My best tips for your Fulbright-National Geographic Application!

My Application

I applied two years ago and my application didn’t move on to the semi-finals. As a favor to you just starting your application, let’s go through mine to see where you can do better.

My application

Here’s the summary of my proposal:

“I will undertake a series of animated film projects at schools and libraries in six locations in Sweden to discover how working together on common challenges builds social cohesion. The projects will intimately involve children in the narration, illustration, and animation of simple kids’ stories focused on environmental issues. The children will be drawn from all backgrounds, and I will tell a story of how these projects promote community building with immigrants and refugees.”
You can read more in depth here:
Personal statement
Statement of grant purpose

Now, let’s go through it step by step!

Main point

This application is a scam. Point-blank. You are asked to spend months and months of preparation entrusting all your highest dreams and hopes to David Braun and Vincent Pickett, both of whom spend their time acting like they are so, so sad because there’s never any application that really, truly will “humanize each other”, and will be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

That, it turns out, is just a bunch of highfalutin, fancy prose from these two. In reality, they want the girl who’s going to go backpacking through Kyrgyzstan, hyperventilating because she rode in a taxi, and they want the white guy to go tell the story about Africa.

This fellowship is nothing more and nothing less than you entrusting your highest dreams, and an awful lot of your time, to a panel that will ignore you, not read your application (see below), and be totally careless with those dreams.

They are the prime example of a Trump-like autocrat. They want all the power — all your time, all your effort, all your ideas. They give you nothing in return. And they want you to sit back and accept their decisions mutely, and treat them as though they are almighty deities with all the right wisdom and all the right decisions

Writing style

David Braun from National Geographic said during a Q&A webinar: “The way you write is judged very harshly. Writing needs to be clear, crisp, no grammatical errors. Poor writing throws you in the non-select pile.”

David Braun 2
David Braun: If you can’t fulfill the most basic requirements, don’t expect my grace and esteem.

So, read my application, and for the love of God, no matter what else you may do, don’t write like me. Let my application stand as an example of how not to write.

New

During at least 3 webinars, they stressed that they are looking for something very new: “fresh”, “unique”, “creative”, “inventive”, that “hasn’t been done before.”

My application was all about doing animations with kids, which definitely hasn’t been done before. So I advise you to pick something new, but make sure your level of ‘new’ stays far away from where my level of ‘new’ so clearly transgressed. Does that clear it up?

A kinder, trusting world

Vincent Pickett from the State Department said during two webinars that your application should “break down barriers”, help create a “peaceful, prosperous planet”, help “humanize each other”, and be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

Vincent Pickett 1
Vincent Pickett says: why aren’t you good enough? Why are you not impressive?

Read my application carefully, find all the times that I talked about these topics, and just … don’t do what I did.

Community engagement

During one webinar, they had fellowship alumni come in and give us their tips. They mentioned that some journalists will go to a foreign country, take a few pictures, and then run away. David Braun from National Geographic echoed that in a later webinar: “What will be the benefits for the community, and the wider world? You don’t want to just come in, photograph people, and leave.”

You know what, I give up. When I compared my 2017 project to all the previous projects, I concluded that widespread community engagement was far more intrinsic to my project than any others.

So, engage the community; but just don’t overdo it.

“Every moment of your life led to this”

The same fellowship alumni also said that you should demonstrate that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant. All your life experiences added up to this. All they have to do is fund you to make something awesome happen.”

You can read my personal statement and decide for yourself whether my application fulfilled this criteria or not. But let’s be real. Because, who was that self-same fellowship alumni who blabbed that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant?” Oh, well, it was a white American guy who’d grown up in Africa. And for his grant, he went traipsing back to Africa to make a movie about how the primitive natives live. And he didn’t even know the local languages – he had to hire a translator. But that’s okay! Because you know David Braun himself, the fellowship dictator, is another white guy who grew up in Africa. So why not?

