Fellowships Explained

1. Fellowships Defined

Fellowships are an investment in a person (a scholar, artist, or future professional) who shows promise to "make a difference" in his or her field. Foundations describe the profile of this person variously: the Truman Foundation seeks “change agents” in public service, for example, while the National Science Foundation seeks young scientists whose scholarship and service activities suggest that they and their work will have “broader impacts.”


Fellowship programs generally ask for evidence of this potential through:

  • excellence in coursework
  • strong and specific attestations by faculty, and possibly supervisors, of the applicant’s excellence and promise
  • evidence of the applicant’s active participation in her or his field
  • a credible record of the applicant giving back to the communities to which he or she belongs
  • work samples that demonstrate the applicant’s excellence and promise as a scholar, writer/thinker, or artist

Fellowship programs usually match the excellence they expect in a candidate with strong support for their fellows. To help the fellow realize her or his potential, fellowships often provide living expenses so that the scholar, artist, or future professional will be able to focus on her or his work. These programs may also provide mentoring, networking, training, prestigious internships, research opportunities, and other enrichment activities.


What makes an award a fellowship as opposed to a scholarship does not rest on the name of the program. The Rhodes Scholarship, for example, is a fellowship program in that it aims to identify persons of extraordinary potential in their field, and to support them through various activities, including study for a degree at Oxford.


Fellowships are generally much more competitive than scholarships, and it takes much more time to apply well for fellowships than it does scholarships. Fellowship programs may require a writing sample, interview, or other evidence of excellence and promise.


See also U.C. Berkeley's Explanation of Fellowships.


The Fellowships Office provides an overview of how to develop into a competitive fellowship applicant:

2. Campus Deadline or Internal Deadline

Some fellowship programs do not allow applicants to apply directly to them. Instead, they ask colleges and universities to assess whether applicants fit program criteria, and to nominate only those applicants who are strong candidates for the fellowship. For these fellowship programs, it is necessary to apply to the University (or through the University) by the "campus deadline" or "internal deadline"; the national deadline is the date by which colleges and universities must nominate candidates.


The internal deadline or campus deadline is established by the university several weeks or more before the national or CSU systemwide deadline. The earlier deadline allows the University to assess applicants and support candidates who will be nominated. When the University nominates an applicant, it often writes a letter of institutional nomination on behalf of that applicant.


Ensure that you know SF State's Campus Deadlines for fellowship programs that require nomination.

3. Institutional Nomination

Fellowship programs that require colleges and universities to nominate applicants usually ask the institution to write a letter that addresses in-depth why the applicant is an excellent candidate for the fellowship. This letter is usually signed by the University’s Provost or President.

4.  Time Required to Prepare a Nationally Competitive Application

Although you will hear urban legends of applicants winning fellowships for which they spent a week or so applying, this is not an advisable course of action. Give yourself several months of intensive writing and re-drafting. Depending on the program, the preparation process may include fairly intensive research or project development activities. In short, applying well may take two to three months, but six to nine months is usual.

5. Number of Drafts to Prepare a Nationally Competitive Application

In general, nationally competitive essays go through about a dozen drafts. Count on an intensive revision process: expect to rethink, re-explain, clarify, restructure, and polish. Be open to feedback and be patient with yourself. At times you may feel discouraged, but if you stay with the process, you will be happy with the outcome. Submitting in an excellent application for a nationally or internationally competitive program is a great accomplishment. The materials and skills you develop during the application process will "pay dividends" in your life, including in your academic and professional career.

6. Portable Fellowships

Some fellowship programs allow recipients to use the fellowship for study at any accredited university in the applicant’s field. The fellowship is thus "portable": the fellow has flexibility in where she or he pursues graduate study.

7. Tenable Institutions

Some fellowship programs support study only at a specified list of academic institutions. The fellowship may not be used at institutions outside the consortium of schools specified by the fellowship program. Not to worry, though: usually these are the top programs in the field.

8. Transcript Requirements

When fellowship programs require a transcript from each institution, do provide exactly this: one transcript for each institution, even when (1) your GPA from the prior institution is reflected on your current transcript, (2) your prior institutions were community colleges, or (3) the transcript reflects courses not in your major or taken long ago.

An exception to this principle are study abroad courses: you may omit a study abroad transcript, but only when each course and each course grade is reflected on your college or university transcript.

Some programs indicate they will accept unofficial transcripts.  Be prepared, however, to provide official transcripts in a timely manner if you are selected by the program.

Even when unofficial transcripts are acceptable, it may be better to submit a photocopy of an official transcript in preference to a printout of a student record.  Student record printouts may look disorgranized and communicate a lack of respect for the fellowship selection process.  

Resources for Applicants

Why Should You Apply for a Fulbright?

Quick Links

Fellowships Office

Dr. Joy Viveros

Phone: 415.405.2128
Fax: 415.405.0340
Reception: The Hub, ADM 250 
1600 Holloway Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94132

For an appointment, please email Dr. Viveros
Email: fellows1@sfsu.edu