How to (More or Less) Survive the Fulbright Process
Heck yeah, it’s Fulbright season again. Give yourself a minute to moan and death rattle and bang your head against the wall.
Ok, now cut that out, because we’re going to talk about how to take the Fulbright process with a modicum of grace and balance.
Disclaimer: you’ll notice this post is not titled “How To Win A Fulbright.” Even if I had been awarded a Fulbright (I laid that whole story out here), I don’t think I’d be qualified to write that story because honestly there are so many different factors and moving chances and pieces of luck that fall into it.
The majority of people who apply for a Fulbright do not get a Fulbright. The majority of people who apply for a Fulbright are, however, awesome. I personally think that the process of applying to something like a Fulbright has benefits entirely independent of whether or not you are actually awarded and accept the scholarship.
Ok, let’s walk through some steps.
1) Why the heck do you want a Fulbright?
Yes, it looks good on a resume. Yes, it’s fancy. Those are legit factors, but shouldn’t be your main reasons to apply. If your motivation for applying is TO PROVE I AM THE SMARTEST PERSON EVER you’re not going to get much out of this process and you probably need to do a little soul-searching.
Some legit reasons for applying:
You have a burning idea for a research project that you can’t stop thinking about
You’re ready to break out of your college town - but you’re not ready to leave academia behind
There’s a whole giant world out there and you can’t resist the urge to eat it all up
It’s a strategic step that will move you forward in your intended career or academic development
Your professor or mentor mentioned that you might be suited for it and that vote of confidence has you glowing inside.
No one would consider you a Fulbright type and you want to see if you can throw it in their collective faces. I’m all for a little revenge.
You’re considering going into teaching, and you know that an international experience will make you a better a teacher for your future students
You. heckin. Want it.
You’re not sure you want it, but you have a nagging feeling you’ll regret it if you don’t give yourself this chance.
2) Do you qualify for a Fulbright?
Fulbright and similar programs (like CLS, Rhodes, Marshall, Boren, etc.) just seem to be a logical next step for high-achieving students who want to get the heck out of Dodge (no offense to Dodge). This sets up a totally stinky self-selection process that weeds out those of us who may not fit the “traditional” scholar model, who suffer imposter syndrome, or feel limited by financial situations.
Forget that. Yes, you need good grades to get a Fulbright - but it’s not as big a factor as you might think. Passion, independence, potential, and diplomacy - these are all bigger indicators of your ability to get a Fulbright than your B- in Econ 102.
There are some eligibility requirements. Read those. But yes, you can apply for a Fulbright if:
You’re not a squeaky-clean excited college senior - Fulbright is a great way to fund a master’s degree and even us crusty old graduate students and alumni are eligible for sponsorship through our alma maters.
You’re scared out of your mind - it’s ok to be scared. It means you want it. Moving abroad is intimidating. It’s ok to cry your way through the airport and have a nervous breakdown because you can’t figure out how to buy a public transport card. That’s called growth.
You don’t have an obvious plan. This is where you’ll want to look at the different kinds of Fulbright programs. While the study/research awards typically require a university affiliation and a research or study plan, the English Teaching Assistant awards allow for more flexibility. Fulbright also occasionally offers “special” awards, like the Nat Geo Digital Storytelling Award (um, awesome x1000) and the Fulbright-Fogarty Award for Public Health).
You’re self-conscious because you can’t tell the ‘Stan countries apart and are constantly confused by the EuroZone. You don’t need to be a certified National Geographic Explorer. Part of the Fulbright program is to expose you to things you haven’t experienced before. You don’t need to be a walking atlas. You do need to have a respect and curiosity for unfamiliar cultures and the willingness to learn as much as you can about wherever you end up.
You’ve already applied once. Try, try, try again. Welcome to life, where the chances are endless and terrifying at the same time.
3) Ok, now let’s get going.
This is the fun part.
And the painful part.
It balances out.
Another disclaimer - read all the steps online. Know all the official requirements. Memorize the deadlines. Listen to the advice of your Fulbright advisor. But this additional steps could help you on a more personal than academic level.
Start with some statistics (nobody’s favorite words). If you have a goal country and program in mind already, go for it. But if you’re still up in the air, consider going through the statistics from past applicants and countries. They can give you an indication of how many people are accepted to a program each year. They can also give you an indication of which programs are more or less defunct and which are growing. Obviously, not everything can rely on statistics - weird shit happens in geopolitics. I applied for a program that had historically had a 25% acceptance rate, which is pretty good. Unfortunately, I had stated my intention to study Comparative Gender Studies and the government of the country I applied to decided to demolish the program and blacklist the entire Gender Studies faculty that year. I didn’t find that out until after I was rejected. I’m not saying that’s the full reason I didn’t get the Fulbright, but I do have a feeling it didn’t help.
Make a list. Beyond providing stats, this list lets you see every single Fulbright program being offered that year. Some countries offer special opportunities that you might not necessarily know about - a quick glance shows that that Bulgaria is offering a Bulgaria-Greece Joint Research Award (with a 33% acceptance rate) and the Netherlands offers an NAF Fellowship in Flood Management (17% acceptance). That random shit might be your perfect jam.
Ruminate. Hang that list somewhere. Better yet, get a world map from the dollar store and put pins in it. Hang it in the corner of your room. What does your mind keep coming back to? What little colorful boundary lines can you not stop staring at? Undertaking a big project like this requires some passion, and sometimes passion needs a little space to grow.
Ask for a pep talk. Ok, it’s time to write your materials and ask for references. For this to go well, you need to feel like you. are. the. shit. It’s ok if you don’t feel like that the majority of the time. But for the month or so it takes you to get this application in, give yourself permission to grow a big head. This comes naturally to some people (we usually don’t like those people). If it doesn’t come naturally to you, try enlisting the help of a friend. You could probably go on and on about how rad your best friend is, right? They can do the same for you. Give them a copy of your resume (and if you don’t have a resume get your butt down to the career center and get your shit together, man) and ask them what stands out to them. Ask them what they think your passions are. It’s so much easier to see yourself positively through someone else’s eyes. And hey, don’t be a dick - return the favor next time your friend is nervous to apply for a new job, promotion, or scholarship.
4) Forget about it all.
No, really. Once you turn in your application, forget about it. This is along process and, cough, delightfully vague in timeframes. Thinking about the status of your application everyday will drive you crazy. Go about your life making other plans, doing all the other things you need to get done. It’s out of your hands now, and you can find peace in that.
5) Accept the outcome.
If you are ultimately selected as a finalist, you now have a decision to make - do you accept or not? Most people don’t turn down a Fulbright, but at the end of the day it’s your choice and no one can shame you for it. If you choose to accept, your next couple months will be a whirlwind of travel plans and visas and language courses. It’s ok to be nervous the whole time. It’s ok to be ridiculously excited the whole time. Your feelings are all valid.
If you are not selected as a semifinalist or finalist, you’re done for this year. You can reapply in the future. But take a hot second first. Again, all of your feelings are valid. It’s ok to feel sad. It’s ok to feel like you failed. It’s ok to actually be relieved that that pressure is off.
Either way, once you’ve had some space to process your feelings, think about what this process helped you learn.
Which parts made you the most excited? The idea of independent research? The idea of running your own classroom? The idea of living on the other side of the world?
What strengths did you play up in your application - how can you continue to cultivate these strengths?
Did you become closer with a mentor or professor through this process? What’s their advice for your next steps?
Any intensive application is really just one long strengths and skills test. If you’re mindful throughout the process, you’ll end up with a better understanding of your capabilities, your weakness, and your ambitions.