How to Apply for a Master’s Degree in 8 Simple Steps

Follow this step-by-step guide when it's time to apply for your master's degree!

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

How to apply for a master's degree and get a diploma

Pursuing a master’s degree is a logical step for some graduates: it allows you to specialize in your field and gain expert advice from career specialists. It can also increase your chances of receiving a higher salary and climbing up the career ladder faster, but, most importantly, it can help you grow as a person and learn soft skills that can be transferred to any workplace.

The problem, however, is that applying for a postgraduate course can be tricky and many graduates are put off by the entire process before they even begin. There really is nothing to be intimidated about, though — and this easy-to-follow guide will walk you through all the steps to make sure you have a killer application to successfully join your desired master’s degree program.

Why should you apply for a master’s degree

If you’re unsure whether applying for a master’s degree is the right next move for you, considering the benefits can help. Studying at master’s level will allow you to broaden your knowledge on a subject that interests you and gain further professional specialization.

Aside from the excitement that comes with learning new things, your master’s program will also enable you to apply for more advanced positions when you enter the workforce. This often means finding better salary prospects, too.

According to the Summer 2021 Salary Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the difference in starting salaries between bachelor’s and graduate degree holders can be substantial. For example, a master’s degree can help biology graduates negotiate a salary that’s almost twice as high as that of their peers who only hold a bachelor’s degree. Though in other fields the difference in starting salary is not as exaggerated, it’s still considerable, with a reported 36.7% difference in most cases at the very least.

What to include in your application

Since there are millions of undergraduates finishing their studies each year, many young adults choose to pursue further education as a way to gain a more competitive edge. This has made competition for graduate school somewhat fierce. To stand out among thousands of other applicants, your master’s application needs to be meticulously written and include the following:

  • Personal statement: This is your chance to write something impactful! Convey your enthusiasm for and commitment to pursuing this subject.
  • Reference letters: Consider which of your professors or supervisors know you the best and can expand on why you’d make a good fit for the program.
  • Copies of your academic qualifications: Your application needs to include your marksheets, certificate of graduation, as well as your entrance exam scorecards.
  • A research proposal, if applicable: To successfully enroll in a research degree, you’ll need to outline the central question you intend to answer through your research.
  • Proof of language proficiency: To ensure your mastery of the language prior to enrolling you, the university might request a copy of your English language testing certificate.
  • Your résumé: Some graduate programs require students to provide a CV or résumé. Emphasize your academic achievements first, but also include relevant skills and work experience.

Steps to follow

Sometimes, even if we know what needs to be done, we end up putting it off. The result is we create more stress than necessary! To keep this from happening when applying for your graduate degree, it helps to break the stressful process down into actionable steps. Using the list below to tick things off one by one can help you stay motivated.

1. Know when to apply

Applying with ample time is key when it comes to your graduate degree; most deadlines for postgraduate courses that begin in September or October are in June. It’s imperative not to wait until the last moment to apply if you want to ensure you get accepted. You’ll also need time to sort out your finances, accommodation, travel arrangements and a visa if you’re an international student.

It’s advised to apply at least six months in advance to be on the safe side, but do check with your course provider as some programs start at different times of the year.

2. Start your application

In the UK, applications can be made online, directly to your chosen institute, although the UCAS and UKPASS services provide a centralized admission page for a number of universities and colleges. You could also download the application form from their website or request one by post if you don’t want to apply online.

There are no limits to the number of applications you make, but due to a time constraint, you’ll probably be limited to a maximum of eight applications. If you’ve sent your application but realized you left off some important information, don’t panic! It can be altered through the institute’s admissions office — you’ll just need to contact them and explain that you would like to submit a replacement application or include some supporting documents.

Applications in the USA do not differ from those of the UK; some universities also seek submissions via email.

3. Meet the entry requirements

Requirements will, of course, differ between courses and institutes, but the general necessities are as follows:

  • A bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject, awarded with a 2:1 or higher
  • One or two reference letters
  • IELTS, TOEFL or GCSE in English (for international students)
  • GRE and GMAT for US students
  • A research proposal (if required)
  • personal statement (if required)
  • Copies of your passport

You may be required to show evidence of how you plan to fund the course. For example, your funding might come from personal savings, a student loan, a scholarship or even crowdfunding.

