How to Win a Fulbright Scholarship

How to Win a Fulbright Scholarship

Key Takeaways

  • There are numerous types of Fulbright scholarships.
  • Applicants should want to be cultural ambassadors and have a great project proposal.
  • Recipients often go on to achieve stellar careers.

The Fulbright program has encouraged individuals from the U.S. and more than 160 other countries to study, teach or conduct research abroad while sharing ideas, building mutual understanding and fostering friendly international relations.

Founded by the late Democratic politician and longtime U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, the program was established in 1946 as a model for the type of international discussions and collaborations that help people discover solutions to urgent global problems.

Fulbright awards may be used to pay for post-college scholarly pursuits such as graduate education and academic research. More than 400,000 people have participated in the program, which provides about 8,000 merit-based awards annually. Experts say the goal is to spur immersion in a new culture, to help others and for Fulbrighters to bring the insights they gain back to their home countries.

“We want to have people who would be dynamic students and be able to contribute the U.S. perspective in those classrooms as well as be able to bring their renewed understanding of Europe or Asia or Mexico back to the United States,” says Daniel Kramer, director of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program at the Institute of International Education.

Different Types of Fulbright Awards

The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. government and supported by academic institutions, corporations, foundations and foreign governments. There are Fulbright awards for U.S. citizens through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, plus Fulbright scholarships for citizens of other nations that are available via the Fulbright Foreign Student Program – so the application process depends on a candidate’s nationality.

There are also Fulbright scholar and specialist awards for faculty and administrators, teachers and other professionals.

The application process for a non-U.S. Fulbright candidate varies depending on his or her home country. Many nations are involved in the Fulbright Program, and each has its own eligibility requirements and deadlines. Fulbright hopefuls from countries outside the U.S. should conduct research on their nation’s application process, and they can use a Fulbright web tool to find information on country-specific rules.

Fulbright U.S. student award amounts are based on federal appropriations, but typically the award includes round-trip transportation to and from the host nation, room and board plus incidental costs, accident and sickness health benefits, and access to a 24/7 mental health and emergency support number. Some countries provide support for dependents as well, so Fulbrighters can bring their families with them, Kramer says.

The award also includes 12 months of not having to compete with the public when applying for federal government jobs.

U.S. students in some nations may also have the following costs covered by their grant: allowances for books and research materials, midterm enrichment activities, partial or full tuition waiver in partnership with the host university, language study programs and orientation activities. Students can research the stipend amount and specific award benefits for each Fulbright award before applying.

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In addition to awards for U.S. and non-U.S. students, the Fulbright Program also provides funding to U.S. and foreign faculty, researchers and other professionals through its Fulbright Scholar Program and Fulbright Specialist Program.

The duration of a Fulbright scholarship varies depending on the type of grant, but often lasts for one academic year.

Applying for a Fulbright Scholarship

Any U.S. citizen may apply for any U.S.-based Fulbright program, as long as they meet that award’s criteria, regardless of their age, and applicants aren’t required to be enrolled in higher education. However, they must have a bachelor’s degree by the time they start the program.

Applicants can apply through a U.S. institution where they are currently enrolled or most recently studied, or directly to the program as an “at-large” applicant. Unenrolled applicants who apply through their alma mater may do so through anyone the school designates as a point of contact, which could be a Fulbright-specific or fellowship adviser, an honors college adviser or a professor.

More than 2,200 U.S. students receive Fulbright awards annually, and there are no limits on the number of applicants or winners from a specific school.

Fulbright applicants aren’t required to be recommended by a campus adviser. However, many schools have someone on campus who specializes in advising students on their applications.

“I do think those offices make a big difference,” says Rina Ravisundar, a Fulbright alumnus who studied as an English teaching assistant in India during the 2022-2023 academic year after graduating from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “That is how I got information about how I wanted to tailor my application, what’s important in my application and things like that.”

