Five keys to an outstanding fellowship application

Author: Ana Sofia Bermudez Rioseco, California Sea Grant Communications Assistant

When applying for California Sea Grant’s State Fellows Program, you’re ready to take your educational and professional career to the next level. You are eager to become a leader in the scientific field you love, connect science with management and policy, and to take a step towards your future. But first thing’s first… the seemingly looming application process. 

Applications can be stressful. Though it may be intimidating, your application is truly your chance to stand out and showcase the best version of yourself and your work. Although there is no such thing as the perfect application, there are certain qualities that can enhance or hinder your chances to land a spot as a state fellow. Here is everything you need to know to have a high quality application that will make you shine. 

1. Start early 

group photo state fellows 2018
2019 state fellows at a group retreat at Bodega Marine Laboratories

This is the best action you can take—both for yourself and your application. Starting early will give you a valuable “time cushion” that will prevent a lot of stress. This cushion can be used for editing, fine-tuning, or simply polishing your application to the best of your abilities. Set your goals, visualize your success, plan, and organize. 

Furthermore, good letters of recommendation often take some time to write. By asking your recommenders to write you a letter early on in the application process, you will allow them their own time cushion to give you the best personalized letter you can get. 

2. Be thorough

state fellow Kate Melanson
State Fellow 2019 Kate Melanson presents at a meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council

Vagueness is your biggest enemy. The selection committee is not familiar with your work experiences, and vagueness will only make it harder for them to understand where you’re coming from. You may have the perfect background and aspirations to be a state fellow, but if you don’t clearly convey this message your application may fall flat. 

To avoid this, be specific. Don’t assume the selection committee will know what you’re talking about—write it out instead. Explaining what you want to accomplish as a state fellow in detail is a great way to not only to make your application stronger, but to allow the selection committee to best match you with a host. 

Remember each part of the application is equally important, so be thorough throughout. 

3. Get great recommendations

guy in front of big boat
2019 State Fellow Sam Blakesley at the Port of Oakland.

Letters of recommendation have a great influence on the strength of your application. “Having very thorough and early communication with your letter writers to make sure they have the amount of time to be careful and go through [their letter] is very important,” says California Sea Grant’s Catherine Courtier, who helps administer the program. 

A weak letter of recommendation can hurt your application. Make sure your recommenders are specific on how they know you, the type of person you are, and the meaningful work you accomplish. Though it may go without saying, verify that your letter of recommendation is tailored to the California Sea Grant State Fellows Program. Turning in a generic letter that can be used for any application will not give the selection committee much to work with, and could potentially be a missed opportunity to make yourself stand out. 

On the other hand, a shining letter of recommendation justifies your positive qualities and strengths. Put some thought into who you want your recommenders to be, and remember that their ability to write you a good letter may be more favorable over a career title. 

4. Pay attention to instructions and details 

Small mistakes reflect poorly on your overall application. Though there are no specific flaws that will make the selection committee automatically not consider a complete application, small errors might make the difference between you and  someone else. 

Always follow directions. If the application calls for two pages, then write two pages. The selection committee is reading many applications, so consider quality over quantity (they will thank you for this!). Knowing how to succinctly and comprehensively convey your message will improve the quality of your application and will showcase your written communication skills.

Pay attention to continuity, professionalism, and grammar. Though often overlooked, small errors in these fields will detract attention from your answers. You want to make your application interesting and pleasant to read, so don’t disregard the details.

5. Let your passions shine through

At the end of the day, the selection committee wants to know why you want to be a state fellow. They are interested in your motivations, your goals, and your willingness to learn. 

“Giving more of yourself and your passion, personality, and excitement is going to come across easier than writing an experiment, hypothesis, and results in narrative format,” says Nick Sadrpour, who also helps administer the program. Be heartfelt and genuine in your answers. This is the chance to do what you love!  

Having a variety of experiences is very attractive in an application. If there is a specific field you’re interested in, convey your passion and what makes you attracted to that position. However, always be sure to keep an open mind. Being a state fellow is an educational experience; you may never know where you’ll end up learning, discovering, and succeeding. 

The California Sea Grant State Fellow application process is meant to push you forward, not set you back. When in doubt, ask questions, check resources, and seek help. Just like your work, put your heart into your application and you will come out on top! 

group photo of people
2019 State Fellows at their fellowship retreat in La Jolla, CA.

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