Should I Apply for a Fellowship?
What is a Fellowship?
A fellowship/scholarship is an award for past performance (stellar grades, leadership, community service, etc.) as well as recognition of your future promise; it is a springboard to greater opportunities. It provides funding for graduate education and research, as well as a network of other like-minded scholars.
The odds of winning are low, so why should I apply?
Because the rewards are great! In addition to substantial funding, people will forever acknowledge that you are among the world’s most capable and highest achieving young adults. Enabled by the prestige and education of these awards, you can use your intellect, talent and drive for the greater good. Even if you don’t win, applying for scholarships helps you reflect on the arc of your life, your interests, where you are heading, and why.
How does one prepare to be competitive for a national prestigious fellowship?
Of course excellent grades are a starting point, but you must also consider what you're doing in addition to your coursework. Are you taking/preparing to take advanced level courses? Are you using your vacations (fall, spring, summer) to expand your knowledge/talents through internships, independent research, etc? Are you involved in extra-curriculars that provide opportunities for leadership? Can you envision ways to make original contributions or have a significant impact in your discipline or community?
There is no checklist or road map for successful graduate school and/or scholarship applications, but keep in mind that you will be evaluated on two very general things: past accomplishments and future potential. Take a look at scholar biographies posted on fellowship websites of interest to you to get a sense of what some of the recipients have done as undergraduates and what they're preparing to undertake in the future. There you will also find scholarship-specific selection criteria and eligibility requirements.
You should also identify a faculty member or two who can mentor you along the way and help you prepare well for post-graduate work/study in your area of interest. Having them know you well will be very important when you need robust letters of recommendation.
While it is important to have a goal such as being prepared to apply for prestigious fellowships, that should not be an end onto itself. What do you want to do upon graduation? Where do you see yourself five years after that? Ten years later? What preparation will you need to reach those goals? The fellowship pieces will fall into place.