By Paulina Guerrero Gutiérrez
KCL Mexican Society President 2014-17
This question gets asked a lot, so I decided to write a post about it. The process might seem a bit daunting at first, but once you break it down, it is not terribly complicated. Here is the series of steps you should follow.
The first step is to analyse your career objectives and decide what type of degree you want. The number of degrees in the UK varies greatly, so there will always be something tailored to your interests. However, looking for courses and comparing universities when you don’t know where to start can be a bit overwhelming, so you might want to use one or more of the following strategies:
A) Use an agent: There are people who make a living out of recruiting the best graduates from different countries and processing their applications. The best is that, since universities pay for them, you don’t have to pay a penny for their help. It is incredibly practical to apply with one, because they help you in every step, from looking for a degree to making your application. Many even help you to apply for visas once you’re already accepted. In Mexico, we strongly recommend the following:
- LoveUK is King’s official representative in Mexico, but they also deal with applications for a number of universities (25 at the time I am writing this post). They can help you look for a degree, apply for it, and apply for your visa.
- Across the Pond is an organization that works with 39 universities across the UK (not including King’s)
- GG Education Consultancy works with 7 partner universities and has Gérard Goulé, who is an excellent agent who can also support you in applying for a CONACyT scholarship.
B) Go to the Education UK Exhibition: Every year, the British Council hosts an exhibition where most universities will be present and have prospectus and other information available for you. It is a very good idea to go have a look and decide what university works better for you. In Mexico, this exhibition is usually in February and is hosted in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. In other countries, you can check dates and venues here.
C) Use league tables: The most recommended league table to analyse which universities are your best choice is the Times Higher Education league table. This ranks universities by region and by range of disciplines, so it is quite informative. Also, to check research outputs, you can go to the Times Higher Education REF (Research Excellence Framework) and check who is leading on research quality in the area of your interest.
D) Look up papers in your field: Do a quick search on paper on the areas that interest you that come from the UK. Which universities do they come from? Is there anyone you might be interested in working with? Which research groups are doing something interesting for you? Who are the editors of the journals you use more frequently? Where are they based? This might not interest you too much if you’re doing a Master Degree, but it is VITAL is you’re applying for a PhD.
E) Once you’ve done either (c) or (d), go to the university’s website and look up who is working in which department. See their research outputs and research interests. Is there anyone you would like to work with? Again, this is not too important for a Master degree, but if you’re applying to a PhD, this is VITAL to choose your supervisor.
Ok, so you’ve now narrowed it down to a few options. What comes next?
2. (PhD Only) Start e-mailing potential supervisors.
When you apply for a Master degree, the university usually assigns you a supervisor. However, since a PhD is a much longer course, and your supervisor’s guidance is one of the most important things to complete your degree, it is necessary that you contact your supervisor before even applying to university. You might be the best-ever student in the world, but if they don’t have space in their labs or they already have the maximum number of students, they won’t accept you anyway. Therefore, it is important to contact them before anything else happens.
In the first contact with your potential supervisor, you should already have a very good idea of the type of research that you want to do and either have a proposal ready or have a very clear idea in your head. Normally, you don’t send your proposal in the first email, but just say that you’re an international student, that you’ve come across their work, that you would find fascinating to work with them, and whether you can discuss the possibility of doing a PhD.
Many supervisors won’t read your email. Many won’t answer back. Some will answer politely telling you they have no space. Don’t get disappointed. This is normal. It happens to most people. The trick is to keep looking for a perfect fit.
3. (PhD Only) Write a proposal.
As opposed to a taught Master degree where you have classes and get to define your research interests for your dissertation after the first term, to get to the PhD you must have an idea of what you’re doing. Therefore, you should write a research proposal which you will discuss with your potential supervisor and present during the application.
Don’t worry too much about the proposal. Most proposals are 3 pages long, and they should more-less include the following:
- Small abstract beginning with “In this research, I propose to investigate…”
- Introduction, including basic context, the problem you’re trying to solve or “gap in current knowledge”, and a bit on why your proposed research is important
- Research questions
- Background (like a super-mini literature review)
- Proposed methodology
- A doable chronogram
Everyone understands your main proposal will change as you move through your PhD, so don’t think this has to be final. What they’re mostly evaluating is whether you are proposing something feasible under the time frame and whether it is an important, original piece of research. You should send this to your potential supervisor and discuss it in detail before applying. For more detail, check The PhD Application Handbook. It’s an excellent book that will guide you through all the process.
4. Get tested in your language skills.
In order to apply to your postgrad, you will need to present evidence that you will be able to follow your course in English. For this, you must either present the IELTS (academic) exam in any centre worldwide, or the Trinity College Exam, which is available only if you're already in the UK. Each university and each course have different language requirements, so check on your university’s website exactly what grades you need to apply. Notice that the TOEFL was accepted before, but since July 1, 2014, you can no longer use this to demonstrate English proficiency in the UK, unless your university website explicitly states the contrary.
If you don’t have time to present the IELTS before applying, don’t worry. YOU DON’T NEED TO PRESENT YOUR RESULTS IN THE FIRST STAGE OF THE APPLICATION. If you don’t submit your results, you can still apply, but the university will grant you a conditional acceptance letter, which will become an unconditional offer when you submit the rest of your stuff. This will let you move on with your paperwork sooner (some unis respond in hours and some in months).
