Editor’s Note: The post was first published on 22nd October 2016; republished on 28th May 2019.
By Bharatendu Agarwal
Every year several law students across the country decide to pursue their post-graduation from a foreign university. Students belonging to different backgrounds form individual opinions during law school, thus, different motivations influence their choices.
Whatever be the motivation, the decision to pursue a Masters abroad is a major decision and is taken after a great deal of thought and discussion. Sadly, the troubles of an applicant don’t end here. In fact, for those who decide in the affirmative, plethora of challenges and impediments await. It’s like a Pandora’s box, better not opened!
That being said, every academic year candidates overcome obstacles and engage in the pursuit of fulfilling their aspirations. They do whatever needs to done and do it to the best of their abilities. They seek assistance from seniors, guidance from faculty and counsel from their peers.
Formalities like what needs to be done and how it needs to be done are usually figured out, as is mostly the case with law students, by indulging in the process first hand.
When the ordeal ends, most candidates are content with the outcome. Some, however, lament the lack of support and feel that they could have secured admission in a better university (or their most preferred university) if only they had a clearer picture of how to indulge in the application process.
This article aims to provide LL.M. aspirants with a frame of reference. A consolidated step-by-step guide so that one need not scamper around for each and everything. The application process is indeed gruelling; it can nonetheless, by following the steps listed, be carried out surgically.
Step 1 – Commencement
This first and foremost step towards pursuing an LL.M. is figuring out whether you want to:
i. study one subject/legal topic (i.e. do a specialization); or
ii. study in a specific university; or
iii. study in a particular country/geographical region.
Generally, candidates decide on the basis of ‘subject’ or ‘university’ because their decision to pursue a Masters is either fuelled by the desire to intricately familiarize themselves with the subject they plan to make their career in or by the keenness to study in a university for which they possess a predilection.
There might, however, be compelling reasons like – the presence of family or a hearty desire to explore (and immerse in the culture of) a country or part of the world – which guide the decision making process.
Candidates who are well informed and have the right guidance, in most cases, are specific not only about the subject they want to study but also the university they want to study it from.
Step 2 – Making an Exhaustive List of Universities and/or Programs Offered
It is essential to make an exhaustive list of universities and/or courses offered simply because there are a host of universities across the globe offering varied courses.
Consequently, it becomes practically impossible for anyone to be aware of them all. Indulging in list making, more often than not, leads to the discovery of few universities and courses of great repute which previously one might have been oblivious of.
The internet should be put to efficient use so as to ensure that there are no inadvertent omissions. Omissions can turn out to be extremely costly in the long run.
The way too proceed is as follows:
i. If you decided to specialize – Make an exhaustive list of universities across the globe which offer a specialized degree program in the subject/legal topic.
ii. If you choose a specific university – Make a list of the various degree programs offered by the chosen university.
iii. If you decided on a country/region – Make an exhaustive list of not only the universities located in the region but also the various degree programs offered.
The purpose of this step is to ensure that all bases are covered. This exercise will also reveal that work is concentrated for those who begin by choosing a specific university, while, for those who proceed on the basis of country/region, it is voluminous.
Step 3 – In-depth Research & Information Gathering
In this step, the agenda is to research and acquire maximum information possible about the university, the course and other related aspects.
To cut the long story short, the more one knows about all facets, the better it is. Being cognizant of the ins and outs of available alternatives allows better decision making i.e. making a decision based on facts rather than on assumptions or pre-conceived notions.
i. For specialization
After making the universities list, the next thing to do is check the ranking for each university. Check not only the national and international rankings but do so from multiple sources. It will be observed that different sources rank the same university at different levels.
The primary reason for this is that surveyors allot points on several varied criteria and hence the total score and final position, as always, is subject to a certain level of subjectivity.
This, however, should not lead to confusion. If, for example, one university is ranked at no. 5 in one survey and at no. 9 in another, it would be reasonable to gather that the university in question lies somewhere in the top 10.
