The Proposal

Many awards will require that you write a proposal that details what you plan to do with the resources allotted to you through your fellowships – whether this be research funds, graduate school funds, or a stipend for a time spent performing service. Think of it this way: you are asking someone for money, so you have to tell what you are going to do with it. The proposal is your chance to argue about why an investment in you would be an investment in the fellowship committee’s goal (research? cultural understanding? the future of foreign policy?)

Even knowing this, students often have trouble knowing what to put into their fellowship proposals. I usually suggest that students begin by writing lists detailing what they plan to do. Here are some ideas to help you get started:

1. Where are you planning to go? If this proposal is for a particular university, you need to explain what this university has that is uniquely suited to help you achieve your goals. If you are proposing to go to a university in another country, you should also explain why this country is significant to you, culturally and academically. If you are planning to do research in another country, you must explain why it is essential that you go to that country to perform your research. As you write, anticipate the question: why can’t you do this at home in the US?

2. What do you plan to do? If you plan to pursue a graduate degree, what do you plan to study? What courses did you plan to take? Will you be undertaking research? If so, what do you plan to research?

If you are planning to conduct an independent research project, you need to outline the question you are seeking to answer and explain your methodology. You should also provide a hypothesis. If any of your work will require special skills or knowledge, you should use your proposal to show that you have the skills and knowledge required to help you complete it.

For either graduate work or independent research, you need to provide a rationale for your work. How will this work help you reach your academic, personal, and professional goals? How will your work advance knowledge in your field? What is new and innovative about your research? Are you building on the research of others? If so, explain this. If you are applying for an award that stresses cross-cultural understanding, you should discuss how your proposed research will help develop this.

This is also your chance to address any problems and challenges you might anticipate and to explain how you will handle them. You should also address any special research permission you might need and how you plan to get that.

How do you plan to document your research? Do you plan to present your findings in an academic paper or via another source? Many fellowships, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, expect you to detail how you plan to disseminate your findings.

3. Who are you working with? If you are applying for a Fulbright, you should have an affiliation. If you are applying for a graduate program, you should have identified faculty members who are doing the kind of research or work that you would like to do. What resources will these sources be able to provide you with? (Also, if there are tools or resources that you will need in addition to what the grant or host institution is able to provide you with, you will need to be able to tell how you will be able to fund that). For the Fulbright, you will have to show documentation of your affiliation, so keep track of all your correspondences.

4. Why is this work so important? This is more of the fuzzy and abstract part, but it is still important. You need to explain why this project is so important to you and why it should be important to the wider world. What is so significant about your project, in other words? Is this project timely – what are the current issues that it addresses? Why is this project important to your host institution? Why is it important to the US?


Be prepared to do a lot of revisions to your proposal, and be sure to get many different people to look over it. For the Fulbright as well as for other awards like the NSF, you likely won’t be afforded an interview to be able to answer questions about your project. Therefore, everything should be perfectly clear, and you should anticipate any concerns a selection panel might have. Again, if you are an A&T something, this is something that I will work with you on!

Other Resources to Check Out:

Yale’s Writing Fellowship Proposals and Essays

Columbia’s How to Write a Compelling Fellowship Application

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s How to Win a Graduate Fellowship

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Grant Writing Tips for Graduate Students

The Social Science Research Council’s Art of Writing Proposals

William and Mary’s Dos and Don’ts for Writing Fellowship Proposals

University of Minnesota’s Writing Arts and Humanities Proposals

Amherst’s How to Write a Good Fulbright Proposal

Alexander Lang’s NSF Fellowship Guide (with examples)

Carleton College’s How to Write Effective Proposals.

NCSU’s Applying for Graduate Research Fellowships

Indiana University’s Applying for Artistic Grants and Fellowships


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