4. Get a reference letter

Most universities don’t have time to interview each individual candidate, so they rely heavily on credible references to back up applications and prove that you have what it takes to succeed at postgraduate level.

Most institutes ask for two separate references that can speak of your educational capabilities, as well as your character. It’s important to choose a lecturer you have spent a lot of time with and who knows you well enough to speak highly of you.

You shouldn’t have to worry about asking for a reference, as this is part of their academic job and is something they do every year. Just make sure you give them enough time to create your letter and give them a deadline of when it’s needed.

It would be a good idea to give them a copy of your CV and personal statement so they can refer back to it — they’ll most likely have a large number of other letters to write, too. References should be signed, dated and written on official letter-headed paper or, alternatively, emailed directly to the university from the referee using an official university or company email address.

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.

5. Create a research proposal

Research proposals may be a requirement for some master’s degree applications. The aim is to demonstrate that you have a project worth doing and is manageable within the timescale of the course. While word limits vary, research proposals are usually between 500 and 1,500 words in length.

Dr Alastair Watson, assistant professor in business management at Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus, recommends using the following model 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 analyze data?
  • Provisional timetable — How are you scheduling your project?
  • Possible research impact — How will your research revolutionize your field?

6. Put a portfolio together

Some courses, especially in the field of art, require you to submit a portfolio that demonstrates your work. It should contain a variety of your best work, explaining how it’s been created through reference materials.

You should put a lot of thought into how you will organize your portfolio. Do you want to organize it in chronological order or by topic? Think of what works best for your specific field. If you’re applying for a master’s in journalism, for example, then chronological order may be best suited as it shows your most current work first. On the other hand, a master’s degree in art will see topics as an acceptable and interesting order.

7. Write your personal statement

Your statement of purpose is one of the most vital links on the chain of the application process. It mentions your commitment to joining the program and your life goals. This essay should be brief and must clearly reflect what you want to gain out of continuing your education.

8. Prepare for what comes next

It’s a waiting game after you have sent your application off; it could take up to a few months to receive an answer from your selected universities. You will be faced with one of the four outcomes listed below:

  • Unconditional offer — You’ve successfully 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

If you’ve been unsuccessful, don’t beat yourself up. You can speak to your careers advisor at your current university and ask for their advice on how you can proceed. If you do plan to reapply in the coming year, make sure you use your time wisely. For example, you could gain valuable professional experience through an internship or graduate job.

Applying to more than one course

It’s very common for students to apply for a spot in more than one program. If you plan on doing so, there are some things to keep in mind to make the application process more efficient.

To start with, try to narrow down your options to two or three different programs. Any more than that and the quality of your applications can drop dramatically, as you won’t have as much time to perfect each one.

Once you’ve decided, make sure your personal statement and references are tailored to the specifics of each course. Don’t submit one personal statement to three different universities, as sounding generic can jeopardize your chances of being accepted. Start in advance, memorize each institution’s application deadline, and devote plenty of time to thoroughly preparing your applications.

Key takeaways

Applying to graduate school can be as stressful as it is exciting. However, putting up with the temporary discomfort of dealing with forms and transcripts can lead to a renewed sense of accomplishment and curiosity for what’s to come.

Before you begin the process of gathering up your references and application materials, let’s summarize a few things you should remember:

  • It’s always a good idea to start early. Procrastinating will significantly reduce the amount of time you have to complete your application, creating more stress, which often leads to even more procrastination and lost time.
  • Tailor your application to the course. Admissions tutors are interested in seeing why you’ve picked their course out of dozens of similar courses. So, familiarize yourself with the application requirements and read the course description carefully before you start building your application.
  • Spend plenty of time on your personal statement. Before you put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard), consider the following questions: Why are you passionate about the subject and what do you know about it already? What makes you a strong candidate? What are your career goals?
  • Pick the right referees. The people writing your letters of recommendation need to know you well. After all, they’ll be commenting on more than your academic ability and achievements; they’ll be vouching for your character and championing your dedication and skill.

Are you considering applying for a master’s degree? Did you find this article useful? Let us know in the comments below!


Originally published January 5, 2018. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.