What do Universities Look for in a Postgraduate?

Kyle Campbell  · Nov 1st 2021

What do universities look for in a postgraduate candidate? There are plenty of different things they look for and they all have their own set criteria too.


The first question admissions staff ask

‘Is this person applying for a masters because they’re unsure of what to do next?’

Your application should leave its reader with zero doubt that you, the candidate, are applying for a postgraduate degree to fulfil a clear purpose. That can be because your masters is essential for your career, to gain a new set of skills or to deepen your knowledge of a specific topic. The advantage of a postgraduate application is that you can be specific. It’s different to an undergraduate personal statement, where one document is sent to up to five institutions. For a masters, you need to think about each university you are applying for and position yourself as a good fit for each one.

Here are five things that admissions, recruitment and academic staff look for before making you an offer.

1: Evidence that you have thought doing a masters through

Some of the most attractive postgraduate applications come from students who have taken time out of education. If you are doing a masters to ‘get it over and done with’, it may be worth taking a deep breath and delaying your application for a year. In this time you can gain relevant work experience and give yourself some critical distance from higher education. You may find that by gaining a new perspective and doing further research an alternative masters degree is more suitable. Similarly, you can use this time to ask questions and build a relationship with admissions staff and tutors. If you have had a conversation with a member of faculty before applying, they are more likely to recognise your application and already have a sense that you are suitable for the course.

2: Demonstrate that the institution is a good fit for your studies

Admissions staff want to see that you not only have a keen interest in your subject, but can align that interest with the strengths of their university. Make this easy for them. By doing research into a university’s colleges, schools and research centres, you can find specific examples of where your area of interest and the university’s research outputs match.

For example, if you are planning to do a masters in Digital Marketing, specialising in social media promotion, look for an academic working in that area. In your application, highlight the academic’s name and how their own research reflects your interests and, thus, makes you a good fit for the course.

Katie Fisher, International Promotion and Admissions Manager at NEOMA Business School, says:
‘Take the time to look at the course content and the values and missions of the School. Not only is this important to ensure you are making the best choice, but it also shines through when a candidate invests this level of time in their application.’

3: Show that you properly understand the course

It might seen like a no-brainer, but a lot of postgraduate applications fall down because they are too generic. A masters is a qualification where you specialise so your application needs to be tailored too.

The best way to do this is look not just at the module list, but at the module specification documents. These should be downloadable from the university website or, if not, can be provided to you by admissions staff. The documents give you a detailed breakdown of the module contents and you should use this to inform how you write about why the course interests you. The more specific you are, the more you show the reader that you have done your research and are a dedicated candidate.

Hannah Bartlett, Reader in Optometry at Aston University, says:
‘For a stand out application, demonstrate your knowledge of the subject area and, importantly, knowledge of potential research topics. Show an awareness of the department to which you are applying, i.e., what the key subjects and research areas are.’

4: Your wider experience is linked with outcomes

This is your opportunity to relate your subject to a future career, demonstrating that you have a goal or desired outcome from study. Discussing a placement year or work experience will put you in good stead, but don’t be afraid to draw on other experiences as well.

For example if you wish to study a masters in Financial Accounting, but have no relevant work experience or a directly applicable undergraduate degree, you might draw on self lead reading and research, as well as the story of why you are exploring a new field and what you hope to achieve by doing so. Sometimes the most unexpected applications make for the most compelling reading, which is good, because admissions staff will be processing thousands of them. Think about how you can position your experiences to differentiate yourself from other candidates.

Katie at NEOMA Business School says:
‘Talk about your interests, about what you have got involved in, about work experiences that you have enjoyed and taught you something. Share the things that have got you to where you are today.’

5: A well written and structured application

Being structured will help you deliver the right message with high impact. Follow this structure to write a compelling application.

  • Avoid passive, non descriptive or cliched language like ‘passionate’, ‘it has always been my dream to…’ or ‘I am a very dedicated student.’ Rather than saying these things, demonstrate them.
  • Open with a one line statement of intent. For example: ‘I am applying to study [course] at [University] because [reason]’
  • Back up your intent with something credible. For example, because the university has a great reputation for the subject you want to study. Be specific though, mention individuals, research centres and what the university is known for.
  • Tell the story of your interest in the field and the one thing that sparked it. Relate this experience to what the course offers, mentioning either the technical skills or knowledge you will gain from the course and why that matters. This is the most detailed part of your statement.
  • Refer back to the outcome in your statement of intent. Now unpack this, describing why this masters is an essential step in this career journey. The key is to demonstrate that your journey is already underway and you have thought things through.
  • Before you submit your application, make sure all your documents are attached. What the documents are will vary between institutions, but not including some details will significantly slow down the offer making process.

Isaac Masih, member of the communications team at Birmingham Medical School, says:
‘The key to your application is to show that you understand your area and combine this with your key strengths and experiences. Also, once you’ve got a draft, get feedback from mentors and academics. They may pick up on something obvious that you have missed.’

Choose the right postgraduate degree

Before making an application, check our guides on subjects and careers. Insights on where subjects lead will help you shape your application and make it more impactful.

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