Submitting your postgraduate application will take preparation, patience and positivity - find out how to increase your chances of receiving an offer

When should I apply?

While some institutions set specific deadlines, many will accept applications throughout the year. However, some course providers accept candidates on a first come, first served basis, and may close their application window once they've received sufficient interest.

Because of this, it's best to start your application as soon as possible - from six months to a year before your course begins. Even if you're still in your final year of undergraduate study and don't have a degree transcript to provide, your current university should be able to provide a projected degree score for you to submit.

Applying early is especially important if you're hoping to secure funding or university accommodation, as you might need an offer of study before applying for either. Funding deadlines for courses beginning in September typically fall between January and March, and you'll be more likely to receive your preferred accommodation the earlier you apply.

If you've reached out to academic tutors or employers for references, you'll also need to allow for the time it'll take for them to complete these around their schedules and prior commitments.

International students typically need an unconditional offer to begin applying for scholarships or a visa.

How do I apply for a Masters degree?

Unlike undergraduate degree applications, which are completed through UCAS, you'll need to submit your Masters applications to universities directly.

Many institutions have their own online application system. You can create an account and save your progress, so you don't have to complete your application in one go. Alternatively, you can usually download an application pack or request one by phone, and apply via post.

Each university sets its own timeframes for processing applications. It'll usually take between two weeks and two months to discover whether you've got a place, although universities may suffer unforeseen setbacks in turning applications around, including a lack of staff, an unexpectedly large volume of applications or changes in internal procedures.

Note that applying for teacher training has a unique process, with its own deadlines and entry requirements.

Get the ball rolling by searching for postgraduate courses.

What do I need to include in my application?

Whatever subject you're applying to study, your Masters application should include:

  • a personal statement
  • academic transcripts
  • two or more references
  • your CV
  • a portfolio, if required
  • a research proposal, if required.

A postgraduate personal statement is very different from what you may have submitted as part of your undergraduate application - see personal statements for postgraduate applications for guidance on what to include.

Don't worry if you're still completing your undergraduate degree and therefore don't have your degree transcript yet. Your university department will be able to provide a projected score for you to use.

Visit how to write a successful research proposal for advice on applying for a research Masters (MRes).

If you're an international student, you'll also need to provide:

Who can I ask for a reference?

References build a better picture of each candidate, allowing admissions tutors to create a shortlist. For a Masters application, you'll need to supply a minimum of two academic references.

Don't fall into the trap of approaching a high-ranking professor in order to impress - there's little point in using someone as a referee who barely knows you. Instead, opt for lecturers, supervisors or tutors who you've had contact with throughout your degree, as they'll be able to comment on your academic performance and suitability for the course you're applying for.

Where you're unable to supply an academic reference, for instance if you've taken a prolonged break from studying, you'll need to provide a professional reference from your most recent employer.

Don't worry about approaching your chosen referee to ask for a reference, as this is an expected part of an academic's job. However, be prepared for the fact that they may be inundated with requests, on holiday or taking a sabbatical. Enquiring as early as possible will allow them time to complete a reference for you, or give you more time to find another referee should your first choice be unavailable.

References must be sent directly to the university - signed, dated and sealed in an envelope, or sent from an official university or company email address. The university may seek to verify your references if there's any doubt as to their authenticity, while some universities have set forms for referees to complete.

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 at a later date - so don't worry if they're late.

Can I apply to more than one course?

You can apply for as many postgraduate courses as you like at once - there's no centralised system, such as UCAS, limiting you to a certain number of applications per cycle. However, this isn't the recommended approach to take when applying for a Masters.

You'll need to apply a lot more attention and detail to your postgraduate applications than you will have done at undergraduate level. Rather than using a general personal statement for all your applications, each will need a unique statement tailored to the specific course requirements. It's also likely that your referees will also have to provide a different reference for every course, which can be a lengthy process.

Aim to apply for two or three courses - any more than five is unnecessary, and will potentially risk the overall quality of your applications.

What happens after I've applied?

After submitting your application, you'll typically be informed of your university's decision within eight weeks. Keep in mind that this timeframe can vary depending on institution, subject and the volume of applicants applying for the course. You'll receive one of the following verdicts:

  • Unconditional - you've met all of the entry requirements and your place on the course is confirmed.
  • Conditional - you've received an offer to join the course, providing that you meet certain requirements.
  • Interview - you've been invited to interview, after which the university will make a decision on whether to offer you a place. Your university will specify a date and time for this to take place.
  • Unsuccessful - you've failed to gain a place on the course.

It's common knowledge 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. You can request feedback from admissions staff, and ask for advice on how to improve for 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, use the interim months to 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 candidates may be asked to provide evidence of their previous work to support their application in the form of a portfolio. This collection of your work demonstrates your commitment to and enthusiasm for your work, while also conveying your personality and creativity.

Include a range of your best and most recent work, with accompanying sketchbooks or notebooks you've used to document the creative process. This is so that, when presenting your portfolio, you'll be able to discuss your research methods and materials.

There's usually no limit to how many pieces your portfolio should include, but bear in mind the logistics of transporting a physical portfolio to interview. Although some universities may ask you to submit your portfolio digitally - this could be in the form of a slideshow, CD or DVD - it's best not to inundate your interviewers with work. Stick to a few high-quality pieces that give a robust overview of your style.

Your university will notify you of any specific requirements of what to include. If you're unsure, get in touch - your willingness to arrive prepared will be appreciated.

How do I prepare for a postgraduate interview?

Many postgraduate courses ask their applicants to attend an interview before issuing offers. You'll be assessed on your commitment to and enthusiasm for the course - thorough preparation can make all the difference.

Before the interview, do your research. Brush up on the university and what the course involves, so you'll be able to explain clearly and confidently why you chose to study there. It's also a good idea to familiarise yourself with what you wrote in your application, as this may be discussed, and think of any questions you have for the university.

Your interview could take place in a range of settings. While you may be invited for a more traditional, formal interview with a panel or individual, your interview could be an informal chat on campus, and involve an aptitude test or presentation.

Wherever your interview takes place, you should still treat it as an official meeting. Dress smartly and be punctual - making a good first impression is crucial. You'll be informed in advance of the nature of your interview and anything you may be required to bring with you.

While you can't know for sure what you'll be asked beforehand, it's highly likely your interviewer will cover some if not all of the following areas:

  • Academic interests - this could include why you chose your undergraduate degree, your dissertation topic and which modules you enjoyed and performed best in. Your interviewer is looking to see your genuine interest in the subject, and how your previous study has prepared you for a Masters.
  • Academic knowledge - you may be asked about a particular area in your field, so revisit your previous work to refresh your memory.
  • Experience - if your Masters subject has vocational elements, your interview may focus more on your previous paid or voluntary work experience than your academic achievements. Be prepared to discuss the transferrable skills you've gained from this experience and how you can bring them to your Masters studies.
  • Funding - you may be asked whether you'll be receiving a postgraduate loan, or if you've applied for any scholarships.
  • Goals - your interviewer is making an investment in you if they offer you a place on the course. Show them that you're a suitable choice by explaining your five or ten-year ambitions, being as specific as possible.
  • Reasons for choosing the university and course - show the interviewer that you've done your research by discussing what has impressed you about the university and course, and how the specific course will help you achieve your career goals.
  • Strengths and weaknesses - list your best skills and provide evidence. When providing a weakness, explain how you'd like to develop and the steps you'll put in place to make this happen.

Try using the STAR technique to justify your answers when discussing these topics. 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
  • the Action you took
  • what the Result was.

To begin preparing and see what else you might be asked, see postgraduate interview questions.