Blog Series: Becoming a Fulbrighter – Part I

By Santiago Lopez: My journey to becoming a Fulbright Scholar.

Sunset off of Old Bainbridge Island

I am kicking off a series of posts about the Fulbright Scholarship while enjoying a beautiful summer sunset at Bainbridge Island, a small piece of land 40 minutes from Seattle by ferry. The sun hiding behind the trees and reflecting on the Eagle Harbor bay cannot be a better scenery to start writing. It certainly looks a bit (or too) cliché but nonetheless useful for inspiration. I am writing this first post 2,340 miles away from Montrose, a quirky and trendy neighborhood in Houston that I call my US home, and 3,970 miles away from Medellin, my true home in Colombia.

Ever since I graduated from college twelve years ago, different scholarships have opened an incredible number of doors and opportunities in my life. These grants have allowed me to travel the world, to be in this island today writing this post, to grow personally and professionally, and to find purpose and strength to deliver. One grant in particular has been a life changer, the Fulbright Scholarship. So when I was invited to write for the Graduate Blogs at Rice, it immediately came up in the top of my blog-topic list.

With that said, I won’t list up the benefits and characteristics of the scholarship; after all, this information is available online. Instead, in these series of posts I want to share with you my personal experience applying to Fulbright. In doing so, my goal is to help you demystify the application process and provide you with some tips that can help you improve your chances to get it.

The Fulbright Scholarship is one of the most prestigious grants in the world. It is, indeed, a highly competitive race but you should fear nothing. You do not need to be the new Einstein in your field - although that would certainly help! What you really need the most is time. Yes, as simple as that. Time. Applying to any scholarship is an exhausting and time-consuming process. It demands a significant amount of energy and emotional investment, and you stand very low chances to get it if you rush through the application process. You might find grantees for whom that was the case, but they are the Zuckerberg of the dropouts. It worked out brilliant for him, but that surely is not the case for most.

The Fulbright Commission conducts a careful screening process of the candidates, and the quality of your application materials determines whether or not you make it to the interview. Because you only have one shot to impress the reviewers, your essays, recommendation letters and tests scores need to be top quality. Pristine. And to do that, you need time.

Start early

I started working on my application materials four months before the submission deadline. Even if the scholarship is still closed, you can anticipate these dates based on the last call. The timeline does not change substantially from year to year. You can find this information in your country’s Fulbright Commission website. Once I estimated an approximate deadline, the first thing I did was writing down the list of all required materials and put together a 16-week Fulbright schedule. Every single activity was on the list, regardless of how simple it looked. Whether it was working on my essays or sending an email, everything was scheduled. Having a timeline helped me feel that I was in control of the application process, reducing the stress and anxiety that come along with deadlines.

Set measurable goals

To make the schedule even more effective, I had a measurable goal every week. Instead of setting my task to “working on my statement of purpose”, I would write “make a list of all accomplishments and categorize them by topics (academic, professional, artistic, social etc.)”. Being as specific as possible in my weekly goals helped in two ways. First, it allowed me to hold myself accountable, which pushed me to sit on my desk and work on the application. Second, it gave me a sense of accomplishment. The application process was long and exhausting but every week I could see progress. Being able to track the steps forward made me feel that I was getting closer to finish. These small victories kept my spirit up when I was feeling stressed or behind. More importantly, they gave me the motivation to run the last miles when the imposter syndrome attacked and I felt like dropping the application altogether.

Stick to a schedule

A detailed schedule is particularly helpful to deal with materials and deadlines that are beyond your control. Writing the personal essays, putting together a cv and filling out the application is on you, but submitting your recommendation letters and the time availability for the standardized tests are not. The pool of unsuccessful candidates is full of applicants with awesome essays and great professional trajectories who were disqualified from the process for trivial mistakes. Either one recommendation letter was not submitted on time, or the spots to take the TOEFL were sold out. One slip, that is all it takes for a strong applicant to miss on a life-changing opportunity.

Find an application buddy

My last advice today is to find an application buddy. Think of this process like going to the gym. Sometimes you do not feel the motivation to go and the frustration pushes you to quit. Well, having someone going through the same process helps a lot. I was lucky to have a friend who was also applying to the program. During the application process we held each other accountable. We studied together for the tests, read each other’s materials and provided sincere feedback. More importantly, we encouraged each other to persist in the application. We reminded one another of our own potential and value. This is critical because your ultimate goal is to convince the Commission to invest in you, but you cannot do that if you do not believe that you are worth that investment.

So, if you made it all the way to the end of this post, I hope you leave with three clear pieces of advice. Start working on your Fulbright application with enough time, have a detailed weekly schedule, and find an application buddy. In the next posts I will share my experience writing each of the application materials, so stay tuned for more tips and feel free to contact me if you think I can help in any way.


PS. Both my application buddy and I are Fulbrighters now :)

Further reading:

Becoming a Fulbrighter: Part II

Becoming a Fulbrighter: Part III

Blog Series: Becoming a Fulbrighter: Part IV

Fulbright at Rice

Fulbright: Networking to new experiences

Applying for academic fellowships

About the author: Santiago Lopez Alvarez is a third year doctoral student in political science, and a Fulbright grantee from Medellín, Colombia. He is currently studying how violence affects voting behavior and political preferences, using statistical and data analysis techniques. After his doctoral studies, he plans to work somewhere between the academic and the practitioner world. Read more about Santiago and Fulbright at Rice here.