A Reviewer's Review- Tips on a better fellowship application

This is the second year that I am working as a reviewer for the Mandela Washington Fellowships for Young African Leaders. In terms of fellowship applications, I'm usually on the applying side. I struggle through crafting the message I want within the confines of a 500-1000 word essay. It's much different to be a reviewer. I gain insight into how the whole application package fits together. 


Here are some of my reflections as a reviewer this year:


1. Other people's praise means a lot

I got a great piece of advice from my graduate advisor to put into my book: When bragging out yourself, you can sound more humble by saying, "I've been told that I'm very smart." That sounds so much better than saying, "I'm very smart," right?? This is why the letters of recommendation are so important. I read an application yesterday where the applicant didn't stand out from the others, until I came to the letters. 


One letter was written from the chief of his tribe. "What I particularly like is that even though Mr. G works for the Provincial Government, he visits the village at least once every quarter per year and provides valuable advice to me, so the village benefits from his skills, professional experience and his education." The chief's words convinced me that this applicant is a valuable member of his community and someone who gives back. 


2. Picking a single cause brings the applicant to life

Nothing is worse than an application that jumps all over the place. I understand the challenge: you are involved in so many interesting things and have many different angles. Including those interests into a coherent story line and purpose seems impossible. Yet the people who read well on their applications are those who have a defined interest. Yesterday I read about a woman who has been focusing on maternal and child health in Zimbabwe. Her personal activities focused on this and her career has led her to become a project leader for a UKAID project worth 12 million pounds. Her application really popped out because I could get a sense of her drive. Having one main focus allowed further details about her work to fill in the gaps instead of take me onto a different subject. 


These are just a few reflections, some things I've been thinking about this week. It's really an honor to read about young Africans who are doing incredible things. I hope my reviews get them to where they want to go.