New Colombo Plan: In-Depth Interviews with NCP Scholars on how to apply and make the most of your program

The New Colombo Plan Scholarship

This incredible opportunity has been dubbed the most competitive scholarship for Australian undergraduate students and for good reason. The scholarship is a dream come true for many that could see you studying, interning and learning a language anywhere in the Indo-Pacific for up to 19 months – fully funded and with the support of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade behind you.

From Japan to the Solomon Islands, from studying Law to Zoology, each batch of Scholars are diverse in their programs but nevertheless bound by common threads in their applications.

Following the nomination period, applications for the 2021 Round of the New Colombo Plan Scholarship Program close on 18 August 2020. Learn more about the application process here.

Read below to discover the advice of 9 past and present NCP Scholars on preparing your application, acing the interview and tips for living abroad.

Get to know all the scholars’ insights below:

Dominic McCarthy

2020 New Colombo Plan Scholar and Fellow – New Caledonia
Bachelor of Business (Management) CQ University

How did you prepare your written application?

I wrote my application several times, doing around ten drafts. I constantly was trying to improve it and sent it onto past scholars, university staff and family to provide feedback. I also ensured my personal story came through and highlighted my uniqueness.

How did you prepare for your interview?

I prepared for my interview by completing a mock interview with my university’s careers team. I had a panel of five staff members who asked me questions based around the main criteria of the scholarship. Although this was conducted online, it was still a great learning experience. I received invaluable and detailed feedback from my university that allowed me to ensure my real interview was successful.

Once you were awarded the scholarship, how did you prepare for your program?

I left very early in the year and only had around two months from finding out I was successful to departing Australia. I pre-booked my visa appointment in advance to ensure I could embark on my scholarship program as soon as the new year started. I also worked systemically through the requirements and checklist to ensure I had completed all necessary documentation.

What are your tips for moving abroad?

Brush up on the local language, read more into their culture and history, try to be as best prepared but also keep an open mind.

Samantha Climie

2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar – Japan
Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Laws – University of Tasmania

What is something you wish you knew when you applied for NCP?

I wish I knew that your program was not set in stone! I felt so much pressure when I was applying to have my internship sorted and each stage of my program set out, dates and all. I in fact extended my program four times (it was initially 7 months and ended up being 18 months), found both my internships when I was in country and completed an extra four months of language training!

How did you prepare for your interview?

I bored my family and friends to death practicing for the interview. Even though the questions are somewhat predictable, I thought it best not to memorise any answers. As I was talking about myself and my experiences, I could let the words flow naturally. My favourite method of practicing was during mountain bike rides with my mum! Right before the interview I did not talk to any of the candidates who were either waiting for their interview or had just completed their interview. I find that talking about our nervousness or interview experience diminishes my self-confidence. I think it is important to remind yourself that you are as prepared as you can possibly be and that everyone has a right to be there – no one is above anyone else, but you all have a different set of experiences that make you all great candidates.  Additionally, right before I enter the room I like to go into the bathroom and strike a power pose in front of the mirror and tell myself ‘You’ve got this!’. It sounds lame but it really works!

How did you prepare your written application?

I provided clear examples of when I had shown leadership and resilience. I did not use fluffy language but tried to be as concise as possible. And finally, it is important not just to tell the NCP how wonderful you are, you need to demonstrate what you can provide to the NCP. 

Once you were awarded the scholarship, how did you prepare for your program?

I set off just one-month after our pre-departure training! I quickly organised 6-weeks of language training and accommodation for the start of my program and applied for university. I also made a big effort to see the most of my friends and family back home. This was important for me, and I have found the transition back home much easier having maintained my friendships.

What are your tips for moving abroad?

Being social is so important. Creating solid friendship groups and support networks was vital for keeping me happy, healthy and getting the most out of my experience. Don’t be afraid to turn up to events and groups as a single person – people are so welcoming.

