Before we begin, a few disclaimers. Firstly, your mileage may vary – each Fulbright journey is different, and one Alternate’s pathway may be different to another’s. Secondly, I was an Australian Fulbright Alternate (i.e., looking for a funded MA program in the US). As I understand it, Fulbright requirements can vary between countries, so keep that in mind as you’re reading this.
What is the Fulbright Scholarship, and an Alternate?
“The Fulbright Program is the flagship foreign exchange scholarship program of the United States of America, aimed at increasing binational research collaboration, cultural understanding, and the exchange of ideas.”
In essence, the Fulbright Commission funds a variety of exchange experiences between foreign countries and the USA. I personally applied for the Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship, which, if awarded, covers the full cost of a postgraduate degree in the US.
Each application cycle, applicants are awarded one of the following statuses:
Finalist: A candidate who has been offered a Fulbright U.S. Student grant, contingent upon host country approvals, medical clearance, and submission of all required grant documents.
Alternate: A candidate who can be promoted to Finalist status if additional funding becomes available.
Non-Select: A candidate who is no longer under consideration for a Fulbright Award.
Fulbright awards are extremely competitive. For my application year, 2020, only 64 Student Awards were awarded
, and that number includes both Australian and US applicants, for both Master’s and PhD positions. The Application
As expected, you definitely need to take the time to put together your application. In total, I had to supply a five-page study/project plan, a personal statement, a future statement, all of my academic transcripts, a CV, and writing sample. Additionally, you also need three letters of recommendation.
As part of this application, you can also list a number of schools you want to apply for. I selected three pretty big-name schools, although as I understand it, the schools you suggest don’t weigh into the application very heavily.
This took me a while to put together, but in hindsight, it was great experience. It really helped me clarify my professional and personal goals, and work out my direction. Nonetheless, if you are going to apply for the Fulbright (or any large-scale scholarship or grant program) you really want to be starting months in advance – I actually started putting my application together in February of 2020, and I’d known I wanted to apply since 2018.
If you’re successfully shortlisted, you then proceed to interviews. I believe that these interviews are usually conducted in-person, but since I was applying in 2020, my interview was virtual.
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember a lot of the interview. My father had passed away two weeks earlier, and everything about that time was a haze. I do remember that they asked a “special subject” question, which in my case was about anthropology and US history. Make sure you brush up on your current news and affairs!
A few weeks after the interviews, we got our results – I was an Alternate.
I tried googling, but I couldn’t find a lot of information about it. It was explained to me that an alternate is functionally a runner-up who will be offered funding if additional funding becomes available. Additionally, the Fulbright Commission sponsors you for Placement Services and any required testing (in my case, the GRE). I was also reassured to know that nothing was binding – if a funded place wasn’t secured, I wasn’t on the hook for anything.
So, having accepted their generous offer of placement services, the next step in my graduate school application began.
The Placement Process
As part of the process, I was assigned a placement advisor through IIE (the Institute of International Education), the company that helps place Fulbright Finalists. This involved a virtual meeting to meet my advisor, and go over my application. I ended up having to revise some of my application materials, but this was a fairly straightforward process and they supplied some feedback as well.
For my personal situation, the biggest issue was funding – attending graduate school in the US was 100% contingent on securing a fully-funded place. My placement advisor was super understanding of this, which I really appreciated. After about a week, my advisor got back to me with four potential universities which had a record of previously funding alternates. I’ll be the first to admit that they weren’t all universities I’d heard much about previously, but upon research, all had respected anthropology departments and programs. My advisor encouraged me to reach out to potential supervisors at these institutions, and the reception from all of them (especially UCF) were warm and enthusiastic.
In the interests of transparency, I will note that there are pros and cons to the placement process. Probably the biggest “con” is that you do not get control over the applications themselves – that’s all handled by placement services. So, you cannot accept any offers until all of them have come in, and all updates have to come through your advisor. This is helpful in some ways – there’s less admin for you to worry about – but it can make some processes a little slower at times. I will reiterate that I don’t think this is a huge negative (I didn’t really mind) but others may have different viewpoints.
Out of the four schools that we ended up applying for, I was accepted into two of them, both with funding packages. I ended up choosing UCF for a number of reasons, especially since the anthropology department was so enthusiastic and helpful during the application process.
While we waited for as long as possible before I had to continue as an independent student, I did not end up being promoted to Finalist by the Fulbright Commission. I completely understood why (2020 was a competitive year for many reasons), and I was genuinely so grateful to be given the opportunity to work with their team and their placement services.
While I may not have been a Fulbright Finalist, my experience with the Fulbright Commission is overwhelmingly positive. I really encourage people to apply for one of the Fulbright awards, and to please reach out to me if you have any questions.
I also want to take the opportunity to thank the Fulbright Commission, along with everyone who helped along the way – Dr. Cate Frieman, who helped provide guidance on what US institutions want in personal statements, and Prof. Marc Oxenham, Dr. Clare McFadden, and Dr. Katharine Balolia, who took the time to write (many) letters of recommendation for me.
I really hope this post is helpful to someone. If you read this and have any questions, please reach out to me – either through the “contact me” section of this website, or via my Twitter (@archaeolobree).