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How-to Guides

How to make a good impression

Dr Matthew Williams, Jesus College's Access Fellow, offers his advice for making a powerful impression with your postgraduate application.

A great application might start a long time before you’re ready to submit — even before you choose where you want to apply.

Dr Matthew Williams, Politics and International Relations academic and Jesus College’s Access Fellow, offers his own advice on where to start:

Find good mentors and referees

“Academia is sometimes seen as an individual discipline in which you have to be a lone genius, coming up with brand new ideas by yourself. Actually, that’s never been true and it’s decreasingly the case now.

Academia is highly collaborative. Success, as in many other professions, is not just about what you know personally, but also about forming successful relationships and joining networks of people working to similar goals.

Think about the people at your undergraduate university, as well as at Oxford or other postgraduate institutions you’re interested in, that you can make connections with.

From mentor to referee

At Oxford, we ask for references when you apply for postgraduate courses. These are important, so make good relationships with people at your undergraduate institution as these will be very useful to you when you come to apply.

What we often get in reference letters are generic proclamations — for example, that a student came in the top 50 per cent of students in their cohort. This is good, but we want something more to help your application stand out.

Sometimes applicants might not have a perfect academic transcript, which isn’t the end of the world provided that your mentors can vouch for you and your potential to study a postgraduate degree and make this clear in their reference letter in specific terms.

A good mentor will recognise whether you are exceptionally well-suited for a postgraduate course or an independent research project, over a more broad-ranging and exam-based undergraduate degree.

There can be many good reasons why an undergraduate degree doesn’t work out perfectly. Sometimes life gets in the way — perhaps you were very ill during your degree, or you might have had some sort of personal difficulties, such as a bereavement. A mentor who knows you would be able to see beyond that.

From mentor to supervisor

Reach out to possible mentors who might become your advisor or supervisor at the institutions you’re applying to. They are usually very happy to receive correspondence by email and talk to you about a prospective research project.

I would highly recommend you do this, because then you put yourself onto their radars. As academia is collaborative and team-based, it can make a difference to how successful your application will be.

Students from under-represented backgrounds can apply to our UNIQ+ Research Internships for mentoring from Oxford’s academic staff and DPhil/PhD students — check the UNIQ+ website for details of future admissions rounds.

Be clear what is unique about you

Whilst you will be working in teams and developing new knowledge collectively with a community of scholars, you still need to explain what your added value to that team is going to be.

What often happens in research proposals is that applicants express far too much about the way the discipline is currently, rather than explaining what they would like to do about it. In other words, we get very good, highly detailed literature reviews effectively explaining what certain authors and what certain researchers are doing, but overall we’re not getting a very clear sense of what you would like to do.

In your proposal, you need to make it absolutely clear what envelopes you intend to push, what boundaries you’re going to be shoving against.

There are many ways you can add value to an academic discipline. You can improve on concepts — for example, I’m a political scientist, I might express distaste with the concept of democracy and autocracy as a sort of spectral conceptualisation of regime types.

You can also add value theoretically, and that’s perhaps the most common way that people want to push things forward — to change the stories we tell, in order to solve intellectual puzzles.

Then, it’s important to stress what methodological value you might add, so what techniques and data sets you might use that might be slightly different to what’s already out there.

Understand the marketplace of ideas

You need to know the strengths and weaknesses of the academic market. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to talk about academia as a marketplace of ideas. It’s perhaps a slightly tortured and overused metaphor, but it’s quite a useful way of thinking about things. In other words, there’s a demand for and supply of intellectual materials, theories, methods, data sets and solutions to intractable problems, and what you are going to try and do in your application is explain what your product is for that marketplace.

What is it that you’re adding that the marketplace doesn’t currently have?

Perhaps this is some conceptual nuance, some theoretical improvement, some new methods, or some new data sets.

It is a very good idea to not only look at your discipline and know it inside out, so that you can clearly see where you can add some value to that marketplace, but also to look at other disciplines — not just cognate disciplines similar to yours, but others that are totally removed from it.

One of the ways that I found to add some value to political science was to look at what’s going on in computer science and in the world of literature. Ultimately I realised that my interest was in language, and how politicians use language.

Computer scientists have been analysing this with natural language processing, and of course scholars of literature have been analysing language through critical thinking and studies for centuries. Literature, computer science and political science could all be brought together to help me ask new questions and come up with some unique theories, methods and data. I was able to offer something that many people didn’t even know they needed, and that sort of thinking can be very helpful.

It’s also quite refreshing and interesting for you to read some of the latest research in disciplines beyond your own, which are not connected to what you’ve been studying and not what you’ve been used to. It can help refresh your thinking and give you some new ideas.

Consider your options

If you’re only thinking of applying to Oxford, you won’t necessarily understand the marketplace. Oxford is a great university for postgraduate degrees but there are, of course, many such great institutions around the world.

Assessors are looking to admit people who are serious about their subject. These are usually people who are not just going to focus solely on Oxford, but they’re going to be looking at institutions that are similarly strong in their particular field. Make sure you know which institutions those are, understand their course offerings and consider applying to them as well.

Empathise with the assessors

Assessors (or ‘admissions tutors’) have to deal with lots and lots of applications, usually around January and February time. They do the analysis of those applications on top of all their other day-to-day academic work, so they will be looking for people to share their proposals in as efficient and impactful a way as possible.

When you write your research proposal, be clear about what you’re bringing to the marketplace of ideas in the first few lines — don’t spend too much time contextualising and reviewing the literature, because you’re only telling the assessors what they already know about the state of the discipline. They want to know what your idea is, what you’re going to add, what the innovation is that’s going to bring this corner of the academic ‘marketplace’ to life.

In explaining how your work will contribute you certainly do need to explain what the literature is currently doing, but you must emphasise what you’re bringing to the marketplace and that should be at the very start of your proposal.

Set your stall out in the first few lines, and don’t mess around — the people reading your applications may be fatigued, so hold their hand and explain clearly why they want you on this course and what value you intend to add. Think about how to sell your ideas.

Don’t say no to yourself

It’s common when applying for postgraduate degrees to think of reasons not to apply, to think of reasons not to engage in certain opportunities and take on certain new ideas.

Spread your net as far and wide as possible. Be ambitious — consider applying to Oxford, to Cambridge, to MIT, to Stanford, wherever is the best place for your degree.

If a mentor asks you if you would like to go to a conference or chat about a particular part of a book, say yes whenever you can. Build your network and experiences, and take opportunities wherever you find them.

Apart from highly accomplished individuals with regards to their academic abilities, we’re looking for highly motivated people. You can start to hone in on that in your undergraduate studies — go and experience what the discipline is up to, in as many ways as you can.

There is a lot going on which will be able to stretch you and enhance your abilities as a prospective postgraduate even before you’ve even started a postgraduate degree, so when you find those opportunities, go ahead and seize them. 

Best wishes for any application you’re due to make, and I hope to meet you one day soon.”