Something else worth noting is about how to handle homesickness. I had this realisation during the first few weeks of my program that stayed with me throughout – homesickness is a beautiful thing. It means you are lucky enough to have a home and network of family/friends that you love so much, to the extent that it hurts your heart. I would so much rather be homesick than not. What’s important is being able to recognise and acknowledge your homesickness, and then separate it from your experience abroad. Allow your head and heart to be in the present, knowing that you have the most beautiful home in the world to return to. Time will fly and you will be back home before you know it!

Samuel Chung

2020 New Colombo Plan Scholar – Singapore
Bachelor of Laws and International Relations and Diploma of Languages (Mandarin) La Trobe University

What is something you wish you knew when you applied for NCP?

I wish I knew the difference between ‘fee-paying student’ and ‘exchange student’. I ruled out host universities that didn’t have an exchange agreement with my Australian university, when I could have applied to those institutions as a ‘fee-paying student’ instead.

How did you prepare for your interview?

I prepared heaps of STAR responses that would ensure I gave tangible examples to the questions I was asked. I recorded these on my iPhone and would listen to them on the bus to university and around campus prior to the interview in Canberra!

How did you prepare your written application?

I ensured I qualified any statements I made using tangible examples. I strongly believed the more statistics and numbers were in my application, the better it would be!  For example, rather than simply saying I enjoyed or was good at a certain subject, I made sure I would relate the contents of the subject back to my overarching goals and passions, or note if I achieved a specific score or commendation for my academic performance in that subject.

I deeply reflected on my goals and ambitions (I went full zen mode for about a week) to ensure my application reflected my most intrinsic goals and desires. In my opinion, anyone can write an application that would please a panel of interviewers – but the end goal for me was to write an application that showed the real, flawed and passionate me. I also stated that I intended to do all components of the NCP scholarship (study, internships and language training) because I wanted to maximise the cultural, linguistic and academic benefits that I hoped to gain from the program. Additionally, I articulated the specific language institutions and internships I wanted to do because this helped quantify some of my goals.

Finally, I ensured I related all my academic and life goals to things I can do while on exchange. For example, do you volunteer extensively in your community? Do you love the outdoors? Are you a leader of a diverse group? Are you a lover of language learning? Is there a way you could continue these more personal endeavors overseas whilst studying or doing internships? In this way, your professional and personal goals can be bolstered at the same time.

Once you were awarded the scholarship, how did you prepare for your program?

I didn’t prepare much for my program once successful because I had done most of the work whilst actually applying!

Bethany Hosking

2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar – Indonesia
Bachelor of Laws (Honours) / Bachelor of Arts – Monash University

What is something you wish you knew when you applied for NCP?

When I was applying for NCP, I remember feeling really overwhelmed by the statistics. The fact that only 10 people from my university could be nominated to apply to DFAT, and that a much smaller number would actually receive the scholarship, made me doubt whether there was any point in even applying. Unlike some of my peers who had been scholars in previous years, I had no real connection to the Indo-Pacific region; I had never learned an Asian language, and only visited Thailand once on a family vacation I barely remembered. I also didn’t see myself as anyone particularly outstanding; I hadn’t started my own charity, or won any academic or community leadership awards during my time at university. Because of this, I firmly believed that out of the 200 people applying from my university, and the many thousands applying around the nation, I barely stood a chance.

What I wish I’d have known when applying, is that the DFAT are not as interested in what scholars have achieved, as they are in what they plan to achieve. So while a demonstrated connection to the Indo-Pacific region, or previous academic awards, may be great indicators of a student’s capacity to make the most of the scholarship and fulfil the strategic goals of DFAT, these are not the only indicators. A student who has none of those things, but is able to leverage their past experiences to show that they are the kind of person who has the passion and tenacity to go over to a country in the Indo-Pacific, get involved in the community, and obtain the knowledge and connections necessary to enhance Australia’s relations with that country will always be taken seriously by DFAT, no matter what their background is prior to applying.

How did you prepare your written application and interview?

