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Applying to be a Mandela Washington Fellow: Don’t Be Modest!
September 15, 2016

(© Shutterstock.com)
(© Shutterstock.com)

As you fill out your Mandela Washington Fellowship application, you will be answering questions about your role as a leader and your efforts to help your community. According to some of the 2016 Fellows who applied to the program many times before being selected, one of the factors that strengthened their application was overcoming their natural tendency to be modest about their accomplishments.

After she was unsuccessful, Rita Zaumu, a 2016 Fellow from Cameroon, got an MWF alumnus to look at her application to try to find out how she could improve her chances.

“When he learned that I was doing a lot of community work, he was quite impressed and asked me why I hadn’t included this in a more elaborate way in my application. He told me to say exactly what I do, how it impacts the community, especially the young people, because this is what this whole thing is focused on,” she said.

“I used to think talking about it was showing off. But now I know that when you talk about it you inspire other people and it helps them to go out there and do something to help the community too,” Zaumu said.

Juby Peacock, a 2016 Fellow from Botswana, said, “If you wish to say ‘I did this thing’ or ‘I initiated this thing,’ which I think the American Embassy wants to hear [in the application], you feel you are going to come across as arrogant. So I had to have my friends prep me to say things differently. I was doing it all along, but I just didn’t know how to say it.”

Evaluating his own unsuccessful application, 2016 Fellow Albert Muragijimana from Rwanda said, “The mistake I made was telling stories about myself without impact. I didn’t demonstrate impact. In my essays I was just saying actions, but I was missing the point of impact.”

How do you show impact? Muragijimana says it helps to combine the description of your experience with some metrics. “If possible, show the numbers — how many people are going to be reached? How many lives are you going to change? If you are running a school, for example, how many kids are you going to take at school? If you are looking to improve access to education or access to health, how many people are going to have access to those services?” he said.

Remember that you are competing for a spot as a 2018 Fellow against very qualified people who also have impressive resumes. As Balarabe Ismail, a 2016 Fellow from Nigeria, said, “Not many people can apply because some of the questions cannot be answered by somebody on the street. It has to be somebody doing something for society.”

How will you differentiate yourself to make your application stand out? Don’t be afraid to contact MWF alumni and those who are familiar with your work for advice. They may be able to help you strike the best balance between sounding true to your naturally modest character and not selling yourself short. You can connect with them and find more helpful tips by becoming a YALI Network member and by following the YALI Network Facebook page.