It’s that time of the year again; the United States Embassy in Eswatini recently announced the opening of applications for the 2019-2020 J. William Fulbright Scholarships.

Last year, Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC) energy policy analyst, Tanele Magongo, was one of the awardees of the scholarship. Tanele is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Policy Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Fulbright Foreign Student Programme is designed for international students who wish to undertake study in the United States leading to a Master’s degree. Applicants must have an undergraduate (four years) degree in any of the following academic disciplines: journalism, politics/international studies, public health, economics, business law, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), education or environmental studies.

Fulbright programmes require strong academic records and other qualifying educational or related professional experience. In addition, preference is given to candidates who have not previously been afforded study opportunities in the United States.

We contacted Tanele, who is currently studying in the United States, to advise prospective graduate students on the application process. She says the first step is to ensure that one attends one of the pre-briefing sessions held at the Embassy.

 “Make sure to attend the mandatory Fulbright pre-briefing session at the US Embassy. This is the first crucial step you need to take because you will get to know exactly what is needed from you; from writing essays and recommendation letters, to also getting a chance to ask questions on any aspects of the application you may have queries on. Moreover, the Education USA advisor will send you the link that you will use to begin your application, and this can only happen if you attend the session,” she adds.

The second step, Tanele says, is to write your personal statement and study plan essays. However, she warns that writing the ‘perfect’ essay takes a lot of time. “You need to make sure that you start very early. Your personal statement is just what it is: ‘personal!’ Do NOT copy it online! Do not be generic! However, you should definitely read examples of successful essays so that you can get a feel of how a personal statement should be,” emphasises the Fulbright scholar.

“Your essay needs to show how your academic interests and work or research experiences have led you to the point of applying for a Fulbright scholarship and how you think your career possibilities will be improved as a result of the Fulbright experience. More importantly, you need to clearly demonstrate a commitment to promoting and enhancing cultural exchange (the main goal of the programme) and contributing to the development of the Kingdom of Eswatini once you return from your studies in the US.”

Further, Tanele points out that the personal essay plays a critical role in whether an applicant will be invited for an interview or not, so applicants need to make sure they write them very well. She advises: “Do not just list items from your curriculum vitae and transcripts. You need to go further and talk about the experiences in your CV. Clearly indicate how these concrete examples will make you an ideal student for the Fulbright programme.

“The personal statement is basically your marketing tool. You really need to think carefully about how you are going to craft your words in order to convince the reader that your past experiences, goals, and aspirations will definitely contribute to the development of the Kingdom of Eswatini. That is your selling point!”

The 2018 Fulbright Scholarship winner notes that there are several online sources that give pointers on how to craft perfect personal statements and study plan essays, which she advises applicants to make good use of, hence the reason it is important to start drafting the essays very early. She says it is very easy for a reader to spot an essay that has been written over a couple of days, and that gives a bad impression.

She emphasises that it is important for applicants to proofread their work as well as to ask people to read their personal statements and offer their feedback as grammar and spelling mistakes will reflect poorly on the level of effort applied by the applicant.

 Adding, the Fulbright scholar advises prospective students to make sure they ask for recommendation letters from people who know them well, for example, previous lecturers and supervisors at work. However, she says since lecturers can be busy, it is important that applicants request the letters well in advance to ensure that they do not miss the deadline just because of one person’s recommendation letter.

“Ask the person not to be generic when writing your letter. Your referee must describe your traits with concrete examples – research papers, exams, class presentations, specific interaction, etc. Lastly, make sure to keep reminding your referees to send your letters before the deadline as they may forget!” she adds.

“In ending, it is a long application so my overall advice is that you should start early so that you do not rush. Lack of effort can be easily seen on applications and that does not give a good impression at all!”