In Part I, I listed some of the more competitive fellowships available for graduate students in engineering fields. Now, I'm going to go over some of the critical, and occasionally obvious, advice for applying to fellowships.
1) Read the Requirements!
Each fellowship wants something different, and they're often kind enough to tell you what that is. In the case of the NSF GFRP, they're even kind enough to tell you every criterion you will be judged on. So do yourself a favor, and read these thoroughly. Consider it practice for grant proposals later in life.
2) Draft and Draft Again
Take the time to write more than one draft of every essay. You're trying to capture your voice in a fairly brief space. Get other people to read your drafts. These two-ish pages are all you have to convince a committee of people to give you tens of thousands of dollars over the course of several years. They'd better be good.
3) Get Advice
Many schools have seminars for fellowship applications, or even staff/faculty members who will help you edit. There are also convenient lists of previous awardees by school: you can ask them for help (though they may not have the time to give it). Read the FAQs. Find advice online.
4) Feel Free to Ignore Advice
If you are given advice you think is really bad, like someone telling you to write your research proposal entirely in iambic pentameter, fell free to ignore it. Your application should represent you, and what you want to do. Don't try and pretend you were Mother Theresa to improve your broader impacts score: be honest about what you have done, and what you think you can achieve. If there's advice about talking about what languages you can code in, and you're an experimental biologist, ignore that.
5) Start Early
This ties back to the second bullet. It takes time to craft a solid essay, to do the literature review for research proposal. Occasionally, you need to set it aside, walk away from it, and come back with a fresh mind set. Sometimes, you can't spot the typo, because you've gotten used to seeing it that way.
6) Get Editing Help
You, most likely, are not an English major. This is perfectly logical, given you're currently applying to graduate fellowships for engineers. I highly recommend finding one to look over your personal statements. It's amazing how much bad grammar can distract from your message. Also, as far as your research proposal is concerned, find a friend in a different subfield to help you eliminate jargon. The committee judging your application will have a background in your general field, but the odds that they are an expert in any particular subfield are rather low. Avoid using TLAs (three letter acronyms) without explanation, or other abbreviations. You may now exactly what a LJ12-6 potential is, but your reviewers may not.
7) Read the Requirements!
Because if you don't, you've already doomed your chances. It's hard to reiterate this one enough.
8) Keep Track of Deadlines
Each fellowship has a different deadline. You really, really don't want to miss them. One way to deal with this is to set yourself deadlines earlier for things like full drafts. Mark them on your calendar. Make note of times to check that your supplementary materials, like transcripts and letters of recommendation, have been sent. If one piece is missing, it's more or less like the entire application was never submitted.
9)Don't Be Afraid to Nag References
And Dr. Isis will back me up on this one. Check online to make sure the letters have arrived. Sometimes, computers freeze at exactly the wrong time. I can say from experience that if you don't double check, things can go wrong.