The second instalment in our “How I Got a Scholarship” series is here! Wohoo! Last time I introduced you to Abisola Oteshile who got a Chevening Scholarship to study Advanced Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College (see the post here if you missed it). Her story was very inspiring and I received so many emails which I have now finally responded to. Phew! (Keep them coming though.)
This week, I am introducing you to Prossie Aliba, who I actually met for the first time on Facebook! Prossie is a Ugandan lawyer and she applied for the Cambridge LL.M. at the same time that I did. She got admitted obviously (err, because she is super smart. You know those lawyers that lawyers look up to? That’s Prossie) but she had to cross the funding hurdle. Unfortunately, she was not able to enrol for the LL.M. when I did, but she went the year after on a Chevening Scholarship and she has graciously agreed to share her tips for success with you.
Prossie attended Makerere University Law School in Uganda for her LL.B. and graduated top of the class. She then proceeded to the Law Development Center, (the Ugandan bar school) and graduated as the best overall student, earning the Chief Justice Award for excellent performance, as well as the Law Development Center Award for Best Student in Commercial Law/Transactions. She also holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Tax and Revenue Administration as well as an LL.M. (Commercial Law) from Cambridge. I thought it was very important to interview a lawyer who got the Chevening, as I know that quite a large number of lawyers and law students follow the blog.
In this article, Prossie will tell you as it is, which is one quality I love about her. Although this is not scholarship related, I think Prossie’s Facebook page is the stuff of legend. You can see her wit and brilliance from her posts. Sometimes, things go down in her comment section that I need to quickly grab popcorn, but I digress.
Again, while I don’t give scholarships, (I know you think this statement is redundant) I am happy to answer any questions that you have. I will also share my story and top tips soon.
Now over to Prossie.
Unless you are very rich, you will find yourself looking at funding for your education at some point in your adult life. It is part of “adulting” and it is not an entirely fun process. Funding takes many forms; a scholarship, a fellowship, a grant or a waiver. Over my short academic life, I have been privileged to hold a few scholarships, with the latest being the Chevening scholarship which enabled me to fulfil one of my childhood dreams, studying at the University of Cambridge. Yes, the United Kingdom’s top university according to all the credible rankings over the years.
I cannot claim exclusive knowledge to writing a successful scholarship application but I will share with you my personal tips gleaned from my own journey of finding funding.
1. They Were Right
Do you recall that gospel that never left the lips of our parents and our teachers throughout school? That “excellence and good grades” gospel? I hate to break it to you but they were indeed right. A good scholarship application starts with good grades. Grades do matter. Almost every scholarship requires you to have a first class degree or a second upper degree. They are looking for an excellent student, ranked in the top 1% of the year group. The narrative that successful people did not all go to school is false; they actually enrolled before dropping out which means that they had the required grades to enrol in the first place. Therefore it is important that you study hard and obtain great grades.
I know you are saying “obviously” but it is sad how many people exclude themselves from opportunities due to self doubt and thinking that there is no way they would be chosen. When I first encountered the Chevening scholarship, my initial reaction was to walk away. I didn’t think that there was a possibility that I could be among the 8 scholarship recipients out of 700 applicants. I put off the application until the last days. One day, I woke up and decided that there was no harm in trying. If I was rejected, life would go on. If I didn’t try, I would always live with the question “what if?” and that question motivated me to apply. Remember that scholarship applications do not cost any money so there is really no reason why one would exclude themselves if they meet the basic requirements.
3.Read the Instructions
This is the one thing that many applicants do not pay attention to. Failure to read and understand instructions will get your application binned faster than bad rapping. It is important that you read the instructions and do not assume that you know. If an application asks you how you meet the requisite criteria, show how you meet each and every set criteria with clear and concise examples. It is dangerous to set your own questions and then answer them. Follow instructions! If an application asks you to show your leadership capabilities, do not go into your intellectual capacity because clearly no one asked you for it.
If the application tells you to write 300 words, writing 301 words is a quick way to get rejected. If it requires you to use a certain font and certain font size, refusing to comply is at your own detriment! If you are told to send 3 referees, sending 2 referees is a guaranteed rejection. If you are told to apply by a certain deadline, there will be no exceptions and you will not be allowed to submit past the deadline. Excuses are unacceptable to most scholarships. The application window usually lasts 3 months so you should not wait until the last moment lest your computer crashes or the system is overloaded and you are unable to meet the deadline as this will be a lame excuse. If you are told to send a certified copy of the transcript, sending just a photocopy of your transcript is not fulfilling that requirement. The point is for you to be fully compliant.
4. An Award Winning Reference
Most applications will require you to provide references. The instructions will specify if the reference is academic or personal. If you are asked for an academic reference, please note that your employer does not qualify except if he also doubles as your former lecturer. It is interesting how many people get their relatives and friends to write references for them when it is clearly indicated “academic references” only.
