The postgraduate application process requires you to demonstrate your suitability for further study, meaning patience, preparation, positivity and professionalism are absolutely vital

When should I apply?

While some courses do have official deadlines, programmes in most subjects accept applications continuously. However, in such cases offers are usually made on a first-come, first-served basis.

For this reason, you should aim to apply at least eight months before the course begins. Even if key documents such as your degree transcript aren't ready, you can often submit your application and receive a conditional offer.

Applying early is especially important if you're looking to secure funding and/or accommodation, as you may require an offer before applying for either - and funding deadlines for courses beginning in September often fall between January and March. International students must also apply very early, as an unconditional offer is required before scholarships and visas can be applied for.

Despite all of this, late enrolments are fairly common - so there may be time for a last-minute application.

How do I apply for a Masters degree?

Applications are often made online, directly to your chosen institution - although UCAS's UKPASS service provides a centralised admissions service for 18 universities and colleges. Alternatively, you can usually download an application pack from your chosen institution's website or request one by phone, and then apply via post. There's no limit to the number of applications that you can make, but time pressures will probably restrict you to between five and eight.

Altering your application after you've submitted it is often possible, though the process for doing so depends on the university or department. As a starting point, you should contact the postgraduate admissions office, and explain that you want to submit replacement or supporting documents. The admissions team is also your point of contact should you wish to withdraw or defer your application, although you may be able to do this online.

Methods of dealing with applications are typically the same across the board. The general admissions department will screen your application and send it to the specific admissions tutor for your particular course, who will then make the final decision.

Each institution has its own guidelines on timeframes - these are often published on their websites, so you can check when you can expect a decision. However, it usually takes between two weeks and two months before you discover your fate. Some universities may even suffer unforeseen setbacks in turning applications around, increasing your wait further. These include a lack of staff, an unexpectedly large volume of applications or changes in internal procedures.

You should note that application processes are different for some subjects, such as law and teacher training.

What do I need to include in my application?

You must include your:

If you're an international student, you must translate any documents into English and provide evidence of your English language ability. This could be achieved by proving that your first degree was taught in English, or presenting certificates in International English Language Testing System (IELTS), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or GCSE English. You must also provide a photocopy of your passport.

Who can I ask for a reference?

References build up a better picture of each candidate, allowing admissions tutors to create a shortlist. Read through the guidelines for each university carefully, as the procedure for obtaining references can vary. What's more, you may be asked to provide contact details and/or a written statement at the time of application, which could take more time to arrange.

Most universities require two academic referees, who can speak of your subject expertise as well as your character. There's little point trying to impress by selecting a high-ranking professor who's unable to comment on your suitability for postgraduate study as they've barely spoken to you. Choose someone who knows you reasonably well - ideally someone who you've discussed your academic and professional aspirations with. In most circumstances this would be your dissertation supervisor, personal tutor or another member of academic staff that taught you at university.

You shouldn't worry about having to ask for a reference - this is an expected part of an academic's job. However, bear in mind that your perfect referee may be inundated with requests, or on holiday or study leave, so ensure that they'll have time to represent you before seeking their permission.

As your chosen referees may be providing lots of references, you should make it as easy as possible for them. When making contact, it's good practice to remind them who you are, the year you graduated and how they know you. You should send them your application form, CV and, if ready, personal statement, and reiterate your academic and professional aspirations. You should also explain which course the reference is for, so they know how best to present you, and set them your deadline.

References should be signed, dated and on official letter-headed paper, or alternatively emailed directly to the university from the referee - using an official university or company email address. The university may seek to verify references if there's any doubt as to their authenticity, while some universities have set forms for referees to complete.

If you've taken a break from studying, then you may not have two academic referees. In this instance, you'll need to provide a professional reference from your most relevant employer.

Finally, don't hold back your application if you're waiting for references. It's important to get your application in on time, and you can often change your referees during the process - so don't worry if they're late.

What happens after I've applied?

The most common outcomes are:

  • Unconditional offer - You've met all of the entry requirements and have a confirmed place on the course.
  • Conditional offer - You're being offered a place on the course, provided that you meet certain requirements.
  • Interview - You must attend an interview before a final decision is made.
  • Unsuccessful - You've failed to gain a place on the course.

