Sunday, September 07, 2008

[archive] A Mature Student's View on Applying to do Graduate Studies at Oxford

Update January 2016

How quickly things have changed! Since I wrote this piece, access to the Internet has increased considerably and Oxford University has decided to adopt Tribal SITS:Vision. It means that my technical guidance notes are out of date (hence the related links, as originally given for the Embark system, are now broken). Instead, please refer to the present detailed information on applying to Oxford and note the new entry point for the application form. (How long will these arrangements last, I wonder... ?). Also please note that funding mechanisms may also have changed, particularly for AHRC.

However, the general principles for applications probably still hold.


I thought it might be helpful to prospective students who are returning to full time study to share my experiences of the application process I went through to undertake a Master's degree at Oxford. In March I submitted an application to do a 1 year Master of Studies in the Study of Religion - for which I've already jotted down some motivating reasons.

The first thing that struck me is how the process is geared up for having everything done online, through the Web, with backup support by e-mail - it's the online option that it listed at the top of the application forms gateway page. Even so I expect submitting a hard copy will remain an option for the foreseeable future because if you are an overseas student with very limited Internet access the online submission would present an additional, perhaps discriminatory, barrier.

The second major aspect is the level of detail - this is not something you can complete in a couple of hours. Fortunately, the online system does allow you to chip away and fill it the form section by section and it can carry out some basic checks on completeness. Some items require time set aside and/or planning ahead:

  • Transcripts - nowadays these expect many details
  • References - the application form asks for three
  • Sample essays and a statement of purpose - this is where you really make your case

I won't say much about general concerns when applying as the considerations are many, but I think it's worth working methodically through the various steps described in the application process. The deadlines and gathered fields are crucial - you have typically more than one slot (maximum 6) in which to submit your application, the selection of slots varying according to the degree programme. In my case, by the time I had made up my mind to submit an application I was left with the last slot with a March deadline.

I think I went through each of the steps, partly just to convince myself that I really did want to go through with this! Having absorbed as much as I thought necessary, I summoned up some enthusiasm and energy (you do need to get some up and running to fill out the forms), and proceeded to dive into the application process.

The online application process uses software called Embark, a third party system developed in the United States. This has a mild effect on the system in that e.g. the country of origin defaults its first choice to the U.S., but generally the system doesn't show any major idiosyncracies.

So now I'll recap on the major components of my application - as a prospective mature student, who hadn't been studying full time for about 10 years there was a lot of work to do!

  • Transcripts: The University naturally needs to know about your academic qualifications and there was space to enter basic details for all three of my previous institutions and degrees. However, in recent years greater details have been required and these are usually issued in transcripts; the form indicates that title of award and classification are usually not adequate - so just degree certificates don't suffice. The first degree is usually a Bachelor's, the one with the most details, but also the one furthest back in time - in my case I had to get in touch with admin staff in the Southampton University Maths Department and they were very helpful and able to furnish me with all details - every unit and mark from quite some time ago! For the M.Sc. (by research) at Glasgow, I obtained a copy of a surprisingly detailed transcript from Central Admin, though it cost me a few pounds; but for Kingston University I was only able to obtain a degree certificate plus a covering letter from the head of research in computing. It was a bit of a chore, but it did provide a nice opportunity to re-establish contact with a few people.
  • References: You are expected to submit academic references from three people who taught you. One reference from each of my degrees seemed sensible, but it was problematic because two people who would have been good choices had passed away! Fortunately, I was able to provide references from my main Ph.D. supervisor, an Oxford academic who had taught me quite recently and one of my lecturers at Southampton who actually remembered me (and hadn't yet retired).
    When I enquired about the problems obtaining references (and transcripts), the Graduate Admissions staff acknowledged this as a common situation and indicated that this would be taken into account, but the application form itself doesn't indicate much leeway.

