Throughout September we will be publishing articles detailing the experience and advice from winners of a number of grants and awards. The second post in our series is written by Verena Holztrattner, recipient of the Eccles Centre European Postgraduate Award, 2016.
Writing applications can be a scary undertaking, especially if you have only recently graduated and cannot yet boast with an impressive list of publications or extensive work experience in any specific area. You might even feel that you have not achieved anything truly noteworthy so far – except, maybe, making it through college alive. What you should keep in mind when lurking feelings of disappointment and self-doubt threaten to engulf you is that you are not alone in this and that there are several strategies which can help you breath freely again and tackle applications more effectively.
I will not pretend that the following checklist will resolve all problems you might be facing in the application process and secure you that grant or scholarship you are hoping to receive. What I do hope to offer are some guidelines which will help you devise an ‘application game plan,’ a sequence of steps you should consider in the application process which you can then use and personalise as you see fit. All I will say is that I followed this model when applying for the Eccles Centre European Postgraduate Award 2016, and it worked for me.
Step 1: Preparation – Take #1 – Background Research
It might seem obvious, but the first thing anyone planning to write an application needs to do is to make sure they know exactly what it is they are applying for. Only reading the two-paragraph grant description available online is not enough if you are seriously considering applying for a grant. Familiarise yourself with the organisation offering the grant by studying its homepage. Read up on its aims, its internal structures, and its past and forthcoming events to know exactly what they have been up to recently. In the case of periodically awarded grants such as the Eccles Centre European Postgraduate Award, organisations usually publish information on past nominees (for information on recipients of the Eccles Centre Fellowships in North American Studies check http://www.bl.uk/eccles/fellowshipsawarded.html) and sometimes even personal accounts and reflections. If you have access to such information, have a good look at it – it might help you find out what the organisation is looking for in applicants. Thorough background research prior to the writing process will not only help you find a proper way of addressing the organisation in your application, but also allow you to show that you know exactly what you are doing and whom you are dealing with. The effort you put into this kind of preparation is both a sign of respect and a proof of your dedication and determination.
Step 2: Preparation – Take #2 –Self-reflection
In order to sell yourself most effectively you need to know exactly what you are good at and what you have achieved so far. The self-reflection process can be somewhat uncomfortable – especially if you are modest with what you have achieved – but it is an essential part of any application process.
It is perfectly fine if your CV is shorter and somewhat less impressive than the ones you might find online – everyone has to start at some point. One good way of showing that you have not wasted your college years is listing the extracurricular activities you have engaged in. You have been part of your university’s drama group or worked as a volunteer for a local non-profit organisation? Brilliant! It shows that you are capable of working in a team, that you have acquired time management skills, and that you have used your spare time sensibly. You have attended or helped organise a conference at your university, formed a study group, or started a book club? Excellent! It proves that you are eager to participate in university-related events after classes too. While such activities might strike you as slightly underwhelming compared to the page-long publication lists of internationally acclaimed researchers, they show that you are diligent, determined, and passionate about your interests and academic aspirations – qualities which you will want to emphasise both in your CV and in your letter of application.
Step 3: Curriculum Vitae
It always helps to see how other people have chosen to present themselves and their achievements on paper; looking at a number of CVs of professionals in your field will give you an idea of what is possible with regards to style, format, and content. While it is useful to know which CV formats exist, I would strongly advise you against simply copying one model. Try, instead, to devise a personal style which best reflects your experience, abilities, and goals.
Coherence and consistency
Chose one style and stick to it. If you opt for bullets points, be sure to use them throughout your CV (unless you want to foreground one particular section; then, of course, it’s fine to be a bit exuberant with regards to style); if you think you can present yourself best in full sentences – fine. As long as you follow the KISS principle – keep it short and simple – you should be okay.
At the level of content, CVs form a highly standardized genre. Your CV has to contain details on your person (remember that it is not customary to indicate age or sex), your (college) education, and your work/research experience – very straightforward. You can, however, polish up this fragmentary biography by listing extracurricular activities, additional trainings, internships, language skills , etc.
A nice way to start a CV is by providing a short paragraph on / bullet point list of what you consider your ‘primary qualities.’ This section, which is usually referred to as ‘Personal Profile,’ allows you to promote your skills in the most prominent space on your CV and is bound to catch the readers’ eyes. Your ‘Personal Profile’ is of course most effective if you adapt it to the grant you are applying for – think of which strengths are required in the specific context of the grant and highlight these aspects of your character and experience which are most relevant to it.
Before sending out your CV, be sure to triple check dates, names, and spelling in general (it always helps to have someone else have a quick look over it for typos and the like) – inaccuracies and mistakes in your CV are virtually inexcusable.
Step 4: Letter of Application
It helps to view letters of application as an excellent opportunity to introduce yourself and your work to an organisation which is, in fact, craving to get to know inspiring people like yourself. It is your chance, in short, to show your strengths and demonstrate your dedication to the project you are working on. Since self-advocacy is no mean task, I would advise you to start out by putting together a list of issues you want to address in your letter. I usually take down some key terms and phrases related to my project, some adjectives which best describe my character and experience, and some notes which might help me explain why this specific grant will assist me in my research endeavours.
And so the journey begins…
While the application committee might have had a brief glance at your CV, keep in mind that they have never actually met you and therefore need explicit information regarding your person. This is why it is sensible to start your letter of application by stating who you are, which university you attend, and what it is you are doing there/what position you are currently holding. You can pack this information into the very first sentence of your letter and thereby ensure that your readers know at the first glance who is addressing them. Since the first few sentences of an application are usually the trickiest, this admittedly very basic piece of advice might nonetheless be of value if you are struggling to get started.
The content of your letter of application very much depends on the grant you are hoping to receive and the project you are working on. I applied for the Eccles Centre European Postgraduate Award 2016 wishing to gain temporary access to the vast resources of the British Library to conduct research for my dissertation project on early American drama. Whatever it is you are working on, be sure to state why you consider it important to learn more about it (What is the relevance/value of your project? Who will benefit from your research?) and in what way the grant could help you advance your research.
The required length of application letters can vary so be sure to check the organisation’s guidelines on applications – very often they indicate what they are looking on their homepages. If the organisation does not offer specific directives regarding length and style, you are free to experiment a little. For me, one page tends to suffice to describe my qualifications, express my aspiration, and convincingly ‘plead my case.’ What I would personally avoid is sending out a letter which is significantly shorter than one page – this might give the impression that you did not put enough effort into your application and that you lack commitment.
Structure & Style
Clarity and concision are essential attributes with regards to style and structure. Clear and well-organised paragraphs help your readers follow your line of argument; short and to the point sentences will render your arguments more convincing than overly complex run-on sentences. Your letter of application should be formal in style (no contractions, no colloquialisms), polite in tone (remember, you are making a request), and carefully thought through (your readers should see that you put a great deal of time and effort into it). Redundancy, vagueness, and repetition of ideas and words should be avoided at all costs – a thesaurus or synonym lexicon might turn out to be your dearest friend while writing your letter of application.
The last steps…
So you have finished your letter of application? Congratulations! Now let it sit quietly on your desk for a couple of days. From my experience, it helps a lot to take your mind off it for a while before going back for a final revision and some fine-tuning. Call on your friend who checked your CV for typos one more time – bribing them with chocolate might help to spur their enthusiasm… – and ask them to read through your letter and give you some honest feedback. They will be able to tell you whether or not it accurately reflects your character, achievements, and aspirations and whether your application is comprehensible to readers who know nothing about your project.
The very best of luck!
For more information about the fellowships and awards offered by the Eccles Centre, please visit here.