Facebook recently reminded me that it's been three years since I graduated with my LL.M from the University of Cambridge. It remains one of my finest experiences ever. Pretty ironic that I actually went to Cambridge, because as a young child / adult when I'll have my books scattered all over the table or sleep on my books, my mum would often fuss and finally remark in Igbo "I na-agu Cambridge?". Loosely translated to English, she tried to say "Are you reading for Cambridge". To her, that was the highest peak of study. Well, Cambridge became my reality. While there might be a point to take in there about the power of speaking things into existence, I'll try to focus more on the scholarship that made the Cambridge experience possible, and my top tips for getting an academic scholarship.
On July 27 2012, I received an email from the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust that I'd just been granted a full Commonwealth Scholarship for my LL.M degree at the University of Cambridge. Only 20 persons were awarded the scholarship worldwide out of thousands and thousands of applications! I had to email the Trust ASAP to confirm or reject the offer. Ordinarily it would have been a no-brainier. But few weeks prior to that I had just accepted a full scholarship for an LL.M at London School of Economics (LSE). Ok Ok, it was still a no-brainer. I mean we were talking about Cambridge here!
I rejected the LSE offer with sincere apologies. Interestingly once I mentioned that I was choosing Cambridge over LSE, the LSE staff actually said "That's ok - we totally understand"
While there are no hard and fast set of rules, I think these tips might be helpful in securing a scholarship:
1. Research, Research and Research:
This is the probably the single most important factor. You cannot apply / be considered for scholarships you do not know about - no matter how awesome you are! So, as early as possible, do your research. What course are you planning to study? What universities offer these courses? What scholarships are available? Some scholarships may only be available to certain courses. What are the requirements for the scholarship? - would you be required to take a test of English language, write a personal statement, submit a piece of original work, hard copy references and transcript? Or will your referees be required to upload the references online (at this point you realise you need tech-savvy referees!). What's the time frame? Some scholarships and the most competitive ones usually have really short time frames. For example the primary scholarships for Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford open in September and close by November. If you start your research late, you'll most likely miss the deadline. The requirements are broadly the same from year to year so it's helpful to start a year in advance. Make a list of all the schools you'll like to apply to, and request your references and transcripts from your University in bulk.
What are the conditions? For example the Commonwealth Scholarship requires you to return to your home country at the end of your programme! This was the one reason I may have refused the scholarship, as the LSE one provided an opportunity to stay on and search for 'greener pastures'. So if you're certain you can't live with the conditions don't bother applying.
2. Believe in Your Story:
If a person or an institution is going to pay a whole lot of money for you to undertake a graduate program, then your story must be compelling. As a pre-requisite, good academic qualifications are required. But this is by no means limited to first class students. 2'1 students are often considered. To be honest though, if you had a 2'2 you may have to provide other amazing reasons. But having just good grades isn't enough. In Nigeria today, trust me, there are lots and lots of first class graduates all competing for the same spots. As an example, I didn't even get an admission to Oxford, talk less of a scholarship. I knew my written piece of work was not exceptional.
Sell yourself in your CV and personal statement. No lies, but no unnecessary modesty. Have people look over your CVs. If possible, people who have succeeded at this. Some scholarships also require financial need i.e. that based on your circumstances you need the scholarship. If you're an average Nigerian kid, I'm sure you need it. If you're more of the #LagostoLondon kind of kids, well, don't make up lies saying you're poor and all. Even though you need to sell your story, remember to comply with the instructions. If this says "In 300 words…", a 305 word wonderful essay may just be tossed in the bin!
3. It's a game of numbers:
Honestly it is. Applying for scholarships is draining. But the competition is huge. So put simply, the more you apply the more your chances of winning. I must have applied for at least 5 different scholarships for the Cambridge LL.M programme alone. Some people argue that certain countries are more favourable for scholarships and student loans. Create the time, do your research and apply to as many as possible.
4. Consider Internal Sources:
When we think of scholarships, we automatically think of foreign scholarships. And we are not to be blamed. Especially when we see how some youths who had been sponsored locally have been ill-treated and left without payment. But still, it remains an option.
In my case, I considered an appeal to the Anambra State government and I had a draft letter ready if no scholarship came through. It was worth a shot as you miss 100% of the chances you don't take. Maybe they'd have imposed a condition that I had to work for the State, but that may not have been so bad especially now that younger people are being made commissioners! (Haha). I may actually have been successful if I sent out that letter, because a few months later, the Anambra State government commended all the first class graduates from the state with quite a decent sum of money.
I also know a friend who also sought the help of the Lagos State Government and other wealthy individuals, and obtained a considerable amount of funding. It's also useful to consider your current employer. If you're exceptional they may be willing to fund you (usually on the basis of your returning to work for a few years). As long as the conditions are not onerous, it may be worth it. Social media is such a powerful tool these days and your cause could go viral, if your story is exceptional. A dicey one, but in this age of GoFundMe accounts, if people believe in you, every little Naira helps.
In considering these internal sources, it's useful to split it up. Asking an individual for 7 million naira may land your letter in an office shredder. But asking 14 people for 500,000 naira each is probably more feasible. If all else fails, consider holding a placard on the streets of Lekki. It appears that's a sure way of getting attention (I kid... or maybe not).
5. There's always plans B - Z:
It's great that getting a scholarship for study abroad is your plan A. But don't get all hung up on this. Consider alternatives, and generally just keep striving to be the first version of you! Some people argue that today, the value of a foreign degree is tricky especially with the number of Nigerians who already possess such. While I think there's still value in it, I also think it's possible to still get ahead without it. So, yay for plan B!
Finally, for me there's ultimately the Faith and God factor. I should mention that I was not on the initial 20 person shortlist for the Cambridge scholarship, as my application was not 'as highly ranked'. I was however on the reserve list, should anyone turn down their offer. Needless to say someone must have turned it down and I got a slot!. Keep your Faith up.
pS: This post was first published on BellaNaija here