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How to Apply to Grad Schools in Europe as an American

How to Apply to Grad Schools in Europe as an American

Growing up and going to college in the States, we're prepared and encouraged to follow a path that leads us to a grad school in the same country. And why shouldn’t it? In the process of streamlining the path, our universities here have made it a little more difficult to find information about completing a full degree abroad.

This is what I encountered when I began researching grad school in Europe. More than once, I felt frustrated with the utter lack of information my university had on the subject. I thankfully owe much of my knowledge to a mentor I had and her contacts in Europe.

Having now completed the process of applying to graduate schools on another continent, I want to share my advice with those of you thinking about doing grad school in Europe.

The Two Types of Master's Degrees in Europe

There are a couple of different types of Master's Degrees in Europe. A taught Master’s (MSc, MA) is a Master’s program during which you take courses and your degree culminates with a dissertation. Your completion of the degree is based on your course grades and your thesis.

As a way to attract more international students, universities are offering more and more English Master's courses.

A research Master’s (MPhil) is the same program, but based entirely on your dissertation. The advice I have should be roughly the same. However, in writing your statements about MPhil programs, you really should put emphasis on what professors you would want to be your advisors, and establishing contact with them before applying would be a big help.

*I applied to universities in the UK, Ireland, Germany, and the Erasmus Mundus taught Master’s programs, so most of my knowledge base is coming out of these.

Things to Consider While Researching Programs

Make sure the program a university has is what you want to do. If you really want to be at a certain university in a certain city or country but there isn’t a program that suits you or your interests, it may show in your application, and then it’s possible that application became a wasted effort.

It’s also possible your program that sounds really good is actually just too broad and generalized for what you want. Or, conversely, it might be too specialized for your interests at this point in time. In the same vein, take a look at the course list and the actual course content, and read up on the professor’s research interests to get a better sense of what your program offers.

When researching programs, try recording your findings in a spreadsheet to keep track of the opportunities you come across. If you're stuck, tap into your network of friends, family, and professors for contacts. Even after reading this guide, you may still need a point of contact to help you through the process and ask questions.

Can I Find a Master's Program in English in Europe?

Grad school in France

Yes! There are actually quite a few Master's programs taught in English -- even outside of the UK. Especially at the graduate level, coursework at European universities are frequently done in English, rather than the local language.

Fortunately and unfortunately, English is the lingua franca for many international businesses and organizations. As a way to attract more international students, universities are offering more and more English master’s courses.

When Do Grad School Programs Start in Europe? How Long are They?

For the most part, the Master’s programs start in September, though in some cases they will start in October (and I have a friend whose program started in January, so don't think you have to wait another year to start applying!). The standard European Master’s program is 2 years in length, but there are a few (I’m looking at you, Oxford) that are just 1 year, full time, and really don’t allow for opportunities to work on the side.

Some programs are actually 2 years part time, but only for EU students. Case in point with University College Dublin: I had to apply to the full-time version of the program because I was an international student.

A final consideration for timing is how the terms fall. Oxford has three main 8-week terms with two 6-week “break terms” separating them. Some German universities have two main terms, from October-February and March-July. It varies.

Country Term Start Average Program Length Other Notes
England September/October 1 year, full time Three 8-week terms and two 6-week "break terms"
Germany October 2 years, part time 2 terms: Oct-Mar and April-Sept; the last 1.5 months of each term are breaks (i.e. first term study only Oct-mid Feb)
France September/October 2 years, part time 2 terms: fall and spring; summer break June-September, with several breaks during school year (i.e. "midterm break")
Sweden August/September 2 years, full/part time 2 terms: fall and spring; summer break June-end August
Ireland September 1 year, full time 2 terms: fall and spring; summer break May-September
Spain September 1-2 years, full/part time 2 terms: fall and spring; summer break June-September
Netherlands September 1-2 years, full/part time 2 main terms; fall and spring, with summer break

The Grad School Application Process

In general, the application process for European Master’s is the same as in the U.S. You fill out an application, write a statement of motivation, have about two letters of reference, and possibly do an extra supplement if your specific program requires it.

Statement of Motivation

Your statement of motivation to study is your strongest point of your application, so you want to make sure you convey yourself as professional, determined, and guided. If you have someone -- preferably a professor or mentor -- who can review your statement, ask them. They can catch mistakes and give better clarity to your writing, even if you’ve read it a thousand times.

The following are tips my GSI (TA) / mentor gave me over the course of reviewing my application statements and should help guide you in writing.

