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A guide to successful scholarship applications in cancer research by Chigozie Samuel

For many Nigerian students in bachelor’s and master’s programs in life sciences, winning a scholarship is critical for continuing their education. Having identified relevant scholarships, candidates are usually faced with the arduous task of preparing a winning application. This can be daunting considering that they have to impress the scholarship selection committee enough to be considered outstanding amongst other highly qualified applicants.

If you are one such students and you have an interest in cancer research or other aspects of biomedicine, we have put together this article for you. Part one will guide you in preparing for scholarships. Part two highlights the things that you need to pay attention to when applying for a scholarship to prepare a winning application.

Part 1: Preparing for Scholarships

Define your study interest

For students who would like to do a PhD in biomedicine, taking this decision early in their degree programs is critical. You can choose the appropriate modules, join the right research groups and complete research projects that would put you on your desired path. As an undergraduate, discussing your options with mentors can help you make the right choices at any given time.

Aim for Excellent Grades

Good grades are very crucial criteria for the award of most Master’s and PhD scholarships. Since International scholarships are highly competitive due to a large number of applicants for a very limited number of awards, scholarship committees may eliminate applications with inferior grades. Most winners apply with a CGPA of 4.0 and above (on a 5.0 scale). However, candidates should be aware that a better result improves their chances of success. So, while you are still studying, aim for the highest grade within your reach as this will surely count during your scholarship applications.

Your Research Experience is Crucial

For candidates looking for PhD positions, this is vital. PhD is an independent research and if a university or supervisor is to support a candidate financially, they would surely want to hire the best possible applicant who can demonstrate that they have the relevant skills and experience to complete the project. This is where your publications list or past research involvement through internships and personal research projects completed as part of your degrees become important. Our advice to those still completing their degrees is to get as much experience as possible. One way to achieve this is by interning in labs for free whenever you have a break. Many labs may not be willing to accept a random student for only a few weeks but by stating strong reasons why you need the opportunity, in most cases, you will be accepted. Avoid long periods away from research or routine lab work as this may hurt your chances. After my MSc program, I continued working in my lab, 3 days a week for a few more months to learn more techniques that would boost my CV, and to avoid a long period of inactivity.

Get Your Documents Ready

You do not want your near-perfect scholarship application rejected for failing to submit a single mandatory document. It is always a good idea to read application guidelines and carefully note down all required documents for any scholarship you are applying for. Scholarships usually attract a high number of quality candidates thereby making it difficult for the selection committee to decide who gets an award. Not submitting a mandatory document could lead to your application being rejected in very first round of screening not minding your academic excellence. The most common documents that we advise you to have as soon as you are finishing your bachelor’s program include an International passport, university transcript, degree certificate/statement of result, proof of English language proficiency (TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge) and standardized tests such as GRE (for those wanting to study in the US and Canada). These documents are mandatory. However, most universities in the UK only require that you score a minimum of C6 in your English Language in your WAEC exam as a substitute for the standardized test of English language proficiency. Some other countries may accept a written confirmation from your last university that you were taught entirely in English Language throughout your degree program.

We recommend starting early to prepare these documents. During the application, it could also be helpful to make a checklist to be sure you have forwarded all necessary documents.

Part 2: Scholarship Application – Tips to Win

Start Early

The importance of early scholarship search as well as preparing applications cannot be overemphasized. It is important to identify relevant funding bodies or scholarships and take note of the periods of the year when they start accepting applications and their deadlines. This will help you to not miss an opportunity. The procedure for many scholarships requires the applicant to first submit an application to their preferred department for admission before submitting a separate scholarship application to the funding body, all done within the scholarship deadline. Therefore, starting as soon the application portal opens leaves you with enough time for this. Additionally, if you begin early, you have enough time to get useful feedback on your whole application from your mentors.

For many scholarships, the application procedures, requirements essay question(s) remain largely the same every year. So, candidates can use the information from the previous round in preparing applications for the next intake. This is particularly helpful for scholarships that require the submission of essays. For instance, the theme for the Commonwealth Shared scholarship essay has been the same for as long as I can remember, so, it is possible to develop your essay around this question long before the scholarship commission starts accepting applications. However, you must always update yourself with the specific requirements and guidelines for each round of application when they are published.

