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How to Get Into a Top Graduate Programme. My Oxford Experience by Ogbonna Nwamaka

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

Scholar: Nwamaka Ogbonna

Graduate Course and University: Development Studies, Oxford University

It’s been a period of major transitions for me –  between September and October, I quit my job and returned to school to begin another phase of my career. I am very pleased to share that I am now a graduate student at the University of Oxford! I would be reading for an MPhil in Development Studies at the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID). I am very excited to be pursuing my intellectual and research interests in of the world’s most renowned Universities with access to its vast resources and distinguished faculty members. Safe to assume that, I shall be blogging more about my academic experiences since I may be here for a couple of years.

Anyway, the purpose of this blog is to share my application experience and to demystify some of the assumptions made about applying to a top University. So find below some tips that I consider particularly helpful.

Overcoming the battle of the mind

The first step to study at any top University i.e. Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford etc. is to actually apply!! I know this sounds commonsensical but I know far too many talented people who constantly second-guess their chances and automatically self-select themselves out of these opportunities without even trying. It gets even worse for women – from job opportunities to University admission, there are tons of empirical research which show that unlike men, women are more likely to wait until they feel adequately qualified before applying for opportunities. The truth is that in life, you would never know unless you try, your only responsibility is to send in a highly competitive application. This is not just motivational BS, in 2014 I applied for a Master’s at the London School of Economics (LSE), this is despite being 100% sure that I wasn’t LSE material – but I applied anyway! Not only did I get in, but I also got a 100% full scholarship to study there. You have no influence over the outcomes of the application so why stress over it? Just apply and if the outcome is unfavorable, you move on – life is, after all, a series of wins and loses.

Start early

Look I cannot emphasize this enough and this is perhaps the most important point in this blog! You cannot start early enough and this advice is particularly useful to those still in University. I did my first Masters at the LSE which had always been a dream school since I was little. I remember hearing someone say that to study there, a First-class degree was mandatory (which isn’t entirely accurate) – it immediately became my only goal at the time. I eventually graduated with a First-class and I guess it contributed to the quality of my application.

Whilst at the LSE, I applied to my current programme at Oxford but I was rejected. Disappointed, I did some reflection and realized that I had failed to carefully review the admission requirements and the overall quality of my application was poor. So I went back to the website and literally checked for all the requirements and developed a plan to meet them all. I made sure I met all the mandatory requirements and even those classified as ‘desired but not mandatory’ – I was not going to take any chance.

I’d share some examples. One of the desired requirements was ‘experience doing research in developing countries’. So after my brief stint at the United Nations, I literally wrote to an Organization in Nigeria where I thought I would gain that research experience and managed to convince them to hire me ( Quick lesson: an organization does not necessarily need to have a job opening before you apply – sometimes you reach out and sell yourself). Another of such requirements was to have ‘publications’ – again not mandatory- but I tried anyway; I wrote on this blog and more importantly other international blogs that I knew that the school would be familiar with.

So by the time I applied, I ticked all the boxes. I guess the broader point here is, even if you do not plan to return to school until a few years, you should ensure that all your professional activities are deliberately chosen to help you meet the admission requirements of your dream school. So if you want to apply for a Harvard MBA, for instance, literally visit their website now and look at the requirements, if you see that you are still lacking in some, make it a 1-2 year goal to get those things and then apply when you feel confident to do so.

Prepare a competitive application

Okay, it’s time to unpack this ‘competitive’ word which I have been using  throughout. It literally means that for everything you are asked to submit, you submit the very best and excellent version of it. This cannot be overemphasized because other applicants would also do same, so you want to ensure that your application stands out. Indeed, the acceptance rate for most schools are publicly available, for example, the average number of applications for my programme is approximately 200 while the number of places available is roughly 27/28, meaning that only 13.5% of people who apply actually get admission.

With this in mind, I knew that to be included within that small margin, I had to invest quality time in preparing a perfect application. In my case, the applications were due to open in September 2017 but by December 2016, I had already started putting my documents together. And this isn’t just because I like being early but because of practical considerations: first, my job was literally 6 – 10.30 pm ( this includes commute time) so I knew that I could not afford to leave things to the last minute. Second, the application requirements were a lot I needed to submit my CV, a personal statement, two 5000 words essays, a research proposal amongst other things. So by June/July, the first drafts of my essays were ready and by August, all other documents were ready too.

