The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one year (12 months, not an academic year, the Foundation is at pains to make clear) international independent study designed, implemented, and evaluated by the fellows themselves.
It is a unique opportunity for undergraduate students graduating from 46 or so colleges around the United States to dream ambitiously- to imagine spending a year writing a book on scientific tourism in Western Europe, apprenticing yourself to a gondola-maker in Venice, or follow the fire season around the world. You just have to do it outside the United States, and you have to stay outside the U.S. for a full calender year.
The Thomas J. Watson Foundation annually distributes up to 50 fellowships carrying a $23,000 stipend ($35,000 for recipients traveling with a spouse or a child).
So you have a great idea that is personally relevant. How do you write the application?
Let's get a few practicalities out of the way:
You can't go anywhere that is under a US State Department Travel Restriction or under a US Department of the Treasury Embargo. You have to be a senior eligible to graduate in the spring. You can't come home for 12 months. International students are welcome, but they should make clear that they will return neither to the US nor their country of origin during the duration of the fellowship.
To get these fellowships, you must write an essay and be nominated by your undergraduate institution. They're going to be looking for who they think will be most successful with the fellowship- which doesn't necessarily correspond with what the Watson Foundation is looking for. It doesn't make much sense to obsess too much over your college's selection process, but it is a very good idea to meet with the college contact to get an idea of what he or she thinks are characteristics of a Watson Fellow. After you're nominated by your college, you'll typically get a bit of time to revise your application yet again before being interviewed by a member of the Watson foundation.
But how do you write a good application?
First, you start to plan your trip. Two hallmarks of successful Watson applications are feasibility and creativity.
Your proposal has got to be creative, but it also has to be both practical and safe. If, like me, your proposal involved activities that were inherently dangerous, such as firefighting, your proposal should address how you will mitigate that danger or avoid it entirely.
Be wary of including places that you've already spent significant periods of time in in your application- the Watson folks want you to have an experience that excites and challenges you rather than an opportunity to revisit familiar places. For example, while I alluded to my experiences in West Africa in my fellowship application, I planned to travel to South Africa rather than Cameroon, where I had spent time as a kid.
Once you've decided on an activity and have brain-stormed a list of countries (typically range from 1-7 on successful applications- too many may end up looking like you're planning a holiday rather than self-directed research), you should start trying to make the contacts you'll need in each country. I know, I know, it is still a hypothetical, but if you can include their names on your application, it will make your plan look far more credible.
Start to think about your budget. Depending on what countries you visit and how you plan to travel, you may discover your funds will go much faster than you'd imagine. Remember, you're on your own: the $23k has to cover airfare, lodging, insurance, food, and everything else for a year on the road. If you plan to go to more expensive countries, consider explaining how you plan to stay within your budget.
Remember your page constraints- no more than 5 pages, no less than 11 point for both your application and personal statement. Begin by writing long (and try to do it early, unlike procrastinators like me who waited until the last minute!) and then whittle it down over time. Ask everyone you know to read it, in multiple iterations. Ask me to read it. (I like editing and reading interesting ideas)
Winning applications, in my experience, are those that accurately reflect your personal ideas and previous experience. A creative plan is one that builds on experiences you've already had in your life, or a life-loong ambition that is supported by skills that you already had. If you're a science major, this may not be the place to say that you want to study classical Opera for a year, unless you've been singing all your life and spend your summers as a camp counselor for Opera Camp. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but you need to find some way to tie what you're interested in doing to your personal experiences, skills, and interests.
The Watson Foundation is trying to find "individuals who demonstrate leadership, resourcefulness, imagination or vision, independence, integrity, responsibility and emotional maturity, and courage." You need to write your heart out for it.
Please use my application as a resource, not a guide in helping you craft your own application. I have a somewhat unique writing style, and it may not suit you: if it doesn't work for you, don't try it. Write in whatever style feels authentic for you, and it will communicate itself to your readers.