Do
  • Highlight any involvement in the country's culture you've had and mention any prior international experience, especially if it was for study abroad.
  • Make sure to have topic sentences for paragraphs and an intro. Then, check for continuity and flow.
  • Make sure that the font used is at least 12 if using Times, maybe 11 if absolutely needed for space.
  • Remember that the take-home point for the admissions committee is not that you did these things, checklist-style. It’s what you took away from doing these things and how you performed. For example, “On the policy side, I gained an understanding of international approaches to forest sustainability by studying abroad in Copenhagen...” Tell them what it gave you, not just that you did it.
  • Tell them you believe you are a well-suited or well-qualified candidate, and then show them why. (i.e. avoid things like “I am definitely” or “I deserve” in favor of “I bring an excellent set of skills [and here they are]”)
  • Be specific in what you have achieved and what you still plan to achieve.
  • Be humble.
Don’t
  • Say the grad school to which you’re applying that they would be a “cap” to the undergraduate years. You want to make it known that they are a stepping stone for reaching what you want to achieve.

Letters of reference

First of all, some programs don’t ask for letters of reference at all. However, if letters are not required, but you do send them in (and they are positive), doesn't your application suddenly become much more appealing to the admissions committee and the graduate professors? Before you take initiative, though, ask. Contact someone at the university admissions and ask if you can include letters even though they are not required.

Deadlines

Another thing to focus on for European Master’s programs is the deadline -- especially if you have to submit everything via post since it'll take longer to send documents internationally. Also keep in mind time zone differences for both online and mail applications. There’s nothing worse than going to submit your application only to find out that it's late because of the time difference.

For the programs I applied to, the earliest deadline was late November / December to study the next fall, whereas the latest deadline was in June / July to begin studying that fall.

Here's a poignant example of this. I was applying to Oxford, and they wanted everything in by 12 noon BST on the 20th of January (online). I had everything ready to submit on the 19th, but I thought, let me wait until tomorrow and I’ll submit it in the morning so I’ll be ahead of the deadline. I didn’t realize that I had forgotten to do the conversion from BST to PST, woke up, and frantically tried sending in my application. I quickly found out my application had missed the early deadline and would be considered with the next round. Not fun.

Between the different universities and the varying scholarship deadlines, these are all over the place. For the programs I applied to, the earliest deadline was late November / December to study the next fall, whereas the latest deadline was in June / July to begin studying that fall. (My timeline for these applications would have started much earlier if I were pursuing a Fulbright grant.)

Another final piece of advice: if you're still in undergrad, start applying the summer before your senior year or plan to start applying after you graduate (with a potential gap in your studies).

Scholarships and finances

Grad school in Ireland

Usually the two-year programs will give you time to find work on the side or an internship of some sort with a local company, and your visa will support you doing this. However, this isn’t always an option.

To prepare, start looking at scholarships -- both through your grad school and outside providers -- when you begin the application process.

One of the most well-known options is the Fulbright grant. In order to be considered, you have to apply about a year in advance. If you want to study in Europe for the fall of 2018, the application has to be turned in by end of spring of 2017.

Other big scholarships include the Mitchell (Ireland), Marshall Scholarship (UK), Rhodes Scholarship (Oxford), and Gates Cambridge (Cambridge), which fully fund graduate study in their respective destinations. These are very competitive, however, and they are mostly done through campus scholarship committees at your undergraduate institution.

Some countries subsidize their education. For example, Germany has made all of their public universities free of tuition for all students, including international ones. What this means for you is that you can attend a university in Germany for two years for only around 5,000 EUR per year (around $7,000 - 8,000 for living costs, food, and student fees that usually include an all-inclusive transportation pass for the area), and you can work on the side.

Plus, if you find a German private university that still makes you pay tuition, you can apply for funding from the DAAD or the German Academic Exchange Service. In this case, grad school abroad is cheaper than at home.

Not all subsidies apply to international students, though. Sweden and Denmark, for example, subsidize their universities for citizens but for international students tuition is just as expensive as in the U.S. If the universities you’re looking into have two fees listed, oftentimes the one applicable to you is the higher one.

One of the perks, however, is that at an institution that offers a 1-year program, you'll be paying the same tuition as you would back home, but for one year instead of two. That automatically halves the total price of your program.

Visas

Some programs (e.g. Erasmus mundus) will help you have a visa turned into a residence permit to allow you to travel around Europe while doing your study. Others require you to have a normal visa for study, but it's important to look into the exact requirements of the visa.

If you want to stay in Europe and find work in your country once your study session is finished, you don’t want to pursue a visa that only gives you a leeway time of two weeks to get out the country unless you’re very certain you’ll have a job once you graduate.

In the UK (at least in 2016), you can study using a Tier 4 Student Visa, which gives you 4 months of leeway time to stay in the country before you have to leave (or change your visa if you find work). If you study in Dublin, though, you would have a visa that would allow you to remain in Ireland for 12 months after your study session ends. It can vary widely.

Visas can also have varying costs. Sometimes it’s minimal, other times it can be $500. It depends on the country.

Country Cost
England ~ $470
Spain $160
France $56 - $110
Ireland ~ $70
Germany $65-70
Netherlands ~ $360
Sweden $120

Erasmus Mundus

The Erasmus + / Erasmus Mundus / Erasmus Mundus Master’s Courses (EMMCs) programs are a godsend if what you want is a thoroughly European education with the opportunity to travel around Europe while doing your studies. These programs, all in English and funded by the European Commission, are two years in length and usually include an internship component where you work with a local company.

