10 important tips for successful scholarship and program applications

Whether you are applying for a scholarship, mobility funding or a leadership opportunity: never underestimate the importance of the application process.

If you’re like most people then you’re probably dreading to sit down and start your application. Filling out application forms can of course be time-consuming and monotonous, but it’s important to be strategic and to dedicate ample time. Asia Options has the following tips for writing successful applications.

1) Ruthless editing

The first tip is the most obvious but it is still one of the most common problems. Remember to double-check, triple-check and quadruple-check your application for punctuation and spelling errors. While the occasional spelling mistake may slip past your teacher or professor, don’t risk taking the same casual approach to application forms – especially when applying to government organisations. Careless mistakes detract from your writing ability, reflect poorly on your professionalism and many organisations simply have very little tolerance for poor spelling and grammar errors. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend or a family member to go over and check your application. Printing and reading over a hard copy can also make it easier to detect small errors.

2) Use ‘emotive language’

Demonstrate that you are enthusiastic about applying! Organisations are looking for applicants who can make a positive contribution and promote their organisation or their particular cause. People also naturally tend to like and gravitate toward enthusiastic and passionate people. Just as you would naturally smile in an interview, it’s important to use emotive language when writing your application. This helps to add a layer of personality and conviction to your application. Employing emotive language, though, does not equate to excessive use of exclamation marks and smiley faces. Instead, it is important to use positive adjectives and auxiliary adjectives. For example, using language such as, “I’m thoroughly excited at the prospect of joining this program due to…” indicates that you are passionate about the organisation or project.

Other examples

a) As an aspiring (insert occupation) with an intense interest in (insert subject), I have been avidly anticipating* the application window for (insert program).

As an aspiring diplomat with an intense interest in international affairs, I have been avidly anticipating the application window for DFAT’s Graduate Recruitment Program.

*In order for this plug to work it’s important not to leave your application to the last minute!

b) Attending this summit would be another fantastic chance to meet exceptional young leaders from around the world, and as part of the Australian delegation, I would be incredibly proud and enthusiastic to have a voice on the important themes of this year’s summit.

3) Sub-headings

Using sub-headings is not always be applicable, but in some cases, the occasional space and heading makes your content more readable. It is also important to remember that the person reading your application will not necessarily have the time or interest to read every word, and subheadings can conveniently direct them to information they are looking for. It is, therefore, a good tip to link your subheadings to particular points outlined in the application criteria, i.e. Goals, Objectives, Intended Outcomes, Project Details, etc.

4) Find a niche

In most cases, you won’t be the only person applying for the same opportunity, and chances are there will be other applicants with superior credentials. Finding a niche or an extra selling point is key to getting ahead of your competitors and make your application stand out. A potential niche is a skill or an experience that others don’t have. For example, an IT student applying for a position with the Australia-China Youth Association may not speak fluent Mandarin, but the organisation probably has a surplus of bilingual speakers and IT skills fill a niche other volunteers can’t. A niche can also be linked to your personal interests, such as graphic design or even Australian football. As a game unique to Australia and conducive to building interpersonal relationships, your idea of promoting AFL overseas would certainly pique the interest of many organisations including for the Victorian Government and their Hamer Scholarship program. Once you find a niche, it is crucial that you adequately sell what it is that makes your application different. You also need to state how you are going to use this special skill to give back to the organisation or promote their cause. This leads us to the next tip.

5) Do your research

Before you begin writing your application, carefully read through the mission of the organisation (usually found on the ‘About’ page of their website) and look carefully at the goals or objectives of the program. Then, brainstorm and predict the organisation’s motivation behind supporting such an opportunity. In most cases, the primary goal of the organisation is to promote the organisation’s brand or a particular cause. While one particular organisation may advertise their goal as promoting more engagement between Australia and China, the organisation may also expect you to promote their organistion through your experience studying abroad. In most cases, the organisation will not explicitly state self-promotion on their website or within the application instructions as their goal. Hence, this is where students who do their research can get ahead. If you are applying for Government funding, it is also definitely worthwhile doing your research on recent government policy programs. For example, if the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association wishes to apply for funding from the Australia-Indonesia Institute, it would be worthwhile designing and explaining an aspect of their project that would complement the Government’s New Colombo Plan. Also, try to imitate the organisation’s own language. The Australian Government, for example, tends to use words such as  “people-to-people links,” “public diplomacy” and “building long-standing relationships.”

