I write this note in English because I don’t write to it to brag about my achievement but to share experience with people who might need it, and if you cannot read English properly, you should spend time improving your English before thinking about applying for the Fulbright Vietnamese Student Scholarship Program (Fulbright in short, and abbreviated as FB). In this note, I will review the preparation stage for the application.
There are three things that matter the most: essays, letters of recommendation (LoR), and TOEFL/IELTS score. FB requires two essays – personal statement (PS) and study objectives (SO), and three LoR’s.
I don’t know which in the above documents is of more importance, but it’s true that your image must be consistent throughout your profile. For example, you can’t choose to study Education and your essays are about Education, but then the three LoR’s compliment your management skills and do not mention anything you have done that relates to teaching. Therefore, think thoroughly about the image that you want people to see and remember, and work on it to produce the most refined, consistent image.
1. Personal statement
A personal statement should clearly tell people about:
- Your background
- What happened in the past that has led you to the decision to apply for FB?
- What do you expect when you study in the US and after you return to Vietnam?
Among these three parts, the second part (the story how you came up with the decision to apply) plays the most important role. The story depends on your actual reason to apply for FB; but I think almost all candidates want to study abroad because they have been struggling in Vietnam to solve their own problems, so a graduate program in the US is the solution.
Your story needs to be coherent and consistent, and as seen in literature, should have a peak of emotions that makes you realize the need to do a course in the US. Although people do read the essays, the best way to make them remember the story is to give them a moment where they will realize that they totally understand your story and can see clearly why you have been struggling.
Logically, the story should be able to tell people about:
- The relevant background of your story.
For example, if your interest in biostatistics came from the first time you met an excellent biostatistician and were inspired by him, this will be your beginning. Then, you need to guide people through what you have done in terms of biostatistics, and WHY you chose to do it (why not clinical practice, for example).
- What you have gained and what were your difficulties/obstacles/challenges.
This is the most important part, and once again, it must be extremely relevant to yourself. Do not think that you can fake a story and people will believe it. The key is honesty, although you can think carefully about idea arrangement and wording, so it can produce a better effect to the readers.
- How you have tried to solve the problems and how you have failed to fix them.
You need to show people that you have tried every available mean but you could not fill in the gaps that you had. One common reason is that the conditions to fix the problems are not met in Vietnam (and therefore you need to study in the US). But be very SPECIFIC about this.
TIPS: According to the advice from Tung Pham and Linh Bui (alumni of VEF and Johns-Hopkins University, and now PhD students at Harvard University), you should make an impressive opening through a particular story. You can consider the advice or use your own style to open the PS.
2. Study objectives
As Han Vo (Fulbrighter) pointed out, SO should be inspiring. Imagine you are introducing the program to a student and convince him to take the program. If your introduction is boring, no one will feel motivated to take it.
Having said that, my SO was not very interesting. I simply wrote about how I planned to divide the time into small parts to study what I wanted to study in the MPH program, explained the reason I would like to study these concentrations/subjects, and what kinds of activities I would like to do before and after I return to Vietnam. I used simple vocabulary since using big words is not my style and I also know few big words. I think the way you construct your SO is more important.
But anyway, be relevant, consistent, and coherent.
*For both essays
Look for the dates when they opened and closed the application portal of the last call, and use them as reference for you to prepare. How many months before the call should I prepare for PS and SO? When should I take TOEFL (if I haven’t had a valid score)? Ask yourself such questions.
You should begin writing PS and SO as soon as you feel ready for FB—ideally, immediately after the call is open. Writing PS and SO is a real headache, so do not underestimate them and say you’ll need only one month to finish everything. It’s true that 90% can be finished in a month, but the first 10% is extremely important, since it shapes your essays and helps you overcome the discouraging period (and this can take you months to overcome).
TIPS: Your writing should not exceed 1000 words each essay. However, you need to begin with a longer draft. Instead of writing a comprehensive story right from the beginning, write small pieces of details and arrange them later on. Your first draft may sound unconvincing or even stupid, but through revision (by yourself and/or your friends/supervisors), it will gradually be shaped into a consistent story. You should leave the revision of style/wording/grammar until the end, and pay a lot more attention to content.
Regarding style, do not use many academic words. Use lay terms instead, because people who read your essays are often laypeople. Inspiration is important, but it doesn’t mean you have to use big words. Avoid writing vague sentences (and using too many big words does make the sentences more vague). And do not try to rephrase your sentences by choosing words with similar meanings just to make them sound “different”. In many cases, this leads to wrong word choices and jeopardizes your story.
