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Applying for a Masters Degree – The Complete Guide

Applying for a masters degreeApplying for a masters degree is a slightly different process to applying for an undergraduate degree.

One of the major differences is that in the UK there is a centralised application process run by UCAS for undergraduate university applications, whereas for postgraduate applications, students usually need to apply directly to their chosen universities.

There are some similarities in applying for postgraduate and undergraduate degree courses, for example the necessary documents that the students need to provide, including personal statements, English language test certificates, student visas, etc.

Because there is no centralised application when applying for a masters degree, the application process can differ between the universities. This could differ in terms of necessary documentation, application timeline, eligibility requirements and whether an interview is necessary or not.

Each university has its own postgraduate admissions system for postgraduate programs, and students will have to apply separately for each university. There is no limit to the number of programs or universities students can apply to, but it is difficult to apply to more than between five and ten because of the time it takes to complete the applications.

Several things to consider when applying for a masters degree include:

  • Researching courses

  • How to apply

  • What to include in your application

  • What to do after applying.

This guide covers everything you need to consider when applying for a masters degree. 


Researching postgraduate courses

Applying for a masters degreeThe beginning stage of applying for a postgraduate course is to find a program that you want to apply to. You probably already have an idea of what you want to study at postgraduate level, whether it’s an extension of your undergraduate degree subject or perhaps influenced by a change of career.

Once you have a postgraduate subject in mind, you need to research the available courses properly to make sure they meet your expectations. Points to consider when researching the postgraduate courses include:

  • Do you meet the eligibility requirements?

  • Does it focus on the subjects that interest you?

  • If relevant, does it lead to the necessary professional qualification?

Find masters courses here at Postgrad, or explore masters across a range of subjects.

When to apply for a masters degree

Masters application deadlines can vary depending on the course and the university. Some universities will set application deadlines, while others take applications throughout the year on a rolling basis. Check with the admissions department of the universities that you are interested in to ensure you meet any necessary deadlines.

You can usually apply up to a month before the starting date (depending on the number of places available), so start compiling your documentation and drafting your personal statement as early as you can – it’s always better to apply early to secure a place. Don’t wait until the last moment as it can be first come, first served.

If you are applying for a course starting in September, you should apply well in advance of August, although some universities will consider late applications. If you are applying for a course with a January start date, you may find that there is more flexibility in the application deadline, and it could be as late as November or December.

Most universities in the UK close over the Christmas holidays, make sure you consider this and apply before or after. This is especially important for postgraduate courses that start in January or February.

International students will sometimes be given earlier application deadlines than home students and may well need to provide more documentation, such as proof of English language skills, i.e. TOEFL or IELTS certificates. International students will also need extra time to apply for things like visas.

Some postgraduate courses can be applied to via UCAS, in this case you can check application deadlines in UCAS.

How to apply for a masters degree

Applying for a masters degreeThere are two main ways to apply for a masters degree:

  • Apply directly to the university

  • Apply through UCAS Postgraduate

Applying through the university - When applying directly to the university, check the course information on the university website to see what the application criteria and timeline is. 

Most applications are done online, although you may find that some documentation needs to be physically sent to the university, for example English language test certificates or proof of funding. If this is the case, make sure you allow enough time for the accompanying documentation to arrive.

Applying through UCAS Postgraduate - Some UK universities are signed up to the UCAS Postgraduate service, a service provided by UCAS that potential postgraduate students can use to apply for some postgraduate courses. 

This service doesn’t cover all postgraduate courses or universities, but by using the UCAS course search tool, you can quickly find out if the course(s) that you’re interested in are covered by UCAS Postgraduate. If the PG course and university are listed, you can register an account with UCAS Postgraduate and start the application process.

Applying through UCAS Postgraduate is less common, as most UK universities use their own application systems for masters degrees. 

