Over the last three months, I have been bombarded with numerous questions from persons who are intending to apply for Masters courses and/or for different scholarships, maybe because I am currently doing my masters on a scholarship. I cannot claim exclusive knowledge to writing a successful scholarship application or admission application but I will share with you my personal tips and what I have been told by admission teams while studying here and attending career events. I do hope that it will help someone out there although I must note that this post will have a lot of references to the LLM because that is what I am most conversant with.
Tip 1: Apply!
I know you are saying “Obviously” but it is saddening how many people exclude themselves from opportunities due to self doubt and thinking that there is no way they would be chosen. I am a current Chevening scholar and I know this first hand because I doubted my abilities to even apply for the scholarship and always asserted that there is no way I could beat over 700 applicants. We all know how that story ended; I got to be part of the amazing 8 scholars from Uganda, arguably these 7 scholars are the future of this country and somehow God deemed it fit to throw me in there somewhere. So apply! It never costs to apply for any scholarship so do not exclude yourself. You will be shocked at how that random application could actually be the winning one.
If you have always wanted to apply to a certain university, apply!! There is no university too high for your reach! Do not settle for less because you think it is more convinient for you.
Tip 2: APPLICATION EXPENSES
Most applicants never put this into consideration but the truth of the matter is that applications to most schools will cost you between $50 to $100 per application. It is important that you budget for these expenses before hand and start to save up on money to meet these expenses. A typical application will constitute one or more of the following expenses:
a. Application fee. This fee will have to be paid before you submit your application to the university. Universities in the UK charge between £50 to £100 pounds per application. Their American counterparts charge in the region of 50 to 100 dollars.
b. English language test fee. Certain universities will require proof of your English language proficiency and it will not be sufficient for them that you have spoken English all your life! They will require either GMAT, IELTS or TOEFL and the absurd part is that these tests are extremely expensive. In Uganda, an IELTS test costs UGX 850,000 and TOEFL costs $175 and the prices may change over time. Scholarships also require the same English proficiency tests although the price then comes down to UGX 550,000 for IELTS and TOEFL price remains the same.
c. Medical report and TB test. Should you be successful in obtaining a scholarship, you will be required to take a full medical exam and a TB Test and the latter costs $100 at IOM Kololo in Uganda which is equivalent to about UGX 310,000. This is exclusive of the medical tests that you will have to take in addition.
d. Courier and postage fees. Universities will require certified copies of your qualifications and these must be sent to the university in hard copy. Courier services will cost you between UGX 90,000 to UGX 150,000 depending on which courier service you use. The most important thing is to use the services of a reputable courier in order to avoid loss of your documents and the mental stress that follows thereof.
The good news however is that some universities are kind enough to waive the application fee. As such, always ask if it is possible to waive the application fee and do not always assume that it is not possible. I have got application fees waived for me to some universities I applied to. Ask first and you may be saved a ton of money.
TIP 3: READ INSTRUCTIONS
This is the one thing that many applicants do not pay attention to. I attended a career seminar at Cambridge and one of the admissions secretaries told me that this is the one thing that irks many admissions teams and will get your application binned faster than Eminem rapping. Read instructions! Read instructions! Do not assume that you know. If an application asks you how you meet the requiste criteria, show how you meet the requisite criteria. Do not set your own questions and then answer them accordingly. 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 universities. The application window usually lasts 3 months so you should not wait for last moment lest your computer crushes 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! Read all the instructions letter for letter and ensure that you have fully complied.
Comply with instructions! Comply with instructions! I cannot emphasize this enough.
TIP 4: REFERENCES.
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 for them references when it is clearly indicated “academic references” only! You will be truly shocked at the blatant failure to follow instructions as simple as that.
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, financial need etc. 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 an admissions team or 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 and even the flow will show whether that person actually knows you or the reference is mere corporate social responsibility on their behalf.
Another ignored instruction is on how references are to be sent. Many universities 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 MUK webmail. Obviously because the applicant did not read the instructions, they do not tell this to the referee who then sends a reference that does not comply and ultimately leads to your disqualification. It is not the referees’ fault because they do not have the time nor duty to know these facts. It is your fault for not bringing these facts to light.
