With honours

Zainab Mahmood-Ahmad lays out a comprehensive plan for students applying abroad

With honours
Nearing the end of school is one of the most challenging crossroads, and can prove to be thrilling and daunting at the same time. With a wider range of options to explore than ever before, students today can feel like a needle in a haystack. Some may have a clearer idea in terms of which country, which place they want to go and even what kind of degree they want to apply for, whilst others may just be wondering. Most people in Pakistan are familiar with mainstream universities in the United States, UK, Canada and Australia, but there are several other European countries such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand and Turkey, to name a few, where students can study courses taught in English at reputable universities and even have the opportunity to apply for scholarships to ease the financial burden of studying abroad.

Choosing where to go?

In terms of affordability, Turkey, United States and Canada are the safest bets as not only is their cost of living lower (even for foreigners), but they also have provisions for part-time work and earning opportunities for international students. Whilst Australia, New Zealand and UK and other European countries are on the higher end of the affordability spectrum where students have to support themselves financially in full on their own. All universities in the US, Turkey, Australia/NZ require individual applications to be sent to each, with fees varying between $50-$100 per form. On the other hand, applications to the UK are free through the UCAS and require one application to be filled for 5 universities.

Before embarking on a course which could take between 3-5 years, we must factor in tuition fees, monthly rent (university based or private) and bills (food and entertainment) to have an idea of what kind of budget we are looking at. It is estimated that to survive comfortably whilst attending university one would require a minimum of Rs 100-125k (amounting to GBP 1000, Aus $1500, Swedish Krona 7,000) each month.


If financial concerns are not going to dictate our choices then one must consider the particular course or degree we are interested in and narrow down further based on which university has a good ranking for the course we want to study. Most people in our part of the world are familiar with the Ivy Leagues and the OxBridge dynamic and the reason is that apart from the prestige, receiving an undergraduate degree from a well-ranked university opens doors when looking for jobs. Therefore it is worth the while to make sure one ticks the boxes for academic achievements, extracurricular activities, volunteer programs, short courses, internships before making college/university applications to provide us with the best shot at getting into a good place.

Maximizing your applications

Most students applying for colleges make the mistake of thinking that they simply have to come up with one comprehensive spiel outlining how we “had-a-lifechanging-experience-working-with-underpriveleged-children” and the “I-want-to-do-medicine/engineering/international relations-so-I-can-single-handedly-pull-my-poverty-stricken-nation-out-of-the-abyss”. There is a fine line between using our cultural and economic backgrounds to justify our academic plans, and sounding like we are regurgitating a generic, formula based tear jerker just to impress. The difference is tailor-making your essay to the course and even the university you are applying to. Whilst UK applications require one essay which is sent out to 5 universities simultaneously, other countries require individual ones...but that doesn’t have to mean writing 50 different original essays! Know a little about each university of your choice before applying: what programs they are most recognised for, their famous alumni and what kind of research, collaborative and cutting-edge programs the department you are applying to is involved in. The structure of your essay can remain the same for all applications, but knowing more about the specific program and the design of each course will help you sell the part where you explain why you want to do this course, at this place. University admissions officers receive thousands of applications with riveting stories and exceptional academic records, but what sets applicants apart is their voice. Use the space provided to let them know who you are as an individual, what courses of study excite you and about your interests and pursuits outside of school which should be based in reality (embellished within reason, of course) so you sound like someone they feel would benefit from being part of their institution. When talking about volunteer activities and internships, mention what kind of responsibilities you had and very briefly touch upon how it helped you develop as a person (without the “it changed my life part”). When highlighting interests such as a hobby, a sport or a fondness for hiking, reading or travel you must show how you have committed yourself to these activities over time and how they contribute to making you a well-rounded person. Most important thing to remember is to keep it concise and to the point, conveying the utmost in the shortest amount of words and time.

Show me the money

Applying for scholarships is a much more viable option for students today, with widening global options. There are few popular ones, such as Rhodes (Oxford), Chevening, Commonwealth, The Vicky Noon Foundation, The Gates Foundation (Cambridge) (UK), Fulbright, Hubert Humphrey scholarships (US), Aga Khan Foundation etc. While several universities also offer tuition fee waivers for specific programmes of study, such as Warwick, Goldsmiths University, Bath, Bristol, Edinburgh in the UK, Turkish scholarships for state universities as well as Lund University Global scholarship (Sweden), Sydney Achievers International Scholarship which every international applicant to the University of Sydney is eligible for once they have received an unconditional offer from the university on any course. Scholarships have earlier deadlines than course applications, therefore make sure you have reminders set to warn you about approaching dates.