When I applied, I reached out to as many past scholars as I could for advice on what country I should apply to based on my interests, and what I should put in my application to make it the best it could be. I had friends check over my drafts and give me feedback, and, when it came time for the interview, I had a friend ask random questions based on my written application so I could practice talking about why I could be the best candidate for the scholarship. The most important feedback I received throughout this was to have confidence in myself and my abilities. It’s easy to be intimidated when applying for a prestigious scholarship like the New Colombo Plan, but you will always go much further if you are able to back yourself, so you can sit in that interview and say ‘this is why I believe I am the best candidate for a scholarship to this country’ as opposed to ‘this is why I think I could (maybe) be a good candidate.’ 

Once you were awarded the scholarship, how did you prepare for your program?

Upon receiving the scholarship, I had a lot of preparation to do before I commenced my program in Indonesia! This included making an exchange application to the university in Indonesia where I was going to study law, making a second application to the language school to get a grasp on Bahasa Indonesia, getting a visa, organising accommodation, and reaching out to organisations at which I had an interest in applying for internships. While it was certainly a long and sometimes stressful process, I found that there was plenty of support when I needed it, whether it be from my case manager, both current and former NCP scholars, or my friends and family at home.

Dylan Male

2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar and Fellow – Papua New Guinea
Bachelor of Agricultural Science – Charles Sturt University

What is something you wish you knew when you applied for NCP?

Although I do not regret choosing Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands as my NCP Host locations, I perhaps wish I knew more about study and internship opportunities in other NCP host locations across the Indo Pacific. If I had a greater knowledge and awareness of opportunities in other host locations, then I might have been able to make more informed decisions on where I wanted to travel throughout my NCP Scholarship Program. So I would encourage any future applicants to do their research and make sure they explore all their options!

How did you prepare your written application?

I submitted draft after draft to both my university’s student liaison office and career development office, to ensure that my responses were refined and addressed the application criteria as best they could. I made sure that my proposed scholarship program synergised well with the NCP objectives and that I had demonstrated examples/evidence to back up everything I was saying. In the case that I didn’t have any real evidence, I would use my aspirations and attributes as support to back up statements.

How did you prepare for your interview?

Like many others preparing for their NCP interview, I found watching Rob Malicki’s YouTube videos highly valuable in providing me with confidence heading into the interview. I also worked closely with my university’s career development office, who supported me through facilitating mock interviews which allowed me to receive helpful feedback on how to improve my interview skills and strengthen my responses to potential questions. I also made sure that I was aware of the NCP objectives and how my proposed program aligns and supports these objectives.

Once you were awarded the scholarship, how did you prepare for your program?

After I found out I was successful, I quickly began working on turning my NCP scholarship program proposal into real life by making concrete arrangements with my host university and internship company. This involved a high amount of effective liaising and organisation! At times this was quite stressful – although in the end it was all super rewarding. I began to do my own independent research in my host location so that I was best prepared for my arrival and less likely to experience strong culture shock. I started doing my own language training so I could arrive in-country already knowing the basics of the language, even though I was planning to undertake language training in-country. This was really helpful!

What are your tips for moving abroad?

My biggest tips for moving abroad would be: i) always keep an open mind; ii) have a willingness to learn and challenge yourself; iii) be kind to yourself, prioritise your mental and physical wellbeing and accept that it is ok if things don’t go plan; iv) maintain some level of flexibility in your plans, which will enable you to take up opportunities as they come which you may not have foreseen; v) have fun, make lots of friends and live like a local!

Kelsey Gray

2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar – SingaporeBachelor of Science / Bachelor of Laws (Honours) – The University of Newcastle

What is something you wish you knew when you applied for NCP?

You can’t plan everything to a tee! A lot of the amazing opportunities which I gained from my NCP program weren’t planned, but rather, developed organically via the connections and experiences I gained while in country. For example, while I was working at the UN in Thailand my supervisor provided me with a contact in the Singapore UNDP office. This provided me with further opportunities in preparation for when I eventually moved to Singapore. I wish I knew that my plans had the potential to evolve and I didn’t need to lock myself in to a certain path (this would have alleviated a lot of stress!)