Letter of Motivational/Essay is the Core of your Application

For applicants of MSc scholarships, the letter of motivational sometimes called a personal statement or statement of purpose is a critical part of the application. This letter will be required when submitting an application for admission and as a part of the scholarship submissions. However, the content would be different depending on its purpose. Some schools have specific guidelines and formats for writing the letter of motivation for admission into their programs. You want to check the school websites to be sure that you are following their guidelines and addressing all questions asked. If no format is given, keep your essay concise and within a limit of 500 words. Popular questions to address would be: (1) why you are interested in the course (2) why you think you are suitable for the course (you can make references to specific modules, internships or research project you completed in the past that provides a solid background to the course. They will see this in your academic transcript) (3) What you will bring to the course/department (you can talk about any extra-curricular activity that you excelled in your last university. Talk about any leadership positions you held and your contribution and how it helped the department). (4) Why you are interested in that university, and perhaps, why you want to study in that country (5) talk about your future goals and how the course will help you achieve them.

Guidelines for writing motivational letters/essays for scholarships are usually provided in the scholarship forms. This would normally come either as a compound question or individual questions that the applicant is required to answer. If it is a compound question, underlining all the individual questions within the main question can be an efficient way to make sure all the issues are addressed in the letter.

Write in a clear, concise and logical manner to capture the reader’s attention. Let your story be unique and passionate in a way that the reader would feel your emotions and motivation. Give specific answers when asked how you will apply the knowledge and skills gained from a scholarship to solve a problem in Nigeria. Do not make vague statements. Avoid grammatical and spelling mistakes. Let someone else read and critique your essay. This is another reason why you need to start the process early so that there is sufficient time for proof-reading of your essay before submission.

For candidates applying for PhD positions, your letter of motivation could decide if you are considered for an interview or not. In your letter, you should state why you want to do a PhD. Clearly define your area of interest, making make sure that this aligns with the focus of the lab, faculty or department that you are applying to. It is particularly relevant to state your motivation for looking in that direction. In this section, it would help your application to demonstrate the relevant experiences and skills that you possess, stressing on the core skills highlighted in the advert for the PhD position. Make it clear what your goals for the future are and how the project/lab will help you achieve them.

Your Scholarship is a Good Recommendation Letter Away

Many applicants underestimate the impact of a recommendation letter otherwise called a reference letter. For scholarship selection committees, or a supervisor, this is a way to get an honest assessment of the applicant from someone else who has known them for a considerable amount of time. This is the reason they mostly accept references as a confidential document. A letter of only a few sentences is usually not ideal as it would not have sufficiently described the candidate’s personal qualities and their academic or professional abilities that would make them stand out from the rest. For recent BSc graduates seeking MSc scholarships, the ideal person to write your recommendation letter would be a lecturer in your department who has known you for at least 2 sessions (least qualification is a PhD). He/she must be able to discuss your academic strengths, motivation and can say one or two positive attributes they have observed about you as a person. Your best choice would be your research supervisor.

For applicants competing for funded PhD positions, the recommendation letter is almost as important as your grades (smiles). A supervisor would not only want to hire someone with the right experience, skills and excellent grades, they want to hire someone they can work with… FOR 3-4 YEARS! A personality that can fit into their team. They rely a lot on a recommendation letter to know about you. A letter written by the head of the most recent lab where you worked in (preferably, someone who also taught you some modules) will be valued a lot more because they expect to get every information that they need about you. About your general work ethic, lab skills, performance, team work, and most importantly, your personality. To this day, my PhD supervisor still refers to my recommendation letter from my MSc supervisor. She makes it seem like that letter got me hired.

Always ensure that your referees submit this letter by the deadline. We advise that you contact your nominated referees as soon as the application portal opens. They are always very busy, so it is your duty to frequently remind them to ensure that they submit a quality reference for you.

A 2-Page CV is Helpful

For PhD applicants, develop a 2-page CV with a format that highlights mostly your research experience and relevant technical and soft skills. For MSc scholarship applicants, a simple academic CV will suffice.

Finally, always fill out all sections of scholarship application forms as long as they are applicable. Leave very few blank sections. You might think you have not have engaged in an activity worthy of including in that blank section. Speak to mentors to help you identify relevant activities to include and how to package them.

For any scholarship you are applying for, there are probably 100s of past winners and a couple of present winners from Nigeria. Having mentors to guide you through any application could greatly boost your chances of winning. For aspirants with interest in biomedicine, we have a free mentorship program at CCIN. You can reach out to us and we would available to help you achieve your goal.

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