Putting together a Masters application takes time and effort. To increase your chances of success find out what to include, who to ask for references and how to prepare for postgraduate interviews

When should I apply for a Masters?

While some institutions set specific deadlines, many accept applications throughout the year. However, some course providers accept candidates on a first come, first served basis, and may close the application window once they've received sufficient interest.

'Applications open approximately 12 months prior to the start of a course,' says Alexander Malin, admissions service manager at the University of Warwick. 'Places are limited in some departments so submit your application as early as possible.'

Ideally this means at least six months before your course begins. Even if you're still in your final year of undergraduate study and don't have a degree transcript to provide, your university should be able to provide a predicted degree grade for you to submit.

 At the latest you'll need to apply by June or July for courses starting in September, but try not to leave it this late.

Applying early is important if you're hoping to secure funding or university accommodation, as you might need an offer of study before applying for either. Funding deadlines for courses beginning in September typically fall between January and March, and you'll be more likely to receive your preferred accommodation the earlier you apply.

International students need an unconditional offer to begin applying for scholarships or a visa.

How do I apply for a Masters degree?

Unlike undergraduate applications, in the majority of cases you'll submit your Masters applications to universities directly. However, UCAS Postgraduate provides application management for a small number of UK universities and colleges. Check which institutions use UCAS Postgraduate.

Many institutions have their own online application system. You don't have to complete your application in one go; you can create an account and save your progress. Alternatively, download an application pack or request one by phone, and apply via post.

Each university sets its own timeframes for processing applications. It'll usually take between two weeks and two months to discover whether you've got a place.

Note that applying for teacher training has a unique process, with its own deadlines and entry requirements.

Get the ball rolling by searching for postgraduate courses.

What do I need to include in my application?

Whatever subject you're applying for, your Masters application should include:

If you're an international student, you'll also need to provide:

'Students who provide all of the required information when they submit their application usually receive quicker decisions as admissions tutors have everything they need to fully assess the application,' advises Alexander.

Who can I ask for a reference?

References build a picture of each candidate, allowing admissions tutors to create a shortlist. For a Masters application, you'll need to supply two academic references.

Don't approach a high-ranking professor to impress - there's little point in a referee who barely knows you. Instead, opt for lecturers, supervisors or tutors who you've had contact with throughout your degree, as they'll be able to comment on your academic performance and suitability for the course you're applying for.

If you're unable to supply an academic reference, for instance if you've taken a break from studying, you'll need to provide a professional reference from your most recent employer.

'Contact your referees to discuss your intentions to apply for a Masters in advance, so that they can offer advice for your application and are prepared to provide a reference in support of your application when they receive the request from your institution,' adds Alexander.

Don't worry about approaching referees, as this is an expected part of an academic's job. However, try to enquire as early as possible, as this gives you more time to find another referee should your first choice be unavailable.

References must be sent directly to the university - signed, dated and sealed in an envelope, or sent from an official university or company email address. The university may seek to verify your references if there's any doubt as to their authenticity, while some universities have set forms for referees to complete.

Finally, don't hold back your application if you're waiting for references. It's important to get your application in on time, and you can often change or add referees at a later date.

Can I apply to more than one course?

There are no rules against applying to more than one university for Masters study. In fact, it can be a smart move.

However, limit your applications to two or three courses - any more than five is unnecessary, and will potentially risk the overall quality of your applications.

'Students can apply for more than one postgraduate course by submitting separate applications for each programme. Each application, personal statement and references should be tailored specifically to make the application as strong as possible. Admissions tutors prefer personal statements that are specific to the course,' says Alexander.

What happens after I've applied?

After submitting your application, you'll be informed of your university's decision within eight weeks. This timeframe can vary depending on institution, subject and the volume of applicants. You'll receive one of the following verdicts:

  • Unconditional - you've met all of the entry requirements and your place on the course is confirmed.
  • Conditional - you've received an offer to join the course, providing that you meet certain requirements.
  • Interview - you've been invited to interview, after which the university will make a decision on whether to offer you a place. Your university will specify a date and time for this to take place.
  • Unsuccessful - you've failed to gain a place on the course.

'At Warwick we pass your application to the department running your course. They will consider the application, assess your results and qualifications to date, personal statement and references. They might ask you to provide extra information to help them to make a decision,' explains Alexander. 'Our admissions team will then carry out any extra checks, and contact you with the decision.'

Many postgraduate courses are oversubscribed, with the number of applications far outweighing the number of places available. It's therefore inevitable that some candidates will miss out.

If you're unsuccessful, try to remain positive. Request feedback from admissions staff, and ask for advice on how to improve future applications. If you think the decision is unjustified most institutions have an appeals procedure.

If you're aiming to reapply for the next intake, use the interim months to research courses and departments, make contact with programme leaders and professors, and gain relevant work experience.

How do I put a portfolio together?

Arts and humanities candidates may be asked to provide evidence of their work, in the form of a portfolio to support their application. This collection of work demonstrates your commitment to and enthusiasm for your chosen subject, while also conveying your personality and creativity.

Include a range of your best and most recent work, with accompanying sketchbooks or notebooks to document the creative process.

There's no limit to how many pieces your portfolio should include, but think about the logistics of transporting a physical portfolio to interview. Although some universities may ask you to submit your portfolio digitally - this could be in the form of a slideshow, CD or DVD - it's best not to inundate your interviewers with work. Stick to a few high-quality pieces that give a robust overview of your style.

Your university will notify you of any specific requirements of what to include. If you're unsure, get in touch - your willingness to arrive prepared will be appreciated.

Learn more about putting together a creative portfolio.

How do I prepare for a postgraduate interview?

'Similar to your personal statement, an interview is your chance to engage with the admissions tutors and demonstrate your passion and enthusiasm for your chosen subject,' says Alexander.

'We want to know what drives you, why you want to study at a particular institution, and why the course is the one for you.'

Before the interview, do your research. Brush up on the university and what the course involves, so you'll be able to explain clearly and confidently why you want to study there. Familiarise yourself with what you wrote in your application, as this may be discussed, and think of any questions you may have for the university.

Treat the interview as an official meeting. Dress smartly and be punctual. You'll be informed in advance of the nature of your interview and anything you may be required to bring with you.

It's likely your interviewer will cover some, if not all, of the following:

  • Academic interests - including why you chose your undergraduate degree, your dissertation topic and which modules you enjoyed and performed best in. Your interviewer is looking for genuine interest in the subject, and how your previous study has prepared you for a Masters.
  • Academic knowledge - you may be asked about a particular area in your field, so revisit your previous work to refresh your memory.
  • Experience - if your Masters subject has vocational elements, your interview may focus more on your previous paid or voluntary work than your academic achievements. Be prepared to discuss the transferrable skills you've gained and how you can bring them to your Masters studies.
  • Funding - you may be asked whether you'll be receiving a postgraduate loan, or if you've applied for any scholarships.
  • Goals - your interviewer will be making an investment in you if they offer you a place. Show them that you're a suitable choice by explaining your five or ten-year ambitions, being as specific as possible.
  • Reasons for choosing the university and course - show the interviewer that you've done your research by discussing what has impressed you about the university and course, and how the programme will help you achieve your career goals.
  • Strengths and weaknesses - list your best skills and provide evidence. When providing a weakness, explain how you'd like to improve this and the steps you'll put in place to make it happen.

To begin your preparation and to discover what else you might be asked, see postgraduate interview questions.

This Prospects webinar aired July 2021.

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