It’s also wise to attend Fulbright info sessions where faculty show examples of successful essays and resumes, Ravisundar says. If that’s not possible, she recommends reaching out to past Fulbright winners.

“I used LinkedIn to look at their past accomplishments leading up to their Fulbright, to see if there were any common themes in activities, volunteer work or jobs,” she says. “This was especially helpful when I cross-referenced Fulbrighters who also attended UIUC because I knew I could improve and gain the skills that made them stand out in their application by partaking in the same or similar activities on my campus.”

The application process typically runs from April to October. Candidates compile transcripts, personal essay, a statement of purpose, project description and three letters of recommendation. Depending on the award a student is applying for, a letter of support from the host country may be required.

Applicants may complete multiple Fulbright scholarships but are eligible to apply for only one award each cycle and must select their desired country when applying.

Each applicant is considered by a panel of professionals from the Fulbright’s national screening committee. The Fulbright Commission or U.S. embassy in the potential host country reviews semifinalists and makes recommendations to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for approval and final selection.

This typically begins around February or March of the following year, with award offers sent by mid-April, Kramer says.

Some students defer graduate school admission or job offers in order to accept the Fulbright, but applicants should be aware that they can’t defer a Fulbright award, Kramer says. However, employers sometimes allow individuals to take a sabbatical from work to complete a Fulbright program.

Fulbright Scholarship Criteria

The selection criteria for a Fulbright depend on the type of award; the criteria for a research award differs from a study or English teaching assistant award. There is no minimum GPA requirement, but an applicant’s academic profile will be considered.

“Ultimately what Fulbright is looking for are people that are going to propose great projects, but if necessary step away from those projects and be incredible cultural ambassadors and find ways to engage with their host community,” Kramer says.

In addition to plans for meaningful cross-cultural engagement, the selection committee is looking for applicants who showcase a specific passion for a specific purpose in a specific country in a well-written application, says Tim White, director of international academic initiatives and Fulbright Program Adviser at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

“When I advise students, I often push them to be as specific as possible, enabling the committee to literally picture them doing the work they propose to do in that country,” he says.

Applicants should highlight any personal connections to the country in which they plan to study, Ravisundar says. She was passionate about studying domestic violence and wanted to get involved with a domestic violence shelter in India, a country in which she lived for part of her life.

Because the program is heavily focused on community engagement, applicants should clearly explain their understanding of the culture they intend to enter and how they plan to immerse themselves in it, she says.

“Outside of your transcript and your recommendation letters, what they really look for once all of those have been met is the personal aspect,” she says. “They want to make sure you’re really passionate about this and that you have a reason that’s connected to the country you’re applying to.”

Tips for Fulbright Applicants

Experts offer additional advice for Fulbright applicants.

Avoid Procrastinating

“Because the Fulbright application asks about your candidacy as a whole person and your motivations for undertaking a Fulbright grant at this moment in time, it requires deeper reflection than the typical job application,” Erica Kowsz, associate director of fellowships at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, wrote in an email.

Procrastinating could also put recommendation letters in a bind. Ravisundar says she gave recommenders a month or two to get their letters to her.

Avoid Stereotypes

Because the Fulbright is an international award that requires applicants to engage with other cultures, White advises students to “avoid stereotypes, even subtle ones, as well as any reference to local culture that is merely surface level.”

Application readers “are likely to be well traveled and well trained in an academic subject area,” he says, “and they will not be moved by cursory references to the culture or traditions of the nation that applicants hope to live in for the nine to 10 months of their Fulbright.”

The Impact of a Fulbright Scholarship

Fulbrighters gain language skills, cultural perspective and a valuable network of friends and resources, experts say, and they often go on to achieve stellar careers.

Famous Fulbrighters include Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners, government and business leaders, scientists, entertainers, fashion designers and athletes.

“Fulbright awards give an undeniable boost to career prospects, graduate school admissions and job applications,” White says. “It is so very worth going for it, because the process of applying itself is also its own important form of professional and career development.”

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