What is a fellowship?

A fellowship is nothing more than a fancy word, interchangeable with scholarship or grant, for an award that will support study abroad, research, graduate study, teaching, or an internship. In a couple of instances — Udall and Goldwater, to be exact — a fellowship will help pay for your undergraduate education here at Rutgers as well.

How high does my GPA have to be?

That depends on which fellowship we are talking about. The threshold for a few is set very high indeed; others not as much. And I can think of one very prestigious award for which the qualifying GPA can fairly be described as reasonable. In fact, if you have 3.0 grade point average or better, come see me. At the Office of Distinguished Fellowships, we always have at least one award for which you could apply.

It seems that I qualify for a bunch of Fellowships. What do I do next?

Make an appointment with the OPFA. Together we can sort out which of these “fit” best with what you’ve accomplished already and what you hope to accomplish in the future.

Are you saying I should only apply for one of them?

Not at all. In fact, the Office of Distinguished Fellowships encourages you to apply appropriately AND broadly. In other words, you should apply for every fellowship that will get you to where you want to go and with which your qualifications fit snugly. But please remember this, too: You never do yourself a favor when you force yourself into a fellowship competition in which you either clearly don’t belong or only barely.

The deadline for a Fellowship is only a month away. Should I still apply?

Absolutely. Although we prefer you begin the process earlier than this, mustering a competitive application, like most things in life, is not about how long you work at it but rather how well. What matters most is that your qualifications meet the priorities of the fellowship, and since you think this particular fellowship is “perfect” for you, we should definitely talk as soon as possible.

Some fellowships require an institutional endorsement. How do I get one?

One of the nicest aspects of the our Office is that it’s largely a one-stop shop, and among the many things we supply, beyond encouragement, guidance and support, is the institutional endorsement itself, written by the Director of Distinguished Fellowships on the candidate’s behalf. In fact, the institutional endorsement is one reason why it’s better to begin the process of applying as early as possible: The longer we have to get to know you, the better the letter that we write for you is likely to be, and the same logic, by the way, of course also applies to those recommenders writing a their own letters to support your candidacy.

Speaking of letters of recommendations, who should I ask to write these?

The conventional wisdom is that your professors should be writing for you and the higher their rank the better. Indeed, since all of you are current or recent undergraduates, it would look strange if there was no representation from Rutgers faculty among your recommendations. However, the situation is much more flexible than most believe. The bottom line with recommendations is that they must be detailed, specific, supportive and enthusiastic, and for a letter to have these qualities your recommender, first and foremost, must be able and willing to write you the sort of letter that I just described, able because she knows you well enough and willing because she likes you too. And this applies not only to your professors but for any supervisor, on or off campus, whom you might be thinking about asking for a letter of support.

How should I go about asking for letters of recommendation?

When it comes to asking for letters, the first thing I suggest is that you always give the kind of busy people you find at university and in the workplace a chance to say no. The best recommender is not simply someone willing to write a letter but rather someone who knows and likes you well enough to craft a great one for you, one that is, as I mentioned above, detailed, specific, supportive, and enthusiastic. If the substance of your relationship with a professor is nothing more than having received a high grade in her class, that is not enough to generate the quality of letter you are looking for and you should search elsewhere. However, the problem is that a lot of faculty members feel obligated to say yes to your request even if they don’t know you well enough to write the kind of letter that will help you to be competitive. This is why it is always so important to give them an out. I suggest approaching recommenders in this way: Let them know that you would very much appreciate it if they would write in support of your candidacy but also that you understand perfectly if they don’t feel as if they know you well enough to write the kind of—here I go again—detailed, specific, supportive, and enthusiastic letter you must have to be competitive. But once someone who knows you well enough to write a letter for you has agreed to do so, don’t think your work is over. It has always seemed to me that when you are asking someone to build you a tower of praise, the least you can do is supply them with some of the bricks. Don’t think that just because a professor is willing to help you, she has the necessary materials to get the job done sitting around her office. Be ready with the papers you wrote for her class, copies of the prospectus for your senior thesis if you are writing one, descriptions of any research you’ve been involved, your resume—anything and everything that might contain the kind of specific information about you and your accomplishments that might help your recommender to cobble together a personal and professional portrait of you that will be useful to a fellowship committee in making its selections. But even if you shower your letter-writers with all the supporting material in the world, your effort will probably go for naught if you don’t allow them enough time to sit down and do the hard work of writing a worthy, valuable letter of recommendation. The time necessary for this varies from letter-writer to letter-writer, but I suggest you try to give them two months’ notice and if possible no less than one. And make sure all your letter writers understand how and exactly when they must submit their recommendations. The less they have to worry about the process itself, the more energy they’ll have to devote to that tower of praise I mentioned above. Good luck.