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Understanding postgraduate scholarships: the art of getting selected

James Davis

Careers Commentator
The numerous requirements of postgraduate scholarships can be daunting to face. Fortunately, there are some great tips that can help.

There are several things you need to know before applying for postgraduate scholarships. You probably know a lot of these by now, but there are some intricacies that may not have occurred to you. We’ll start from the basics and then break down the common requirements.

Postgraduate scholarships can generally be divided up into three categories: need-based, merit-based and research-based.


These are for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, or are experiencing financial hardship. Some take academic achievement into consideration, but many disregard this when assessing applicants. Many do, however, expect satisfactory academic progress each semester (normally about a credit GPA, which translates to 5/7 or 65%). Eligible backgrounds can include, but are not limited to:

  • Students of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
  • Students with physical or mental disabilities
  • Students from comparatively impoverished communities
  • International students from developing countries


These scholarships tend to rely on academic performance, requiring academic transcripts of prior and current study. ‘Merit’ can mean other things too, however. In some cases students will be required to submit a resume and personal references in addition to or independent of a transcript. In these cases, exceptional volunteer work, influence or charisma can take the place of raw academic success. A classic example that combines all these elements is the illustrious Rhodes Scholarship; this cut-throat program attracts exclusively the highest grades, shiniest extracurriculars and most esteemed connections.


This is a category unique to postgraduate scholarships. Students applying for these are obligated to do their thesis in a particular topic or field, go somewhere else in the world or select supervisors based on the benfector’s choosing. The JH Bishop Postgraduate Scholarship is an ideal example of this; $5,000 pa is awarded to prospective master or PhD students willing to undergo research in classics or ancient history. The specific subject is at the discretion of the candidate, but the topic is set in stone (quite literally when it comes to ancient history).

With these in mind, it’s slightly easier to play to your strengths. If you’re someone who’s trying to balance a family, mortgage, job and study all at once, which leads to your grade tanking, that’s excellent grounds for a need-based scholarship. Every selection committee loves to hear how applicants have picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and kept going. If you’re pretty shy but retain information like a house retains bricks then your best bet is to target merit scholarships.

If you’re neither happy with your grades nor disadvantaged, no stress. There’s likely a subject-specific research topic available to help you throughout your studies. The great thing about these is they tend to have far less competition on account of far fewer students having access. Take the JH Bishop opportunity, for instance. The audience you’d find haunting Endeavour Scholarships & Fellowships or Fulbright Scholarships just isn’t there.

Now that we know what we’re looking for, what does it take to apply and how do you succeed? Well, there are a few traits common to a lot of these.

Written statements/ cover letters

The requirements are often specified for these in the scholarship’s details, such as word count or content. For instance, the General Sir John Monash Scholarship has students arguing their case for why their chosen degree program and institution is worthy of their attention. In the absence of such instruction, there are a few guidelines to follow for great written statements.

  • Humble yourself before the benefactor/ issuing institutions. Thank them for reading your letter and for the opportunity.
  • Argue for why you’re deserving based on your passions and future aspirations. Get personal to show them you really love what you do.
  • Use your achievements and merits to reinforce your case. Use them as evidence for why you’re worth considering rather than having them centre stage. The reasoning for this? They likely already have your resume/ academic transcript. Restating what’s on there doesn’t tell them anything new. Showing them what you’re about does.
  • Keep it short and sharp. 500 words maximum; aim for around 350. Remember: the selection committee is likely getting hundreds of these. If you make yours easy to read and straight to the point, they’ll like you more. If it’s too verbose and flowery, they’ll dislike you based solely on that.

Professional references

These are bosses you’ve had or currently have. If you haven’t got any work experience, ask your current professors to see if they’ll vouch for you. This is just as valid; postgraduate study is intense. The purpose of these is to check your work ethic and whether or not you have prior experience getting tasks done. So long as you’ve got a good reputation with your previous or current employer, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you don’t, you can turn to current or former professors.

Personal references

Distinct from professional references, these are to show your character. Yes, you could choose close friends or family, but they’re going to be biased and the selection committee knows it. It’s not inherently a bad thing to use friends or family as personal references, but better examples include:

  • People you’ve volunteered with
  • Coworkers
  • Community leaders (even if it’s just the president of a local sports club)
  • Religious leaders (again, doesn’t have to be the Pope)

As a general rule, if they’re somebody that wouldn’t normally feel obligated to vouch for you but do so anyway and are well-respected in their communities, they’d make a great personal reference.

Academic transcripts

If you haven’t commenced postgraduate study yet, you can use the official transcript of your bachelor’s degree. This can normally be printed online using the details you would have been provided by your university.
If you’ve commenced postgraduate study, you can download an unofficial transcript of current study results in conjunction with undergraduate results. If you don’t know how to do this or have forgotten your details, feel free to contact your faculty or IT department and they’ll give you the details. The exact process varies between universities.


Unlike written statements, this is where you want to be fairly cold about your achievements. State your job description and the results that came of your job in an endearing manner. If you used to wash dishes at a hotel, what you actually did was ‘meet customer demands to a high standard in a high-stress, dynamic environment.’ The real skill is in finding the balance between overly-descriptive and terse.

If you understand:

  1. Postgraduate scholarship categories and which ones to target, as well as
  2. Scholarship requirements, like how to present cover letters, CVs and references,

You’ll be setting yourself up for the greatest chances of success. If you don’t get your dream scholarship though, don’t beat yourself up too much. A lot of people apply for these things and they all tend to reopen annually. If you’re a prospective master’s degree student for instance, that means you’ve got another chance to secure that funding. If you’re in a PhD, you’ve got two or perhaps even three more.

Furthermore, there are so many of them that you can maximise your chances by putting in tonnes of these applications to different benefactors. You’ll also sharpen your application skills along the way, which will come in handy after you graduate into the job market.

Now you’ve got a better idea of what to do, why not give your newfound knowledge a whirl? Check out our full directory of postgraduate scholarships here.