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How to win Journalism Fellowship - 10 Valuable Tips

19/08/2013 14:01

It's a regular question that is usually asked at a number of journalism workshops and forums: "What does it take to win a Journalism Fellowship?" Same question was asked at a skills development and experience sharing seminar organized by the Omololu Falobi Foundation in partnership support with Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) in April, in which along with Lekan Otufodunrin, online editor of The Nation newspaper, Funke Alli, ace broadcaster and Adeola Akinremi, features editor of Thisday newspaper, one was a resource person. It was framed more in the mode of the title of this piece - how can I win a journalism fellowship? 


The question is indeed understandable, considering the fact that many professional journalists (especially in Nigeria) have applied severally for such prestigious journalism fellowships (Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships, Nieman Fellowship and John Knight Fellowship just to mention three), but end up either at the semi-finalist stage, or never even scale through the initial selection process of being selected as finalists.




The tips highlighted in this piece are hinged on one's personal experience as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow and visiting journalist at the Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, United States, where one spent the journalism fellowship. Indeed, journalism fellowships usually have a remarkable impact not only on one's journalism career, but also helps widen one's horizon, and creates an awesome avenue to expand one's professional network.



No doubt, there is no "quick fix" secret or as they say, magic wand to winning a journalism fellowship. While one cannot dispute the fact that there's an element of luck in being able to brace through the rigorous selection process, it could be said that it very much lies in the hands of the applicant. Yes! You may go on a praying and fasting spree after submitting an application for such fellowships, but if your application does not hit the mark, or score the necessary points, your praying and fasting will only end up as a worthwhile spiritual effort without you being selected.


Below, are  10 valuable tips that will be a handy checklist for anyone applying for a journalism fellowship:


1. Firstly, you must understand that the process starts from studying the aims and objectives of the journalism fellowship program you intend to apply for. Basically, a health journalism fellowship targets health reporters, and same goes for a science journalism fellowship. Invariably, it is best to focus on a journalism fellowship that is meant for your beat. While a number of fellowhsips are not specific on beats, a good analysis of their objectives is essential in order to be a successful applicant. If its aim is to offer fellowships to mid-career journalists, it is not at all mincing words. Such focus on ages between 25 and 35, and a minimum of 3 to 5 years practising as a professional journalist. Worth mentioning that there are a number of fellowships that have no age restrictions (like the Nieman fellowships). In a nutshell, take time to study concisely the objectives and essence of the fellowship. If it's in line with your beat, make a go; if it's not, don't bother channeling your energy into it. Note that most journalism fellowships target journalists working in independent, private media and not government-owned media organisations.


2. Secondly, you must understand that quality work samples play a major role in the selection process. If you're entering an online story as a work sample, ensure that it is still available online, i.e. the link is still effective and active. Enter stories, not opinion pieces or interviews. Also ensure to enter recent work samples, which to a large extent indicate that you're still very much an active journalist. As recent as in the past 12months before the deadline of the application will do. Choose work samples that show your strength.


3. Thirdly, your motivation letter (which is the section where you indicate the reason why you're applying for the fellowship, and indeed, what is motivating you to apply for it), should be well crafted. The motivation letter should be tailored to align with the aim and objectives of the sponsors. However, be careful not to repeat the aims of the fellowship verbatim in your motivation letter. Try and bring in your experience as a journalist vis-a-vis how the fellowship will help you be a better journalist. Be careful not to repeat the contents of the motivation letter of past fellows (i.e. if you know a past fellow who shares with you his/her own application materials, avoid duplicating such as usually the selection panel will be able to see between the lines).


4. Your professional statement is perhaps, the most important aspect of your application materials. First tip is not to waste words. Be apt. Be straight to the point. It's the section where you're practically selling yourself as the best candidate for selection. Stick to the word limit. If asked to write a one-page professional statement, stick to it. The statement should provide a good tapestry of your achievements blended smoothly to show how the fellowship will be of benefit to your journalism career.


5. Attach a "concentrated" resume along with your application. Imagine yourself making a cup of tea rich in nutrient yet does not overflow on the tray or table. Apparently, your resume should include the necessary professional activities of yours that will move your application forward. The order of arrangement is very imporant. List your strong points (achievements) at the top, and for every journalism position you've held, include a summary of your job description and what you did in such a position.


6. If asked to include a separate section for the goals, be careful not to make it a duplicate of your motivation letter. Indeed, see it as an opportunity to further showcase what you expect to benefit from the fellowship, and how winning the fellowship will help advance your journalism career. In this section, try and localise your points - emphasize how your being given a fellowship will benefit journalism in your country.


7. If asked to include a proposal as part of your application materials, ensure to align it with what you've already been able to achieve in the profession. It would be awkward for a journalist who is not a photojournalist, to be including a proposal on creating a databank of photo resource materials. Essentially, the idea is to build on what you're already doing. 


8. Awards are an invaluable aspect of the materials to be entered for a fellowship program, but it could also shoot you in the foot. Don't get me wrong. Awards are a plus, and of course, indicate achievements. However, including too many awards may portray you as someone who might not appreciate what the fellowship program has to offer. Try to weave your application in such a way that awards won will help advance your application, and portray you as someone who will greatly benefit from what the fellowship has to offer.


9. A recommendation letter means more than what a number of applicants think. Every word matters. Mark my words - your recommendation letter(s) can make or mar your chance of being selected for the fellowship. For your recommendation, it would be very much advisable to include at least one person (preferably an editor) at your current place of work - an indication that yes you're still a practising professional journalist, and also that you've got good human relations skills as an individual. Try to get someone outside of your place of work, too - might be a past fellow of the same fellowship programme, a past lecturer, or someone you've worked with in the past. Ensure that you get a good recommendation.


10. If you eventually get through to be selected as a finalist, be informed that you're not yet a winner until you're informed of your selection. It's just the first hurdle, and it's not time to celebrate or jubilate, or tell friends that you've got selected for a fellowship. The second stage would be dictated by the organizers. Usually, it involves a phone call from the organizers, which might not last more than 15min, at the maximum 45min. The phone call will most likely take the form of an interview, in which the interviewer would question you in line with your application package. So at this stage you must be prepared to defend all you included in your application materials. It may also include written tests, usually a proctored one. Try your best as the way you handle this stage, including how you respond to the questions will eventually make or mar your chance of becoming a fellow.


Generally, points scored in all these areas will add up. Apparently, having a beautiful resume, is not all that matters. Having won awards, too, aren't all that matters. What will get you a fellowship, is a combination of points in all the materials entered for the fellowship, and your performance during the final stages of the selection process. 


Lastly, if you're entering your application materials via snail mail (i.e. via post) endeavour to have a cover page (more like a content page). It's an immediate indication that this aspiring fellow is organized.


Anyways, it's not the end of the world if you're not selected for a fellowship. Don't give up! Keep trying! All the best.


- Your Pal


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