If you’re about to start your final year of undergraduate study and you’ve been considering continuing onto a taught master’s degree it’s time to start taking your decision seriously. Summer is the perfect time to start making plans and considering your applications.
Why do you want to do a master’s?
The most important thing is that you’re not applying because you’re not ready to leave university yet. You’ll have to take the plunge into the real world one day and it’s not worth wasting thousands of pounds studying something you’re not really interested in. If the decision to undertake extra study came before knowing what you want to specialise in, I’d strongly recommend you take some time to consider your options. Take a year out. Make sure you have a good reason to do the course. After all, if you can’t explain to yourself why you chose that course, you will have a really tough time trying to convince the admissions teams.
Start your research early
If you’re considering further study start researching now. Summer is the ideal time to start choosing where you’ll spend the next year or two of your life. It might seem too early but trust me, it’s a lot easier trying to make decisions when you don’t have to worry about essay deadlines. Research the cities as well as the universities – make sure you’d feel happy in those places.
Make a list
Try to have a small list of courses ready by the beginning of September. At this point I had decided on seven courses I wanted to apply to. I had a loose ranking system in my head, but I tried not to get my heart set on one particular place; after all, there’s a lot of competition out there.
Internships and extra-curriculars
Ideally by the beginning of your final year, you’ll already have some relevant experience in your chosen discipline. If you’re lacking relevant extra-curricular activities, use fresher’s week to get involved in things that will help your application. Contact local companies to set up work placements to get more experience.
Most MA applications require two references (unless you’re applying to Oxbridge, in which case you’ll need three). Decide who you would like to write yours and talk to them as early as you can. I spoke to mine at the beginning of October just to get the ball rolling. This is important as often the people writing your references are very busy, especially when you’ll need to start sending them. Give your tutors/employers enough time to start planning. Just remember that they’re well within their rights to say no, so make sure you approach them early enough and have a back-up in mind. If you’re lucky, one of them might offer to help you with your application – my dissertation supervisor offered to help me with my CV and personal statements. Keep in regular contact with them; they’ll want updates of your application process and a list of courses you’re applying to so they can do individual references. This will also create a good impression and make them more likely to write nice things about you.
Draft your personal statements
Yes, that’s right. Personal statements. Plural. Post-grad applications are sent directly to each university; there’s no central system like UCAS which gives you the freedom to tailor them to each individual course. Make sure you outline why you want to go to each university in particular and what makes each course special. Try to get this done by Christmas so you can use your spare time to redraft if needed.
Update your CV
Everywhere I applied to asked for a CV. If you’ve been lazy, you’d better work a bit harder to fill those blanks. Make sure it includes your education, work history, and any internships, volunteering and work placements that you have undertaken.
Some courses will ask for a portfolio and they are happy to accept work that has been submitted for your undergraduate degree. Put together your best work, but make sure you pay attention to how much they want – one application I made wanted no more than ten pages, another wanted at least thirty.
Some applications can be a lengthy process, and I would recommend starting to send them in January. Some places have deadlines later in the year, but often places will go to those who make their applications earlier. Make sure you keep the people writing your references informed because some places will contact them directly while others will ask you to send the reference with your application. Start with a course you’re not so fussed about so you get the hang of the process and you’re definitely ready to send the one you really want to go to.
Once your applications have been sent there’s nothing left to do but wait.
Honesty time: I had intended to get all my applications sent in January. In reality, by February I’d only completed four. I’ve still only completed four. The university I really wanted to go to contacted me and arranged an interview before I could send the other three off, so I got lazy.
If a university likes you, they will invite you to an interview. These are normally around half an hour long and quite often they’ll give you the option to talk over Skype or on the phone. If possible, try to attend the interview in person and ask to have a tour of the university. They’ll be more than happy to accommodate you. Don’t worry if a university doesn’t contact you right away; the first university I applied to didn’t respond until April. If they don’t reply in the time frame they give you and you’re worried, contact the admissions department for an update.
Scholarships and bursaries
Finance is a major factor in making decisions about post-graduate study. If you choose to do an MA, there will be no student loans available to you. You are far more likely to get funding if you pursue an MSc. Try to find information about scholarships and bursaries online. The offer of a scholarship helped me to make a decision about where I wanted to go. If you don’t think you’ll be able to raise enough money for your tuition fees by September, contact the finance department as they will often arrange a plan so you can pay in installments. The other option is to take out a Career Development Loan. These are commercial loans from banks, and they have high interest rates. If you borrow the maximum £10,000 you will be looking at paying back roughly £250 a month for five years at the end of your course whether you have a job or not. Think carefully about this option though; it’s often not the wisest choice.
Decisions, decisions, decisions…
You’ll normally hear back from your interviews within a week. I was lucky enough to be offered a place at three different universities: one in England, one in Scotland, and one in Wales. If you get offered more than one place, I highly recommend taking at least a week to make pro and con lists. It’s important not to rush into a decision that you’ll later regret. The real fun starts once you’ve made your choice and get to start planning the next chapter of your life.
Good luck to all of those considering this option!