The Erasmus programs are built upon university consortia agreements, which translates to this: you choose a potential course track or stream for your program, and if granted, you would spend one year studying at one university and one year studying in another (usually in a different country).

For example, with the Sustainable Forest and Nature Management (SUFONAMA) Erasmus program, I had the choice to choose to study at University of Copenhagen (DK), University of Bangor (UK), University of Göttingen (DE), Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SE), or the University of Padua (IT).

For my course stream, I would have studied my first year at Copenhagen and my next year in Sweden based on how I chose my courses, since each university offers a different focus. Once I finished the taught portion of the program, I would have access to all the consortium universities PLUS the associate partners to do my thesis work, including Stellenbosch University of South Africa, Universidad de Austral de Chile, University of British Columbia in Canada, or University of Queensland in Australia. Pretty cool, right?

Each EMMC will have its own consortium and group of partner universities, so it’s best to explore your options. In general, it's better for you to get your application in earlier rather than later, though from what I’ve seen there isn’t a priority deadline like at other universities. There is, however, a pretty sizeable scholarship for international students.

When you apply, you either mark on your application “consider me for a Partner Country [outside the EU] scholarship” and/or “consider me as a fee-paying student”, which means you’ll cover the full cost yourself. Tuition for these programs -- or at least, the ones I applied to -- is set at about 8,000-9,000 EUR per year.

If you're given the Partner Country Scholarship, however, you basically get a full-ride. There is a total amount guaranteed for these scholarships, which for the 2016-2018 cycle was 48,000 EUR. I did a hypothetical calculation of living costs and tuition for one EMMC and found it came to about 35,000 EUR, so the scholarship more than covers any financial burden.

You can only apply to three EMMCs per year / application cycle. This is important. This is very important. If you apply to more than three, you will automatically be disqualified from all of them, if I remember correctly. They don’t take this lightly. In general, EMMCs are known throughout Europe as they are an EU-funded thing, but as to the extent of their reputation, I cannot comment sufficiently. I’ve spoken with a number of professionals and friends in Europe; some of them highly regard the programs, whereas others haven’t heard of them.

A Real-Life Example of What Applying to European Grad School Looks Like

Grad school in Norway

Starting in fall of 2015 to begin study in 2016, I had a plan of applying for a total of 8 programs but ended up only applying to 5 (on my own, not through a scholarship entity). These included:

I did so with the intention of studying and working in Europe after my studies ended, and I was more interested in a taught program than an MPhil. Most of these programs required me to send in physical copies of my application, and it took a while to get these all done.

Ultimately, Yale rejected me, but I was accepted to the rest (I didn’t end up applying to the German universities since their application phases were so late).

Dublin notified me of acceptance a week or so after I sent in my application in February and gave me until 20 June to decide. Oxford gave me two weeks, and the IMAE – EMMC program gave me a little less than a month (and another program never told me for sure because they were still waiting on scholarship confirmation).

I found out about IMAE and Oxford within a few days of each other, with the former giving me a full ride and the latter giving me nothing. This was a tough decision as it (seemingly) came down to name/prestige and money. The following week and a half was a nonstop analysis of the pros and cons of each, contacting several professors, friends, contacts -- you name it -- and trying to consolidate the different opinions. Ultimately, I chose to go with Oxford.

Additional Resources for Grad School in Europe

DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service): Your go-to for studying in Germany.

European Commission – Erasmus Mundus (EMMC): Gives you an overview of the Erasmus Mundus program, specifically with the Erasmus Mundus Master's Courses.

European Commission – Study in Europe: the general website that the European Commission has created to make international students interested in studying in Europe.

Fulbright Commission: the main website for the Fulbright grants application process. The application opens in early-mid spring for the next year's fall (e.g. open spring 2018 to study fall 2019).

Study in Denmark: gives you specific resources for Denmark

Study in Europe: this site is run by European Educational Promotional Services and you can get specific information on different countries' programs from one site instead of doing unending Google searches. To get full access, unfortunately you have to pay. The cheapest option is 3 months access for 30 EUR.

Study in France: this site does a really good job on introducing you to the process of applying to French universities (such as the different way you have to apply for a visa).

Study in Norway: just like the Study in Denmark page, but for Norway. Programs, living, studying, you name it, it's probably here.

Study in Sweden: Similar to the Study in Denmark and Norway sites, and just as full of information!

Working in Ireland: (an example of what to look for if you want to work while studying

ICOS is a complementary site that gives general information about working in Ireland.

Explore graduate programs abroad.

Although originally from southern CA Ian is currently pursuing a master's in environmental change at Oxford. While at UC Berkeley for undergrad, he studied abroad through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) in Copenhagen. On any day, you can find him wandering the streets of Oxford attempting to assimilate and not be an awkward tourist from the States.