However, if the same university is at no. 5 in one survey and at no. 35 in another, then one should probably be cautious about the university.
The right way to proceed would be to investigate why there is such a huge gap.
Checking rankings is a good starting step but it should never be the sole guiding principle because, with the advent of commercialization, universities paying surveyors a ‘token of appreciation’ in exchange of favourable rankings is not unheard of.
Other than rankings, the structure of the course offered also needs to be looked into – whether the curriculum is rigid or flexible (i.e. fixed from the onset or can be chosen and tailor-made), the subjects or modules being taught (also make a tab of what is being omitted), the faculty (both permanent and visiting) and their reputation. All this information can (and should strictly) be gathered from the official university website.
ii. For specific University
Out of the various degree programs offered by the chosen university what needs to be ascertained is, which program best suits your needs and interests. If there is no particular preference or inclination, either the most renowned course on offer or the one which has the best faculty should be chosen.
Though there is a high probability that either of the choices leads to the same course because courses are generally renowned essentially on account of critically acclaimed academicians or professors.
iii. For a specific country/region
A combined approach is required, all the steps mentioned above need to followed. Hence, first ranking of all the universities in the list needs to be checked. Further, the peculiarities of all the degree programs offered by each university needs to be examined.
In addition to researching on the internet, there is also a requirement of gathering first-hand information by engaging in conversation with friends, seniors or graduates who have done this research previously and are either pursuing or have pursued their Masters.
The inputs obtained from these sources carry high credibility and heed should be paid to them without failure.
The only word of caution here would be that the source(s) should be reliable, knowledgeable and most importantly related. (Meaning to say that seeking counsel from someone who has done/is doing his LL.M. in Human Rights Law about courses on Maritime Law will not really be of assistance.)
Often it happens that candidates do not know, or are not in touch with anyone, directly or indirectly, who can offer them advice.
This roadblock can be tackled as follows:
i. Write inquisitive e-mails to some faculty members in universities. Besides responding to concerns, they may also put you in touch with some current or former students;
ii. Use Facebook, LinkedIn or other social networking sites to find relevant people. Drop them e-mails or messages. Not all of them may reply but you will be pleasantly surprised by the genuine counsel offered by those who do choose to respond.
Even after thoroughly engaging in the above exercise, if information about any course/university comes out to be inadequate, then that course/university should be dropped from the list of options. Any doubts on the legitimacy of a course/university should not be brushed aside lightly.
Step 4 – Elimination & Final Shortlist
Following the above steps judiciously provides a strong knowledge base empowering one to separate the wheat from the chaff. The research and information gathered allows unhesitant elimination of a good number of courses/universities which do not merit application.
The remaining abridged list now will consist only of those courses/universities about which there is no doubt regarding the verity, veracity, reputation and prestige.
The next thing to do is make a final shortlist of five to eight universities. Some even limit themselves only to three.
The final count should always be restricted to a modest number because:
i. The LL.M. application is not a numbers game. Putting in a dozen applications doesn’t guarantee admission and even if it does, at the end of the day you can only study in one university.
ii. A solid application submitted in selected universities makes life easier when the decision-making stage arrives (Step 10). Being spoilt for choice, in this particular case, can lead to difficult situations which one should rather avoid.
iii. Higher the number of applications submitted, higher will be the costs involved.
Irrespective of the number of the final shortlist, choices should be high, medium and low target. What this means is that, in the final shortlist, a couple of universities should be those in which getting-in would be difficult i.e. top universities of the world which, depending on your profile, might be challenging to get an offer of admission form.
Next, a few universities should be such where the probability of getting in is on the higher side. Finally, there should be at-least one university which you are strongly confident about hearing from.
This is a safe and watertight approach which allows calculated gambling. Some candidates may, however, decide to skip the low target universities altogether.
One of the biggest hurdles faced in this shortlisting process is taking a call on dichotomies like ‘critically acclaimed course but moderately unheard of the university’ or ‘top-ranked university offering courses of moderate popularity’.
