EACH year I see scores of Harvard students put a great deal of time and energy into applying for fellowships. And each year, invariably, I see every last one of them fail.
What breaks my heart the most is that there's absolutely no reason why it should happen. Let's face it--the kids from big state schools that clean up in the fellowship competitions every year aren't one iota smarter or better qualified than the applicants from Harvard.
The difference, I figure, all comes down to this: while the state schools groom and coach their fellowship candidates shamelessly, Harvard's candidates are completely on their own.
That is why I have taken the trouble to write this short guide to the fellowships. I hope this article is a step towards a day, if not in our own lifetime, then perhaps in our childrens', when it will be as commonplace for a major fellowship winner to attend not just a University of Nebraska or Ole Miss, but to hail from our own Harvard College.
I. "Is a fellowship right for me?"
You would be surprised how many people put themselves through the whole harrowing application process without once sitting down and seriously asking themselves, "Am I sure that spending the next one or two years under a fellowship is really what my parents want me to do?"
In fact, each year several Harvard students become finalists only to withdraw at the last minute, when they realize how hard it would be to study abroad while simultaneously attending a prestigious American law school.
The point is that there is no really good reason to pursue a fellowship. Sure, a lot of powerful, famous people were fellows when they were younger, but a lot of powerful, famous people also caught venereal diseases when they were younger, and that doesn't mean you should spend your college years trying desperately to get the clap.
And though there's something to be said about learning about other cultures--on what days students at foreign colleges get served chickwiches, and so forth--being away from the good `ol U.S. of A. for any period of time longer than two weeks gets very tiresome very quickly.
After all, why do you think these fellowship people pay you to leave our country? Consider this: in some places outside America, it's actually possible to walk into an arcade and still see Space Invaders and Pac Man. Space Invaders and Pac Man!
Finally, applying for a fellowship is a bad idea because, should you win one and then not go on to become a senator, you will feel guilty for the rest of your life.
And nobody else will let you forget about your failure either. Whenever you visit your hometown, an old woman will point you out in the street and whisper to whomever walks by, "See that one? Went to the big city, up North, and won a big, fancy fellowship. And you know what? Durn fool never amounted to nuthin!"
But what can you do? She's your mom and you love her.
II. Choosing a Fellowship
Of course, not even a lousy fellowship is ever as bad as an actual job, which is why I recommend you ignore all the above drawbacks and start filling out applications like crazy. First, however, you'll have to decide which fellowships are worth trying for. Some general guidelines:
The more WASPy the name of the fellowship, the better. Fellowships with ultra-WASPy names were all created a long time ago by wealthy patrician families, who made them extremely generous since they'd be won by one of their children anyway.
Avoid any fellowship that requires you to be fluent in French, as this may indicate that the fellowship sends you to France.
Fellowships can be objectively compared by assigning each one a numerical score using the formula D=3t/l2 + 7f3, where d is the desireability of the fellowship, t is the average yearly temperature where it sends you, l is the length of its application, and f is the amount of frequent flier miles you'll accumulate.
If you hate everyone else who's applying for a particular fellowship, you can be certain that that fellowship is just perfect for you.
III. Some of the More Well-Known Fellowships
The following is a list of a few of the many prestigious fellowships that you stand no chance of winning and which I've thrown in here just to make you drool.
The Rhodes: The Rhodes gives students from all over the world the opportunity to spend two years at any one of Great Britain's many fine universities: Oxford and Cambridge. These schools are almost exactly like Harvard, only their Deans of Students are English men with fake American accents.
While Rhodes candidates have traditionally been required to "be athletic and display vigor of body," today all this only means that you can't wheeze too much during your interview.
Nobody knows why the Rhodes is the most sought after of all the fellowships. It is not the most flexible, it is not the most financially generous, and it is certainly not the most exciting. Perhaps the only plausible explanation for the Rhodes' enduring popularity is that it's stated mission--to increase international awareness and understanding--is just so utterly, irresistably goofy.
The Marshall: This fellowship is basically the same as Rhodes, only they show a sexier movie on the plane ride over to England.
The Fulbright: Also a Rhodes clone, but somewhat less classy: during the fellowship the name of your corporate sponsor must be stitched on the back of all your clothes in large, black felt letters.
The Brian D. Reich: This fellowship provides a year of unrestricted travel and an enormous cash prize to a student who writes long, self-promoting articles during his senior year in a blatant attempt to bolster his resume by getting on his college's newspaper. Actually, no such fellowship currently exists, but I'm hoping some rich, philanthropic alum will read this article and set up something like it before I graduate.
IV. The Application Process
Almost every fellowship applicant is tempted to lie about his or her experiences and qualifications to better fit "what they're looking for" in a candidate.
I strongly advise you to remain scrupulously honest at all times while filling out your application. This would mean, for example, not writing that you are currently a Big Brother or Big Sister unless you actually do have younger siblings, or at least an intelligent dog.
Perhaps this moral stand seems unreasonably strict. Remember, however, that "scrupulously honest" is an incredibly protean, subjective concept whose meaning is, happily, quite open to individual personal interpretation.
For example, if you assume that everyone else is lying on their fellowship applications, and you consider yourself to be as worthy of the fellowship as anyone else, then isn't lying yourself the truly honest thing to do? Under these conditions, wouldn't telling the truth actually give the fellowship committee an inaccurate, and therefore dishonest, perception of how you stack up against the other candidates?
In summary, when it comes to fellowships, let "he who is without sin cast the first stone."
An interview before a fellowship committee can be an intimidating experience. Because there are usually several people interviewing you at once, your only hope is to decide instantly who you think is in charge and start answering all of that person's questions while blocking out everyone else--which is harder than it sounds because they can get really indignant about being ignored and start shouting at you.
You can be 90 percent certain that the person in charge of the committee is the one sitting right in the middle, but be warned: this person almost always has some sort of hideous scar or birthmark that is practically begging to be stared at.
If you begin to feel extremely nervous during the interview, one sure-fire way to relax is to imagine what everyone else there would look like dressed only in their underwear (if you start getting turned on, you are probably trying too hard).
Another tip for the interview is to make up a little jingle with your name in it beforehand--something simple, but catchy--and to work this ditty into your answers whenever possible. Long after they've forgotten about the man who isolated the enzyme that breaks down beef jerky and the woman who taught a band of endangered mountain gorillas how to ride horses and shoot rifles, they'll still be singing your name in the shower every day.
Most fellowships ask for recommendations from faculty members or other people who know you well. As these recommendations are often taken very seriously by the fellowship committees, it is advisable that you have them written by faculty members rather than by people who know you well.
V. After It's All Over
It is difficult to celebrate the winning of a fellowship, as there is no insignia merchandise to buy, and everyone else is far too jealous to throw you a party.
Nevertheless, there is something you can do to mark your achievement. Quietly and without pomp, in the wee hours of the night, boot up your computer and add the fellowship to your resume.