Betel Mekbib has applied for the Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF) every year since 2014. She was a semifinalist that first year, but was not selected. In 2015 and 2016, she didn’t even reach the interview stage of competition.
Christian Fonye also applied unsuccessfully for the Fellowship in 2015 and 2016. He became frustrated when he compared his resume to some of the Fellows’ bios. “Is my work not valuable enough?” he wondered. “What else can I do to get people to recognize the work I’m doing?”
Both Betel and Christian are highly educated young professionals with impressive credentials. Betel works to increase access to social services for schoolchildren, domestic workers and the elderly in her native Ethiopia. Christian, who is from Cameroon, promotes human rights as an educator, organizer and former corrections officer.
Betel and Christian knew that they were qualified to be Mandela Washington Fellows and that the Fellowship would improve their ability to create change in their communities. So why did they keep getting rejected?
They reflected on the application process during the MWF Summit in Washington in August 2017. After years of hard work, they had finally been selected as Fellows, and they have advice for disappointed applicants who haven’t been selected.
First, “Start as early as possible to give yourself ample time,” Betel said. Christian noted that the application questions may seem simple, but they require thoughtful, thorough responses.
“Really internalize your own values and remain truthful about those values,” Betel advised. Don’t try to guess what the judges may be looking for; instead, give honest, straightforward answers to the questions.
According to Christian, it is also important for applicants to balance writing about what they have already accomplished with how they expect the Fellowship to affect their future work. The Fellowship is not designed as a reward for previous achievement; it is intended to equip Fellows with the skills and contacts to further their work in their communities.
And speaking of contacts, “Remain connected with the YALI Network,” Betel recommended. Both she and Christian received guidance from Fellows in crafting their applications. Those Fellows helped Betel and Christian improve their written responses and prepare for their interviews.
Most importantly, don’t give up. Betel was accepted as a Fellow on her fourth try, and Christian on his third. Many of the other Fellows had similar stories. Each rejection helped them learn how to improve their applications for the next cycle.
Looking for more tips? Check out the MWF Application Insider Guide [PDF].
Start your application here: mandelawashingtonfellowship.org