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又是一年申請季 Tips on Graduate Fellowships

Another application season is here in higher education.

Last year, as a college senior, I applied to several graduate fellowships, graduate programs in politics, one law school, and one business school. In many ways, I took a very unconventional path with that decision: most people would apply to either graduate fellowships, or law schools, or business schools.

Senior year was so busy from the very outset that I just followed all the deadlines and executed to the best of my capacity with brute force. Admittedly, many of these very important essays for me were the result of a one-night+one-morning writing spree—something I definitely did not expect when I first came across these almost-legendary opportunities as a college first-year who vowed that I’d spend weeks and months polishing each essay with great pain. Fortunately, I did just fine. With the exception of the Rhodes Scholarship and Stanford Knight-Hennessy Scholarship, for both of which I got into the final round, I was admitted to virtually every program I applied to. I’d say overall, the outcome of my application process exceeded my expectation. Looking back at all of this one year later, I wonder what lessons I could draw from my experience and what advice I could offer to others who are about to embark on the same journey.

Most importantly, knowing thyself is key. I can be a fast writer, so the idea of writing a lot of applications essays was not too scary to me. However, there is a lot of stress associated with these applications because we know the stakes are so high. Who would want to mess up on one 1,000-word essay that could hinder your shot at winning the Rhodes? Or three 500-word essays that could potentially kill your dream of attending the University of Cambridge’s graduate program on a full ride? Amid all the anxiety and that crazy list of due dates, knowing who you are—your past, present, and future (to quote Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter) can help a lot. 

A general trend I’ve observed is that the more applications you work on, the more you will get to know yourself from the profound soul-searching the applications pushed you to do, and subsequently, the smoother the process will be for you as you complete more applications. I felt a paradoxical mix of frustration, joy, and nostalgia as I looked introspectively at past documents I’ve produced, old photos that reminded me of my younger self and her ambitions, and past emails I’ve exchanged with others. Yes, the applications are future-oriented, but I’d highly recommend embracing this opportunity to reflect on who you are.

There are several key points in our education where we may think that we will somehow ‘figure it all out’: for students in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and a few other regions, that point may come as early as one’s final year in secondary school. For students in the United States, that point may arrive around sophomore year of college, when we are finalising decisions on our major/minor, or the summer before the senior year applications cycle kicks off. 

Like many of my peers, I hoped for a near-magical moment when I would figure out where I would headed. In reality, the applications season taught me that perhaps, we are meant to, as one of my most beloved college professors shared, ‘meander through our twenties’ in one way or the other. This was why I casted my net broadly within social sciences/humanities disciplines.

This, of course, does not mean that you are blindly wondering around the world’s stage. However, it does mean that it’s perfectly alright to stay open to different options that are consistent with what you have always aspired to be. So good luck and bon voyage!

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