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4 Things You Should Know Before Applying for a Master’s

EmployabilityTips and AdviceUniversity

The holiday season is, in theory, a restful time of year. However, if you’re in the final year of your undergraduate course, well-meaning questions from aunts and grandparents at the family get-together may have thrown up something that’s bugging you—what exactly are you going to do once you graduate? With around 25% of first time undergraduates going on to do an MA in 2016-17, further study is becoming an increasingly popular option. But even if you’ve figured out that you want to continue with higher education, it can be daunting to go about it, and sometimes the thought of applying can be off-putting. After all, every undergraduate remembers the stress of UCAS submissions! However, there are a few straightforward steps to approaching applications for a master’s degree, making the process a lot less daunting than it might first appear.

1.        Is a Master’s right for me?

This is probably the most important question you’ll need to ask yourself in the whole application process. The two most common types of post-BA education are taught MA and research MA, and which you go for is mainly down to your style of learning. If you do better studying on your own, a research master’s may suit you, but if you’re not quite ready to step away from the structure of lectures and seminars, a taught master’s might be the way forward. The one reason you definitely shouldn’t do a master’s is because you don’t know what else to do. Humanities MA taught courses usually cost around £7,000, and research degrees aren’t much cheaper. Moreover, MAs usually require a lot more independent studying and hard work than an undergraduate degree. It’s a very expensive (and intellectually demanding) way of prolonging the inevitable decision of what to do next if you’re not sure. If an MA isn’t directly helpful to you in your future career, or something that you’re keen to spend another year studying, it might not be the best route for you.

2.        How do I pick a course?

Once you’ve decided that an MA is the way forward for you, the huge variety of master’s degrees available means you have the exciting (or overwhelming) choice of narrowing down thousands of courses. As a general rule, when thinking about where you want to apply, it is helpful to consider MAs which are either a) directly relevant to the career section you want to go into, or b) focus on something that you’re really passionate about. The optimum number of MAs to apply to is probably 2-3. Any fewer than that, and you run the risk of not securing a place at all; any more, and there’s a chance you might spread yourself too thin and not have the time to put the necessary energy into all your applications.

3.        Where should I apply to?

A big question that concerns most people when they’re applying for undergraduate courses is which city they’ll end up in. Although it’s tempting to rank this factor quite highly when considering applications, this decision should probably come second to which area of study you’re most interested in. At postgraduate level, it’s more important to go to a university which has researchers and lecturers whose work you admire, as your interaction will be more in depth with them than at undergraduate level. However, it’s still useful to think about which cities you liked when you were applying for your undergraduate degree, as the likelihood is that you’ll probably still like them now. If the courses you’re interested in are at universities in some of those cities, or ones that are similar to them, all the better. 

4.        How do I write a good personal statement?

So, you’ve decided on a course, and a university, but how to go about the actual application? The academic side of things (a degree transcript and references from your lecturers/tutors) won’t require much effort on your part and will generally take care of themselves during the application process. The thing that will probably be the most difficult for you will be the personal statement. In some ways, the personal statement for MA is harder than the UCAS process, mainly because you’ll need to write individual statements for every course you apply to. The good news is that the personal statement that universities ask for is often short (around 500-1,000 words) and fairly straightforward to write with the right technique. One way that you might want to think about structuring your personal statement is by asking yourself three ABC questions:

What’s my ambition? — what will I gain from doing this course?

What’s the basis for my application? — what motivated or interested me enough to apply to this course?

Why am I a good candidate? — what skills or experience do I have that will be useful for this MA?

This will be a useful way of structuring your writing and making sure you don’t go off track writing irrelevant nonsense to try and impress the assessor about how you’ve loved English ever since before you could read, or how your passion for geography was inspired by your pet rock. The essential thing is to tease out your reasons for applying, and why you as an individual could perform well on this course.

If you decide to apply, a master’s can be a really useful way of complementing your undergraduate degree, or gaining further knowledge about an industry you want to get into. The most helpful thing you can do before applying is to do proper research. The more time you spend reading about courses, universities and other people’s experiences, the better an idea you’ll have of what doing a master’s might be like, and whether it’s something you want to do.

GRB Blog Author and Student - Alex Jacob

Alex Jacobs is a third year English Literature undergraduate at the University of Oxford. During his time at university, he has been a regular contributor to student newspapers and magazines. His interests outside of writing include theatre lighting design and learning Greek.

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