David Braun pathetic
David Braun: sad because applicants are so unimpressive and it makes him worry for humanity

Digital portfolio

My samples included videos of finished animations that I made with kids. Logical choice since that’s what my proposal was about. Because these videos are on YouTube, I’m able to access viewership statistics. I can even see what states viewers are from. I noticed that from October to December, there was not a single view of the pertinent videos from any of the states where are located the colleges at which the 11-member Fulbright-National Geographic review panel work.

So I don’t think they looked at my digital portfolio at all. Maybe at best they skimmed the first page of the grant proposal. Maybe they look at your name and decide they don’t want to read the rest; or maybe they look at where you’re from and give up from there. Who knows?

Passion

From at least two webinars: “Your passion should come through.”

I was passionate enough about my project that before I ever heard about this fellowship, I had already done it small-scale three times, twice in the US, once in Sweden. I found the classes and libraries to work with, I came up with the idea on my own, I found time while doing my PhD to pull the projects off, and I spent my own money drawn from a student budget for the plane ticket and rooming in Sweden.

So don’t do this.

Feasible

On at least two webinars, they stressed that your project can’t be a fantasy. You have to demonstrate that it’s doable. I’ve done every step of my project before, multiple times, but that’s not good enough. I hope you who are applying now have something far better up your sleeve.

Language skills

They suggest speaking the language of your host country. I do, but that is after all not even semi-finalist standards. I probably needed to win the grand prize for the Sweden-wide “Best Swedish Essay” competition for them to consider me.

Be the best to tell the story

Vincent Pickett from the State Department says: your application has to make clear “how you fit into the story, and why you’re the best to tell it.”

In my case, I understand that the world is chock-full of Americans with Swedish backgrounds and another immigrant background, who make animations, work with kids, and have a background in environmental science, and speak Swedish; how could I ever have thought that I was the ‘best’ to tell the story?? Make sure that you do better.

Affiliation letter

Click here for mine.

Your affiliate must be ‘willing to work with you’, ‘help you carry out the project’, ‘connect you with resources or people’. And ‘if you have local contacts already, then weave them into the statement of grant purpose’. (Quotes from webinars).

My affiliate and I knew each other; we had worked together before on a small-scale pilot of the same project I proposed here … not good enough for semi-final standards.

Recommendations

Two of my three recommenders shared their letter with me.

Here’s the first one.

The second one I received as a google document, and unfortunately I didn’t think to save a copy and now it’s been deleted. But from what I remember of its contents: that I have a “careful, storytelling mind”. That this project is especially feasible because it will take place supported by the existing robust infrastructure of libraries and schools in Sweden; that my work writing in the local community newspaper had been very well-received, that it was entirely on a volunteer basis, and that my readers would email me and even take me out to lunch; something like I have a keen intellect and lots of curiosity; that the recommender herself received a prestigious media fellowship, and she’s married to a former Fulbrighter who now judges Fulbright applications, and with that background, she can still full-throatedly endorse me and my project.

So, to those of you applying now, make sure you show these example recommendation letters to whoever you’re asking; and tell them they’re going to have to step it up about 70 or more notches from here. Because this is not even semi-final standards!

How much time should you spend on your application?

Well, I spent five months. Five stupid months. Let me give you a few tips so you don’t feel as stupid as I do …

First, the fine fellowship judges aren’t actually going to look at your application, darling (see “Digital Portfolio” above).

Second, you can probably finish your application in a day. All you have to do is rush off some silly essay about how you’re planning to spend the fellowship money on a typical, post-college, backpacking trip “through the Caucuses” so that you can really find yourself.

Lens to choose

I picked the ‘Human Journey’ lens and emphasized that, but there was probably some overlap with a more environmental-focused lens. I thought that was okay based on what I heard in the webinars:

Vincent Pickett from the State Department: You need to cover one of the lenses, and they’re pretty broad, but you could cover 2 to 3. Sometimes, there’s “human journeys” happening in very “wild places”.

