Make your postgraduate application count

Although the interview process may be less formal, applicants for postgraduate courses still need to be prepared. Here are some tips for tipping the balance in your favour


When unemployment figures soared in 2008, many graduates turned to fourth level as a place to wait out the slump and give themselves the edge post-graduation. As a result, the sector became more competitive, especially in business-related disciplines. Applying for a postgraduate course can be a lot like applying for a job, especially when there are limited places, says Angela Collins, Head of Careers with Waterford Institute of Technology, who delivers seminars on the subject.

“Academic interviews can be less formal than job interviews, more like a relaxed chat, but you might get some target questions on your subject area, so you need to be prepared,” says Collins.

“Interviews for vocational courses are likely to be more formal than interviews for research.

“There are many similarities to job interviews such as the need to prepare well, to show enthusiasm and to ask appropriate questions.

“You may just be asked questions as you are shown round the department. Remember that academics may not be trained interviewers, so be aware that you may occasionally have to take the initiative.”

In other cases graduates won’t even be interviewed, just given an offer on the basis of the application and references.

“Academic references are likely to be even more important than for job interviews, so choose your referees carefully,” says Collins.

“It is both wise and polite to brief your referee on your application and to notify them of any particular aspects of your background you think they should know about.”

Do you need to show up in a suit and tie? Smart casual dress is usually acceptable for academic interviews, according to Collins, but business studies departments might expect more formality than art and design departments.

For vocational courses such as teaching, you will probably be expected to dress in exactly the same way as for a job interview. “Interviews for research are likely to require less formal dress, but dress smartly if in doubt – you will never prejudice your chances by doing this,” she says.

The most important element to consider is whether or not the course you are going for is really the right course for you. If it is, your application, interview and personal statement will show that.

“One thing I always say to students: if you think there are no jobs out there and start applying for a postgrad course without really thinking it through, you might be bright or accomplished enough to get on to the course but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. It needs to be part of a career plan: Is it going to enhance your job prospects? Are you fully aware of what’s involved and are you interested in the programme material?

“Passion and interest will get you through when it’s challenging, and postgraduate study can be a lot more demanding than undergraduate study. Choosing the wrong postgraduate programme for the wrong reasons can be a soul destroying experience. So ask yourself: why am I doing this?”

Personal Statements/Statements of Intent
These are declarations of your motivation for choosing the postgraduate programme in question and are used by course directors to help select applicants, to decide who to invite for interview and to guide them in the sort of questions they might ask at interview.

In cases where an applicant is on the borderline based on academic performance or experience, the Personal Statement may be the deciding factor, so it’s important to get it right.

The statement should usually take up one side of an A4 page.

Some application forms give precise topics to cover on the form itself or in guidance notes, while others will give a general statement such as,“please use this space to support your application”.

Overall, it’s important to remember that the statement is not an autobiography and should be concise, says Collins. “Every sentence is important and should convince the reader that you have the academic ability, skills and attributes to complete the programme successfully.”

The statement should address:

n Why are you interested in the particular subject of study?

n What makes you suitable for the course for example skills and relevant knowledge/ experience ?

n Why have you applied to this department and college ?

n What are your strengths ?

n What is your career aim?

When course directors read Personal Statements, says Collins, they are looking for:

n A well-rounded personality

n A well-presented statement (take pride in it)

n A well-written statement

n Relevant work experience

n Evidence of transferable skills/competencies/key skills such as teamwork

n Anything distinctive about your degree results

n Evidence that you are a hard worker


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