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June 27, 2019

How to Choose the Best Candidates for Your Fellowship Program

Be confident you're awarding fellowships to the best candidates. Learn how to set clear selection criteria, put together a well-prepared review team, and encourage communication throughout the process.


Before fellowship applications begin to roll in, you need to be ready with an evaluation process that’s fair and efficient. But that’s just the start. Let’s talk about a few ways you can be sure your next fellowship awardees are the perfect fit for your program.

Be clear about how you’re judging fellowship candidates

By minimizing confusion about your criteria and scoring system, you can help your fellowship selection committee make better decisions. Here are a few strategies to tighten up your review.

Define each criterion 

If you have a list of evaluation criteria, is there room for interpretation on how they should be applied? Provide your reviewers with a detailed definition of each criterion, so they’re reading each application through the same lens. 

Keep the following in mind:

  • Make no assumptions. If you have a diverse review team, you might not be sure of their knowledge in your field. Avoid industry jargon or acronyms. 
  • Use plain language. Strive for clarity. Ask someone who’s not familiar with your fellowship program to read the definition. 
  • Provide examples. When applicable, this is the best way to clarify your meaning.

For example, let’s say the criterion is Scientific Merit of the Research Proposal. The definition might be as follows: 

This criterion measures how well the research proposal follows the scientific method and its level of potential benefit to participants, society, and/or the field. We want to see that:

  • The study has clearly stated objectives and research questions.
  • Their peer-reviewed literature supports the need for the study.
  • The procedures align with the research questions.

Apply a scoring system

Depending on the type of criteria, you may be able to score with a simple Yes or No. But in most cases, you need something more nuanced. The easiest way to do this is by adding a numerical scoring system. However, like before, being clear about definitions is crucial. The number itself doesn’t matter, it’s the meaning behind it that does.

So, if you decide that 1 equals high scientific merit, 2 equals medium, and 3 equals low, you need to be clear about what that means. Since this definition has three elements, you could say:

  • 1 - High Scientific Merit - This proposal meets all 3 elements of this criterion.
  • 2 - Medium Scientific Merit - This proposal meets 2 elements of this criterion.
  • 3 - Low Scientific Merit - This proposal meets 1 element or less of this criterion.

This makes it so much easier for the reviewer to evaluate. And, when you use a fellowship management system, they can see the application and scorecard side-by-side, rather than toggling between multiple tabs or flipping through physical documents. 

Weigh the importance of each criterion

As you can see, the numerical scoring system applies a consistent method for evaluation. Plus, when you use the same scale (lower numbers = better), you can simply tally up the applicant’s total score to see the top applicants.

However, this approach doesn’t factor in the relative importance of each criterion. To introduce more precision into your evaluation process, you can assign percentages.

For example, let’s say that your fellowship is known for its scientific rigor and outstanding research outcomes. You might use a breakdown like this:

  • Personal Statement 20%
  • Academic Achievements 15%
  • Scientific Merit of the Research Proposal 50%
  • Letters of Recommendation 15%

While you could certainly set up a decision matrix in Excel, a faster way to calculate the final scores is by using fellowship application software. You can configure the scorecard once, and then let the system provide real-time scoring at the touch of a button. 

Assemble a well-prepared fellowship review team

Now that we’ve discussed how to make your evaluation process more objective, let’s focus on the other half of the equation - your review team. After all, the selection of fellowship awardees does come down to a subjective decision. You want to ensure your team makes the right call.

Evaluate potential reviewers

As a starting point, here’s a list of questions you should keep in mind as you’re considering potential reviewers. 

  • Would they be conscientious about their responsibility?
  • Do they manage their time well?
  • Are they knowledgeable about your field/industry/topic?
  • Would they have any conflicts of interest?
  • What commitments might interfere with their participation?
  • Have they participated in a fellowship selection committee before?

As your team is coming together, take a step back, and ask:

  • Will fellowship applicants feel the committee is qualified?
  • Is there enough diversity to make sure you’re seeing all perspectives?
  • Do you need representation from individuals outside your industry or field?

Walk through the evaluation criteria together

We’ve already talked about the importance of defining your evaluation criteria. This is the best way to help your reviewers make well-informed decisions. However, don’t take for granted that everyone is on the same page. 

It’s important to host a group orientation before they begin their review assignments. Having discussions about the criteria will reinforce what they’re looking for and clear up any gray areas.

You may want to summarize any clarifications in writing after you meet. If you’re using fellowship management software, you could update the scorecard with customized instructions or reminders.

Encourage collaboration

Since committees are usually working independently on their own assignments, this can inhibit collaboration. Having a broader perspective benefits the decision-making process. Look for ways to let reviewers bounce ideas off each other, ask questions, or raise issues.

Using a fellowship application system makes this easier by allowing for comments directly in the application itself. Reviewers can make a note, and then send a message to fellow committee members or the fellowship coordinator. They can even communicate directly with the candidate if they need more information or clarification.

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This all adds up to a more robust review process with better outcomes. By clarifying your fellowship evaluation criteria and putting a strong, well-prepared selection committee in place, you can guarantee an excellent decision.



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