It is difficult to answer such question in categorical terms because everyone’s interests, preferences and goals differ.
Nevertheless, those who are looking to specialize should not hesitate in choosing ‘critically acclaimed course but moderately unheard of the university’ because the only reason the course in that university would have gained recognition is because academicians or professionals working in that sector recognize and value it.
As far as the ‘top-ranked university offering courses of moderate popularity’ situation is concerned, it would probably be more advantageous to opt for the general LL.M. there rather than a specific course because it would allow leveraging the university’s reputation without compartmentalizing one to a particular subject/sector.
Step 5 – Timelines & Deadlines
Immediately after making the final shortlist a note of when the application process for the shortlisted universities begin and end, along with how many rounds of applications it entertains should be prepared.
Keeping a tab on timelines is crucial because universities tend to have different admission cycles and the application period for some universities even ends before it commences for others.
Besides, having a well-defined time frame for reference facilitates proceeding structurally thereby ensuring that the application submitted is the best version.
Moving on to the next steps you will realize that getting all the documentation ready takes considerable time and effort. Therefore, keeping a sharp eye on deadlines allows being a step ahead.
Step 6 – Scholarships
Managing finances for a Masters is an integral part of the process and scholarships play a major role.
Scholarship research should begin soon after the final shortlisting is done.
Typically, scholarships are of three types – those offered by:
i. The university being applied to;
ii. The education council of the country in which the university being applied is located; and
iii. Trusts/foundations located in India or abroad.
Similar to university applications, scholarship applications have different deadlines. In fact, scholarship deadlines tend to be tighter and at times even pre-date university application deadlines.
Getting a scholarship can often be tougher than securing an admission because the awarding criteria can be need-based, merit-based or even a combination of both.
It is important to know that scholarships are of different types. They may cover, either individually or collectively, the cost of tuition, travel, accommodation and living expenses. As the monetary award of each scholarship varies, one scholarship might not necessarily cover adequately the expenses involved during the entire Masters.
It is hence encouraged that one should apply for all available scholarships and try to secure maximum financial cushion. Scholarships have the power to considerably boost the LL.M. experience by allowing aspirants to make decisions and explore opportunities free from monetary encumbrances.
Step 7 – Making the Application
All efforts prior to this step were merely groundwork because, all said and done, an admission is secured on the basis of the submitted application. A Masters application primarily consists of 4 elements viz. statement of purpose, letter(s) of recommendation, curriculum vitae and English language certification.
i. Statement of Purpose (SoP)
In Law, unlike other professions, the post-graduation screening process does not involve personal interviews. This means that the student’s candidature is significantly pivoted on the SoP. The quality of the SoP may, as they say, make or break a case.
Importance of the SoP cannot be emphasized enough. Precisely for this reason, no serious applicant can afford to casually embark on the SoP writing journey. Yes, that’s correct, writing a SoP is truly a journey.
Uninformed applicants commit the folly of making their SoP a detailed replica of their curriculum vitae (CV). This is absolutely suicidal. While it is true that SoPs have elements mentioned in the CV and vice versa, yet a SoP is much more and should cover aspects beyond the CV’s scope.
A good SoP is one that tells a story, one that tells YOUR story, a story that reveals who you are, what makes you who you are, which school of thought you belong to, how your experiences have influenced your choices, where you come from and where you plan to go.
All this along with what motivates you to study in that university, what inspires you about the subject which you have applied for, why you should be granted an admission, how will you contribute to the institution, how will the program benefit you, what your personal and professional goals are, how will an LL.M. compliment your aspirations and so on.
Sounds daunting, right? Well, it is. The most challenging aspect of drafting a SoP is encapsulating a myriad facets of one’s personality crisply in a limited number of pages or words.
The liberty to write whatever one thinks relevant and appropriate, rather than having a ‘question-answer’ format (as is often seen in scholarship applications), is tricky and can be an arduous task.
