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How to Win a Scholarship to University, part 1


How to Win a Scholarship to University, part 1 

Prologue and Preamble

Several years ago, I won a scholarship to read Economics as a major at university, at the undergraduate degree level.

Also, more recently, in the past few years I have been dealing with economics students - and other students - wanting to read degrees in the US, the UK, and Singapore.

I hope that these experiences will come in useful in helping students - and their parents - understand what is needed to win a scholarship to college/university or have a fighting chance to enter a top, competitive degree. 

In preparing for the college scholarship, there was a lot of preparation that I did, and I'm going to document these in a series of articles starting with this one. 

And as I mentioned, when I was still in the education service, I dealt with many students' scholarship applications, references, and recommendations, and even helped more than a fair share get into universities all around the world. 

In today's post - we start with the very simple basics

In today's post, we prepare for undergraduate degree scholarships by starting - not with the scholarship preparation itself, but by going all the way back to your time before you even thought of entering university. 

Yes, it all starts before you even think about a degree. 

Way back, when you are in secondary school, or high school, and then in Junior College or in whatever school you are in just before you apply for university - that is the time that you prepare for your scholarship. 

Starting early is the secret

It is that simple, but this secret is often misunderstood or neglected, which can be fatal to scholarship chances. 

In other words, the scholarship preparation takes place way before you even think about what UK university or college, or which US university, or whichever university in Asia or in Singapore. 

Think about this important insight, and reflect on it for a moment. 

There have been many instances when former economics students of mine have not worked hard at their studies, not done the proper preparation or achieved the right extra-curricula activities, and then at the last moment - when it is time to apply to universities through the Common App [this is one traditional way students apply to study in the United States] or UCAS [the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, which is the the traditional way that students apply to study in the United Kingdom] - they want my help. 

Nay, they demand my help. 

Write me a recommendation letter, they say. 

Help me with my personal statement, they say. Edit it, proofread it, enhance it, they say. 

Help me with my CCA record - the co-curricula activities record - they say. 

Often, I cannot help them. 

Not because I don't want to, but because they have not helped themselves. 

As the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves - well, not that I am God, but this is a useful and relevant saying.  

Working backwards, this can be quite instructive.

It tells you that the preparatory work to be done in winning scholarships or fighting to enter a top degree course is not merely in the interview preparation, the application preparation, or even the wonderfully-worded, Shakespearean-standard personal statement that conveys your unique and special personality, talents, and achievements. 

It tells you that it boils down to the simple basics, right at the start, way before the degree. 

Did you do three important things? 

When you were in school/high school/Junior college, did you do the following?

First, did you study hard and achieve good grades? 

Good grades are the price of admission to any university course or degree, not just economics degrees which can be quite competitive. 

Some of my former students wanted to study law, but they failed their General Paper or History examinations in junior college. 

Now, how is that going to work? 

If one is unable to score in much more manageable examinations, it will be a bit challenging to get into really world-class universities, and certainly challenging to receive a scholarship.

How can one do a law degree when one cannot even write a couple of essays? Law degrees are phenomenally challenging. 

Secondly, were you nice, collaborative, approachable, and polite to your teachers, Heads of Department, or Principals? 

Or were you a trouble-maker, a rascal, or naughty girl

This sounds funny, but is not a joke. It carries a much more significant point. 

When I was a much younger economics tutor, there were many times some of my students skipped classes, played truant, were rude to me, or did not do their projects or homework. 

One even plagiarised his Project Work assignment, while another did not undergo counselling or psychological evaluation because "he could not work with his friends and wanted to live in the past". 

Many, to be fair, were polite, approachable, and good students, but a few really tested my patience and kindness. Some of the good students even reminded me of the good in mankind, as they were involved, participatory, and understanding people with a heart for the vulnerable, poor, and the meek. 

After all my students had received their school leaving examinations, they invariably asked me for a reference. The students who were less than perfect asked for a reference too. 

Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. 

References can be very important when it comes to applying for universities, especially for competitive courses or degrees. 

