Getting that UK Scholarship – Some Guidelines for Engineering Applicants

The UK remains one of the most preferred international destinations for both undergraduate and postgraduate study, especially in engineering and the sciences.  Drivers for this include the widespread respect accorded to UK degree programmes as well as the academic research undertaken by UK universities. Competition for university places and for scholarships is therefore stiff, and as the Top Universities website acknowledges, UK education doesn’t come cheap.

Several scholarships are available for international students. If you are intending to study engineering, this includes scholarships from individual universities, engineering institutions and organisations, as well as the government. Currently the largest scholarship programmes are the government-funded Commonwealth Scholarship schemes and the Chevening scholarship programme. These are both open to all study programmes in addition to engineering.

Criteria for Securing a Scholarship

The main reason for seeking a scholarship is financial. However, this alone is not enough justification for you to be awarded a scholarship.  Scholarship applicants have to meet additional criteria listed by the scholarship awarding bodies.  As a basic requirement, scholarship applicants have to meet the stated minimum academic requirements if they are to be considered. For instance, one of the chief scholarship awarding bodies, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET),   clearly states that its scholarships are “intended to reward excellence rather than alleviate financial hardship.”

For most scholarship programmes, academic excellence is only one of a number of criteria that applicants must meet.  As a general rule, awarding bodies seek to award scholarships only to those candidates who will help them to meet the goals and missions of their funders.  For example, both the Commonwealth and Chevening programmes are designed to further the foreign policy objectives of the UK government. These objectives include poverty reduction and socio-economic development in the countries of origin of funded scholars, as well as the development and maintenance of international relationships between the UK and the scholars’ countries of origin. In fulfilment of these goals, applicants for Chevening scholarships have to demonstrate that they have the potential to be future leaders, influencers, and decision-makers in their own countries and beyond. Similarly, applicants for the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission have to demonstrate that they meet the stated academic criteria and that they have the potential to positively impact the development of their own countries after graduation.

Scholarship criteria that go beyond mere academic excellence are very well suited to prospective engineering students. This is because the goal of most engineers is to use their knowledge to make a difference in their own communities. This may include designing and building engineering systems and products such as roads, bridges, telecommunication systems, electrical power supply systems, or developing cheaper and safer approaches for producing medicines.

Why You Need to Prepare

There is more to submitting an application for a scholarship than the mere physical act of filling in an application form and sending it to the awarding body. In reality, when you fill in an application form, you are saying to the awarding body: “I am fully aware of your mission goals, and I fully subscribe to your objectives. If you invest in me by paying for my education, I will contribute to the fulfilment of your mission objectives, and I am the best person to do so.”  Hence, your goal as an applicant is to fully demonstrate to the awarding body that you fully meet their criteria, and the only way you can do so is by giving well-thought-out responses to the questions in the application form, and in subsequent interviews.

As a general guideline, I would suggest that you should spend at least two to three years preparing for your application. Ideally, if you are submitting your application for the 2017-18 academic year, you should have started thinking of applying for the scholarship in 2014, or 2015 at the latest. This means that if you are in the final year of an undergraduate programme, and you are intending to apply for a postgraduate scholarship immediately after graduating, your preparations should have started at the same time that you started your undergraduate programme. On the other hand, if you made the decision to go for postgraduate studies after completing you engineering studies, then you would need to have spent an additional two to three years building up the necessary non-academic evidence to support your application. Why, you may ask.  Because the best predictor for your future performance in any role is your current and past performance in similar or related roles.

As an applicant you may be tempted to exaggerate or manufacture your past experiences. However, this is not helpful at all.  Such applications are easily picked out during the selection process. This means that unwarranted exaggerations and concocted lies only add up to a waste of time for both the applicant and the selection panel.

Preparing Yourself for the Scholarship Application Process

Russell Campbell has written an application guideline for law graduates seeking a Chevening scholarship. His article forms the basis for much of my discussion in this section. However, one thing that you will notice is that the three suggestions that I give in this section  are remarkably similar to the additional activities that you should be participating in as an engineering student or as an early-stage graduate engineer.

Gain work experience

Just as work experience is important for you in securing your first graduate engineering job, it is just as important if you are planning to go on for a master’s degree. Work experience provides you with a context around which you can formulate any future studies. It allows you to form a precise idea of your motivation for doing further studies, and enables you to clearly articulate this to the scholarship awarding body. Most importantly, work experience enables you to identify any gaps in knowledge and experience that you need to address if you are to increase your potential to create future benefits to your organisation, engineering field and your country, and the rest of humanity.

Work experience also gives you the opportunity to work on various projects. This is very valuable, as projects tend to be multidisciplinary, and enable you to see the wider picture relating to your engineering practice. Rather than thinking in a task-oriented manner as articulated in many early-stage job-descriptions, you learn to appreciate the wider societal impact of your role. In addition, you also learn and develop the leadership skills that you need in your future career.

Work experience also gives you the opportunity to work with more experienced engineers and to watch and learn from them.  All these individuals have different approaches to engineering practice and leadership. By watching and working with them, you will gain a practical appreciation of effective and ineffective leadership styles, and this will enable you to reflect and improve on your own leadership skills.

Develop Relationships with Potential Referees

References are an important part of the application process. Experienced colleagues working in the field that you intend to pursue in your studies are important potential referees. Working with such people gives them the opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to write a detailed reference that clearly articulates how your personal attributes make you suitable for the scholarship that you are applying for. Such references are distinctly different from those written by colleagues who only have a superficial view of you.

You should also seek out opportunities to volunteer. This may involve taking an active role in your engineering institution, or getting involved in community welfare projects. Volunteering gives you opportunities to develop relationships with mentors outside of your organisation. Although this may be unpaid, it will contribute to your long term professional development.

Actively Build a Strong Academic Reference

Most students shy away from participating in academic extra-curricular activities, and once they graduate, they never make an effort to contribute to the academic training of student engineers. However, engineering education has increasingly adopted active learning approaches such as project based learning. The demand for practising engineers and older students to advise and guide learners has therefore increased.

It is important to have a strong academic reference, and an easy way to to do so is to  contribute your time and skills to student learning. You will get to work alongside academics, and to establish personal relationships with them. This means that potential academic referees have the opportunity to assess how your academic skills in the class room are translated into real world problem solving. More than that, by offering your services to your local engineering school, you build relationships with individuals who will have a genuine interest in your career and will more than likely be happy to provide you with strong academic references. This will set you apart from other applicants who never bothered to help out in engineering schools.

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