“Hello, Lucille”, began Ms P, a colleague from the MBA department of the globally ranked business school where I worked part-time. 

From experience, I knew a request was imminent, so I braced myself for another task to be completed under tight constraints.

“We’d like you to take a look at the personal statements of some MBA students who applied for scholarships and let us know what you think”, Ms P explained, paused, and then continued, “We have our opinions, but we’d like your objective thoughts since you’re the communications expert”.

I sighed and asked clarifying questions.

Seven students applying for scholarships had already been admitted into the top-notch MBA programmes. The department then advised them to submit ‘personal statements’ for consideration. After that, the shortlisted applicants would face a committee (which won’t include any colleagues from the MBA department) that will interview them before making a decision.

I nodded as my colleague detailed the selection process.

Since I had no prior contact with the students and my recommendations were not the final word in the selection process, I realised I could be perfectly objective in my assessment.

So, I got a notebook and pen, settled down to critically assess the personal statements, and assigned a grade to each write-up. Of the seven I read, one was below average, two were average, and four were above average. The top scores were 9.4/10 and 9.5/10. When I grade, MBA students rarely get above 8/10 for their work due to my strict criteria. However, I was thrilled to read the exceptional scripts that I eventually scored above 90%.

The personal statements that merited my scholarship recommendation addressed the three critical points below. Note them if you ever want to be awarded graduate scholarships:

1) Provide the reason(s) you should be selected

You must make a strong case for why you should be selected from a pool of other talented, driven candidates. And this point is not only about your academic track record or professional accomplishments.

Tackle the following considerations as concisely as possible:

a) What makes you unique?

In other words, what story or background will endear you to the readers?

One writer talked about the financial difficulty he faced due to the sudden demise of his father and benefactor. That touched a nerve because I lost my dad unexpectedly in 2020. You’ll never know what part of your story resonates with your readers. This student, therefore, had a legitimate reason for financial aid that couldn’t be brushed aside.

But heighten the stakes.

Incorporate at least one relevant story/anecdote in your writing. It needn’t be long. But it must elicit emotion, so don’t be afraid to tease any of the five senses. Take a risk and even add a brief dialogue to amplify the impact. Remember that humans are emotional beings who make decisions based on emotion and then justify them with logic.

b) What is your passion, and how can it fuel societal change?

A candidate whose background was in packaging technology was passionate about sustainability. He also listed his research leanings in the field. He showed foresight, and if granted a scholarship, he seemed determined to significantly impact sustainability — a critical area the country needed to improve upon.

Another candidate, almost obsessed with product management, displayed analytical skills in his writing. He communicated his passion for combining technology with product development to transform the tech industry. Whether he was being naïve was not the point. The point was his vision to disrupt the tech industry, which he wouldn’t be able to achieve unless he received the financial support he requested.

c) What good would you do if granted the scholarship?

The personal statement should not focus on selfish needs.

A female candidate talked about her passion for helping others. At university, she coached students who were struggling in financial courses and supported them. She communicated a strong sense of community and a love for helping others. She stood out as an altruistic future leader.

Another female applicant had one of the highest scores on the NMAT test among the seven applicants. She listed stellar academic records and leadership positions she’d held. She was also an excellent writer who scored above 90% for the write-up. Yet, her bold ambition to become the first female governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria—the country’s apex financial regulatory authority—made her memorable. She also clearly communicated how she hoped to impact the economy.

Both students’ future focus aligned with the business school’s vision to develop responsible leaders who would be locally ‘minted’ but globally relevant.

Therefore, be clear about what differentiates you from others, then clearly tie your points to the request for the scholarship. An additional point: Ask for the scholarship. Don’t merely suggest your financial need or assume the reader already knows.

2) Display critical reasoning skills

Students might not have initially realised that writing the personal statements was a test of their critical reasoning skills.

They were intelligent, having completed the aptitude test and application processes. They should have used some of their knowledge to challenge the status quo in their fields or suggest ways to improve business or society. The best writers displayed critical reasoning on some level. But this point should have been tackled by all.

When applying for any scholarship, be mindful that the selection process is a competition, given that awarding scholarships to all who request is impractical. Therefore, make it easier for the decision-makers to choose you.

To narrow your options, adopt the Japanese Ikigai model. Draw the four circles that highlight what you love, what you’re good at, what society requires, and what you can be paid for. Determine the ‘Ikigai’ point in the middle of all intersecting circles and distil it into one powerful premise. Then, present your argument and link it to the impact you hope to achieve — with the aid of the scholarship from that stellar institution.

Critical reasoning skills elevate your persuasiveness and set you apart from the pack.

3) Watch your grammar, sentence structure, and editing


It pains me to state the obvious: Writing a convincing ‘personal statement’ or similar document entails writing and editing well.

Therefore, there should be zero excuses for punctuation errors, common nouns not capitalised (e.g. the name of the business school to which the students were applying), fragments, and spelling mistakes.

When submitting documents requiring whatever aid, ensure your write-up is free from grammatical errors and that you edit for clarity, correctness, and common sense.

I’ve addressed business writing in different articles over the years on this blog, including listing ten truths to note about business writing and the three Ps of persuasive business writing. Asking yourself where you stand with your business writing capabilities is also sound advice.

Furthermore, to help others take their writing skills seriously, I unveiled the three rules of effective business writing. Then, I expanded on them in my bestselling book ‘Influence and Thrive’. Now, I routinely advise MBA students, professionals, executives, and business leaders how to improve their writing chops (including committing to the daily 15-minute reading ‘rule’), steps to take to refresh their knowledge of grammar, and techniques to sharpen their editing skills.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic wand to banish poor business writing from the limitless expanse of the internet.

But grammar wasn’t the only concern in some of the write-ups the students submitted. Clumsy sentences made reading a chore.

One write-up appeared to have been hurriedly written, and the request for the scholarship was self-serving. The entire piece also lacked depth.

Remember that scholarships are highly competitive, so don’t self-sabotage by submitting content laden with grammatical errors and ill-constructed sentences. Your write-ups should also not lack a logical ‘flow’.

Good grammar and editing are non-negotiable when writing in a business setting. Know your grammar first. Then, learn how to break strict grammatical rules that stifle your writing without compromising the quality of your work. This skill takes time to master. But start improving your capabilities today, then be assured that your (sharpened) writing skills will serve you well when you need to write persuasively.


So, after assessing the seven personal statements, I made my recommendations and emailed them to my colleague, Ms P.

I hope that the students who advance to the interview panel will prepare thoroughly by being intentional about the three points I highlighted in this article, in addition to boosting their credibility with nonverbal behaviours to curry favour.

I can only hope for the best for them.

Over to you:

Do you need help boosting your communication skills to get results? Sign up for my transformational speaking, coaching, and training programmes.

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N.B: First is courtesy of Reiner Kombüchen via Pixabay. Second image is courtesy of courtesy of Gerd Altmann via Pixabay.  Last image is courtesy of Alison via Pixabay.

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