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At the end of this month, I’ll find out if I’m a finalist for the Fulbright US Student Program, which is a grant program that awards funding over one year for students to pursue graduate studies, independent research, or teach English abroad. I submitted my application in October, and if I make it to the next round I hear whether I receive the grant anytime between March….and June. Because I applied for the University of Helsinki graduate study award, a supplemental part of my Fulbright application involved applying to the university. I submitted my university application on Wednesday, and I’ll find out about that in April.

During the long process that has been writing, revising, more revising, and revising again, it’s been easy to feel overwhelmed or insecure about my qualifications for both programs– acceptance rates of which hover around about 20% each. No pressure. How do you set yourself apart from surely hundreds of other applicants? Working in the undergraduate Office of Admissions at my university has made one thing clear– yes, you’re great, but most of the other applicants are great too. What makes your application the one they want to accept?

My Fulbright adviser (whose job title should have therapist, counselor, career consultant, and editor tacked on) has been invaluable in getting me from “oh cool, I should apply for this!” to “oh man, I did apply for this!” While I worked on my personal statements for the University of Helsinki (the longest of which was only allowed to be 2,000 characters— a mere Tweet for the likes of a long-winded writing major), he gave me the name of a woman who works in military law and international relations at the Pentagon. The Pentagon. 

Trying to articulate who I am, what I do, and what I’m interested in is never an easy task, and given such a tight word count felt at least ten times more difficult. My adviser suggested I speak with his contact because he thought she would give me a new perspective on my approach to the application, and she might be a good connection later on since our interests seemed to intersect.

Something felt missing in my application materials, but I couldn’t pinpoint what until after we had a Skype meeting to discuss my progress so far: the language and knowledge were there, what was missing was me. The same things we look for in undergrad applicants– personality, passion, investment in what they want to do –were the same qualities I hadn’t quite rounded out on my own application. She continued to ask me why: Why Finland? Why this program? Why me?

Ugh. Can’t I just talk about my cat?

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Okay, while Tigger is adorable and perfect and fuzzy, he probably isn’t the key ingredient to a successful graduate school application. I knew my “whys,” but it was much harder than I initially thought to articulate them. How do I get myself and my motivations across in 2000 characters, especially to someone who never met me? One of the greatest values in our Skype session was speaking with someone who had no prior knowledge of who I was. Unlike my other professors (or worse, haha, my mother) who knew me and carried some kind of bias, she was as close to neutral as I could get. The question became not why, but how: how could I communicate why I was a good fit for the program?

Her outside perspective helped me realign with myself. I was focused too much on the pressure of applying for such a competitive award and pressure, so the reasons why the program was important to me got blurred into the background. I couldn’t talk about those reasons because I wasn’t paying attention to them: my love of storytelling, my desire to know what lies beyond my own experience, my ancestral connection to the Nordic region, and my hope to one day transform the world through the things I write got lost behind big academic words like “intersectionality” and “feminism” and “career goals” and “Master’s thesis.”

Writing about what you want from the future is terrifying, and trying to get your identity through in that message can feel like it just can’t be done. Sometimes it takes the guidance of someone who hasn’t known you your whole life to remember who you are and who exactly you want to become. Sometimes all it takes is a person who’s willing to listen while you fight to find the right words to say what you mean. Sometimes you have to be a little inarticulate before you find out how to make an admissions panel want you. But you’ve always got to ask why, because that’s where the heart of the matter lies.

I’ll keep you updated on my journey to Helsinki, and hopefully my next post will be written from the perspective of a Fulbright finalist!

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