It's well-known that many postgraduate courses are oversubscribed, with the number of applications far outweighing the number of places available. It's therefore inevitable that some candidates will miss out.

If you've been unsuccessful, try to remain positive. Request feedback from admissions staff, and ask for advice on how to improve future applications. You could also contact your university's careers service to discuss your options, while most institutions will have an appeals procedure. If you're aiming to reapply for the next intake, then you should use the interim months wisely. Thoroughly research courses and departments, make contact with programme leaders and professors, and engage in some relevant work experience.

How do I put a portfolio together?

Arts and humanities courses, especially those in areas such as creative writing and fine art, may require you to submit a portfolio. This demonstrates your work, showing your commitment, abilities, creativity and personality. It should contain a range of your best and most recent work, explaining how it's been crafted through investigation and reference materials. Sketchbooks and notebooks should be included, as these highlight your independent research skills and creative process.

Organise your portfolio chronologically or in topic groups. There's usually no limit to what you can include, but keep numbers sensible as you'll often have to transport your portfolio to an interview. Each individual programme will have specific requirements. Some may ask you to submit your portfolio digitally - this could be in the form of a slideshow, CD-ROM or DVD.

How do I write a research proposal?

Research proposals can form the basis of your research Masters degree or, more commonly, PhD. You must articulate exactly what you want to research and why. While word limits vary, research proposals are usually 500-1,500 words in length.

How interesting and relevant your idea is will determine how easy it will be for you to cope with what lies ahead. Dr Alastair Watson, assistant professor in business management at Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus, proposes using the following template when composing your research proposal:

  • Introduction - What is your study about?
  • Aims and objectives - What do you want to achieve, and how will you achieve it?
  • Theoretical literature - What existing theories or models are you going to use?
  • Contextual literature - What is the sample population that you're going to collect data from?
  • Research gap - Why is this project interesting, and how will you fill the knowledge gap?
  • Methodology descriptor - How will you collect and analyse data?
  • Provisional timetable - How are you scheduling your project?
  • Possible research impact - How will your research revolutionise your field?

How do I prepare for a postgraduate interview?

Many postgraduate courses ask applicants to attend an interview as part of the selection process. Knowing how to prepare and perform well at these can make all the difference.

Refresh your understanding of the course and university, so you can clearly articulate why you chose to apply there. You should also ensure that you're familiar with everything you wrote in your application, and explain how you'll pay for the course and where you plan to live. You should also think about any questions that you have for them.

You can't be 100% sure what you'll be asked. However, there are a number of topics that you can safely assume will come up.

  • academic interests - this could include why you chose your undergraduate degree, why you chose your dissertation topic, and what modules you enjoyed and performed well in. You want to show genuine interest in your subject, and how what you've studied so far has prepared you for studying at a higher level.
  • academic knowledge - this is something you'll have to prepare for. You may be asked about a particular issue in your field, so do your homework.
  • career goals - explain how you plan to become successful and be as specific as possible. Set yourself goals for the next five or ten years.
  • experience - if the course is relatively vocational, the interview may focus more on your experience than on your academic background. Be prepared to talk about any paid or voluntary work you have that's related to your area of study, as well as the more general transferable skills you've gained.
  • funding - tell the interviewer what funding measures you have in place.
  • reasons for choosing the course and university - show that you've researched the institution and course, explaining how it has impressed you. Explain why you feel it is your best option and how the course will help you achieve your career goals.
  • strengths and weaknesses - list your best skills and provide evidence. If asked about your weakness, mention one attribute that you're looking to develop.

You must ensure that you evidence your answers throughout. Try using the STAR technique. When responding to a question about your skills or experience, structure your answer by explaining a Situation you found yourself in, the Task you had to perform, what Action you took, and what the Result was. Remember to listen to and engage with the interviewer, avoid jargon and, most importantly, be yourself.

For extra preparation, consider arranging a practice interview with your university careers service. For more information on what you'll be asked, see postgraduate interview questions.