TIP 5: PLAGIARISM IS FATAL
We have grown up in a culture where people confidently plagiarise everything from songs to articles to even names. The sad reality is that people plagiarise personal statements and application forms! This is a warning that plagiarism will cost you all your efforts. Admissions teams read about 15,000 applications per year and will definately 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. I assure you that all copied material will be found out and discarded accordingly. Note that it may even be a criminal offence in certain jurisdictions.
Personal statements(PS) are the biggest culprits of plagiarism! Many people request for PS of those who have already been admitted under the pretext of just reading through to get the flow but in actual sense, plagiarism does accrue. Certain universities have developed softwares that are able to highlight every plagiarised statement and you will definately be found out and your application will be thrown out regardless of how good it is.
I personally do not write drafts for personal statements. I write and think best when I am writing from my heart so I tend to type directly into the application and read through again to correct any gramattical errors. This approach may not work for other people but it works perfectly for me because I write from my heart.
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 plagiarised. Be you. Be original. Write from your heart.
TIP 6: RESEARCH YOUR COURSE VS YOUR AMBITIONS
There are so many people who apply to courses or scholarships just because someone else they know applied or is applying to the same. The copying syndrome is inherent in many human beings. Many universities are best known for certain courses and fields of law. The university may be prestigious in nature but the prestige does not extend to all its modules on offer. For example, I have always argued that if one wants to forge a career in human rights law, the best bet is on the Scandinavia or South African universities and not on Cambridge or NYU or Princeton. This is because these universities have specialised LLMs for these fields of law yet if you went to other universities, you would find only 1 or 2 modules in your area of interest. If you want to do technology law or medical law or a specialised LLM, find a university that offers that LLM and has attained a reputation in that offering. It will be best placed to offer you a quality education and arguably quality for money. The same applies to all other courses be it music, arts, pyschology, finance etc.
TIP 7: SPREAD YOUR EGGS
The ultimate mistake for many applicants is overconfidence; feeling too good not to be rejected by anyone! FALSE! BIG MISTAKE! The people who are rejected are not always those who have bad grades or are not a perfect fit. It is therefore important that you plan for a rainy day by applying to as many universities as you possibly can. Research your choices and then apply to those specific universities. It is highly unlikely that out of the 5 universities you apply to, you do not get admission to any of them. So spread out your options and apply to as many universities, without compromising the quality of your intended education.
This principle also applies to scholarships. Apply to each and every scholarship that you are eligible for. Do not be picky after all a beggar has no choice. LOL. But seriously, do not exclude yourself from a scholarship that you are eligible for. Apply to as many as you can. Cast your net wide enough with the hope that atleast one fish will fall in the net.
TIP 8: GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION
I am not a grammar Nazi but I can smell bad grammar from a distance. Heck yes, I can even see it immediately I start reading an essay. Uglish is not proper English! Writing an essay as if it is a funeral announcement, with no punctuation whatsoever is an unforgivable sin. Wrong grammar is unacceptable even if you are a victim of auto correct.
Read through your essays atleast twice, to ensure that they are properly punctuated and that the English is proper and that your essay is precise and easily understandable. Connected to this, let your essay have a 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 1000 essays to look at. Make it easy for the reader to follow and ensure that your essay does stand out and is not cliche, average and mediocre.
TIP 9: THE REJECTION CURSE
I wish I was able to assure you that every university you apply to will admit you and that every scholarship you apply to will give you the scholarship. Unfortunately that is far from the truth. Every elite university and scholarship deals with tens of thousand of applications from all over the world and understandably, they have to turn down some of the best candidates because of admission and space 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 for the course. 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 even when you do not feel like it. I wrote a piece on my blog on dreams coming true and I recommend it for anyone who feels frustrated and wants to throw in the towel for good. You can access it at https://pronambatya.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/dreams-do-come-true/ and I hope it does encourage somebody.
TIP 10: GOD
If you forget everything I wrote, atleast remember this one tip! When all fails, consult with God.When you feel discouraged, run to God. When you are confused and do not know what to do, run to God. When you want to apply, tell God about it. At the end of the day, I am nothing without God. He shines light on my paths and guides my footsteps. You could write the best application there is in the world but if God is not in it, it is a fruitless venture!
I wish you all the success in the world. At the end of the day, God is still in control.
Regards from cold Cambridgeshire.