A bursary can provide the financial assistance you need to study towards the degree or tertiary qualification of your choice.

Many prospective students have heard of bursaries and know that they can be extremely helpful in obtaining the necessary funds to be able to afford education at a tertiary institution such as a university or technical college. However, it is important to understand exactly what bursaries are, and how they work, in order to take full advantage of the opportunities they offer.

In simple terms, a bursary is a monetary award or grant that is given to a chosen candidate in order to provide financial assistance with the expenses involved in studying towards a tertiary qualification such as a degree or diploma. Bursaries are generally given to candidates who would otherwise be unable to afford the full fees involved in such studies, as well as those who show significant promise in their chosen fields of study based on their existing academic records. In general, successful bursary recipients have a combination of both academic aptitude and financial need that qualify them to receive the bursary in question.

Two main types of bursaries are generally available.

  • The first is generally awarded by universities or private companies based on means testing, which establishes whether a given candidate falls above or below an established threshold of family income. A sliding scale is often used for these bursaries whereby candidates who fall towards the lower end of the spectrum receive more funding than those who have a higher family income.
  • The second type or bursary is also referred to as a scholarship, and is generally granted on the basis of academic performance more than any other factor. This performance is usually judged according to the student’s performance on entrance exams. Bursaries of this kind are generally awarded prior to the student’s enrolment at the university in question.

What exactly gets covered by an ordinary bursary.

A wide variety of bursaries are on offer at any given institution and for different qualifications. Each bursary has its own distinct requirements, and there may also be differences in the various benefits and coverage that are offered by each bursary package. Some are designed to be as comprehensive as possible, covering a wide range of costs, while others may be more limited in the specific aspects of tertiary education for which they provide financial assistance. The total amounts that are paid out for some bursaries may be calculated according to the candidates’ demonstrated need, as opposed to being a fixed amount. This is generally calculated by using a sliding scale.

Student working on his laptop

First and foremost, almost all bursaries cover tuition fees, either in whole or in part. These are the basic fees attached to the courses that make up the qualification for which the bursary recipient is enrolled. Many bursaries extend this to include other types of fees, such as those required for registration and examination purposes. The costs of accommodation at a student hostel or residence (most often one run by the institution at which the bursary recipient is enrolled) is included in many bursary packages, as are regular meals provided by the same. Many bursaries also cover the costs of required textbooks, stationery, and other equipment that may be needed for the various courses included in the student’s qualification. Some even include an allowance for a laptop computer, often at second- or third-year level, to assist in the completion of coursework.

For students who study far from home, the costs of travel to and from the university at the beginning and end of each semester may also be covered, particularly for those who would be unable to cover this cost themselves. Finally, as an added benefit, the most comprehensive bursaries often include a monthly or annual stipend to provide for basic day-to-day living costs, which can be substantial. This kind of benefit goes a long way towards taking the financial pressure off of bursary recipients completely and allowing them to focus on excelling in their studies.

Typical application process

The many benefits of receiving a bursary are obvious to most prospective students, especially those who have financial challenges that would otherwise prevent them from pursuing tertiary education. As a result, competition for bursaries is generally quite high, and the application process must be carried out properly and in full in order to ensure that your application is viewed as a promising one. Incomplete or unsatisfactory applications may severely reduce your chances of obtaining the bursary of your choice.

The first things to take into account about any bursary application are the opening and closing dates. These are specific to each bursary, so it is vital to make sure you plan ahead and check on these dates well in advance to ensure that you have enough time to prepare the necessary materials and allow time for submission. Earlier submissions also stand more of a chance of being considered than late ones.


Most bursary applications require the applicant to fill out a standardised form in which all their personal details, such as name, date of birth, ID number, intended study program/qualification, and parental details can be captured. Other relevant factors, such as academic results for high school subjects as well as any existing university grades, may also need to be submitted as part of this form, along with financial details such as the average monthly income of the applicant’s family. Supporting documents for all of the above, including certified ID copies, academic transcripts, bank statements/payslips, and other official documents may also be required as part of the application, and should be included along with the forms themselves. For some applications, a letter of motivation, in which the applicant explains his/her choice of study program and explains why they believe they are the most deserving candidate for the bursary in question, is also required as part of some bursary applications.