It is prudent to provide your referee with the requisite details to enable them write a proper reference. Do not assume that they know it all. For example, many scholarships have set criteria for what a candidate must demonstrate e.g. leadership capacity, intellectual ability and financial need. If you do not tell your referee what the scholarship or application is looking for, they will clearly omit important details and hence give you a mediocre reference in the eyes of the scholarship decisions board.
It is also important to find references that know you well and/or have interacted with you as they are able to write good references for you. An award winning reference is not a product of the writer’s corporate social responsibility. It is a reference which shows extensive knowledge of the strengths of the candidate and makes a good case for why the candidate is the best choice there is.
Another ignored instruction is on how references are to be sent. Many scholarship boards require that references be on institutional headed paper e.g. a university headed paper and/or be sent from an institutional email e.g. a university webmail. If the candidate did not read this instruction, they will not tell this to the referee who then sends a reference that does not comply and ultimately leads to your disqualification.
5. Avoid the Plagiarism Curse
We have grown up in a culture where people confidently plagiarize everything from songs to articles to even names. The sad reality is that people carry this into more serious aspects of their life, such as applications. Scholarship teams read about 15,000 applications per year and will definitely tell if your application sounds like something they have seen or read before. A human mind never forgets certain things especially if they have seen them over and over again and therefore it is easy to spot a plagiarized statement and discard it accordingly.
The best personal statement is original. It oozes passion and you can tell that it is from that person. That is why it is called a PERSONAL statement because it is meant to be personal, straight from your heart and reflect what you want to say. You cannot express yourself well if you are saying someone else’s passion. It is even worse where your application is followed up by interviews because at the end of the interview, it becomes clear that what you are saying and what you initially said do not add up hence you plagiarized. Be you. Be original. Write from your heart and tell your story. Let the panel get an understanding of what drives you, what motivates you and what makes you a perfect fit for the set criteria.
6. Grammar and Punctuation
Let us start off by pointing out that pidgin English is not proper English! Writing an essay as if it is a funeral announcement, with no punctuation whatsoever is an unforgivable sin. It is the 11th commandment in the Bible. Wrong grammar is unacceptable even if you are a victim of auto correct.
Read through your essays at least twice, to ensure that they are properly punctuated and that it is precise and easily understandable. Ensure that your essay has a good flow. Some essays remind one of a bouncing ball. The essay is all over the place to the extent that you cannot establish the conclusion, preamble and/or content. No one has time to analyse your essay to figure out what you are saying, yet they have another 1,000 essays to look at. Make it easy for the reader to follow and ensure that your essay does stand out and is not cliché, average and mediocre.
7.Radiate Focus, Ambition and Drive
So you have some pretty impressive paper qualifications and even more impressive references but where is your drive? What motivates you? Where you do you see yourself in the next 5 years? What do you want to study and why do you want to study it? What makes you stand out? Is it the ambition, the drive, the focus or the resilience? Most scholarship boards are looking for motivated people, people that have a clear vision of where they are going. They are looking for the next generation of policy makers and global changers. They are looking for bold people and those that can rise above any storm thrown at them. What storm have you conquered in life? It is important for sponsors to know that they are getting value for the investment being made in you. Therefore, every applicant must ooze ambition, focus and drive. All these must be well stated in your application and be well projected at your interviews.
8.Bonus tip: The Rejection Curse
I wish I was able to assure you that every scholarship application you make will be successful. Unfortunately that is far from the truth. Every credible scholarship deals with tens of thousands of applications from all over the world and understandably, they have to turn down some of the best candidates because of resource constraints. So when you are turned down, it does not mean that you are not good at what you do or that they do not find you good enough. It simply means that someone else got in before you and you should not feel inferior or throw in the towel.
There is always another year and you should be able to apply again. Initial rejections can and do turn into subsequent admissions! You never know the plans God has for you. So do not give up. Try again until you wear out rejection. If you throw in the towel, you will never know what would have been. So for every rejection, view it as an opportunity to try again until you succeed.
I wish you the absolute best in this journey. May the odds ever be in your favour.
You must agree that Prossie is amazing. All her tips are fantastic but I need to emphasize two tips- Apply and An Award Winning Reference. Please don’t defeat yourself before trying. I know someone who just got admitted to Cambridge but almost did not apply. Even if you get a rejection, it is okay (I’ve received many rejections in my life, in case you think I’m just coasting, lol). You can readjust your strategy and try again. In addition, Abisola in her interview mentioned the fact that she got an amazing reference. I think you should not see it as a coincidence that both Chevening Scholars that we have interviewed emphasized the need for a fantastic reference. It is time to start building your relationship with your teachers and lecturers, so that when the time comes, they can truly say good things about you.
Do you have more tips for us? What have you learnt from Prossie? Please share this article, get motivated to apply for that scholarship and don’t forget to subscribe!
P.S. If you have or you know anyone who has obtained a scholarship, preferably less conventional ones (e.g not Commonwealth or Chevening) and will be willing to share their story with blog readers, please let me know by sending an email to Mariam@maytermorphorsis.com .