Five things you MUST NOT do when applying for a postgraduate degree

I was recently part of a team of people tasked with short listing prospective candidates among hundreds of applicants for a postgraduate program. We were faced with lots of good applications, some okay but badly packaged ones and some downright ridiculous ones. The focus of this post is to provide a few tips on what not to do, to help the young (perhaps African) graduate who intends to apply for a graduate program abroad.


This should be the most obvious but as it is one of the most problematic things I noted, it is important to address. PLAGIARISM IS A CRIME! It is also academic suicide. Literally! Regardless of the system where you obtained your undergraduate degree, this is a serious issue and western universities take it as such. You should believe in yourself enough to be able to write your letter of motivation or essay yourself, without copying anyone’s work. Most experienced panelists can sniff this out a mile away; do not overrule yourself before you get a foot in the door. Rather, write the essays or letters yourself and ask experienced people to help you edit or give you tips to improve it. Closely following on the heels of this is what I call ‘mercenarism’. This is the practice of paying/asking experienced people to write essays and letters for the candidate. This is not helpful as the written work usually does not reflect the candidate in question. At some point, you will be found out. Don’t do it!

Complex Grammar

This is usually very noticeable among candidates from West Africa, especially with English as their first language. It is interesting that most candidates attempt to be more British than the British. Although, our educational system is to blame for this because most students grew up in systems where the more complicated you sound, the more intelligent you are perceived to be. However, your first job should be to come across as a clear communicator and someone who is able to pass across their thought in a flawless and logical manner. Ladies and gentlemen, as oft quoted, simplicity is the utmost sophistication. As long as you can express yourself simply and succinctly, you do not have to rely on any artifices.


Instructions are provided for a reason, to instruct and guide the applicant. Nothing comes across as irresponsible and uncaring as a candidate who puts together their application in a way that suggests that they did not pay attention to the instructions and the requirements. Ensure that you read the instructions in and out and follow them. If the instruction requires a 2500 word essay, do not write 5000 words hoping to impress. Chances are that there isn’t enough time to read more than the specified. If the requirements are two reference letters, do not just list the name of two referees and hope that the panel will have time to contact your referees and ask for information about you. Make sure that you follow the instructions scrupulously. The panelists who will assess your applications are human and if there are too many candidates, they will be looking for every excuse to reduce the number of the successful ones. Also, pay close attention to deadlines. Some programs have deadlines for different stages of the application. Do your research, do not be sloppy. It is important to follow instructions closely to avoid ‘stories that touch’.

Letters of Reference

Although for the most part, this is usually not within the control of the candidate in question, it is important that the reference letters that come with your application should actually HELP rather than hurt your case. Instead of asking a younger lecturer who has no title but knows the candidate very well, students usually prefer to ask higher ranked people with no knowledge of them or their work. The reason it is a reference is that the individual in question knows the candidate, knows what they are capable of doing, and thus is sure that they have the ability to withstand the rigors of a graduate program. If your dean or head of department does not know you, ask a lecturer who taught you a course that is related to the program you are applying for to write one for you. A letter from a ‘Mr.’ who knows the candidate and their abilities will trump a generic letter from a professor any day. If you have worked for some time, include a professional reference from a senior colleague or your employer who can attest to your work ethics.

Your Social Media Presence Matters

Among the many things that can be said, this is a part that many people do not take into consideration. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the era of the millennials, and as such, your social media presence matters a lot, many times, a lot more than you can imagine. First of all, are you one of those people with very interesting email address names; cutiegrl4eva@gmail, rudeboi1@hotmail, tholulorpeh@yahoo; cease and desist forthwith. You are now a graduate of a higher institution, STOP IT! Do you have a penchant for using foul language, or posting pictures of yourself in compromising positions? This is not cool; it can actually hurt your endeavors. Screening panels in serious institutions check your social media footprint especially when the competition is stiff. Remember the would-be Harvard students who lost their acceptance because of memes? People have actually lost jobs because of their posts on social networking sites. Clean up your social media presence, set up a decent profile on LinkedIn with a good simple photo, google yourself and see what comes up, this is a lesson you need to learn very quickly.

No matter your good grades or how smart you are, a poorly packaged application would not get you anywhere. Trust me, rejection stings, it has happened to me and I do not want it to happen to you.

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