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How to Stay Competitive for Postgraduate Scholarship – Part Two

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By Femi Samuel

Before you continue, it is important to read the first part on this same topic. This will enable you to follow through the second part of my write-up without hitches. You can read it through the link below:

How to Stay Competitive for Postgraduate Scholarship – Part One

Part Two

2. Seek to be a good fit for the school to which you are applying.

If you have ticked the boxes for academic qualifications, then the next thing to seek to achieve is to be a ‘good fit’ for the school you seek to apply beyond the academic part. No school would wish to admit anyone that would not fit into their culture, their values and their mission. And no school or funder likes it when a candidate rejects their offer. So, adcoms and selection committees want to be sure you truly want the school, the programme or the funding.

What then does it mean to be a “good fit” for the school or the scholarship? It simply means your profile matches those of the priorities and the mission of the school. Your profile in this case does not refer to your CV alone but the totality of the candidate as an individual. This will encompass your most cherished values, your experiences, your attributes etc.

And so, you must seek out a school that ‘is a good fit for you and that you are a good fit for’. Alternatively, you can begin to build ‘that fit’ even now. Implicit in this last statement is the fact that you must understand the school itself. You need to visit the website or the school itself to see what they do, familiarize yourself with their vision and mission and look at current students and past alumni profiles and exploits.  

Further to that, you can discuss directly with staff and students to seek their opinions. Many schools have this facility. Kindly note that schools are usually clear about their mission and they look out for students whose passions clearly approximate with theirs.

Similarly, your outlook must align with that of the programe you are applying to. All programmes seek to train certain categories of individuals that will achieve certain things in the future. Thus, beyond being fit for the school, you must be fit for the program. You must ask yourself, why do I want this program? And why am I a good candidate above others? What can this program do for me?

The same thing goes for funding opportunities. Do not just jump at request for funding or scholarship application. You must read their requirements and targets. You will appear very unserious if you don’t qualify for the requirements or if your goals and aspirations, your values and your passions do not fall in line with those of the funders, and you put up an application for such funding opportunities.

For example, on the website of the Joint Japan /World Bank Graduate Scholarship Programme, it says: 

“JJ/WBGSP is open to women and men from developing countries with relevant professional experience and a history of supporting their countries’ development efforts who are applying to a master degree program in a development-related topic.”

Any candidate applying to this funding must have ‘a history of supporting their countries development efforts.’ In decrypting this further, a candidate would like to know what development is and what are the development efforts that his/her country has been involved with. This is aside other requirements in the application.

Consequently, a self-assessment is required and then the candidate would want to highlight those critical values and attributes that can showcase this relevance among others. And this must be set out clearly before putting up an application. It is important to mention that there are different ways adcoms measure these  when assessing the application. 

Let me be quick to point out that some people deceive themselves by claiming to be what they are not! So, you may wish to ask: What am I passionate about? What values define me? How did I get here and what lessons of life have shaped my thinking? And what goals am I aiming at? These questions, among others, can help you fine-tune who you are and arrive at a realistic self-appraisal to see if truly you are a good fit for the school, the program, the funding you are seeking or even all of them together.

Then you can begin to focus your plan on how best to hone those values, attributes and experiences of yours to align with those of the school, programme or the funder if they are not already so.

So, as part of the pre-application plan, you must seek to be a good fit for the school by reviewing your profile, your achievements, your skills and capacities. After careful self-assessment, make a list of those parts of your profile assessments that stand you in good stead for the programme and those you need to build on. At this stage, one important virtue you need is being honest with yourself. After-all, you are yet to apply and no one is going to reprimand you. 

What are some things you can do enhance your fit for the school?

a. Get ahead with leadership and teamwork experiences

If you are currently an undergraduate student, take the lead and make records of your activities. There are various aspects you can do this. It could be in the church, mosques, your community, your local association or even your student union government. Even as a team lead of a subgroup in class. Carefully note it and make a record of your achievements.

Schools and funders want to build great leaders. They also look to admit those who will impact positively on their colleagues and the school; those who will serve as brand ambassadors for the school. Leadership experience is one sure way to stay competitive for admission and scholarship.

b. Gather international experience

Experience working in multi-cultural settings is a way to build your international experience without necessarily going abroad. However, where possible, international travels as undergraduate, study abroad programmes are desirable.

International experience is becoming more and more important to adcoms and selection committees in assessing candidates these days. This is because to survive abroad, you must be able to interact at different cultural levels. Noteworthy is the fact that those who can speak additional languages especially the official UN languages are considered to have international experience. 

For the avoidance of doubt, the following are recognised as official UN languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Russian. 

So, if you have such an environment near you, try and spend some time there, perhaps as a volunteer. And if you have the fair to learn an additional language, please do.

c. Gain entrepreneurial experience

Schools like to admit those with creativity and good initiative. Funders too believe in them. One way to gain this is to get involved in entrepreneurial activities if you can. And indeed, it is advised.

When a candidate demonstrates initiative, adcoms and selection committees belief such individuals are questioning and filled with visions – which obviously means that they will make a good use of the funding and the programme they are seeking.

d. Keep a record of your growth experiences, challenges and hustles

The challenges you have been able to face and solve in life can determine how you fit into the school and how far you may be able to go. Most programmes look to build future leaders who will solve the problems of the world and would be able to confront challenges head-on. Adcoms particularly look forward to those who are self-aware of their failures in life. This does not mean that you should go out to create problems for yourself. No.