3. Letters of recommendation
In my case, I chose to get recommendations from three people I have worked with. They worked at different institutions, assumed different positions, and had seen me from different angles. I believed doing so created a multi-perspective image that allowed people to see my different aspects.
Anyway, it does not have a formula for who you should ask for recommendations, but to make the LoR’s most realistic, we often choose people who have worked with us for a long time or in different projects. I do think that you should not choose people working in the same company/institution because there will be many overlaps in their letters, which renders your image monotonic. Simply, this will not impress people, even when the recommendations are very good.
It’s a good idea to tell them what you want them to write about. Basically the LoR’s should describe how they got to know you, what you guys have done together, how they see you, and what strengths they think you possess and will be a plus for your profile (ie, they will make you a competitive/unique candidate that deserves the scholarship).
Again, never underestimate the LoR’s. It should be as polished as your PS and SO, unless you are very close to your recommenders and aware of their good impression about you as well as their English proficiency and writing skills. Ask them to start writing early and remind them regularly. It’s not impolite to briefly discuss with them what they plan to write about you. I have no recommendation for or against you yourself revising the letter.
TOEFL is only an exam. Taking courses and performing well in the mock tests does not mean your English is good, and you’ll never get high scores if your English is lousy. As you have seen my scores, I got high scores in all bands though I only did one mock exam and reviewed the tips for some parts of the test.
Actually, the requirement is not very high (eg, 80 for MPH). However, a very bad result reflects your deficiency in English skills, especially if your score is too low in one band. Remember that you need to write very long essays, and you will participate in an interview if you are selected for the semifinalist round. So if you doubt your English, go get some training on your ENGLISH, not the TOEFL.
Please note that IELTS is acceptable for FB, but some US schools do not accept IELTS. Besides, FB provides vouchers for retaking the test after you get selected, but not for IELTS. So plan accordingly. TOELF is a lot different from IELTS, in terms of format and the way the materials are prepared. Although I encourage you to study English seriously, remember to review the format of TOEFL and do some mock tests to get familiar with the exam. So, planning is very important.
B. APPLICATION SUBMISSION
There’s nothing special about this. FB uses IIE’s system for submission. It’s a very long process with many sections, you’ll need to work on it early. Complete the sections one by one carefully. There are a lot of details that I think are not of great importance, but you should read and consider the questions anyway.
Be sure to prepare official English transcripts for your degrees (if they are not already in English) and your study reports. You should prepare these documents early, just in case you need to return to your school to obtain an official copy and it takes their whole life to finish it.
Selection takes several months. People from the US Embassy will notify you after they have received your application and contact you again to inform whether or not you are selected. If you get selected, the next round is an interview with at least three people. I won’t reveal who they are, but there will be one ex-Fulbrighter, who years ago did the same thing as what you’re doing now.
I did some mock interviews with Linh, Tung, and Han. But what I did learn from them was not the skills to answer or how to direct the interviewers to some certain topics about which you want them to question you. Through the mock interviews, I realized myself even more and became clearly aware of what and how I should tell them about myself in the interview.
If you are the type who focuses on a few things and digs deep into their problems, you will surely have a story to tell. Focus on understanding the details – memorizing and arranging them in a logical way will help you articulate your story in the interview. If you do not have such a big story to tell (eg, one that proves you have made a big impact on something), don’t lose heart. You should be aware of what has led you to the current struggling, and simply tell people about that in the interview.
You’ll like the way FB arranges the interview. The room was cozy, people were friendly, and I felt really comfortable. The questions were not something special that needs to be kept secret—you’ll see them in any interviews. But a lot of them would be adaptive to your answers. So if you provide the interviewers with a lot of information, they will have more questions for you, and this will hopefully clarify your story even more and help people understand you better. At the end of the day, you’ll have to make them impressed by something about you – so try to understand yourself really well and choose which strengths/unique characteristics you want to display. Do not only answer their questions: you can tell them other things that directly or indirectly relate to your main story. When I explained how I am certain that studying the MPH program will upgrade myself, I related it to the experience of taking the vocal class, which helped me realized there’s a threshold in the level of people who study by themselves, and you can only reach a new level if you are formally trained.
Mock interviews are needed. There are common questions that you can work on before the interview, so you can discuss with your friends/supervisors to polish your answers. You will also get some interesting ideas from your mock interviewers, which may help you refine your image a bit more. But after all, your materials are the most important, and only you can understand yourself best.
I believe FB, as every other scholarship, chooses a person who is appropriate for their values. In the end, you’ll become a reprensentative to spread their values to the community. So, if you have to stop here (or even before the interview round), it just means that your and their values do not overlap, or you did not demonstrate your values well enough (so good luck next time, then).