How Two One-Page Essays Earned Me the Grant of a Lifetime

At first, it sounds easy. It’s only two pages. Then, when one begins writing, reality sets in. It’s only two pages. Two pages to explain why you, out of tens of thousands of applicants, deserve one of the top government scholarships in the United States. Applying for the Fulbright grant involved 15 drafts and 10 months of obsession over every point, word, and comma. Somehow, all that work paid off with a yearlong federal grant to teach English in Taiwan. Recently, I’ve been looking back on the process to see what pieces of advice I can extract not only about applying to the Fulbright, but about writing in general. Here is what I learned.

Your final draft should look nothing like your first draft. Having studied writing in college, I knew the first draft of my Fulbright essays would be far from perfect, but I didn’t predict just how different my final draft would be from the first. From general ideas to specific syntax and word choice, nothing survived revision. I’ve no doubt my essays succeeded because of this transformation. Don’t be sentimental with your drafts. Don’t hold onto any sentence or idea if it’s not working. It’s important to begin, to get that first draft on the page, but the real work is in the revision.

The more readers, the better, and those readers should not be your friends. Throughout the application process, I received invaluable help from my college’s fellowship coordinator. One of the greatest services she did was sending out my essays to anyone and everyone who could offer critique. Though suddenly getting emails from strangers filled with comments on my personal writing proved a little terrifying, strangers were exactly who I needed as readers. The Fulbright board wouldn’t be made up of my friends and wouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt to my essays’ inconsistencies or imperfections. Sifting through the comments of over 10 people on multiple drafts, deciding if and how I apply their suggestions, ultimately transformed my essays into their successful finished product.

Finally, it’s not over, till it’s over. The night I submitted my essays, I read them aloud to my boyfriend over the phone. Even then, I was still finding sentences that I could improve, words that would work better. There’s always changes to be made in a piece of writing, and you should use all the time you possibly can before the deadline. But once that deadline passes, that time is gone, and you have to move on. After the 2017 deadline, the online Fulbright forums were full of applicants combing through their submitted essays and lamenting over the mistakes they found. Often these findings didn’t predict the end results of the grant and the applicants couldn’t do anything about them anyway. Submit and let go. This is easier than it sounds, and I blessedly had an undergraduate thesis to distract me. I don’t know what I’m going to do the next time I face an important deadline or how other writers distract themselves, but one has to find the willpower to work up until the deadline and then move on completely.

Applying for the Fulbright was a long, stressful exercise in obsessing over just two pages of writing, and then sending those pages out into the abyss and praying that something incredible comes back. My hope in writing this post is that the advice I gleamed from this process might help you, whether you’re applying for the Fulbright or writing anything else. Either way, I wish you luck.

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