But at one time or the other, as humans we have faced one failure or another that we have overcome or learnt from. And this can easily be found in our everyday life in mistakes we make and how we handle them. This may be in our personal lives, relationships or even academics.

Would you like to pause for a moment to think of one? Then write it down as part of the pre-application activities. You can easily refer to it when you need it.

Ability to acknowledge one’s failures or mistakes shows hardiness and a desire to learn from experience. So, are there instances where you may have sought to improve on a recognized personal problems or failure? You may wish to note it down. It might be useful.

Relatedly, adcoms look out for ‘hustlers’. Yes, hustlers! Those who through hardship went from ‘nobody to somebody’. Those who have been able to create a niche for themselves and stand on the path of growth. For example, are you the only one who is able to make it to higher institution in your family? Did you grow up as an orphan and yet you made it this far? Did you train yourself, as it were ,in school, having to go out to do manual labour to go ahead in live? Are you a victim of sexual violence and came out stronger? Were your parents abusive and you choose to differ in your ways? Yes, you are a bootstrapper and higher institutions and funders are looking for you!

Many times, we take some of these things for granted and fail to document them. This is quite understandable given that some of them are traumatic experience that we would rather wish to forget. Nonetheless, such harrowing experiences are worth sharing. It shows that given all the needed support, you can do more.

It is also an experience with learning from. Teachers and students alike will benefit from them when you tell your stories in class. That way you enhance the diversity and beauty of learning. No school will not want to have such a person on their list, given that there are no other things to disqualify such an individual.

So, are you ready to start getting your notes together?

e. Seek out volunteering/extracurricular opportunities

Schools and funders are looking for all-rounder not someone who is glued to a particular profession and cannot reach out to others. The school is a community on its own. Schools and funders will be willing to sponsor those they are comfortable will make meaningful contribution to that community. Additionally, volunteering shows that you have a passion to sacrifice for others – a desirable attribute in all candidates for admission and funding.

You can volunteer in your institution and serve on different clubs. Religious organizations are good places to get volunteering opportunities. You can tailor your volunteering to suit the programme you are aiming to pursue a postgraduate degree in.

For example, if you plan to pursue a postgraduate degree in Public Health like I did, could you seek out a public health institution near you to volunteer your service?

In Nigeria, the National Youth Service Corps Scheme provides a good opportunity for volunteering. You can join any of the clubs – road safety club etc, to boost your profile.

3. Seek to stand-out from other candidates

It may sound incongruous that a candidate needs to fit into the school, the funding or the programme and at the same time, stand out. Yes, it is correct. That you need to fit into the school means that you must have those attributes earlier mentioned. That you must stand means you must seek to be unique.

This is where some candidates get it wrong. Some will go online to copy others’ personal statements or try to fashion their resumes to follow those of others. That will simply make you like any other candidate. And as a member of the scholarship selection committee or admission committee of any school, why should I get you on board if you are not different? The candidate simply gets lost in the pool of other candidates.

What makes you a candidate for admission is you – that which makes you unique. So, instead of copying other candidates’ styles, try to seek to tell your story. And be honest about it. Lies are the last things that will make adcoms want to consider you. The truth is, adcoms will always find out – it is just a matter of time! And it will be very shameful if you have to lose your studentship and your reputation afterwards.

Seeking to stand out also involves carefully choosing your recommenders or your referees. Where possible, choose referees that have functional institutional emails. That already guarantees the credibility of the recommender. An institutional email is the one that has the domain name of the institution e.g

It is important to stress to your referees areas of your profile that you consider weak in relation to the application that you want your recommenders to commend on without lying.  Tell them to give an honest assessment of you in that area while stressing your other strengths.  

For example, if the quantitative area of your GRE test score is weak, and perhaps you did well on a course with significant quantitative parts that your recommender is aware of, it will not be out of place ask you referee to specifically comment on your quantitative skill s given the scenario described. The same thing applies to other areas.

All the information earlier presented in this second part are opportunities for a candidate to make himself or herself “standout” from others. Consequently, as part of your pre-application preparation, you must seek ways to stand out!

4. Register for webinar or podcast or any aid provided by the school.

Majority of the schools usually organize webinars or one form of online support or the other to help students seeking admission into the school. They are usually free. Seek this out and register and participate in it. Ask questions during the sessions to clear grey areas. Do not hesitate to follow up with emails if in doubt.

Please be reminded that I am discussing principles and not specific strategies or steps. If you look critically, whatever steps you may have known will fall under one or multiple of these principles.

For instance, having a good resume is an important step before applying. But the good resume will contain important things already mentioned in this article. So the principles are the overarching conditions under which the other steps or strategies will appear.

What if I want to pursue a PhD?

The contents of this article are specifically directed at those who wish to pursue masters programme abroad while seeking funding. Nevertheless, those seeking PhD positions can also apply the principles. For this category of students, a very important part of their application is their research. 

A PhD applicant therefore must be able to demonstrate research skills in addition to what has been mentioned. Besides, publications, whether in academic or non-academic journals, will help such individuals to stand out. Most schools will ask for writing samples and it is best if the candidate begins to think in that direction.

Be that as it may, there are other subtle areas that need to be looked into for a candidate applying for PhD. Unfortunately, they are not the target of this discussion and are thus beyond its scope.

The part three of this article will look at the intra-application principles to stay competitive for postgraduate scholarship.

To be continued…

Femi Samuel is a Public Health practitioner. He writes in from