Once the forms have been filled out and all the necessary supporting documents have been compiled, applications should be submitted to the relevant address, either by post or by email. Some applications are also done entirely online through an application portal where forms can be filled out electronically and documents uploaded. For many bursary programs, shortlisted candidates will also be required to undergo psychometric tests and/or an interview process as part of the application procedure.

Motivation letter tips

Writing a motivation letter can often be the most difficult part of the application process, as it requires the applicant to write from a personal perspective and put themselves forward as a promising candidate in the best possible light (while also avoiding coming across as arrogant). At the same time, it offers applicants the chance to express something about themselves in their own words, and is often the only time they get to do so, given that the rest of the application process generally consists of filling out forms. It is therefore a challenging opportunity for any applicant, and one that should be used wisely.

When it comes to writing a good motivation letter, honesty is the best policy. It may be tempting to exaggerate one’s achievements or qualifications, but this can put you in a very disadvantageous position if these falsifications are found out at a later stage. It’s also important to be succinct in listing real achievements, and not come across in a bragging manner. If you do feel that you are lacking in some respect, make a point of expressing your awareness of this fact and your dedication to improving upon it, rather than claiming to be something that you are not.

It is a good idea to highlight one’s strongest points (both personally and academically) on the motivation letter and briefly describe real-world examples that bring these to light. At the same time, being humble enough to mention a fault or two shows character and self-awareness, and can also be favourable. Applicants should also talk about their personal goals and desires in relation to the bursary and their intended program of study – this speaks to their motivation to engage and excel in their chosen field.

Perhaps the most important overall aspect of a good motivation letter is its use of language, structure, grammar, and punctuation. Given that such letters are like first impressions, it is imperative that they portray candidates as having a high command of language, a good level of intellectualism, and above all, attention to detail. It is a very good idea to go back and reread motivation letters several times to ensure that there are no mistakes of this nature.

How to ace the interview.

The interview is by far the most daunting part of the bursary application process for most applicants, as it requires a face-to-face meeting where you will be assessed on your presentation, your conversational ability, your ability to think on your feet, and even your overall personality. As this is often the last stage in the application process before bursary recipients are chosen, it’s vital that candidates overcome their anxieties about the interview and focus on coming across in the best possible way.

Presentation is key in the interview situation, and this begins with your physical appearance. When arriving for the interview, you should be well groomed and dressed appropriately – semi-formal business attire is generally the safest choice. Punctuality is also vital, so make sure that you give yourself enough time to arrive at least 15 minutes early to account for any possible delays. To be fully prepared, bring along copies of your application documents, even if you have submitted these already.

It’s important to know as much about the company to which you are applying as possible, as well as your intended study program. Doing some research ahead of time will help you to be able to think on your feet much more easily, and answer questions with confidence, giving examples to back up your statements wherever possible. It’s equally important to pay careful attention to the questions being asked, and not rush to blurt out an answer as soon as possible. Taking some time to think about your response is not necessarily a bad thing, as it shows that you consider your words.

Although it’s natural to be nervous, it’s important not to show too much of this (although a little is natural, and will be expected by the panel). Instead, be confident in your preparation, speak clearly, and show enthusiasm for the process. Ask questions of your own to show some interest in the company and the bursary program itself. Let your personality come through as much as possible so that you leave a distinct impression on the panel – this, after all, is what interviews are for.

The aftermath of a bursary

Most bursaries are awarded on the basis of a ‘work-back agreement’, which, in short, requires the bursary recipient to work for the company awarding the bursary for a period usually equal to the term of coverage. This presents a unique opportunity for graduate bursary recipients to enter immediately into the professional sphere and gain valuable experience and practical skills in their chosen fields.

More often than not, positions like this become permanent even after the work-back period has expired, as bursary recipients find a place in the company where they are valued and where they enjoy working. This also serves to provide a talent pipeline for the company in question, guaranteeing that they receive a steady stream of new, qualified employees to fill the ranks.


Applying for a bursary can be a confusing and daunting process, but broken down into simple steps, it can be done easily and with confidence. When applying, take some time to look at all the various options on offer and determine which ones are right for you and your chosen field, and give yourself enough time in advance to pay close attention to your application.

Once you understand the benefits of a bursary, there is no reason not to apply for one if you are in need of financial assistance to pursue the education and career of your dreams.