Preparing for Postgraduate Study: Applying for a UK Masters Degree

Badearke By Badearke, 4th Feb 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Education

This is a guide to surviving the maze that is UK Postgraduate applications, whether as a UK or international student, the information you'll have to submit with application, as well as what you can expect following your application and a brief guide to funding opportunities.

1. Applying for a UK Masters degree

Competition in the job market is driving more university students to stay on for further study, and this in turn has led to a great deal of competition for MA (Master of Arts) and MSc (Master of Sciences) degrees. These normally last 1 year full time and 2 years part time, and some universities will also offer a 2 year distance learning option, although this is should not be assumed to be available for all courses, as this is a relatively new process. Unlike applying for an undergraduate course, their is no centralised system, like UCAS (the University, Colleges and Admissions Service) to help applicants through the process, so students will often have to go about finding courses and applying under their own steam. I've listed some of the main features of the application process in order to take some of the confusion and stress out of system.

2. Choosing the course for you

It's never to early to start thinking about a Masters; many students begin the Summer before their final year, but courses will often remain open until the summer before the course start date in September/October. The first thing to do, before even looking at particular universities, is identify an area you want to study in. Bear in mind that this doesn't necessarily have to be a direct continuation of your undergraduate degree; some specialized Masters courses can be taken with no prior experience, such as the many Museum Studies MA courses. Both MAs and Mscs will come in two flavours: Taught and Research. The former is a structured course comprised of various taught classes, with course work or an exam at the end and usually a larger project or dissertation of anywhere from 5,000 words up. The latter is a much more flexible option; there may be one of two taught classes but the focus will be on preparing for PhD work accompanied by a larger dissertation which will entail writing more than 10,000-15,000 words at minimum. If you're thinking about doing a PhD a course with emphasis on research preparation is a good way to go, but Taught degrees can be better if you want first to know more generally about a range of subjects before deciding on a Thesis topic. In either case, be clear about why you are picking a course; having a firm idea of what you want to use your Masters for helps to focus your mind during the application process.

3. Gathering information

So you've decided what you want to study; now you need to get as much information about the varying institutions which offer your course. University websites are an excellent place to start, as they will give you a great overview of available courses. Many will offer both online and paper prospectuses which are excellent at telling you all about not only your course but the university you'll be studying at. All university departments have admissions tutors who will happily answer questions; this is also an excellent way at getting your name known in the department you hope to study in. Universities will run Open Days throughout the year; if you can, go to one to get a feel of the place and meet some of your prospective lecturers, once again you're a registering a real interest in the course which can only hope your chances of success. Try and come up with a shortlist of courses/universities you would be happy attending. It can be dangerous having your heart set on one course alone, not applying for others, and then being unsuccessful.

4. Applying

The earlier you apply, the better. Most courses will not hold their applications back until a certain date, but will process them as they recieve them; popular courses can and do fill up before the end of applications date. Most universities have online application systems, but some will still want you to apply by post. In either case, the most common information they will ask you for, apart from your general details, is;
- a CV detailing any experience relevant to the course you're applying for
- an academic transcript of your marks to date (these can be attained from student planning offices, or from departments)
- a cover letter/statement of interest detailing why you want to study the course (sometimes these can be combined with the CV)
- a certificate of English language proficiency, if English is a second language
-references, usually 2, from academic staff who've taught you or employers (the former is preferred)
Some departments may also ask for a sample of written work.
Your references should ideally be lecturers who've taught you and have a good idea of your academic ability, as well as a good idea of you as a person. It never hurts for your reference to be able to add a personal reccomendation and know how much you want to get a Masters place.

5. Post-Application

After applying it's a nervous wait to hear back from universities. They can take as little as a week to get back to you, but can take months. Most will give you an idea of when you can expect to hear from them. Some courses will interview as a matter of course; an interview can be extremely nervewracking, but the university will inform you before hand if you need to prepare something in advance. In any case, it's a good idea to re-read all your application material, particularly your CV and cover letter, as tutors will base at least some of the questions/discussion points on things you've said. Be ready to support your statements and explain why you think things are relevant to your further study (for example, why climbing Everest will help you in your Fine Art MA). The more prepared you are, the more relaxed you'll be. Interviewers are looking to highlight your strengths rather than expose your weaknesses; going into an interview with a good knowledge of your subject and good reasons for wanting to take further study are more than half the battle in an interview. If you DO have an agressive interviewer, keep calm and focus on the questions and your preparation.

6. Recieving an offer

Competition for Masters places is fierce. Being rejected can happen to even the most qualified students for any number of reasons. Don't lose heart, you can always consider taking a gap year or getting more relevant experience. If you are lucky enough to recieve an offer, it'll either be conditional, usually on you getting a 2:1 or First in your undergraduate degree, or unconditional which is, as you would expect, unconditional. Universities will ask you to accept or decline the offer by a certain date and may include accomodation options and a more detailed prospectus.

7. Funding

Trying to find funding can be a massive hassle. There are no student loans for Masters students, and you'll often have to part fund your studies yourself. Course costs can range from as little as £1,000 to over £10,000 depending on home/international students along with the usage of special equipment such as labs. However, there are a number of options available to the student looking for funding. Many universities will offer bursaries to cover fees, or scholarships open to particular groups. There is also a limited amount of funding available from the 7 UK research councils who cover the entire spectrum of subjects, from medicine and engineering to arts and humanities and everything in between. These councils offer funding through departments in the form of studentships, either PPM (Professional Preparation Masters, for those using the Masters as preperation for a career) or RPM (Research Preparation Masters for study towards a PhD). These are very hard to get, and may need you to submit a case for support letter similar to your cover letter. There is also the possibility of getting a charity to support help with your fees, but be prepared to send 1,000 of letters with little results. If all of these fail, there is always the option of taking a part time Masters and taking a job to support yourself at the same time.

8. Perserverence and Persistence

The process of applying for a Masters can seem daunting, but if you approach it as series of smaller tasks you'll find the process becomes much easier. Getting everything ready beforehand will help, and starting applications long before the start date is advisable as it allows time for things to change or you to change your mind. There is no limit on the number of courses you can apply for so, as long as your prepared to put in the leg work, you could apply for 100 if you wanted. However, it's always better to have a small field of choices each of which you'd be happy with. All that's left for me to say is good luck!


Application Letter, Choice, College Admission, Interview, Masters, Postgraduate, Preparedness, Student, Study, Study Abroad, University, University Application

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author avatar Badearke
I'm a student, but I've got a fair bit of life experience... I think. I love art, photography, cooking and way more cups of tea than are healthy for me.

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author avatar Retired
8th Feb 2011 (#)

Wow, you have really out down yourself. Great job.

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