How did you prepare your written application?

I ensured that I really understood the values of the New Colombo Plan and looked at it from the perspective of what I could offer to the program. Think of your goals, aspirations, and motivation and articulate them in a way which clearly demonstrates how your intended plan supports the overall objectives of the NCP. For example, I demonstrated that my proposed studies and internship would help me understand environmental issues in the Asia-Pacific, and gain the practical skills necessary to lead Australia’s response to those issues from a government or policy perspective.

Once you were awarded the scholarship, how did you prepare for your program?

 I reached out to my existing professional network to try and establish preliminary contacts overseas. Asking for contacts in Singapore/Thailand improved my confidence as I knew I had an established network before even arriving in country. I also researched different organisations or NGOs in my host country which I thought I could get involved with when I arrived. Following those organisations on social media gave me a good insight into the sort of environment I was heading into! It allowed me to immerse myself into the culture before I even left Australia.

What are your tips for moving abroad?

First and foremost, be kind to yourself and accept whatever emotion you are feeling. While preparation is key, I think preparing your mindset is even more important! Be prepared to face the unknown, encounter challenges, and endure frustration while trying to settle in to your host country. The road will not be smooth but it will definitely be rewarding!

Beth Kynaston

2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar – Malaysia
Bachelor of Zoology and Animal Science – Deakin University

What are your tips for acing the written application?

Drafts! I treated my application like it was a big assignment and rewrote it and edited it several times. If you have a 200 word limit, write 300 words, and then work out how you include the same amount of information (skills and experience) in less words. Get a few people to have a look at it for you.

How did you prepare for your interview?

I made a list of a few key points that I absolutely wanted the interviewers to know, and practiced working these into various types of question so that I made sure I got them across. These can be odd little statistics from your interest area that help to demonstrate your knowledge/passion.

I also made sure I knew the selection criteria inside out, and developed questions that I thought might come up and practiced answering them. I dressed as I would for the interview, and sat in front of my laptop and recorded my answers. This is awkward at first, but helps you pick up anything you do that is a bit funny – when watching back I realised I was tilting my head a lot which I didn’t know I was doing. Listening back to recorded answers also helps you remember what you want to say.

What are your tips for moving abroad?

Don’t expect everything to go smoothly – it most likely won’t – but that’s ok.

Keep in touch with family and friends at home, but make sure that you are not missing out on things wherever you are. When you plan your program make sure you do as much research about location, universities, and organisations as you can. Your program is what you make it.

Reuben Caudell

2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar – India
Bachelor of Health (Biomedical Science) – University of Southern Queensland

What is something you wish you knew when you applied for NCP?

I would have liked to better understand the guidelines and time-structure of my program. E.g. time constraints and possible total length. Also the rules regarding paid leave and temporary program suspension. This information is actually very available in the application guidelines, so researching those would have been helpful for me. 

How did you prepare for your interview?

My university ran a mock interview where I had a chance to talk about my experience and aspirations. This really helped focus things for me to get ready for the real thing. In addition to this I watched several prep videos (such as the one by Rob Maliki), which give general tips about what to expect. I also had a notebook in which I wrote down everything I wanted to talk about (basically what I wanted to bring to and get out of the NCP). I revised this regularly in the days before the interview. I think it’s very important to have this type of “ammunition” so that you always have something to talk about to the panel.

How did you prepare your written application?

Be explicit and focused! I think in the written application it was important to always stay on topic and be very clear about how I answered the prompts. I tried to present evidence through examples wherever possible, which helped support and validify my answers. Using clear and active language also helped me clarify which areas I was strongest in and wanted to present neatly.

Once you were awarded the scholarship, how did you prepare for your program?