There is one rule that applies to all scholarship applications – show them why you deserve it, not why you need it. The rookie mistake is to think one needs to tug on their heart (and purse strings) but waffling on about your family’s financial situation, the number of dependents you have, your inability to pursue your dream if you are not given support, is all a big no-no. They need to be impressed with you and feel that you are someone worth investing in, because that is essentially what they are doing. Scholarships of any kind are competitive, and a rock solid academic rap sheet is not the only thing you need to ensure you have a fighting chance. Instead, helping them understand why you want to read a certain course at this university as part of your mapped out journey towards developing a career will provide them with a reason to take a chance on you.


Research and research some more about other alumni from around the world who have been awarded the same scholarships and see what kind of fields they have gone on to work in. Choose a fairly specific goal that you want to achieve within your chosen field, by studying this degree in your particular field of interest so they can see the benefit of providing you with the opportunity to do so. Simply saying you will come back and work towards the education of impoverished children, or provide clean water or campaign for raising awareness about the environment is not enough. Tell them how you plan to come back and use what you have learnt to initiate change and improvement whilst developing your career in your home country. They are not looking for the next person to give the humanitarian award to, but rather an individual who is planning to put their education and life to good use. The more specific you can be in explaining your choices and academic decisions, the better the picture you paint and the easier for them to find you deserving.

Lock and load

The time-consuming mundaneness of filling out forms (undoubtedly made considerably easier with the copy paste function), is followed by the hair-pulling, nail-biting, eye-gouging task of putting together all your transcripts and necessary certificates to support your applications. It is best to organize your paperwork well in advance so you don’t feel over-burdened or experience any unnecessary delays towards the end where your entire group of batch mates are trying to get references written and submitted, certificates attested and notorized. The general requirements of universities abroad are the same, which include copies of last completed academic degree (GCSE, A Levels, BA) and any other academic short courses/diplomas you have completed, academic references from school teachers or an additional one if permitted from someone you have worked with as a volunteer or an intern and the certificate of English proficiency (IELTS, TOEFL etc.). Depending on the degree you are applying for there might be further specific requirements to prove you are eligible to attend the course such as for law, architecture, medicine or foreign languages, so make sure you check with guidance counsellors at your school or through the British Council or the USEFP and document checklist links online, to make sure you’ve covered your bases.

The last hurdle

Once you have received your offers or acceptances from universities, make your choice based on a pros and cons method. Tally up columns sketching out the positives and negatives in favour of choosing a certain course or a certain university in terms of the specific course/degree you have been accepted for, university ranking, where it is located, how multi-cultural it is in terms of quota of international students and the number of graduates from the program that go on to work in related fields successfully. Each person has to decide their own set of priorities ranging from the richness of the course and modules to be studied throughout the degree, the appeal of veteran or famous teaching staff (it wouldn’t be a bad idea to choose the creative writing course at Princeton University as novelist Jhumpa Lahiri has recently joined their ranks), the kind of city or rural environment that one would prefer (say choosing to be in Central London, New York or San Francisco for the big city feel or opting for one of the smaller, less frantic country campuses such as Durham or Bath in England or Notre Dame and Franklin and Marshall in the U.S), and the some of the lesser considered factors such as the kind of accommodation and transport system available (for first year students living near or on campus with access to public transport is a must). Some of these factors might seem insignificant but even the weather and how multi-cultural a city or town is can make a difference when one has to choose to live there for a number of years away from family, on one’s own.

The university we choose becomes our home, our incubus of memories and learning experiences that are not only going to define the career path we carve out but where some of the greatest friendships will be forged and the worst mistakes will be made along with experiencing some of the greatest sense of achievement and evolution as a person. Therefore choose wisely and carefully without selling yourself short, apply with confidence and have a great essay and a decent academic record to back you up. In the words of philosopher John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself”. So choose to educate yourself, in the best possible place, in the best possible way.

List of international scholarships for students from Pakistan.


USEFP (US educational foundation program).


Applying to the UK







Nordic universities