How to successfully navigate the postgraduate application process

Postgrad Advice
05 October 2016 | Postgrad Advice | Guest Author

If you're in your final year of university, have recently finished your undergraduate degree, or are looking at returning to higher education you may well be considering undertaking a postgraduate degree. Whether you should apply mostly depends on what you want out of life and your career. And if you are looking to further your job prospects in a specialised field, move into academia and teaching, or learn and research further for the sake of it, a postgraduate degree could be the right choice for you. 

But before you make that step, there is the quite daunting application process to consider – here we have a brief guide as to what to expect and how best to tackle it.

Entry Requirements

Most postgraduate programs will require you to fulfill a certain set of entry criteria, and applications are often competitive. The most important factors are to have good, proven grades and a well written, thoroughly researched, and unique research proposal.

The research proposal should be an outline of what you want to research for your dissertation or thesis. This is typically a short essay that forms a description of your field of interest and how you plan to improve this through study. The piece is usually 1,000-2,000 words long.

Marks are usually assessed via your undergraduate transcript or predicted grades. The minimum you will need to apply for most masters is a 2:1, with an average mark score above 65 or a 3.6 GPA (or higher). For doctoral programs a 65 average (or higher) is usually required as a minimum, although PhD applications can be more flexible.

Higher marks, predictably, help with applying for any program, however some universities may be willing to accept students with lower grades, such as a high 2:2. Extenuating circumstances such as illness can also be taken into account.

Some programs also require a high quality sample of academic writing, your CV, a personal statement, or a formal language proficiency test as part of their entrance criteria.

Good References

You will need to obtain good references from supervisors or tutors or even former employers who can back up your academic abilities. Try to pick referees who you have spent a substantial amount of time working with, received good feedback from, and who you got on well with. Most supervisors will work hard to provide you with what you need.

Choosing the Right University

Before you apply you should carefully assess a number of universities to find the right fit for you and your project. The quality of resources on site, supervisors, accommodation, how the course is relevant to your long-term interests, and the workplace culture available should be thoroughly researched before you target an application to a university. 

Some universities also specialise more in postgraduate research than undergraduate teaching, so you should ideally have those at the top of your list. It is worth remembering that the right laboratory or archive can make or break a large, strenuous project.

Although mostly secondary to your actual study, your own preferences as to the people you work with, the support the university offers, and any potential pastoral problems during the course should also be carefully considered. Personal problems at home or at work can cause much more serious setbacks than difficulties with research material alone. 

Fees and Funding are also worth carefully considering. For example some universities offer specialised postgraduate and doctoral scholarships and assistance.

The Application Form

The bulk of your application will form written documentation. This should be well presented, neatly bound together, and correctly addressed to the office or department that handles postgraduate applications for your program. Many universities will provide pre-made forms and checklists with the needed materials clearly outlined to make sure that you don't miss anything out. Although the process is becoming increasingly digitized, applications are still typically accepted via both post and email.

Most postgraduate applications will have to be submitted before a fixed deadline, and they are not usually considered until that point in time. There is no real advantage to submitting early, so take the time you need to perfect it. However be aware that most universities will not usually consider applications made after the window has closed on any basis until the next application cycle. If you miss it, this typically means another 9-12 month wait. There may also be a second, separate funding deadline to consider if you are looking at obtaining a grant or scholarship.


Some postgraduate programs, particularly scientific doctorates or vocational programs, may also require you to sit and pass a formal interview This will typically be with members of the department you are applying to study at. You should prepare for an academic interview in much the same way as you would a job interview, through intense revision, practice, and refinement of your proposal.

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