Addressing issues of adversity–any condition that may have impacted a student’s academic trajectory–is one of the major stumbling blocks that applicants for grants and fellowships encounter when starting to draft their applications. Adversity can take on many forms, ranging from specific conditions (e.g., learning disabilities, mental health issues) to socioeconomic status (e.g., non-traditional, first-generation, veteran), and can often become a challenge to articulate in personal narratives.
One strategy to overcome the difficulty, and at times reluctance, applicants face in talking about adversity is to approach it from the perspective of resilience. In other words, instead of getting bogged down by the idea of adversity as a weakness that will negatively impact their application, applicants can frame it as a reference of strength that allowed them to get to where they are today. The following tips may serve as a starting point for applicants struggling to find a framework through which to articulate their personal stories.
Convey adversity as an opportunity for learning, growth, and development
Elaborate on how you used your experience with adversity to hone certain strengths and excel in certain settings. In other words, how did you learn to live with adversity? Perhaps your experience allowed you to develop leadership skills or inspired you to become interested in your current field. Whatever outcome your experience resulted in, highlight how it served as an opportunity for growth and development.
Articulate why your experience of adversity is important for the application
It’s important to clearly demonstrate why your experience with adversity matters in the case of your application. In other words, why should the reviewers care about this experience? How can your experience of adversity speak to what you will be doing as part of this fellowship or grant? Don’t just tell reviewers about your life experience; show them how this information connects directly with your desire to be awarded this grant or fellowship.
Strategize about where to best discuss issues of adversity in the application
Review your narratives and pick the best place you can to speak about your experience of adversity. Perhaps you would like to start your application with a glimpse into your personal history or mention it towards the end of your narrative. Wherever you decide to situate it, make sure that your story will make the most compelling case for your application.
Don’t make assumptions about how your reviewers will view adversity
Don’t be the writer and critic of your own application at once by assuming that your experience of adversity will be negatively reviewed by your readers no matter what you do. What you consider as a negative (socioeconomic status, academic trajectory, personal background etc.) may often be a preference and diversity factor in awards selection.
Don’t set artificial limits for yourself in terms of what you can or can’t do
Allow yourself to dream big in setting goals and conveying those goals to your reviewers. Don’t assume that you aren’t worthy of or qualified for a particular award just because you have an experience of adversity. Do your best to speak to your reviewers, and let them decide on the outcome rather than artificially prescribing it yourself.
Approaching adversity through the framework outlined above will help applicants realize that what they consider to be a weakness may actually turn out to be an asset for their application. So instead of getting bogged down by assumptions, try giving the above suggestions a try to leverage adversity to your advantage.
The information in this post is a synthesis of the suggestions provided in the panel, “Telling Stories of Adversity Effectively in the Fellowship Application” at the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA) 2017 Annual Meeting. The panel was presented by Valeria Hymas (Baruch College, CUNY), Moira Egan (Queens College, CUNY), Kate McPherson (CUNY BA), Chris Herrick (Muhlenberg College), Elen Mons (Manhattan College), and Laura Pengelly Drake (University of Montana, Missoula). We would like to thank the presenters for allowing us to share these informative suggestions with our readers.