6) Hit the criteria

Sometimes applicants fall into the trap of outlining as many of their achievements as they can squeeze in without emphasising how their experiences or skills relate to the relevant criteria. High achievers, in particular, can fall into this trap as they assume their excellent record of achievement can inherently ‘speak-for-itself’. This though can be a fatal flaw, as meeting the criteria is obviously one of the most important aspects of filling out an application form. In the case of government funding, you will often notice a basket of intended goals, sub-themes and criteria attached to the application guidelines. As public funding receives more scrutiny, government organisations prefer to select applicants who can credibly outline how their participation will align with program criteria and goals. It is therefore necessary to carefully study the information provided, as government bodies invest enormous time in establishing criteria to objectively select candidates. In some cases, it’s even possible to reword your intended objectives to mimic the wording of the program’s own objectives.

7) Tell a story

For those with a creative flair and an engaging writing style, telling a story in your application about how you developed a particular interest or overcame a previous challenge is another technique that can make you stand out. Adding a personal anecdote to your application can also develop a rapport with the reader. It is also far more memorable than simply using technical words and clichés such as “experience A exemplifies my ability to do B” and “interning for your company would be a dream come true.” Lengthy anecdotes though should be avoided in the case of applications with restrictive word limits.

IE: This is an excerpt from a successful application to Global Voices for a position on the 2012 Australian delegation to the Youth G20.

My interest in the G20 Summit began six years ago when leaders from the G20 countries met in Melbourne in 2006. In the lead-up to the Summit, The Age newspaper published a dedicated handout explaining the details and the significance of the G20. As a Year 10 student swept up by the hysteria, I read The Age publication from back to cover and have since held on to and hoarded the 34-page hand out. Six years on, I feel very excited at the prospect of potentially representing Australia at the Youth G20 Summit.

8) Don’t leave it until the last minute!

The application process can often be deceptively longer than you originally expected. So it is important to start early and prioritise tasks such as organising referee letters and certifying relevant documents.

9) Give back

Many organisations do not specifically ask you to promote their organisation and program in the application, but adding a line or two about how you can support their program or cause in the future is another solid strategy to put you ahead of the competition. Certain organisations, though, will ask applicants to stipulate how the applicant intends to promote the organisation and their experience. For example, some organisations (especially the Australia-China Youth Dialogue and Global Voices) encourage participants to share their experience through mainstream media. Other ideas to promote the organisation and program include proposals to share your experience with the local community (including schools and universities), sharing your experience through an online blog and social media, and establishing or being an active member of the program’s alumni network.

10) Ask for advice

Finally, one of the best ways to gain insight into what the organistion is looking for in an applicant is by talking to alumni of the program. You can typically find the names of alumni on the organisation’s website, media releases or by simply doing a Google search of ‘recipients’ for scholarship X. You then have the option of tracking alumni down on Linkedin or Facebook. If this direct style is not for you, another good way is to get in touch with your professors or friends and ask if they know any alumni of the program and use this connection as a more personal lead into contacting alumni. In most cases, alumni are happy to help, but don’t forget to thank them!

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but following these ten tips will certainly improve your chances of success. These tips can also be employed in the workforce, as some companies rely on grant applications to fund their operations. If you have any other personal tips, please feel free to share in the comments section below.

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Olly Theobald

Director at Asia Options.
Olly works in Hangzhou China and is enthusiastic about entrepreneurship, e-commerce, Asia education, data science, and foreign languages. Olly is a graduate from RMIT University and the Hopkins Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Olly speaks Mandarin and Korean.

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