This was very chaotic for me actually, as I had to make some significant alterations to my program in the months leading up to when I was going to leave. Although, I think this is a common experience amongst many scholars. I tried to work closely with Scope Global (with my case manager) and with my university’s international department to iron out a working plan with clear goals. One major alteration I made was to change my host country in my first semester to somewhere other than my primary destination (India to Malaysia). This was allowed as I was still going to spend the most time in my primary host location. This is where it is important to read and know the NCP guidelines back to front. 

What are your tips for moving abroad?

Collaborate! It really helps to be in contact with other NCP scholars who are heading to the same location. Sometimes house sharing is an excellent option, but even if this is not possible it helps to have a supportive network before you even move abroad. Once in the country the best move is often to take a few days to familiarise yourself with the area where you are living. I find that this is a good cure (or help) for culture shock, as it helps to centre you in a new environment. As part of this immersion it is a great idea to make local friends, who can give you advice about how to live and study in your host country. Another tip that helped me was to make sure I was well researched regarding my host location so that I was better ready to adapt to different cultural norms. Learning the local language was very helpful here!

Madeline McGarvey

2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar – Indonesia
Bachelor of International Studies (Honours)  – RMIT

What is something you wish you knew when you applied for NCP?

I wished I had known quite how intensive the process was! This surprised me. You need to allocate adequate time in your schedule for the application writing process. At some points, it felt like having an extra subject at uni.

What are your tips for someone applying for the NCP scholarship?

My advice to anyone looking to apply, would be to really know your program. The panel wants to see that you have a deep understanding of how your time abroad will contribute to the broader goals on the New Colombo Plan, not just to your own life experience. They want to see your passion for the region, your willingness to engage with cultures quite different from your own, and your commitment to forging long-lasting, people-to-people ties between Australia and the Asia-Pacific.

I prepared for the interview by practicing with friends and family. We thought up potential questions and I tried out my answers. Of course, don’t get attached to these rehearsed answers because ultimately the panel wants to see spontaneity, authenticity and the ability to think quick ‘on the fly’. It is however, a great way to familiarise yourself with the content. When writing your application, make sure that every word counts. Keep it punchy and try to convey your personality.

What are your tips for moving abroad?

Keep a journal! I really wished that I had been more consistent with my journey and documenting the many lessons that I learnt in-country. Most scholars are likely to experience pretty significant personal and professional transformations, many of which will be subtle and incremental. The skills you learn overseas are often difficult to notice and tricky to speak about, but it really is such an asset to be able to tell others what it is that you learnt, and how you grew, whilst overseas.

Be open and intensely curious. Living, working and learning in-country meant that my mind was often being twisted in novel and challenging ways. In the nine months I was overseas, I had my assumptions shattered and preconceived ideas unravelled again and again. Keep asking questions and trying to understand what it is that you’re witnessing.

At the same time, appreciate that sometimes there are things that you will never know. So, be humble. Understand your limitations, your privilege and your subject position. Whilst I was writing my Honours thesis, I was trying to continually question my biases and assumptions. This is, obviously, an important practice in day-to-day life, but is especially important when you are living in a foreign culture – and conducting research there!

Practice a growth mindset. And, it’s just that; a practice! When challenges arise – which they inevitably will – try to see them as an opportunity for you to deepen your knowledge of the world and your understanding of self. Finally, have fun, be respectful and be kind.

Have more questions about the application process or the NCP experience more broadly?

For more information please reach out to our India Correspondent and 2019 New Colombo Plan Scholar, Ashley Eadon.
You can also check out some photos from Ashley’s time abroad on her blog.

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Ashley Eadon

Ashley Eadon is a New Colombo Plan Scholar which is an initiative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. Ashley has previously held the role of ‘Youth Advocate for the United Nations’ in Bangkok, Thailand. She is a Youth Citizen of the Year (Macedon Ranges Shire), co-founder of community education project ‘Dear CRIS’ and studies a Bachelor of Laws and Psychological Science at La Trobe University alongside a Diploma in Hindi. As a youth leader, she has spoken at the United Nations Conference Centre in Thailand, Australian Parliament House and the Australian-Indian High Commission.

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