Tobe, a 2018 recipient of the African Initiative for Governance(AIG) for a Master’s of Public Policy Programme at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford shares tips and his thought on stuff that makes for a great scholarship application.

April 30, 2018 would always be a memorable day for me. On that day, I received a heart-warming news that I had been awarded a full scholarship by the Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG) for a Master of Public Policy Programme at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. However, the news that I was among the five individuals who emerged at the end of a process that began with thousands of applicants also reminded me of my numerous experiences in search of scholarships.

It has been a journey of self-discovery ladened with lessons. Therefore, this article is based on the lessons I learnt in the course of making over 40 applications for postgraduate admission/scholarships since 2014. The tips are not Golden Rules for scholarship applications as experiences differ, but it is my hope you might identify with the lessons from my story.

In front of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Photo Credit: Tola Adegbite

  1. Information is Power: Regardless of your level of competence, it is only opportunities that you know about that you can compete for, and scholarships are won only by those who know about it and of course, applied. In this regard, your best friends are the internet and your network. Upon my undergraduate graduation in 2014, I subscribed to the mailing list of websites that focus on disseminating information about scholarships and opportunities; and also joined groups on social media that serve a similar purpose. My favourite of such groups (Scholarship and Opportunities) has even gone beyond social media posts to launch a very informative and functional website. Beyond online information, connecting to a network of similar minded folks will not only ensure you have information on relevant opportunities but can even give you access to information on how best to apply and win.
  2. Background research is vital: It is very important that you go beyond the information provided in a scholarship advert to find out more about the institution/department that awards the scholarship; the requirements (qualifications, experience, documents) for the scholarship and most importantly, recent winners of the scholarship. Though I thoroughly researched the AIG scholarship; one of the most important steps I took was finding and reaching out to the past scholars. Thanks to social media, such golden fishes have no hiding place. Look them up and engage them in the most appropriate manner (LinkedIn is my favourite); it would certainly help you to avoid some mistakes during the application process.
  3. Spread your net but have clarity of purpose: Before you decide on submitting an application, be clear about what you want and why you want it. This will help you not only in making strategic applications but ensure you win them. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, I made 18 applications for scholarships and admissions. In retrospect, I know I could have been more strategic with some of the applications because I remember that at one of the interviews, my inability to show that beyond good credentials; I had a clear sense of not only what I wanted but why I wanted it made me lose the opportunity. I think the basic rule of the thumb in this context is; Know what you don’t want even if you are not very sure of what you want.
  4. Take the scholarship essays very seriously: No matter how compelling your CV is, the personal essay part of your application is often the key defining element of the application. This is why your ability to tell a compelling story using facts from your CV is crucial. As you do this, make sure you think beyond yourself and relate your past, present and future to the aspirations of the scholarship awarding institution and of course the common good. You must avoid ambiguity, never plagiarise and ensure you edit your essays for grammatical errors. Online tools such as Grammarly can be very helpful in this regard.
  5. Critical review is the answer:“Tobe, except if Oxford is bound to admit you because you are a finalist in the AIG Scholarship application process (which of course was not the case) and then the other finalists have also written as poorly as you did; then you may stand a chance with an application essay such as what you sent me…”

This was the opening statement that my friend who trained at London School of Economics used while reviewing the personal statement I wanted to use for my application to Oxford. Without such critical review, I would have most likely gotten the usual we regret to inform you e-mail. No matter how experienced or competent you think you are, never forget that two good heads are better than one thus; ensure you share your thoughts with individuals who can critique your write-up and provide the required guidance and support. If possible allow at least three different reviewers, to critique your essays before you finalize and submit. Although, you mustn’t accept all they say, look out for the recurring issues that they highlighted and make sure you work on them.

  1. Reference Letters:There are three categories of people that are perhaps, the most suited to write a reference letter in support of your scholarship application; your teachers, workplace bosses and community service colleagues. In the case of the first two, it is often preferable that your academic supervisor at the university and your direct supervisor at the workplace respectively, write your letters of reference. However, the most important thing is that your referee must be someone who believes in you and is willing to journey with you as you search for scholarships. For example, one of my undergraduate lecturers at the University of Benin has graciously written a reference letter for each of all applications I have made since 2014. Imagine writing forty-something distinct reference letters for just an individual! It certainly shows he believes in me. Build solid relationships both as a student and at the workplace. They are very important.
  2. Build a relevant work profile:Regardless of your socio-economic realities, always ensure that your work trajectory shows that you have a focus. For example, I had to turn down opportunities to work in the Nigerian banking sector in 2015 and another job opportunity in 2017 in order to enable me pursue my MSc in Political Science at the University of Ibadan (for which I eventually got a scholarship) and for an unpaid internship at the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (which eventually gave me the opportunity to intern with the UNICEF and thereafter; a full-time paid employment with the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy) respectively. But most importantly, the choices paid off in a bigger way in 2018 because my profile as at the time of applying to the Master of Public Policy programme at Oxford showed some track record of relevant public sector expertise.
  3. Volunteer and be part of your community: Beyond the fact thatvolunteerism is an opportunity for an individual to help contribute in building his or her community thus an evidence of leadership; it can help an individual to garner experience, connect to a network of changemakers in the society and from my own personal experience, have the opportunity to heal especially after receiving rejections for applications. I remember that it was my small tutor-volunteer project in an orphanage in Ibadan that helped me to heal after the thunder-bolt rejections I got in August 2016 top of which was the lost opportunity to study Political Studies in Canada. Immediately after the rejection, I initiated a Back-To-School project for the children at the orphanage and to a large extent; the project distracted me from my pains and allowed me to heal by focusing on the problems of others. Unpaid relevant work/community service can be very helpful … take up something, no matter how little!
  4. Always have your relevant certificates and documents available: If you look forward to winning a scholarship, the reality is that what makes it a scholarship is that you will go and study in a university, therefore; you must apply for admission into a particular programme. To do this, you will need your certificates, transcripts and other relevant documents. My advice is that once you graduate, ensure you process your transcripts and your certificates so that latest three months after graduation, you have them with you (possibly scanned and uploaded to cloud storage or in your email). This will save you from last minute rush or stress when eventually, the university or funder asks for your documents and if you are unfortunate for example; the labour unions are on strike!
  5. To fail is to succeed: The most important learning moment of your lives are your failures…take them as the best thing that happened to you”

These were the words of Prof Ngaire Woods (Dean Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford) at her welcome remarks for my class. I consider this to be the best spirit one can adopt in the search for opportunities. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to give up. The only way you can eventually win a scholarship is by applying for the next available one after being rejected. One thing I observed was that as my rejection count increased, I got better at my applications. In other words, each failure became an opportunity to learn and ensure that the next application was better. I remember that the only reason why I was able to meet the deadline that AIG gave those of us that made it to the essay writing stage was that I already had essays from past applications which I quickly improved upon and edited to suit the essence of the AIG Scholarship.

AIG 2018/2019 Scholars. Photo Credit: Blavatnik School of Government

I’d like to conclude by emphasising that as a general rule of the thumb, most scholarships are often awarded based on three critical periods/moments: the candidate’s past, his or her present and of course, stated plans for the future. You might not be able to change what you have done in the past, however; you can start to engage the present moment in a more productive way to ensure that your future seems and gets better.

But above all, it is very important that you see the search for scholarships for what it truly is; a journey in the search for knowledge. Remember that it is a means to an end not an end in itself. All you need to do is to incorporate all the lessons you may learn from the journey to become a better individual for personal and societal good. I hope this piece helps you in this journey!

Tobe can be reached via LinkedIn @TobechukwuNneli

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