fully funded scholarships to earn a degree, conduct research, or teach in a foreign country for at least a year after graduation. Because there are a lot of fellowships out there, this post won’t get into prestigious awards that fund you within the US (like National Science Foundation grants). Instead, I’ll be discussing top international fellowships and what you should keep in mind during your university career if you want to be a good candidate. That said, a word of warning: Do not let your university years revolve around the pursuit of one of these awards! All of them are very competitive, so your odds are low. They also all have different focuses. If you follow your passions during university, earning good grades and doing interesting curricular and extra-curricular projects, you will likely meet the criteria to apply for some of them.

Rhodes: The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and best-known of any of the awards on this list. It is tenable at the University of Oxford in England, where students can earn a second BA, a Master’s degree, or a DPhil. It also has a particularly grueling selection process. Notably, the original charter for the scholarships specifies that students will be judged not just on scholastic achievements, character, and leadership potential, but also on success in sports. This criterion is now interpreted fairly broadly: non-competitive participation in sports (such as social ballroom or swing dance) is usually considered to count as the required proof of “energy to use one’s talents to the fullest.” Still, if you want to be a candidate for the Rhodes, you need to fulfill this condition in some way. Also, in addition to a personal statement, the Rhodes application requires five to eight recommendations, with the strongest applicants submitting seven or eight. This means that prospective Rhodes Scholars should begin building strong relationships with professors, employers, research supervisors, and sports coaches as early in their university careers as possible. Finally, the Rhodes interview process is notoriously wide-ranging and confrontational. Interviewees may be asked to quickly formulate and defend positions on controversial world events. You should keep up with world news and practice answering difficult questions quickly.

Gates-Cambridge: For nearly a century, the University of Cambridge in England had no equivalent to the Rhodes Scholarship. In 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation established the Gates-Cambridge Scholarships to fund international students at Cambridge. This is notably one of the few international fellowships that will fund an MBA (as well as other Master’s degrees and PhDs). While Gates-Cambridge Scholarships are extraordinarily selective, the application process is less intimidating than the Rhodes process, consisting of only the usual Cambridge graduate application, plus one additional personal statement and one additional recommendation. Students are evaluated first by the department to which they applied at Cambridge, with only top-ranked students in each department being considered by the Gates-Cambridge Trust. Interviews are conducted by panels specific to each subject area (and unlike Rhodes, Marshall, or Mitchell interviews, they can be done over Skype if travelling to the interview site presents a hardship). In my experience interviewing with the arts and humanities panel, the interview format was fairly relaxed, with a focus on how well Cambridge fit my goals. (Not so relaxing: Bill Gates’ parents sitting in on my interview.) The Gates-Cambridge looks for people who will be influential in their fields rather than future world leaders, so there’s less focus on public service than in the case of the Rhodes, Marshall, or Mitchell. As a result, the group of scholars is more diverse and less concentrated in politics- and technology-related fields.

Marshall: If you love the United Kingdom but don’t have your heart set on Oxford or Cambridge, the Marshall Scholarship may be for you. It funds two years of study (with a possible third-year extension for PhD students) at any UK institution. One fun and unique thing about the Marshall is that students who are not doing PhDs are encouraged to earn two different one-year Master’s degrees at two different institutions, so scholars have the chance to live in two UK cities and study two subjects. Based on my experiences with them, Marshall Scholars tend to be very public service-minded and very ambitious. The scholarship also focuses on the “special relationship” between the UK and the USA, so be prepared to write an essay about your desire to live in the UK as well as a more specific personal statement and plan of study.

Mitchell: Drawn to Ireland? The George Mitchell Scholarship is a one-year postgraduate award tenable at universities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, awarded to twelve students per year. It focuses on public service and leadership as well as academics, and most scholars can articulate clear, world-altering visions. The living stipend is one of the most generous of the prestigious fellowships, but the application process can be scary. While only four recommendations are required, to get to the in-person interview stage, you must also complete a recorded video interview and a Skype interview. Finalists are then invited a weekend similar to the Rhodes weekend, with social events and mixers as well as a formal, confrontational interview. (My panel had a dozen people shooting difficult questions at me.)

Watson: The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is incredibly open-ended: You get $30,000 to travel and have new experiences. There are no research or degree requirements; in fact, formal research is discouraged. However, there is a catch: only graduates of forty small, selective liberal arts colleges are eligible to apply. If you happen to be attending one of those (the list is here), lucky you! Talk to your college’s fellowships advisor about how to become a good candidate, as each partner college each has its own nomination process.

Erasmus Mundus: Erasmus is a popular European program that funds study outside of students’ home countries. While it’s well-known and well-regarded in Europe, it’s not as commonly discussed elsewhere because so many of the scholarships are restricted to European residents. However, there’s a branch of the program—Erasmus Mundus—that runs Master’s degrees and PhDs split between multiple European institutions and offers generous scholarships for non-European residents. There are Erasmus Mundus programs in nearly every academic field I can think of, with separate websites and application processes for each. A compiled list, sorted by field, is here for Master’s degrees and here for PhDs. Note that although many of them are very enticing, you can only apply to three Erasmus Mundus Master’s programs per year if you want to be eligible for funding!