Applying directly to the university

 This list indicates the steps you need to take to apply for a masters degree at most universities:

1. Research the university 

All universities have their own official application form that you will need to complete fully. Some universities deal with applications centrally for the whole university, while others deal with applications in the faculty or department that you are applying to. Some have application forms available on their website, and some are now able to accept forms that have been submitted electronically. This means that you need to check the exact system for each university.

Study the website of the universities you are interested in applying to, and also carefully study the printed prospectus (catalogue) for each one if it’s available. Some universities have their prospectus on their website, but for others you will need to look at a hard copy version. You can obtain the prospectus by:

  • Ordering one online through the website.

  • Writing to, ringing or e-mailing the postgraduate admissions office.

You can also look at the prospectus in the library of many organisations – for example, the British Council offices, the library or careers office of your university or language school. This will provide you with the information you need on postgraduate admissions and the application procedure for that particular university.

2. Research the course

 Understand what the course involves before applying to it. Make sure it covers the topics that you are interested in studying and if relevant, make sure you end up with the qualification that you need to pursue your chosen career.

Take note of application deadlines and entry requirements to ensure you are eligible to study the course. Make sure you don’t miss any application deadlines, as that may result in you having to wait a whole year before starting your masters degree.

Cater your application to the course requirements and make sure you include all relevant information in your personal statement. For example, if the course is being led by a lecturer or professor whose work you are already familiar with, mention this and why it is relevant in your application. The admissions team will be impressed with personal details and information specific to their course.

3. Ask for references

When considering how to apply for a masters degree, you need to decide who you are going to ask to be your referees and ask them if they are willing to do this.

Carefully consider who you are going to ask to be your referees, at least one of them should be an academic referee, for example your personal tutor or university lecturer. The second one could be someone who knows you in a professional capacity, such as a manager at work.

Universities will get in contact with your referees to gather an idea of your previous academic performance, or work performance if applicable. 

Before providing the university with your referees’ details you need to ask their permission. Also, respectfully check that they are not going to be away at the time any request for a reference may come to them, and remind them of the need to respond quickly to a reference request.

4. Masters application: what to include

The final step is to complete a masters application form and send it to the postgraduate admissions department of the university you are applying to. You should use the system it describes on their website or in their prospectus. 

There are several key documents you’ll need to include in your masters application. These are likely to be:

  • The application form itself. Make sure it’s completed and signed. 

  • Your postgraduate personal statement.

  • Evidence of your qualifications – copies of your degree certificates or transcripts and your English language qualifications: if these are not in Roman script (for example, if they are in Chinese or Urdu or Cyrillic script) then you will need to send a translation of your certificate with an official certificate indicating the translation is correct.

  • Details of your referees – this may simply be their contact details, but it may be the references themselves.

  • Your CV (only if the masters course you are applying to requires this)

  • A research proposal (this is usually only a requirement for research-based masters such as MRes and MPhil).

You need to consider the required documents very carefully, because if you forget to send a document that they are asking for then this could delay the processing of your application. 

Applying for a masters degree

Can I apply to more than one masters course?

Unlike with your undergraduate degree course, you can apply for as many masters  courses as you want. There are no rules or restrictions as to how many you can apply to

However, applying to too many universities is unnecessary. The application process can be very time-consuming, as each university may require different documentation and personal statements. Therefore, it’s a good idea to limit your applications to around 3 to 5 universities.

You will risk the quality of your applications if you apply to too many. It’s better to spend time refining your applications for fewer courses, as each application should be tailored to the specific course.

What happens after I apply?

Once you have applied for your masters degree, as well as feeling a huge sense of achievement and relief, there are a few other things that you can expect to happen.

1. Receive acknowledgment of entry 

You should receive an acknowledgment from the university when they receive your application, and some indication of how long it will be before you hear from them again.

The university admissions team will look at your application, personal statement, references, and all other supporting documentation before they can make their decision and get back to you.

Once they have time to read everything through, they’ll make an assessment on whether they believe you are suitable for the course.

