Preparing a Strong Application

As long as you meet the eligibility requirements, keep on applying.  I applied 5 times before being selected.”

Valentin Zanmenou, 2021 Fellowship Alumnus, Benin
2023 Mandela Washington Fellows at the University of Georgia.

In the summer of 2024, the Mandela Washington Fellowship will bring up to 700 young leaders to the United States.  Wondering how you can prepare a strong application before the September 12 deadline?  Check out our tips and advice from Fellowship Alumni, and remember to review the eligibility information and selection criteria before beginning your application.

Keep reading to learn more about:

  • Selection criteria used to evaluate applications and what each one means
  • Ten key tips to keep in mind during the application period
  • Other application resources available through the YALI Network

Remember your application is not only used for you to be accepted, but for your placement as well.  It should be clear from the start what experience you would benefit from.”

Samantha Sibanda, 2019 Fellowship Alumna, Zimbabwe

Selection Criteria

The following criteria will be used to evaluate applications (not in order of importance):

  • A proven record of leadership and accomplishment in business, civic engagement, or public service
    • Have you won any awards or been recognized publicly for your work?  Be sure to include this information in your resume!
    • Use the long essay questions to connect your work to your first-choice track.
  • A demonstrated commitment to public or community service, volunteerism, or mentorship
    • List any volunteer work you’ve done on your resume, even if it doesn’t seem directly related to your professional work.
    • Make sure that any relevant experience, including mentorship, is reflected both in your resume and your essay responses.
  • The ability to work cooperatively in diverse groups and to respect the opinions of others
    • Have you had an experience where you’ve disagreed with team members or colleagues?  Have you mediated a disagreement in your community?  Highlight your cooperation in the second short essay question.
    • Do you have experience working with diverse groups? This may include working with people of varied ages, backgrounds, genders, abilities, ethnicities or tribes, races, education, or other variable attributes. Share your experience working in diverse environments across the application essays.
  • Strong social and communication skills
    • Each essay question is an opportunity to highlight your social and communication skills. Elaborate on these skills, especially in the second short essay question.
    • Pay attention to the word and character limit for each question!  Answer each question thoroughly and use all available space to share your story.
  • An energetic, positive, and flexible attitude
    • When you talk about challenges in your community or barriers you’ve encountered in the third short essay question, highlight how you have worked to overcome and learn from adversities.
  • A demonstrated knowledge of, interest in, and professional experience in the preferred sector/Fellowship track and concrete goals for applying lessons, knowledge, and skills gained from the Fellowship to current and/or future work
    • Why are you listing this track as your first choice?  What experiences or skills have led you to focus on this sector?  Make sure to explain your reasoning throughout the application, especially in the essay questions about why you work in that field and your goals for the future.
    • Look at your resume and make sure the experiences and skills included reflect your knowledge and experience in your first-choice track.
  • A commitment to return to Africa and contribute skills and talents to build and serve their communities
    • How will you use the skills developed through the Fellowship to benefit your community and/or country?
    • Include a clear outline of your goals and specific plans in:
      • The long essay question about how you will enhance activities in your community within the next three to five years; and
      • The short essay question on the changes or improvements you wish to implement in your community.

Choose the track that best aligns to your current work and/or long-term goals.  All three Fellowship tracks strengthen transferable skills that apply to many sectors.”

Tsanta Gaelle Ramamonjisoa, 2014 Fellowship Alumna, Madagascar

10 Key Tips

Tip 1: Don’t procrastinate!

Start preparing your essays early.  It is easy to underestimate the time and difficulty involved in developing your answers.  Applications are due Tuesday, September 12, 2023.

Tip 2: Save your work!

You do not have to finish your application all at one time.  Gather supporting documents and write responses before you log back into the application system to submit.

Tip 3: Do not copy or share answers!

Using language from other past applicants’ essays or using language from websites is considered plagiarism and will result in applications being disqualified.  The U.S. Department of State and IREX will check all applications for plagiarism.  For more information, please visit

Tip 4: Be original!

Write about and focus on what makes you stand out.  If you are making an impact on your community – however big or small – be proud to say so.

Remember that your story is unique.  Be as authentic as possible when you write about it.”

Winfred Mutinda, 2019 Fellowship Alumna, Kenya

Tip 5: Answer all questions in English!

Application evaluators will only score applications that are in English.  Completing all or part of your application in another language will be detrimental to your score.  You can practice and improve your English language skills for free through the Online Professional English Network or through Voice of America’s Learning English website.

Tip 6: Proofread your answers!

Read over your responses before you submit your application and ask a friend to read them as well.  Once you have submitted your application, you can no longer add any additional information or make any changes either through the online system or via email.

Tip 7: Use real-world examples!

Each essay question is an opportunity to prove why you are an excellent candidate for the Fellowship.  Share examples from your work to highlight your commitment to public service, your leadership experience, and other skills and experiences that demonstrate how you meet the selection criteria.

Regarding essays, answer your questions with real examples that tell your story.  How have you demonstrated in real terms what the question is asking?  Show a sequence from how things were before you stepped in, what you did differently, and the results.”

Ugochi Augusta Obidiegwu, 2018 Fellowship Alumna, Nigeria

Tip 8: Submit your application online!

The official application for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders administered by the U.S. Department of State is only available online and is free of charge.  Don’t fall for scammers trying to charge you to submit your application!

Tip 9: Highlight your accomplishments!

Don’t be modest!  If you have won any awards or been recognized publicly for your work, be sure to include this information in your resume and application.  List any volunteer work you’ve done, and use the long essay questions to highlight your knowledge, skills, and leadership experience.

Focus on your story, your passions for the work you’re doing.”

Wilheim Napsy “Owen” Okoko, 2018 Fellowship Alumnus, Republic of the Congo

Tip 10: Share your impact and goals!

Explain what skills or experiences have led you to where you are today and connect your experience to your first-choice track.  Use the essay questions to show how the Fellowship will help you apply leadership skills and include a clear outline of your goals and plans after returning home from the Fellowship.

Take time to ascertain what path you will want to pursue post-Fellowship because the Fellowship will equip you with transferable skills that you will use to amplify the work you’re already doing.”

Joan Enoh Tata, 2019 Fellowship Alumna, Cameroon

Other Application Resources

You can read more application tips in these resources from the YALI Network:

Read more from the YALI Network.