The preceding warning to this guide is that there is no right or wrong way of choosing a master degree. If a factor is essential to you, regardless of how foolish it may seem to others, it’s worth taking into account. However, there are several common factors that will impact on almost everyone during their master education, and you will be ill-advised to ignore them. Here are the fundamental factors you should consider when choosing a master’s school.

Money
How much? Some masters degrees are very expensive, and others are cheap. It’s hard to generalize, but the minimum amount that you are likely to spend on fees is about $4500. This can rise dramatically, especially for MBAs and finance related courses.

Funding: If money is an issue, finding out which departments have student financial aid available is a priority. You can also solve this by considering universities in locations where cost of living is low. For instance, living in New York or London will take more from your pocket for food, transport, and rent than living in let’s say Arkansas or Texas. However, there are cheaper estates in every city if you are ready to make compromises.

The University
• Facilities: Does the surrounding estates or the university offer certain facilities you might need, academic or otherwise; supermarkets, computer labs, bars or good gyms.

• Libraries and other resources: If you are a linguist, literature or art and humanities specialist, library resources will be vital – Ask: Does the university offer a wide range of specialist texts? Are the online journals programs good? Similarly, if you are a science student, ensuring that labs are up-to-date and well equipped is something you cannot ignore.

• Housing: Most universities in the US do not offer specialist accommodation for postgraduates, and this means you will have to search for a house in the private sector. If you will be in the University for one year, this option may not look attractive, and it would be wise to consider the housing facilities offered by the university. Alternatively, you can consider enrolling for a masters degree in a university that is within a driving distance from your home.

The Course
• Compulsory Modules: Are they in accordance with the topic you have selected? If not, will they give you any value – maybe teach you something you do not know but you are interested in. Compulsory modules in most cases are, usually, quite generic. It’s worth checking that they do not simply replicate topics you have covered as an undergraduate.

• Optional modules: Established departments can provide a vast variety of optional modules, whereas some departments are more restrictive. If you have settled for a highly specialized master degree, then ensuring that the department offers study in the area is essential to your enjoyment of the course.

• Accreditation. If you will require professional accreditation, check with the relevant body that your course will meet these requirements.

The Department
Departmental strength: Note that in most cases, Universities rankings are based on their undergraduate strength, not their postgraduate capabilities. Probably a better gauge to use is the recent RAE results since they rank based on research quality that is very likely to be a significant element at postgraduate level. Further, some information provided in undergraduate league tables can also be useful; for instance, the staff/student ratio is a good indication of how likely you are to have time with a lecturer.

Narrowing down your choices

The easiest way to come up with a shortlist is to find out which universities offer your course. If you have opted for a generic MSc/MA, these may be loads, but if you have settled for a more specialized course, this may be a materially limiting factor.

One filtering criterion you can use is to consider courses that are accredited by relevant bodies – either professional bodies or a funding council especially if certification or financial aid may be important to you in the future.

The next step should be to evaluate the factors we discussed above. Is there anything that is vital for your stay in the university, or are there things you are really not bothered about? Ranking vital factor and then striking out unsuitable universities can dramatically reduce the shortlist. At this stage, you may have to make compromises but this is usually not a big problem. Limit your list to 5-6 universities.

The next step should be to visit them. Many people do not, but if you are going to spend one year in a place, then it is pretty foolish not to. A lot of people recount a tale about pitching up a university they thought they would love only to figure out later that they hated the vibe; one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and going through TSR guides about universities can never be a substitute for visiting them.

This is particularly so at the master’s education level since some universities frankly treat master’s students as cash-cows.

General Application Tips and Advice
Start early: Commence analyzing universities you are interested in joining 9 months-1 years prior to making your application. This will allow you adequate time to research, apply, and take any standardized tests that may be needed. It also allows you to search for the needed references.

Stay organized: Postgraduate applications normally involve a couple of components – references, PS, transcripts, etc. – and if any of them is lacking, the universities you are willing to join cannot consider your application.

Further, ensure you give your references sufficient time to write your letter – at least 3 weeks before you need it, ideally more. People have their businesses and it’s mean to expect them to drop all they are going to write you an urgent letter. Make sure they understand your goal and the course you are applying to. It’s good to give them copies of your CV and PS so that they have something to refer to.

Don’t make Assumptions: If you are not sure about something, contact the admission department and confirm. Also make sure to double check your application; requirements can be confusing, and if you don’t meet them, the university may not be able to consider you.

You will most likely be required to mail your initial application. Ensure you allow adequate time for delivery and confirm with the admission that all components were received in time – things can go wrong with the mail. If you do not hear from them, do not assume all is well.

Lastly, make your master application early; you do not want you time and hard work to go to waste just because all the openings have been filled.

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