“Show me the money!!!”

Scholarships for postgraduate study are actually plentiful, but so are applicants. Thousands of people submit their essays each year, in the hopes of winning some funding. I was one of them. Last year, I applied and won an international scholarship from my university. So how did I stand out and win the coveted prize?

This blog will share the principles that guided me in my writing process, which you can apply to your own application.

#1 Understand and write to the prompt

Scholarships will include a ‘prompt’ for your personal statement or application letter, explaining what they want you to tell them.

Answer that prompt directly and highlight the keywords. For example, my prompt asked applicants to say how they think they are able to make contributions to the university and society after graduation – i.e. how would you give back and represent both the university and society if you win? – deconstruct the question and answer directly.

Another scholarship I applied for explicitly stated not to include any irrelevant information – particularly your financial circumstances. Remember that everyone who is vying for the scholarship needs the money. Be wary of the word count and save the story of how you are struggling financially for another essay. . .

#2 SURPRISE! and grab your reader’s attention

This is probably how you’ve been taught to write your essays since primary school and this tip doesn’t differ. Start with an anecdote, statistics, a joke, or a question. Avoid quotes though (Well, unless it’s an unconventional one – e.g. with great power comes great electricity bills – which you think may charm the readers) as another candidate will probably have the same as yours and your essay may just go straight in the bin.

Obviously, also make sure that your opening relates to what you go on to say. If it’s an eye-catching statistic, perhaps it’s a status quo you hope to challenge. If it’s an anecdote about your experience, perhaps it helps explain why you’ve come to consider this course. And so on.

#3 Write with the university/organization in mind

What is the mission, value and vision of the university or organization sponsoring the scholarship? Express your ideas in a way that aligns yourself with them. I applied to a school that prides itself on research excellence and opened my application with statistics related to my academic achievement (by the way, research isn’t only about those complicated numbers!). Each sponsoring organization is different and your application should be too. A Chevening scholarship, Commonwealth scholarship and a UK university scholarship will have different criteria.

With this in mind, cutting and pasting the exact same application letter is probably going to put you at a disadvantage versus people who have taken the time to really think about each funder.

#4 Find your USP (Unique Selling Point)

Scholarship panellists receive numerous essays answering the same prompt, and only the crème de la crème have the best chance of winning. Marketing 101: Find your strengths and sell your story to the scholarship committee about why you are the perfect candidate. Your own life experiences and challenges will make you stand out: brainstorm and use it to your advantage.

#5 Be concise

Less is more.

Case in point: If you write sentences that are too long and you drone on about your favourite pet rock your reader will probably be lost in the woods at this point and may not want to read this sentence anymore.

#6 Read previous winning applications

Read past winning essays to get a feel of what the panellists go for. Use them to guide your own essay. As Loshana, a Chevening scholarship winner, previously mentioned – Research, research, research! I would add: read, read, read and read more (this is probably the bulk of your postgraduate studies so why not start practising your research and reading skills!)

#7 Check for typ0s

Obvious one but some do trip up on technicalities. Did you use your instead of you’re, their with there? Edit and check for word count and format. Get another pair of eyes – Family, friends, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, dogs, cats, gerbils, plants, and stranger on the streets – anyone who can give you constructive feedback.

If you gather all the winning applications, it seems that every essay is different, and that’s how it is. Each offers a unique story of the writer, a glimpse of who they are – past, present and future. The X-factor, distinctiveness and individuality of each essay moves and capture judges’ eye and helps to define a winner. Make sure the reader understands who you are and why you’re considering your course of choice.

If you can do that, there’s a much greater chance they’ll help you to do it.

All the best!


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African Union Commission Scholar || Founder @ Youth Opportunities Hub || Former RBA COST/Sahel Team at UNDP || TEF Alumni ||

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