How to apply for a postgraduate degree

Ben Upton
Unlike undergraduate study, there's no central application system for MA, MSc - it's up to you to wade through the thousands of courses on offer: Getty

Curious about further study? Worried your first degree won’t be as shiny in a few years? Read on for a crash course on postgraduate study.

Beyond the bureaucracy of UCAS, the Masters application process is a patchwork of procedures, each particular to the institution of your choice.

It can feel like a minefield, but there are at least a few things every MA and MSc course will expect of applicants, and a few questions every potential postgraduate should ask themselves.

Why should I do a Masters?

According to the Office of National Statistics, around half of us are now doing undergraduate degrees. While first degrees still open doors, the days when a BA after your name set you apart are fading fast.

This doesn’t mean that ‘BAs are BS’. Many employers are very happy to take in fresh undergraduates, and the better ones often offer additional training, just like many employers will gladly take on apprentices who avoid university altogether.

However, for certain careers, particularly those in the technical professions, a postgraduate degree can be a great way to launch yourself down your chosen career path.

The best way to know if a Master’s a necessary, or even helpful in achieving your ambitions, is to pick up the phone and call someone doing that job already.

Don’t just look up a course and take the institution's word for it - they’ll gladly take your 10 grand with the vague promise of personal betterment. If you want to get your money’s worth you’ll need to speak to someone who’s been there and done it.

How do I find a great course?

It’s worth asking employers or other people within the industry which courses and institutions they look for in applicants. This might be a separate phone call from the one you made to your role model, seeing if an MA was worthwhile - hiring managers may have a more up to date picture of the best courses.

Luckily, this is 2017, and there are a few good search engines you can consult to compare any recommendations you get from people in the know.

Remember that none of these search engines can be relied upon to list all the courses available, and each will have their own (possibly dubious) methods of ranking the results.

All of the engines listed here pull course descriptions and data from the institutional websites, and most allow candidates to search by subject, location, course type and study type.

While they’re not at the heart of the postgraduate application process, UCAS have built a clear, functional search engine for courses. There’s a useful selection of toggles to narrow your search if you’re starting with a subject area.

The Department for Education-backed graduate recruitment site Prospects has built and equally clean and useful engine, their gushing university profiles actually have a lot of useful information as well.

If you prefer to go private, the advertising-funded FindaMasters and PostgraduateSearch are both decent, if cluttered by ‘featured’ courses and unexplained star ratings.

Even better, go and have a look for yourself - universities host postgraduate open days in just the same way as they do for undergraduate.

Check online to see which time of year these are scheduled for the courses you are interested in. Too late for the open day? Contact the university - chances are they'll be happy to let you come in for an unofficial chat.

How do I apply?

So you’ve spoken to an authority on the subject, checked out the options and made a shortlist. Now it’s time to apply.

Remember each university will have their own way of doing things, so you’ll need to make a note of each institution's application deadlines and the relevant admissions officers to call or email.

Bear in mind that there is often more flexibility with Masters programmes than first degrees - so even though you should apply as soon as you make up your mind, it may well be possible to shoot in a late application.

All applications will include an application form, a personal statement and proof of your academic qualifications. University websites should make it clear what is expected of you here, but if in any doubt, call and ask.

Many will also ask for referees and, depending on the course, a research proposal or portfolio.

You may also be required to pay a non-refundable application fee - check this.

Note that if you’re applying from abroad you’ll probably have to translate all these documents into English and also provide proof of your ability to speak the language. In addition you’ll need to photocopy your passport or national ID card.

Remember that if you get a place on a course, you’ll also need a visa - see here for more information.

Good luck!