Demanding it may be, however, impossible it is not. Just like any moot court memo, it requires an investment of time, effort and multiple reviews. After making a rough draft, the candidate should ask dependable friends/seniors to review and comment on it. The SoP should be constantly edited and re-edited until the applicant is satisfied that it covers adequately all points of critical importance.
The key here is to start early and not wait until the last moment. One of the major reasons why deserving applicants fail to secure an admission offer from top universities is because of their inability to send in a solid SoP on account of either drafting the SoP nonchalantly or not being able to do justice with it due to approaching deadlines and lack of time.
ii. Letter(s) of Recommendation (LoR)
SoPs need to be supplemented along with LoRs. Normally universities seek two LoRs per candidate but some also ask for three. The purpose of the LoR is two-fold, it serves as an authentication of the contents of the SoP and CV, and also highlights, from a third persons point of view, the potential and promise a candidate possesses.
It is always beneficial to request LoRs from people who have seen you, or you have worked with, in different capacities.
For example, one may be requested from a professor and another from the university Vice-Chancellor OR one from a professor and another from the lawyer whom you have worked under significantly. As a matter of principle
LoRs should only be sought from those people who genuinely know you and have known you for a considerable amount of time. LoRs from heavy-weights whom one interned under merely for 4 weeks will serve no purpose. LL.M. application evaluators are seasoned personnel and they can easily spot a pseud LoR when they see one.
Those who are looking to specialize in a particular subject should request one LoR from the faculty who teaches that subject in college. It’s not only easy for the faculty to advocate for the student’s candidature in the LoR but also signifies that the teaching faculty finds the candidate’s interest in the subject keen enough to merit recommendation.
Seeking LoRs can be a painstaking process because, unlike a SoP which is purely in the applicant’s domain, LoRs have to be requested from others and involve considerable leg work. At times one is even unable to procure desired recommendations.
Other times those who recommend may take more time than anticipated and skew the timetable. Hence, here also, time is of essence and one should plan ahead so as to be prepared for all practically foreseeable contingencies.
iii. Curriculum Vitae (CV)
Ideally, a CV should be no longer than two pages. It should contain all the standard details like previous schooling, current marks/CGPA, participation in competitions/moots, internships, working experience, blog posts, research papers, academic publications, awards, scholarships, extra-curricular participation and honors.
If the CV is lengthy it should be cut short by picking the more noteworthy achievements over others. What constitutes a ‘noteworthy achievement’ also differs depending on the choice of subject/university.
A good CV is one that reflects decent academic performance coupled with a modest blend of co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Universities appreciate candidates who have more to offer than just academic excellence.
iv. English Language Certification
Depending on the university being applied to, candidates are required to furnish proof of proficiency in English language. TOEFL and IELTS are the two most widely accepted English language certifications. Generally, universities are flexible and are willing to accept scores from either one of the two.
While writing the TOEFL/IELTS is a requirement, it is not compulsory. Almost all universities, barring a few exceptions, allow candidates to apply for a ‘Certification Wavier’.
This usually requires filling in additional forms/applications and furnishing proof that one has previously acquired education in English. Some find this additional application filling a burden over and above the other mandatory applications hence they opt to sit for the TOEFL/IELTS.
Writing these exams, however, involves additional financial implications in addition to the university application costs. Accordingly, how one proceeds essentially boils down to personal preferences. Either ways, this is one aspect of the application process which has to be dealt with.
*In this stage scholarship applications should be simultaneously prepared along with university applications.
Step 8 – Applying
Once all the necessary documentation is sorted the next step naturally is to submit the application.
“What is the most conducive time to apply?” is a million-dollar question that applicants always ask.
It’s funny that while everyone knows that it is advised to apply as soon as the application process begins not many are able to do so on account of being unprepared. It is suggested to apply sooner rather than later because applications are usually screened on a first in – first out basis.
An early application not only gives the evaluators an impression that they are the first choice but also ensures that a student’s candidature is decided when the evaluators are fresh, against being comparatively fatigued after having gone through hundred other applications.