How important would a reference be for a scholarship or degree application? 

One former student stands out in my memory, from the mists of time, from ages long gone. 

S often fell asleep in class, and on several occasions lied to me, her teacher.

She managed to achieve a grade B in spite of all this, probably through no talent of her own. 

But more important was this fact - one day, she asked me to write her a letter, so that she could use it for degree admission. 

I was kind and cautioned her against this unwise move. "You may want to find another person to do that for you."

"No one is willing to, and I know you write references. Could you please help me?"

"I must tell you that I am honest. It is not going to work out well for you."

"But I really need a reference. It says here, two referees needed. I need you to help me..."

Well, she asked for it. 

I wrote it. 

It was something along these lines and a lot more detailed (and I cannot believe the fact that I can remember this after so many years): 

"I have known S in the capacity of economics tutor for ABC number of years. 

While S has achieved a commendable result in Economics, attaining a B for her H2 A level examinations, she has not paid attention in class the whole year long. There are no reasonable explanations for her lack of attendance. 


On several occasions, she has shown less than perfect integrity and has been known to bend the truth. 


She has not been promoted to the next level in the year YYYY. 


On balance, while she has shown some improvement in her studies and attitude, I would not recommend her for your course, your institution, or a scholarship."

The lesson here is that you must learn how to treat your teachers, Heads of Departments, and Principals - including Vice Principals - with respect. 

They - write - your - testimonials - and - references. 

But please don't do it purely for the reference. Please be better.

Remember the Golden Rule. Treat people as you would want to be treated.

Would you say nice things for a person who was rude, arrogant, problematic, entitled, or troublesome? 

Or would you help someone achieve a scholarship if that person was kind, polite, friendly, approachable, and reasonable? If they were interesting, intelligent, and human people? 

Your teachers are only human, and they have integrity. Don't make them tell lies on your behalf. 

Be so good and commendable that people want to help you and make you the success that you can be. 

Simply, help your teacher help you. 

Did you take on leadership roles or do volunteer service?

This is very important.

Clearly, to apply for a scholarship or even for a competitive degree course, you need to demonstrate leadership qualities or show community spirit. These are important aspects that colleges and universities look for all around the world. 

Leadership roles are useful and relevant experiences, because they can provide you with talking points for your scholarship interview, if you are successful in application.

Also, through leadership positions, you gain invaluable experiences - teamwork, collaboration, motivational skills, and resilience. 

And resilience - the never say die attitude - is critically important in the 21st century. Also, it has to be pointed out that degree courses can be quite challenging, and the ability to fight on, press on, and never give up with help, not just with scholarships, but with attaining a first class or distinction degree. 

Community work, volunteer service, Overseas Community Involvement Programmes (OCIP), and Values in Action - all these, and more, are important too. 

Do you contribute to the community? 

Do you contribute to something larger than yourself? 

And what have you learnt and experienced from doing so? 

These will all contribute to an important portfolio of work and experiences that will help you in your degree application and scholarship chances. 

Summary and Recap

The most important takeaway for my first post on how to win a scholarship to university is the advice - start early. 

And start early by studying hard and making sure you excel in your studies. 

Treat your teachers with kindness and respect, for they write your recommendations. But please don't treat them nicely only because of the testimonials, recommendations, and references. 

And have leadership roles and positions in your co-curricula activities and if you can stomach it, also do community work or volunteer work, whether local or overseas. 

Stay tuned for more. 

Thank you for reading and cheers. 


JC Economics Essays



(P.S. On a side note, several years ago, I also won a postgraduate degree scholarship to undertake my Master's degree at the London School of Economics, but since applying for a Master's programme is somewhat different from an undergraduate degree, I could explore talking about my experiences, tips, and pointers in future posts if my change in direction for JC Economics Essays is successful. 

Thank you in advance for your kind support! 

And, well, if this undergraduate or degree series does not take off, then perhaps my true calling resides elsewhere and not in blogging.) 

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