Taught masters courses - tips and advice for making your application

With many TSR members currently studying for taught Masters courses there will be loads of tips to share with other people thinking of applying for these courses. Whether you have advice on how to choose where to apply and which course to go for, whether it tips for writing a perfect personal statement and application or whether there is subject specific advice, then it can all go here for prospective postgrads to read.

Tips and Advice for Choosing Unis and Courses

Things to think about

The preceding warning to this section is that there is no right or wrong way to choose your Masters programme. If something is very important to you, regardless of how silly it may seem to anyone else, then it's worth taking into account. However, there are some common factors that will impact upon almost everyone during their degrees, and you would be ill-advised to ignore them. As such, here are some things to think about:


  • How much? Some courses are very expensive, others aren't. It's very difficult to generalise, but the minimum amount that you're likely to need to shell out in fees is around £3,000, but this can rise very dramatically, particularly for MBAs and other finance-related courses. For most people this is likely to be a significant factor in making the final decision.
  • Funding. Whether or not you wish to go on to a PhD, funding is likely to be very important. There are other articles on the wiki that cover this in more detail (Funding Postgraduate Study) but if money is an issue, then finding out which departments have funding available will be a priority.
  • Living costs. Generally the South is much pricier than the North. Living in London will require you to shell out far more for food, rent, and transport than living in Hull, although there are cheaper areas in every city if you're prepared to compromise.

The University

  • Facilities. Does the University or the surrounding area have any specific facilites you might require, academic or otherwise? Good gyms, supermarkets, computer labs, bars?
  • Libraries and resources. If you're an arts and humanities specialist, the library resources will be very important to you whilst you're there - are the online journal systems good? Do they have a broad range of specialist texts? Likewise if you're a scientist, ensuring that the labs are up to scratch will be particularly important before committing to your course.
  • Housing. A lot of universities don't provide specialist accommodation for postgraduates, which means looking in the private sector, or bunking with the undergrads. If you're only there for a year, neither option may be very appealing, so do check to see what housing is laid on by the university.
  • Location. Campus or city? The differences in location and style between universities can be huge, and both types are like marmite - you either love them or hate them! Likewise, you may need to find a university within striking distance of your home, which can cut down the range of options enormously.
  • Support for postgrads. Some universities have dedicated societies, social areas, and work spaces - all of these things can be very beneficial to your postgrad experience and it's worth asking about what's available.
  • Postgraduate numbers. Again, universities with massive undergraduate-dominance are likely to pay less attention to ensuring the wellbeing of their masters students, so checking what the ratio is can be a good shorthand to checking the emphasis on providing postgraduate-focused support.

The Course

  • Compulsory modules. Do they accord with things you would have chosen anyway? If not, then will they teach you things you do not already know? Compulsory modules can be quite generic, so it's worth checking that they don't completely replicate things you have covered as an undergraduate.
  • Optional modules. Some larger departments are able to offer a huge range of optional modules, whereas others are more restricted. If you have an extremely specialised interest then making sure that the department is able to offer study in that area can be critical to your enjoyment of the course.
  • Accreditation. If you require professional accreditation, check with the relevant bodies that your course will fulfill these requirements.
  • Changes. Double-check with the department that all the advertised courses will be running for the next academic year. It's not uncommon for universities to advertise specialist modules that then turn out to be cancelled closer to the time - and if that's your reason for picking a university, it could be quite a let-down.

The Department

  • Departmental strength. Be aware that university league tables are based on their undergraduate perks, not their postgraduate strength. Probably a better gauge are the recent RAE results, since they rank research quality, which is likely to be a significant factor at postgraduate level. Nevertheless, some of the information available in undergrad league tables can be useful, if you ignore the guff (who cares what the average A level tariff is?). Staff/student ratio, for example, can be a good indication of how undergrad-centered the department is.
  • Significant supervisors. This is very important if you think you want to do a PhD after your masters, since you will need to build relationships with people in your field. You probably will have identified where the best people are by your final year, and this ought to be an important indicator of where you'd be best advised to go. This may not be one of the 'big name' universities, either. Some smaller departments at less well-known universities feature a stellar roster of specialist staff, and if you're researching something obscure, one may be a perfect fit.

Narrowing down your choices

The simplest way to draw up a shortlist is simply to find out what universities offer your course! If you're looking for a generic MA/MSc this may be loads, but if you're planning to do something more specialist, this may be a significant limiting factor. One simple filtering method can be exploring courses which are accredited by a relevant body - either a professional body, a funding council, or a more vocational organization - if accredited status may be important to you in a future career.

Next, have a think about the factors above. Which are the most important to you? Is there anything that is absolutely vital, or anything that you're really not bothered about? Ranking important factors and then excluding unsuitable universities should dramatically cut the shortlist down. Some people apply to many universities (think 15+) but for most this is completely impractical, not to mention madly annoying for referees. Probably the optimal number to aim for at shortlist stage is 5 or 6, but having more or fewer is not a big problem.

