You've thought things through, done your research and chosen a course. What next?
- Application methods vary from course to course. For some vocational courses (e.g. full-time law courses, most teacher-training) there's a centralised application system, while for other vocational and all academic courses you'll apply direct to the institution.
- Check the deadlines! Some vocational courses have deadlines but for most courses you can apply throughout the year – though there could be deadlines if you are also applying for funding. In any case, it is advisable to apply early, especially for popular courses, because offers are made as good applications come in. Moreover, the sooner you have a place, the more sources of funding you'll be able to investigate and apply for.
- However, don't apply until you are ready. You need to put the research in and, for some courses, relevant experience might be necessary. So, apply early but, above all, apply well!
- Follow all procedures and instructions to the letter. If you're asked to attach a CV, make sure you do. If you're asked to fill in boxes, don't put " See CV" and leave the rest of the space blank. If there's a word-limit, don't exceed it.
- These are the basics which will simply get you onto the starting-blocks. What follows will help you to sprint away from the field.
Most applications will ask for academic and work history, a personal statement (or a space for you to 'provide evidence in support of your application') and at least one referee. The personal statement is where you convince the admissions tutor that you and the course were made for each other. This is where you
- give strong reasons why you want to study this particular course in this particular department and institution – these reasons could be linked to future career hopes as well as to the intrinsic interest of the course itself or the reputation of the department;
- mention any relevant study and/or work experience and draw attention to the knowledge and study skills which will enable you to contribute to and benefit from the course;
- provide evidence of key skills, e.g. research, analysis, critical thinking and argument, time-management, planning and organisation, communication – and remember that your application itself is an example of your written communication skills, so pay particular attention to your grammar, punctuation and spelling.
When you think you've finished, read it through again and make sure you haven't overlooked anything in your background which would make you stand out as a candidate. The opening paragraph is particularly important because it is here that you capture the reader's attention and set the tone for what is to follow, so be positive and enthusiastic from the start. Be clear and concise throughout, with no waffle and no extravagant claims. As a final check, ask a friend or careers adviser to look through it.
While you can expect to be interviewed for many vocational courses, this is less likely for academic master's courses. A lot can therefore rest on the quality of your references. At least one of your referees should be a lecturer or tutor from a previous course of study and one might be an employer. Between them, they should be able to comment on your academic ability, relevant skills and knowledge, motivation and suitability for the course. Choose wisely, ask permission first and brief them – give them a copy of your CV, tell them about your aspirations, draw attention to your strengths.