By Prachi Singhal
Prachi is a Chevening Scholar at SOAS, University of London, pursuing a Masters in Public Policy and Management with a focus on nudging active citizenship. An electrical engineering undergrad, she worked for 4 years in strengthening the tech entrepreneurial ecosystem in India, leading a few gender diversity accelerator programs before deciding to learn more about government structure and system change.
Applying for a Grad School can be a stressful experience. When I was applying last year, I had no prior background in the course I wanted to do and limited understanding of the whole process of applying for a foreign university. I scrapped the internet for information and connected with lots of friends of friends to get the required tips.
It was a lot of information for an OCD mind to comprehend. I spent half of my time worried that I am missing something and other half trying to make sense of my plans.
But all in all it worked out. I managed to reach SOAS, University of London on Chevening Scholarship.
Once I started school, I realised a few things which I should have done to make my applications better (maybe I would have then been able to crack Oxford!) and made my school life more seamless. These were those “Oh! Why did nobody told me this before/I paid attention to this before” late realisation thoughts.
So in spirit of paying it forward and a mark of respect to all the amazing people who helped me in my journey, without whom I couldn’t have made it, I am sharing my learning notes and the lists I used. These are from my personal experience and not from an expertise. I have no marketing/consultancy plan and this gesture is just for the good will.
While writing applications
- Browse through your target department website, read the module list of the course you are planning to apply for: Apart from giving you an exact realistic idea on what the course is going to be about, it will also help you pick up vocabulary and a narrow interest area to focus on in your application.
- Talk with people (whose opinion you respect) who believe that you really don’t need to go for this degree in today’s time. In trying to present and convince them (and yourself) that you are making a right decision, you will find a story convincing enough to put on your application.
- Your SOP is just your story. It has to be realistic, it has to connect the dots and like every story it needs to have a beginning , an end and some punch lines . Once you have put down the basic content, keep on revising it every few days to get a fresh outlook.
- It’s okay if you are applying for a degree with no prior experience and education in that field (I did it, many of my friends did it).
- There is too much confusion out there, too many portals, too many blogs, too many lists – don’t get bogged down by it. To know the universities, talk to recent alums (IMHO nothing better than that, lists are not that efficient and trustworthy). For scholarships one or two portals is more than enough (listed in the doc shared below).
For choosing University
Apart from the usual factors of reputation, class size, course structure, Professor’s profile and graduating student opportunities, you might want to factor in –
- Again look at the module list. Each University has a different module list for the same course, some offering more flexibility, some less in terms of the choices available. You don’t want to be shocked later.
- Assessment Structure. Each University follow it’s own assessment structure some having a presentation, a 3000 word essay and a written exam for each of the module while some having only essays or group presentation. Based on your preference and plans on how you want to spend your degree time, you might want to consider the assessment structure too. A 3000 word essay is time consuming, imagine it for 6- 8 modules.
- University Ideology and Culture. Typically every large old university is aligned towards a particular ideology and culture. Developed over time, it’s reflected in the teaching, activities happening on campus, alumni profile etc. Rarely visible on the official website; student blogs, Fb pages, Student body websites are a good place to gauge this culture and the latest happening of the Uni too.
Post Everything is sorted (Uni, Course, Success Party)
- Getting into reading 50 pages a day mode – Hard reality of a Social Science Degree. Your every day pre-class reading list will span 50-300 pages. And these are typically strenuous academic reading, so picking skill of skimming through reports and long reads will come handy. If you can get your hands on the reading list of your course either through an immediate senior (they hardly change) or asking your professor and start reading them beforehand, it will be super-efficient. That way you might be able to finish all your readings, which at least to me seems impossible otherwise. Also, the typical culture is self-study oriented, so habit of analysing data and drawing your own insights will help. No Professor will give a direct answer here.
- Brushing up your vocabulary and general knowledge – If you are not from a social science background reading and understanding about all things ending with ….ism (capitalism, neo-liberalism etc etc) would be a good start. These words are the bread-butter of every conversation. Also, brushing up geography (not knowing which part of the world your classmate is from gets bit awkward) and world news is a good thing.
- To avoid overwhelming, write down some of your plans and bucket list. They are most probably going to change but having something to go help with the FOMO and anxiety which hits in the first few weeks. In the initial days there is just so much to do, new places to explore, exciting events happening around every corner, new friends to make, module to choose etc that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Pre-planned mindset on few things like interest areas you want to focus on, open modules you want to audit, places you want to explore etc helps in getting you grounded. After one or two months once you are settled in, it becomes smooth and easy.
- Pre- subscribing yourself to newsletter of relevant communities, society newsletter, city event lists, meetup group etc helps you get yourself more familiar and aware with the new territory you are going in.
- Now that you are in and all the stress of applying and all is over, rethink on why you really want to do this degree and your expectations from it. The honest points, whatever they are. Maybe jot them down somewhere, it will come across as a very useful reminder.
Once you are there
- Be okay with knowing that the next one/two years of this degree are going to be confusing. More than anything, the degree will expand your horizon and conflict you with choices. Many times you will feel like it’s not working out. External Scenarios might change unexpected, and your plans may become worthless. It’s okay. At the end like all things, hopefully dots will connect and everything will align. I am writing this sitting in middle of a pandemic and after the worst civil unrest my home country has seen in a while with me having no clue of what to do next, but I am still hopeful that this degree will make sense and will serve its purpose in my life.
Wish you the best for your endeavour and hope you live the experience fully.
As a small COVID Relief initiative, I am setting aside 2 hours every day for a month to get on a call with any prospective student. The call can be to answer any specific query, offer reassurance, some fun info or general chat . At the end of the call, if you find it meaningful and would have generally given me a coffee treat, I will appreciate if you can contribute that amount towards the below COVID Relief fundraiser of mine or any other fundraiser of your choice. (voluntary).
You can schedule a call with me here – https://bit.ly/coffeewithcurrentstudent
My Scholarship Tracking and Packing list – https://bit.ly/ListandNotes
Fundraiser I am supporting – https://bit.ly/SaveOurHeroes, a women SHG’s mission to protect their community by making and distributing 40,000 masks to vulnerable groups.