  • Statement of Purpose: You can write a couple of pages on this, so there is a lot of scope for expression. I guess that many undergraduates can point to lectures and tutorials they've particularly enjoyed, projects they've worked on and so on, but having spent the last 10 years working in I.T. I had to draw inspiration from elsewhere. I wasn't really sure how to angle this. This is a taught degree, but is also preparation for further research, so I felt I had to speak to these possibilities. I emphasized my mixed faith background and went for an inter-disciplinary focus, able to point to various content that I've made available online, floating some research ideas, and acknowledging work already taking place in Oxford. A problem is that there are so many different directions in which this could be taken!
  • Sample essays: I expected these would be scrutinised carefully - Oxford degrees involve a lot of writing and the M.St. is no exception. Two are required and I thought about composing new ones, but I didn't have all that much time and realised that I could at least submit the one journal article that's in this field (a review of What Buddhists Believe by Elizabeth Harris) plus an essay that I had submitted previously to an Oxford academic.
  • C.V.: This is again an important aspect for mature students to demonstrate relevant prior knowledge and experience. Not having a degree in a literary subject, I tried to highlight my interfaith activities and projects for both the Theology and Oriental Studies Faculties.
  • College choice: You can put down a first and second choice. Not having had a college affiliation before, but really had missed as a University staff member, I spent some time mulling over which would be suitable. The selection of Colleges available varies depending upon the course - I didn't register this at first as initially I thought of Merton, which I have found a peaceful retreat from Saturday shopping crowds. With its interdisciplinary study groups it looked promising, but it was not available according to the list of programmes of study by college. So I had to find somewhere else and browsed a number of college Web sites. After a while, I reflected that a graduate college would be suitable (bit quieter, more people with similar backgrounds) and I looked for one that was centrally located. Quick quickly I settled on St. Cross, drawn by its good location in St. Giles, the descriptions of friendliness, its international composition, the ease of exchange with the Fellows and the general inter-disciplinary nature, plus the advertisement of good food! Further, my previous exchanges with members of the college were positive and proved to be a deciding factor.
  • Funding. Study is a major financial commitment - tuition fees alone for myself as a home student (covering University and college) amount to more than £5,000. I was unable to find anything suitable from the various funds available, so I expect to fund myself from savings. The AHRC has an award called the Research Preparation Master's Scheme but I was ineligible as I already held a doctorate. :-( Yet they are interested in inter-disciplinary approaches - e.g. they have funded inter-disciplinary research in Buddhist studies. Even so I think my situation is quite mild as I know one Asian student who sold her flat and car just to be able to come across to study.

Other sections required some standard personal details, accommodation needs (Oxford is expensive, even in College), interview dates (but I didn't actually have an interview and I'm not sure how much they are used for graduate programmes), language skills - you could roughly indicate your proficiency for up to 4 languages. There is a section for other admission tests and in fact I once sat the GRE, but the marking scales have changed since then so after initially attempting to fill in details I deleted what I had entered.

After paying the application fee, that was basically that. There was no news or requests for further information until about 2 months later when I was informed that my application was successful. :-)

I found the Embark system generally works well - it takes all your input and uploaded files and generates a single PDF document that probably gets passed from person to person as your application gets assessed stage by stage. However, some familiarity with I.T. is implicitly expected. It's not just a matter of being able to use Web forms and fill in boxes: a lot of supplementary materials need to be supplied, including transcripts. Some of this may not be available in electronic form, so will need to be scanned, and furthermore, there are limits on the file size uploads (2MB, I think), so the image files may need to be compressed, but in such a way that the text is still clear. Further, there are constraints on file formats - Word DOCS or PDFs preferred. It's quite a lot to assume and perhaps it would be useful to have a section on IT requirements on use (technical, in terms of system and skills typicall needed). In practice, there's usually a friend or relative who can lend a hand!


Khaled Essale said...

This is a great guiding piece, thanks Paul for sharing, being myself a none BA undergrad. I was really inspired by it, hope I'll be able to make it as you did 8 years ago.

Furthermore, I wish to call your kind attention to few external links that need updating, particularly the following:

1- Application forms gateway page.
2- Research Preparation Master's Scheme
3- Application process.
4- Research Preparation Master's Scheme
5- Inter-disciplinary research in Buddhist studies

Hope I was of some use


Paul Trafford said...

Dear Khaled,

Thank you for kindly reading the article and particularly for helpfully drawing my attention to the fact that it is already (very) out of date. I've inserted a new preface to explain the situation rather than rewrite some sections to reflect the new process. Hopefully, more recent graduates have written about their experiences with up-to-date references.

There are always opportunities for study!

Best wishes,