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10 Tips for Master's Degree Applicants

19/09/2014 12:28 BST | Updated 14/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Given the sheer of abundance of articles related to Freshers' Week that crop up in September, ('The Do's and Don'ts of Freshers' Week', 'The Six Types of Student You Will Meet in Freshers' Week', and so on) you'd be forgiven for thinking that only undergraduates go back to university this month. We often forget that during this time of the year, many students are also beginning to apply for postgraduate study, whether it be master's programmes or PhDs. The application process is a long and gruelling one, so here are 10 tips to help you through the next couple of months, based on my own experiences as a master's applicant.

1. Start research early- I began researching my chosen universities almost a year before I was due to start my programme. Bear in mind a lot of deadlines are in early/mid January, so getting your applications in by Christmas is often advisable. You'll need a substantial amount of time to sort out paperwork, especially if you're applying to more than one university, as each one has its own deadlines and requirements. Furthermore, if you're an international student, you'll need to take into account the universities' English language requirements, which will often mean you're required to take an official English language examination (IELTS, TOEFL, Cambridge English exams...) to demonstrate your command. Depending on where you're from, exam dates can be scarce, so be aware of the available dates in advance to make sure you can submit your results in on time.

2. Don't be afraid to ask questions- This is an inevitable part of applying. You will have questions about just about everything and, if you're anything like me, will spend whole evenings agonising over whether or not university staff hate you for being such a pest; but trust me, this approach will get you nowhere. People are there to help you and you'll always be better off asking actual university staff rather than fellow prospective students who will probably be just as confused as you are. Of course, make sure you read as much of the online information/FAQs before you do so, but don't hold back on asking questions, no matter how small. Doing so will save you a lot of unnecessary worrying late at night. For better or worse, it's always better to ask directly and get a straight answer.

3. Locate a reliable scanner and PDF resizer- Essential. I've lost count of the number of documents I had to scan for every application, so make sure you find one which is reliable and available at all times (last minute uploads are the stuff of nightmares). Transcripts, language certificates, and reference letters will all need to be scanned but the fun won't end there. Once the documents are on your computer, ready to be uploaded, they will inevitably be too big for the university's application system and that's when you'll discover the most useful invention of them all: the PDF resizer. A simple Google search should provide you with a couple of these life-saving pages.

4. Choose your referees wisely- Lecturers and teaching staff in general often have a way of making your life unnecessarily difficult and, of course, this situation is no exception. Most universities will require you to select two academic referees, but some may even ask for three. Your reference letters should be as personalised as possible, so make you sure you choose members of staff who have both taught you in a relevant subject (and ideally given you good marks!) and know you personally, as they will inevitably have to mention your personality in terms of why they think you're suitable for the programme. Some universities will ask the referees themselves to upload their letters to make sure they are genuine, so inform your referees in advance. Depending on other people to complete your applications is extremely stressful, so the sooner you approach them about this, the better. It will give you time to find another staff member if any of them drop out and it will also allow them to take their time with the uploading process without you having to badger them day in, day out.

5. Organise your paperwork- An essential tip for anyone who's applying to more than one programme. Whether it's on your computer (one folder per university) or in real life, make sure you keep your documents tidy and always at hand, just in case a last minute emergency arises. Once the whole process is over, the prospect of burning them (or throwing them into your virtual trash bin) will seem like a pseudo-orgasmic daydream.

6. Draft a basic personal statement- Most universities will ask you for a personal statement in which you can write about your academic interests, relevant jobs you might've had, or anything you can think of to support your application. Supposing you are not applying for master's programmes in different disciplines, I'd recommend drafting a basic statement in which you include everything you have ever done (within reason!) which you can then specifically tailor to a particular programme. This will save you having to write a new one for each application. However, remember to proof read your personal statements before you send them off, as you could make embarrassing mistakes, such as including the wrong university or programme name!

7. Treat the application process as a daily task- Don't attempt to complete a whole application in a day. Unless you're inhumanely organised and mentally strong, I wouldn't recommend it. I treated my applications as yet another university course, with its daily homework, so as to avoid being completely overwhelmed by the process. I strongly recommend you don't rush yourself, as you're more likely to make mistakes. Starting your applications early will allow you to view your applications as a work in progress.

8. Prioritise self care- To say that applying for eight different master's degrees was stressful is an understatement. Of course, no one forced me to do so, but my stress was not so much to do with the sheer number of applications I had started but with the disparity that is to be found between them. Some application processes are short and straightforward. Others are despicably long and labyrinthine. At times, I felt myself growing more and more confused until I'd have to stop for the evening. Always remember to take some time out whenever you need it. If the whole process is getting to you too much, stop and relax- watch an episode of your favourite TV show, go for a walk... try to take your mind off things. Applications can wait, your health cannot.

9. Have someone to talk to- Applying for master's degrees can get very lonely, especially if you have virtually no support from your home institution. Unlike undergraduate applicants, we do not have a coordinated network for prospective students like UCAS to make things easier. It is also unfortunate that postgraduate students tend to be less willing to find fellow course friends online. Thus, it's important that you discuss your applications with a friend or partner as you go along, to avoid getting sucked into a world brimming with deadlines, paperwork, and snappy emails. Once you get an offer, I strongly encourage everyone to join relevant groups on Facebook, as you'll be able to find future master's friends and it'll finally feel like all the effort was worth it.

10. Be patient- ...and last but not least, be patient. In normal circumstances, you'll normally get responses to your enquiries in one or two days, but your actual offers will take a lot longer to come through. Some universities got back to me in a mere two weeks, others took months, but do not despair- there will surely be an offer at the end of the tunnel waiting for you.