If one is unable to apply as soon as the application process commences, efforts should be made to ensure that the application can be submitted in the first round itself. Sooner the application is put in, the better it is.
While applying early has its benefits the application should never be rushed. Nothing is worse than putting in a half-baked application just because the deadline of the first round of applications is approaching.
As competition high and selection is restrictive, any application which is below ‘above average’ will definitely result in a negative response.
A strong application submitted relatively later in the selection process is unquestionably better than a weak application submitted early on. Once again it all boils done to planning and execution. You only get one shot per university, so make it large!
Another thing to be mindful of is that different universities have different application procedures. In some universities applications are to be put in directly, in others it needs to be sent to the country’s education council who will forward the application to the university (eg. Nordic Universities) elsewhere help of professional organizations may be required (like LSAC for American Universities).
Ideally, this should already have been figured out in Step 5. If not, a perusal should positively be done before completing the entire application because there are instances where additional documentation is required for purely administrative reasons. Realizing this at the end moment costs time and leads to unwanted frustration.
Everything here applies mutatis mutandis to scholarship applications. For need-based scholarships, one also needs to prepare a financial dossier which tends to take time more than expected.
Step 9 – The Waiting Game
“Good things come to those who wait!”
Patience is a key characteristic trait required not only while preparing applications but also after having submitted them. Admission/scholarship decisions easily take three to four months and can even, in some cases, take longer.
Most universities initially award a ‘condition offer’ i.e. an offer which is conditional to the candidate’s successful completion of undergraduate studies with the minimum prescribed marks.
Accepting a ‘conditional offer’ is merely an indication that, even after the passage of significant time, one is still interested to join the university. One is at liberty to accept several ‘conditional offers’ which are released by universities generally over a period of two to three weeks.
One should keep patience and wait for all universities to declare results and send in their offers before taking a final call on any ‘condition offer’.
Step 10 – Making the Final Decision
The last step of taking the final decision has the potential of being either the easiest or the most difficult step. It will be (relatively) easier for those who receive offers from two or three universities in comparison to those who get accepted in five to six. At this stage, one is bound to realize why earlier it was mentioned that being spoilt for choice can be an issue!
At this point in time, one needs to take a few steps back and draw upon Steps 3 and 4. Reassessment of the preliminary research and information and the reasons why the shortlisted universities were chosen in the first place is required to be done. Decision making will require judicious analyses of available choices.
Evaluation and comparison of several (old and new) factors like reputation of universities, reputation of courses, importance of country with respect to course, career prospects, safety, lifestyle, food, culture, weather, living costs of respective countries and tuition fee of each university will need to be performed.
There are times, however, when one tends not to make the decision complex and rather simply chooses the option which is closer to his/her heart. There’s no harm in this, provided Steps 3 and 4 were followed pedagogically.
Something which applicants is unaware of is that some universities provide the option of deferring the admission for one year (or even two years, very rarely though). What this means is that one can choose to go for studies in the next academic year without going through the application process all over again.
Candidates may choose to defer their admission for several reasons such as financial constraints, wanting to take a break from studies and desire to work for a year or for simply keeping their options open.
Academically oriented master planners even go to the extent of pursuing a general LL.M and deferring the specialized one only to pursue it on completion of the general LL.M. End result, they become double masters while having gone through the tribulation of the application process only once!
Deciding to pursue a Masters is an important decision and has far-reaching, short and long term, implications. Applying for it requires significant time, money, energy, resources and planning. Not knowing where to begin scares and even deters many applicants.
This article seeks to remedy the lack of availability of any accumulated didactic source online and is a first step towards empowering applicants to methodically go about the application process.
Bharatendu Agarwal is an Admission Consultant who graduated from NLU, Jodhpur in 2013 and went on to pursue the prestigious ICAL Programme from Stockholm University, Sweden. A brief profile is available HERE.
While he provides professional assistance to LL.M. aspirants, with the current series of articles he intends to empower applicants to be able to go about the process independently.