The next step, if at all possible, is to visit them. Yes, many people don't. But if you're planning to spend 12 months there then it's pretty foolish not to - I'm sure everyone can recount a tale of pitching up a university they thought they'd love only to find that they loathed the 'vibe' - one man's meat is another man's poison, and reading TSR guides about the universities really is no substitute for visiting them.

This is especially' true at postgraduate, since some universities frankly treat their Masters students as cashcows. It's really important that you gauge the treatment of the postgraduate community - is there a lot of support? Socities? Departmental administrative facilities? (The 'secretary test' may sound stupid, but the number of dedicated postgraduate support staff a department has relative to their student and staff numbers is a really good test of how they treat their postgraduates. Seriously!).

Having visited them, you're then in a position to revisit your importance rankings. Have they changed at all? Did you fall in love with a particular university? Ultimately, most important choices are made far easier by a gut decision that agonising over prestige or employment prospects - if it felt right, then it's probably the right place for you, irrespective of whether it's two slots down in a league table.

General Application Tips and Advice

• Start early! Start looking at places you are interested in 9 months to 1 year before you make your application. This will give you enough time to select the places you want to apply to, research their programs in depth (this will also help you tailor your application to their program), take any standardized tests that may be required (IELTS, GRE) and get the required references.

• Stay organized! Masters applications often have many different components (transcript, references, PS, etc.) and if any one of those is missing, the Uni you are applying to will not be able to consider your application.

• Check and double check all application requirements, as they can be confusing sometimes. If you are not sure about something that is required of you, email the admissions office or department to clarify. Don't make any assumptions.

• Make sure you give your referees PLENTY of time to write a letter. You should ask them for it at least 3 weeks before you actually need it, maybe more. They are busy people and you cannot expect them to drop whatever they are doing to meet your deadline. Make sure you explain your goals and what you are applying to and give them a copy of your PS and CV so that they have something to refer to.

• You will probably need to mail in your initial application. Make sure you allow enough time for delivery and confirm with the admissions office that all components were received - things can go wrong with the mail. If you do not hear from them do not assume that everything is fine.

• Get your application in early. You do not want all your hard work to go to waste just because all the places have already been filled.

Tips and Advice for Writing a Personal Statement

You may have experience of writing a personal statement, you may not. In the course of applying for UK undergraduate degrees, all applicants complete a personal statement for submission through UCAS, which is received by their five chosen universities for consideration. However, the process of application for Masters degrees is very different and consequently the personal statement is too, so for those who have not written one before - don't worry! For those that have, do not be tempted to brush off your UCAS statement and put everything in the past tense. Such a move will result in inevitable disaster (perhaps not of the nuclear blast scale, but it certainly won't do your application any good).

Most universities (although not all) will ask you to fill in a personal statement/statement of purpose. This is submitted to the individual university and course, meaning that there is no excuse for not personalising the piece (phrases such as 'I would love to go to your university!' are just inexcusably rubbish). There may be stated requirements for inclusion and length guidelines, but more often that not you're left in the dark - in such cases it's wise to keep it down to a page where possible (waffling being the cardinal sin of personal statements), and to include some elements of the following.

Principally, the PS is an academic document. The course selectors will be looking for evidence that you are suitably equipped for entry onto what will no doubt be an intensive and demanding course. This means that you need to evidence your desire, interest, experience and knowledge of the course, not your ability at the clarinet or your part-time bartending job. They're academics: three or four years as an undergrad should have taught you, if nothing else, that they absolutely do not care what you are like as a person, provided you can succeed in their course.

As such, you need to convince the selectors that you are engaged with the course material. Why have you chosen this course and this department? What modules interest you? How has your undergraduate degree prepared you for this? What do you intend to do afterwards and why would this degree aid that? If you can't answer these questions, then you need to do more research - as a final year undergraduate or graduate, you ought to have a good idea of what the strengths of your applicant department are, and concurrently the strengths of your application.


  • DO include stuff you've done outside your course - extra reading, conference attendance, publication in department magazines...
  • DO mention any independent work you've conducted as an undergraduate - what was your dissertation title?
  • DO keep it short and sweet - unless of course they say otherwise in the application guidelines
  • DO proofread for spelling, grammar and other errors - nothing worse than sending off your application only to find that you inadvertently used the word 'consequently' in every paragraph :o:
  • DO tailor it to the course and department - unlike with UCAS, you will be writing one statement per application - so do mention any particular attractions of the course or staff
  • DO be explicit - if you've managed three years of undergraduate, general waffling about why you want to study International Relations because you thinks wars are fascinating absolutely will not cut it. You need to display that your BA/BSc went to good use by demonstrating specific interests.


  • DON'T just name drop - it's all very well to talk about extra reading etc but it'll all be useless if you don't say what you actually gained from it
  • DON'T include irrelevant extra-curricular or course involvement - they don't really want to know that at the weekends you go out with your uni gliding club, or that you took a module on Plato when you're applying for Linguistics

Also See

Got postgrad questions which aren't covered above? Then visit the Postgraduate Forum to get your answers.

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