2. Receive a verdict

If your application is successful, you’ll receive an offer (usually within around eight weeks). This timeframe can vary by university/subject/number of applicants.

The possible outcomes are:

1. Unconditional – if you receive an unconditional offer, you have a guaranteed place on your chosen course. This offer is not dependent on you achieving any further academic qualifications.

2. Conditional – a conditional offer means you have gained a place on your chosen masters course, but you do need to meet certain conditions before starting this course, for example achieve a 2.1 in your bachelors degree.

3. Interview – you may receive a request for an interview from the admissions team. This is particularly common when applying for a research-based masters degree, as the academic staff are likely to want to know more about your proposed research and interests before offering you a place on the course.

4. Unsuccessful – if your application is unsuccessful the admissions department will let you know. They may provide details as to why you are an unsuitable candidate for their course, taking this information on board should help you achieve success if you decide to apply for another masters degree.

Depending on the university that you apply to, you might be able to track your application’s progress online, check and see if this is an option.

It is also a good idea to keep an eye on your emails after applying for your masters degree, particularly your junk mailbox, in case the admissions team gets back to you with any follow-up questions, or indeed an offer. 

3. Attend an interview (if applicable)

If you are already living in the UK or are going to visit the UK, then the university may ask you to attend an interview. Some universities will also interview postgraduate applicants either by telephone or video link if that can be arranged. The advantage of an interview is that it gives you the opportunity to find out more about the course and the university, as well as about the academic staff who you will be working with.

How to prepare for a masters interview

Not all courses require interviews, it tends to be more common with research masters degrees and PhDs when the interview panel will want to find out more about you research proposal, academic background, interests and suitability. Make sure you are prepared to answer questions about:

  • Academic background – eg bachelors degree, PGCert, etc.

  • Relevant interests – activities or hobbies that have given you relevant knowledge in your proposed area of study. 

  • Work experience – be prepared to give details of any previous work experience that may have led you to this course.

  • Funding – your interviewer may enquire as to how you are planning to fund your masters degree. If you are planning to work alongside your studies, you may need to convince them that this won’t adversely affect your studies.

  • Why you’ve chosen the course – finally, they will want to know why you have chosen their specific course. Has the university produced some key research that you admire? Is a member of the academic staff a renowned expert in your area of interest? Be prepared to explain the reasons for your choice.

4. Accept an offer

Finally, you will need to decide which university offer you wish to accept. If you have several offers, then you will be able to choose which one best matches your needs and interests. When you have decided where you want to go, you have to inform the university of your choice, but you should also inform those universities whose offers you will not be accepting so your place can be offered to somebody else. 

A common problem that universities complain of is that applicants do not tell them if they are rejecting an offer. Now that the UK government’s new visa regulations have been introduced (Immigration and visas), if you are an international student you will have to choose the offer you wish to accept before you apply for a visa as you will only be issued a visa to come to the UK to study one specific postgraduate program.

Applying for a masters degree

What are the entry requirements?

Understanding the entry requirements is one of the most important things to consider when applying for a masters degree – there is no point applying for a masters if the admissions team are not even going to consider your application.

Check the specific course requirements. Do you need to have a 2.1 or above? What IELTs/TOEFL score will they accept? Do you need relevant work experience?

Generally, you’ll need to have previous experience of the subject, for example if you want to do an MA in History you will probably be expected to have studied history at some level before. However, many courses accept applications from students that haven’t studied the subject at undergraduate level, as long as they demonstrate the necessary academic ability and can prove their passion for the subject.

Can I do masters without a bachelors?

It is possible to apply for a masters degree without having previously studied a bachelors degree, however this is very rare. It is more likely to be offered if you demonstrate relevant work experience or have already embarked on a career in a related field.

Having a bachelors in the masters subject will give you a good grounding in the subject area and will also help prepare you for postgraduate study.

Bachelors degrees don’t always have to relate to your masters subject, but should be related in some way.

Always check specific course requirements to avoid disappointment.

Explore masters courses

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