It's never too early to investigate what fellowship opportunities are available to you! Start by attending an info session, as well as seeking conversations with your faculty and advisors. Fellowships span the disciplines, encompassing all areas of study whether you are a budding economist, biologist, novelist, artist, or historian. Taking some small classes and building relationships with your professors are also two excellent ways to "begin" on the path of doing more independent work. And as early as the spring of your first year, you can apply for Brandeis programs such as the Schiff Fellowship or the Undergraduate Research Fund (URF).
The following list of questions is broad, but it can work well in self-assessment as you consider making applications.
What are your academic strengths and passions?
Which of your academic achievements have given you the most satisfaction?
Are there at least 3 professors who know you pretty well and whom you will be able to ask for letters of recommendation and support revising your essays?
If you plan to write a senior thesis, how might you extend your project beyond next year?
How would a grant to study overseas affect your plans?
Will you need to write personal statements or research proposals to apply to graduate school in the United States?
How keen are your foreign language skills?
How do you define leadership? In what ways do you consider yourself a leader?
How do you define service to others? What is social justice to you? Does it affect your life directly, and how so?
Do you read a newspaper such as The New York Times or Washington Post on a regular basis?
How engaged are you in current events and debates? What are a few key issues you know very well?
How familiar are you with world history of the last century? And U.S. history?
What else are you passionate about in life? Cultural interests, hobbies, dreams you'd love to pursue?
Because a campus endorsement is a required part of most fellowships, we need to allow time to have faculty and staff members review your essays in preparation for your interview. You must submit to the Brandeis committee at the time of the Brandeis deadline to go through the university process. You must also carefully follow all submission guidelines for both the campus and the national deadlines. Missing or incomplete documents usually mean disqualification.
As a rule of thumb, you should have around a 3.5 average to consider applying for a Fulbright (higher for Fulbrights to the United Kingdom) or Truman grant and a 3.7 - 3.8 minimum to apply for the Beinecke, Carnegie, Churchill, Gates, Marshall, Mellon, or Rhodes. The GPA does not tell the whole story, however. When reviewing your credentials the scholarship committees will take into account the depth and variety of your course load.
Would you be a strong candidate for more graduate work? Are there other interests of yours that help to balance the GPA (a genuine commitment to public service, work in the arts, etc)? Did you have more-than-usual employment commitments to help support yourself through school? They will also look for evidence of research - are you writing an honors thesis? Have you undertaken independent study? And most of all, do your professors write strong letters recommending you for the opportunity?
In addition to demonstrated academic achievement, most grant committees are looking for students who also exhibit significant leadership qualities and who will clearly continue to display such traits. A deep commitment to public and community service, longstanding participation in the arts or athletics, the ability to relate your goals to the world around you: these activities and interests and others will be important in your application. However, it is not enough to list activities. Your application should communicate how you have made a difference. Whatever your level of achievement, committee members look for clarity and authenticity in the proposal - no matter what you have accomplished, if you cannot communicate your thoughts to your readers in 1,000 words or less, you may not win the competition.
In general, fellowship selection committees are composed of a combination of academics (scientists, humanists, social scientists), artists and writers, as well as leaders from the public sector. The agencies strive for a diverse group of selection committee members.
In most cases, you can re-apply (such as with Fulbright). And applicants often report that the process of applying honed their writing and public speaking skills considerably. Completing an application often prepares students for future, successful applications. Since these are competitions, it is good to keep expectations reasonable.