Fulbright (and more): The Fulbright Program actually includes a wide range of scholarships, but the most relevant to soon-to-be-university-graduates are research grants and English Teaching Assistant grants. The former provide a year of funding to work towards a Master’s degree or conduct independent research; the latter provide a year of funding to work as an assistant English teacher. Fulbrights are available in over 150 countries, with application requirements (such as the required level of proficiency in the local language) and selectivity rates varying widely. All countries require proven academic achievement, and all research grants require an established affiliation with a local institution and a compelling research proposal. (It’s easier to find an affiliation than you might imagine. If you study abroad during undergrad and want to return to the same country, find a host institution and professor while you are abroad! Otherwise, e-mail and call professors whose work aligns with yours late during your junior year.) Some countries will interview you; some will not. (I didn’t have to interview for Germany, but a friend who applied to Spain completed a phone interview.) Once you have a specific country in mind, it is also worth looking into country-specific grants. For instance, the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) funds graduate students in Germany, while the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme funds and places English teachers in Japan.

Most importantly, if you are interested in any of these fellowships, talk to your college’s fellowships advisor at some point during your freshman year! Most of these fellowships (all but the Gates-Cambridge, in fact) require an endorsement from your college. This will usually be written or ghost-written by the fellowship's advisor, so it can help to build that relationship now. Be sure to check in with him or her regularly. In your junior year, you need to become very serious about fellowships if you plan to apply. Many have deadlines in October or September of your senior year, and it can be hard to get in touch with potential recommenders over the summer. Secure your recommenders’ agreement before you leave campus at the end of your junior year, and be sure you leave yourself lots of time for drafting and revising statements over the summer. (The Rhodes Scholarship statement that secured me an interview offer went through sixteen major drafts!) For now, though, don’t think too hard about your postgraduate plans. Focus on excelling in your classes, working on cool projects you’re passionate about, and keeping up with what’s going on in the world. After all, those are things that will serve you well regardless of whether you apply for prestigious international fellowships.

Ilana Walder-Biesanz conducted independent research in theater and opera studies in Munich, Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. She has an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from the University of Cambridge (where she was a Gates-Cambridge Scholar) and a BS in Engineering from Olin College. She has worked as an actress, an opera critic, a psychology research assistant, and a software program manager. She will join Yahoo! as an Associate Product Manager in August 2015.

Jodi Walder-Biesanz is the founder of Portland, Oregon-based College Admission Coach LLC which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. Contact her at [email protected]


Related Slideshow: Ten Reasons Why Your First Year Out of College Stinks

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You can't go to work in your pajamas

In college you rolled out of bed and went straight to class (maybe). You put your hood up, slippers on and went back to sleep as soon as you sat down in the lecture hall. If it was really a rough morning you probably forgot to brush your teeth, but it was okay because you'd do it when you went home for your mid-morning nap. 

That's your handbook on how to get fired immediately in the working world. Get used to early mornings. Or at least mornings. 

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No more naps

Speaking of naps... you don't get to take them anymore. Not your mid-morning nap, not your late morning nap, no, not even your post-lunch comatose nap. Jobs don't come with nap time. 

Let's take a moment of silence for those beautiful naps.

Now get back to work!

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The weekend doesn't start on Thursday, Wednesday

You scheduled your classes so that you had no school on Friday and could enjoy three full nights of partying. But you could only make it to Wednesday...

Because screw it! dollar beers Wednesday night at your favorite bar! Cheers to a four-day weekend!

Those four-day weekends are gone now that you're out of college. And if you do go out partying Friday and Saturday night, it's likely that you'll waste your two days of freedom nursing a hangover in bed.

Cheers to Netflix, a good nights sleep and peace and quiet! Ugh. 

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Suddenly you have a drinking problem

Speaking of four-day weekends...

In college you had an excuse for your excessive drinking and partying: "that's what you do in college."

Now, your habits haven't changed and you no longer have an excuse. Suddenly your partying ways seem wrong and you feel judged. Old habits die hard, but your workplace won't see it like that. 

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No more free gym

Let's be real. It's not like you took advantage of the free gym when you had it. Your four-day weekends interfered with your motivation to work out. 

But you're growing up now. You're an adult! (haha). And if you want to go to the gym have fun paying AT LEAST $40 a month.

Let's be real. You still probably won't go. 

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You either move back home, or you pay rent

You just had four years of freedom - your own place, away from your parents. Even if you did pay rent, it was likely for a tiny apartment in a college town where the cost of living isn't too steep. 

Now you have two options: 

1. Move back home and feel like you're back in high school. 

2. Get a place, pay rent, and be even poorer than you were in college. 

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It's harder to meet people

Classes, clubs, greek life, parties, campus bars. Basically hundreds of places to make friends at your finger tips.

Now you really have to make an effort to meet new people and keep up relationships. It's really easy to go to work, go home and go to sleep everyday. And a lot of your college friends moved away after graduation. 

Make an effort to do something you like with people who share similar interests. Get to know your coworkers on a personal level. Make seeing your friends one of your top priorities no matter how tired you are without your naps. You'll need your friends more than ever now that you're out in the big bad world! 

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You're back to the bottom 

You worked four long years to acheive that senior status, to finally feel competent in your major and to be the boss at your campus job.

Well that's all over now. 

If you're not an intern, you're probably still at the bottom of the food chain at work. It stinks, but suck it up and take it because someday.... someday far away... you'll be at the top again. 

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Your parents are disappointed in you again

Ah, graduation day. A whole day to celebrate you and your acheivements. Your parents were so proud. 

Now if you don't have a job, or you're living at home, or you're still asking for money, it can feel as though you've accomplished nothing. You don't want to go to grad school, but they want you to. You don't want to work for your dad's company, but he wants you to. 

Just remember, even if they don't show it, they are very proud. 

Prev Next


As if your paycheck didn't already seem small enough.


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