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Everything you need to know about applying for a master’s in the UK

By Chloe Lane

Updated July 28, 2021 Updated July 28, 2021

Sponsored by University of Reading

Studying a master’s in the UK is a fantastic opportunity to learn about a specialised subject at some of the top universities in the world – but there is also a lot of contradictory advice floating around about applying for a master’s in the UK.

There are currently 84 UK universities featured in the QS World University Rankings 2021, each offering a unique experience with dedicated lecturers, extensive facilities and useful resources – and the University of Reading is one of them.

To set things straight, we spoke to the Head of Admissions at the University of Reading, Kathryn Whittington, to uncover some hints and tips about applying for a master’s course at a UK university.

You will need a strong undergraduate degree or relevant work experience to apply

When applying for a master’s, UK universities are looking for a good undergraduate degree, preferably in a related or relevant subject, explained Whittington.

However, the specific grades and achievement levels required at each university might vary depending on the university and the course. Some universities may only consider students with high marks and some will be more flexible.

An undergraduate degree isn’t always a necessity, however. Whittington said: “If you don’t have an undergraduate degree but you have relevant experience then you may still be considered for a master’s”.

You may need to pass an English Language test

Another requirement to study a master’s in the UK is a strong basis of the English language. If you are applying from a country where English is not the main language, you may need to complete an English language qualification such as the IELTS or the TOEFL.

Whittington said: “Check which tests the universities accept and at what level. This can vary depending on the institution and the subjects.

“Normally subjects which are discursive and have a lot of essay writing will need higher English requirements than a subject like mathematics.

Some universities, such as the University of Reading offer pre-sessional English courses to provide extra support for students learning English.

Each university’s application process is different

The application process for a master’s degree in the UK varies massively from university to university.

“Unlike undergraduate study in the UK we don’t have a single organisation that manages the postgraduate application cycle so each university can do something a little different,” said Whittington.

As the application process differs so much between universities, the application deadlines may also be very different, Whittington explained. Check the websites of the universities you’re applying to for more information about their deadlines.

Some of the more selective universities will require you to apply very early in November, whereas others might keep applications open until the summer if they still have places available. Some may not even have a set deadline, but Whittington advises not leaving your application until the last minute.

She said: “It’s a good idea not to leave your application too late, as your course might fill up, so get your application in earlier.” This will also provide protection against any technical issues that may arise.

Once you’ve submitted your application, you should receive a confirmation email letting you know how long you’ll have to wait for decisions to be made.

Before putting someone down as a reference, ask them

Most universities will ask for references. These will usually be two academic references such as lecturers or tutors from your previous course. You may also want to include an employer as a reference.

Whittington said: “It’s really important that you check with the people you are going to nominate that they are happy to do so and can do so by any deadlines.

“I have spoken to a lot of academics who are surprised to get a reference request for somebody, and they can be a bit disgruntled by it!”

Universities have similar application systems for all subject areas

Although the application process might differ between universities, within a university the master’s application process is usually quite similar, regardless of the subject area you’re applying for.

However, the degree requirements are likely to differ between subjects. For example, to study mathematics at master’s level, you’ll need a mathematics undergraduate degree.

Humanities and social science subjects tend to accept a broader range of academic backgrounds “as long as applicants demonstrate genuine commitment to the subject,” explained Whittington.

It’s also worth noting that some courses that are linked to specific professions will require your undergraduate degree to be accredited.

For example, at the University of Reading, students will need to have an ARB validated undergraduate qualification to study a Master of Architecture (MArch) degree.

Some courses may require you to submit a portfolio, particularly more creative subjects like art. Others may require you to attend an interview.

Whittington said: “Very competitive courses can use interviews as a way to choose between equally qualified candidates. Some subjects which have accreditations must interview their applicants.

“Obviously the pandemic has changed the way a lot of universities work, so interviews are much more likely to be online now, which is really useful for overseas students.”

Supporting statements should be tailored for each institution

One of the big mistakes applicants often make is writing a generic supporting statement and using it in all of their applications.

Whittington said: “If you are applying to several institutions make sure your supporting statements have been tailored for each institution rather than using a generic approach.

“Explain why your background is ideally suited to the specific course that the institution is offering.

“If you are providing supporting statements or examples of work make sure they show you in your best light. Provide the best examples of relevant work.”

Emphasise relevant pre-existing experience in your application

Relevant industry experience can really help your master’s application stand out.

Whittington said: “At the University of Reading, we always welcome applications from applicants who have had a break from study or academia, or who are looking to undertake master’s study as a means of changing professional direction or boosting their pre-existing career.”

If your work experience is relevant to the course, Whittington said it is worth emphasising this on your application.

However, if the master’s you’re applying to is a completely different direction to your work experience or academic qualifications, you should instead focus on the transferrable skills you have gained.

There are funding options but be realistic about the costs of studying

Studying in the UK can be expensive, so it’s important to be realistic about the costs – particularly if you’re planning to self-fund. You’ll need to take into account your tuition fees and your living costs.

If you’re planning to work while studying, be aware of visa restrictions which will limit the hours you can work, said Whittington.

She warned against underestimating the amount of work involved in a master’s degree: “They are very focused qualifications, and you may not have the space in your timetable for a part time job.”

Students should also consider external funding available to them, such as scholarships and grants. Whittington said it’s important to keep an eye on deadlines as some scholarships – such as those offered at the University of Reading – require you to apply early and you may have to submit a personal statement or an example of your work.

Take care to prevent common mistakes

Whittington outlined some of the common mistakes you should avoid in a master’s application. These include:

  • Providing incorrect or incomplete information
  • Spelling mistakes, especially in names or email addresses
  • Not verifying that somebody is happy to act as a referee before submitting a supporting statement
  • Submitting incomplete applications without the full range of documentation requested
  • Using a personal statement that doesn’t relate to the actual course and university that you have submitted the application for

To avoid these mistakes, Whittington suggested reading through the information given carefully and asking questions if there’s something you don’t understand.

Lead image credit: University of Reading

This article was originally published in February 2021 . It was last updated in July 2021

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Written by

As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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