Here are a few tips for preparing a competitive application:

Personal statement: This is where you sell yourself, it must necessarily be strong and compelling. You should be able to tell a coherent story about how your academic, professional and life experiences have made you qualified for the programme; why the school is a good fit and how this fits in the bigger picture for your life. Feel free to show off all your awards and accomplishments – very important but however do it in such a way that it fits into the story which you are telling.

See a paragraph from mine below:

‘I have no doubt whatsoever that I have what it takes to compete in such a rigorous and intensive research programme due to my stellar academic record – a first class degree in Economics from one of Africa’s finest Universities, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology which earned me a full scholarship to study for a Masters in Development Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Beyond these qualifications, I constantly contribute to contemporary discourse on development in Africa by providing analysis and commentary on Economics, Politics and International Development issues in Nigeria on my personal blog ( and writing for reputable platforms such as the International Growth Centre (IGC) blog; the Africa at LSE blog and the Africa Research Institute (ARI). All of which have helped me hone my critical thinking, analytical and writing skills.’

You get the point?

CV: Please make sure your CV is compatible with international standards. Don’t do the Nigerian thing of putting your age, gender, local government, state of origin etc. it really is cringe-worthy. Keep it simple and straight to the point. If you are a fresh graduate, there is no reason why your CV should exceed one-page if it does, then there is something you are not doing right. My CV doesn’t exceed 1.5 pages despite having 3 degrees (1 in view) and roughly 3 years of professional experience. Check online for CV samples, get someone with exposure to review it or better still, pay professional CV reviewers to help you optimize it.

References: Contact your references way beforehand, remember they are busy academics and you do not expect them to suspend all their commitments last minute to attend to you. It would be helpful to send an email to them before the application season commences, listing how many schools/programmes that you would like them to provide references for. In addition to this, provide them with specific aspects of your academic or professional career that you would love them to highlight. Not only does it make the task easier for them, but it also ensures that there is a synergy between the reference they send and your personal statements, CV, etc. Lastly, it is important to ensure that whoever is providing a reference for you actually knows you so that they don’t send a generic reference, this is also why the previous point is critical because if you guide them on what to write, it helps it to sound more personal. Also, most people advise that the Lecturers who provide these references are Professors or at least PhD holders, I am not sure why but I guess there is a certain respect attached to people with a significant academic scholarship.  For my applications to Oxford, I had two LSE Professors and one PhD holder provide my references while for my application to the LSE, I think it was just one PhD holder and a regular lecturer.

Don’t make assumptions: If there is anything that you require further clarifications on and you cannot find the information on the University’s website, kindly email the Admissions Officer or the department. Depending on what your queries are, you can even request to have a call with them and more often than not, they would oblige you. Review, review, review!! You cannot do this enough quite frankly. If there are people within your network who may be knowledgeable in your field, send them your documents and ask for your feedback. This would be especially helpful for things like essays, policy papers, research proposal etc. For things like your personal statement, share it someone who knows you very closely i.e. your partner, sibling or mentor. I say this because, from my experience reviewing personal statements, I find that many people undersell themselves a lot! Those who are close to you may be likely to remind you of some awards which you may have forgotten and also let you know if the statement is a full reflection of your personality and aspirations. Indeed, often times, we don’t do a good job of telling our own stories. Software like Grammarly are also helpful for checking punctuation and grammatical errors in the text, so use it too.

Extra point.

You can take this a step further by connecting with current students or alumni of the school (preferably of the Programme) on social media to ask them more specific questions about the schools or the Programme. More often than not, I find that people are willing to help. One platform that I find particularly useful for this is Linkedin- I have had extensive chats and even phone calls with people I met there to seek their advice on professional opportunities. These are random strangers who are always willing to share their experiences with me. Off course, you must send a very clear, concise and direct message to them – I personally have no interest in people who text me saying ‘hi’, ‘how are you’, ‘ I want to be your friend’ etc. If you need my attention, get straight to point. Here is an example of a message I sent to someone on Linkedin when I was considering a fellowship at her previous organization:

Good morning xx, Thank you so much for accepting my request. I am contacting you because of my interest in the xxx fellowship. Given that you are a previous fellow, I was wondering if you would be willing to share what your experience was, in terms of the skill sets you acquired and the kind of exposure you got. I look forward to your feedback. Best, Amaka.

She not only responded but even proposed that we have a Skype call.

In summary, getting into a top University is quite attainable if you ensure that your application is highly competitive. With careful planning, strategy and preparation, you can be on your way to Oxford, Harvard or Stanford. So please, apply to that school you have always aspired to attend, take the chance, do not give in to any fear or insecurity about your ability – just do it!

Please share with your friends, family and network.


Click here to read more on Amaka's blog.


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