David Braun from National Geographic: Don’t sweat it too much. It’s pretty much the whole world and everything in it.

Honestly, don’t believe any thing that David Braun or Vincent Pickett say in these webinars.

If your country already had a fellow

Sweden did have a fellow, maybe 2 or 3 years ago; but she was only there for 3 months. During the webinars they said:

“It’s all about the project, first. If a project is proposed for the same country as a previous year, then make it a new topic at least.”

“Syrian refugees is a huge story, and affects millions. So [even if it’s been done before] you could for sure look at it differently. Maybe something that closes the loop, finishes the story, or takes it to a new level.” – Vincent Pickett from the State Department.

In retrospect, that was another lie they told. Or maybe the new State Department policy is that your application can’t say anything nice about Sweden, because it will inflame Trump, because Sweden is one of his favorite punching-bags; or maybe Sweden just told the Fulbright they don’t want any more applications about migration. Who knows?

So who does get these fellowships????

Oh, let me tell you. There was a girl who got to go to Kyrgyzstan. This is what her blog posts sounded like:

 

Oh, my God! Today, I rode in a taxi. Like, oh my God! And I got into the taxi all by myself. Like, oh my God! And guess what, there was a Muslim sitting on one side of me … and a Christian was, like, sitting on the other side of me … and oh, my God, no one killed each other because I was sitting right in between them … can you believe it? Like, oh my God … our taxi ride … oh my God, I just solved world peace.

Yeah, so that was one of the fellows. Sad to say, that’s not even an exaggeration. Literally, she wrote a series of super boring, trying-to-be-profound blog posts from Kyrgyzstan that any backpacker who’s traveled there at probably 1/10 the cost has already written about.

And then another fellow went to Taiwan. Let’s sample her blog posts:

Hehehehehehehehehehe … ! Oh my God … I’m here in Taiwan, and I’m supposed to be  engaging with people  and there’s just one small problem … I don’t remember how to speak Taiwanese … hehehehehehehehehe …. ! So I’m sitting here on a bench with a stranger trying to practice ….. hehehehehehehehehehehe!

Now that you’ve seen some samples, just make sure to make yourself as stupid as possible in your application … that will give you the ticket in.

Final thoughts

vincent snotty0053
Vincent Pickett in peak form

I am so, so sorry for every second, and every thought, that I placed into my application. If I could take every moment back, I would.

I am so sorry that when one of my recommenders disappeared (she was getting married) about three weeks before the application was due, and was no longer answering emails, I biked around at night so I could find someone to give me her phone number, so I could interrupt her two days before her wedding and honeymoon with nagging about my application. I am so sorry for the effort, for the worry, that I gave to tracking her down — and that was just one tiny, tiny piece of trying to put this application together.

I am so sorry for the spreadsheet I made of dozens of libraries in Sweden, of the time I put in searching for libraries in different cities, running through the staff lists and gauging who I should contact, keeping notes on the seventy people I’d emailed, who responded, when they responded, what I told them in return.

I am sorry for the separate packet of notes I put together for each person who wrote me a recommendation.

I am sorry for the twenty pages of notes I took from the various websites with information: the site with the application checklist, the Sweden country Fulbright site, the site with the application tips, the site with the information on the three lenses, the general information site. And I am even sorrier for the I-don’t-know-how-much time it took me to watch seven webinars, most over an hour long, and take 31 pages of notes on them all together.

I am sorry for how I agonized over the website instructions, nitpicked over every sentence, and debated what to do when two sites indicated two different rules to follow; how I censored the number of emails I sent to the contact at the IIE so as not to annoy her too much. Why did I do all that?

I am so, so sorry that both times when submitting the application – both during the initial school submission and then the post-campus interview submission – I re-read every part of the application twice, just to check one last time that there wasn’t any word, any letter out of place. I regret that time and that concentration.

They give you no explanation.

I regret everything about this application.