If you present your exam and don’t meet the language requirement, you still have an alternative: all British universities offer pre-sessional English courses. If you attend them and pass your exams with them, they will consider the language requirement met and will give you your unconditional offer.
5. Translate your diploma and transcripts from your previous course.
When I say “translate” I don’t mean for you to translate them yourself (ah, if everything was that simple…). These translations have to be validated by your government. In Mexico, this means they have to be translated by a translator certified by the Supreme Court. You can leave a comment in this post if you want a recommendation, which we will email to you.
6. Decide who you want as a referee
Every application will need 2 or 3 people from your previous course to write a recommendation letter or reference for you. Most universities accept these in two ways: you can give the uni their email and let admissions people contact them, or you can scan the letters yourself. Whichever way you choose, ask the people beforehand whether they would act as your referee. Your choices should be based on who knows you best, regardless of their seniority.
7. Look for funding
Most opportunities for funding will be available to you when you already have your offer letter. However, there are some scholarships, especially those granted by the university itself, which you request during the application for the course itself. Therefore, you should be aware of any additional requirements before proceeding. If you want to come to King’s, you can look for funding available to you here. If you are applying to another university, then have a look in their webpage. You’re bound to find something.
BE AWARE THAT IF YOU WANT TO APPLY FOR UNIVERSITY FUNDING YOU HAVE TO APPLY EARLY SO PLAN AHEAD.
If you’re applying to King’s, then the application goes through their online application system. Other universities will have different systems. Many will be affiliated with UKPass. Filling the applications is usually pretty straightforward. However, we still suggest that you get an agent to help you with this, not because you can’t do it yourself, but because the agent is assigned to the application and can give you updates about what is going on with the application, giving you some peace of mind. In my personal experience, I applied to two universities through an agent and to one on my own. While the two I applied to through an agent answered in 1 day and 2 weeks, the other one took 2 months.
PhD Only: If you are applying to a PhD, the application process will also include an interview with your supervisor and another person. In this interview, they will ask you about your life plans, the reason why you want to do a PhD, your background, why you think you’ll make a good addition to the research group, why you chose your project and whether you have funding. Since at this stage you will have emailed with your supervisor constantly, you should not have too many problems here. Usually, they will give you an unofficial answer at the end of the interview.
8. Sit patiently and wait for an answer (gulp).
As I said before, it can take from one day to several months, so be patient. If you’re accepted, then yay! Keep reading.
This is the stage when you must finish submitting anything that you were missing before, because everything after this point needs an unconditional offer letter, which you won’t get until you submit every paper. When you get an offer and accept your place, you will also get a CAS (certificate of acceptance of studies), which you will need to apply for a visa. Some universities will ask you to make a deposit to give you the CAS, so be aware of this. Fortunately, this is NOT the case at King’s.
9. Apply for funding.
Each country has different schemes. I only have experience with Mexican funding, so feel free to skip this section if you’re from another nationality (sorry). If you are Mexican, you have three major options for funding: the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), the Chevening Scholarship, and the Bank of Mexico’s FIDERH (which is not an actual scholarship but a student loan). If you’re interested in the Chevening Scholarship, then read our excellent post about the process here. We will make separate posts on how to apply to CONACyT and the Bank of Mexico on a future occasion.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have other options, so look aggressively and constantly. You might find The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding particularly useful. To use it, you can get a login from the admissions department at the university you’re applying to. If you’re a prospective King’s student, then email firstname.lastname@example.org with your King's admissions ID number to get an access PIN.
10. (Non-EU students only) Apply for ATAS if your degree requires it
For some degrees, specifically those that could potentially teach you how to blow up things or make people sick, you need an “Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS)”. Basically, this means that you have to prove to the UK government that you’re not going to use the knowledge in your degree to become a terrorist. We will make a separate post with details on how to apply later on.
11. (Non-EU students only) Apply for a Tier 4 Student Visa.
Applying to a UK visa can be a pain, because they are incredibly picky about the documents you have to present. Be aware that this is (probably) the most delicate stage of the process. You can check the generalities of the process here.
Generally speaking, they will ask you to provide evidence of two things:
- That you’re a genuine student: this will include your CAS, your ATAS (if your degree requires it), all the supporting documents you gave to the university that made them offer you a place (diploma, transcripts, and their translation), as well as a proof that you have the required English level (this might come as an IELTS, TOEFL or a degree from a British university).
- That you have enough funds to pay for your degree and your stay in the UK without accessing public funds. This can come in the form of a sponsorship letter or proof of your own money. THIS IS THE MOST DIFFICULT STEP OF THE APPLICATION, so you can read our post about money here.
If you’re in Mexico, we strongly recommend going to LoveUK for advice on the matter. They are great and they leave your application ready to go.
12. (Non-EU students only) Wait patiently for your visa.
If you’re in Mexico, usually it takes around 3 weeks. If you pay priority service, it will be from 5-15 days. If you're already in the UK, and pay priority service, it will be 10 working days from the day of your interview. Otherwise, the normal service can take any time between 1-3 months, but we've heard of horror stories in which they took 6 months. If you're in another country, you can check visa processing times here.
If you have other questions about visas, check our FAQs.
13. Fly to the UK, enrol, and rejoice!
If you want some advice on how to find a place to live, read our post about it.
The three steps of coming to study in the UK will be to look for a suitable degree and apply, to then apply for funding, and to finally apply for a Tier 4 visa. The whole process usually takes around 6-10 months, so start preparing early. Remember, the earlier you apply, the happier and less stressed you will be!