Oxford Lecturer Joins Accepted: Welcome, Dr. Sundas Ali [Episode 574]

By - May 7, 05:00 AM Comments [0]

Show Summary

Dr. Sundas Ali, a former Lecturer at the University of Oxford and now an admissions consultant at Accepted, discusses the differences between graduate school admissions in the UK and the US. She explains that while there are some similarities in the application process, such as the importance of personal statements in both countries,there are also several differences. Dr. Ali emphasizes the importance of tailoring personal statements and resumes to each program and university, as well as the significance of strong recommendations from professors. She also advises applicants to start early, do thorough research on the programs they are interested in, and proofread their application materials carefully to avoid common mistakes. Dr. Ali shares her own experience of overcoming challenges and pursuing her dream of studying at Oxford University.

Show Notes

Welcome to the 574th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. The challenge at the heart of admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions“, will show you how to do both. Master this paradox and you’re well on your way to acceptance. You can download this free guide at accepted.com/fiso.

It is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Sundas Ali to Admissions Straight Talk. Originally from Pakistan, Sundas received both a BS in Economics and Econometrics and an MSc in International Relations from the University of Bristol in the UK and then a PhD in Sociology from the University of Oxford. She worked for several years at the UK Civil Service and, since 2013, served as a Lecturer at the University of Oxford. While at Oxford, she was involved in Oxford’s prestigious PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) admission process. She has also been involved in teaching high school and college students in rural areas of Pakistan through online platforms as well as guiding them through the college admissions process. At Accepted, Sundas will be working primarily with college and graduate school applicants. The show today will focus on graduate school admissions as always. 

Sundas, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk and Accepted. [2:12]

Thank you, Linda. It’s a pleasure to be on this podcast today, and I’m absolutely delighted to be a part of the team at Accepted.

I’m delighted to have you both as a part of the team and on the podcast. At Oxford, you worked with students both at Oxford and outside of it who wanted to attend UK graduate programs. Is there some quality or element of the admissions process that is unique to UK universities or to Oxford? Something that non-UK applicants need to adjust to? [2:23]

Yes. Having worked with students for over 15 years at Oxford and those outside wanting to apply to the UK, US, and the rest of the world, I think what’s distinct about the UK is quite similar to other countries when it comes to graduate applications. If we were looking at college, that’s quite a difference between the US and the UK. But I find that actually for graduate programs, there’s quite a lot of similarity. For example, the personal statement, the academic statement of personal statement, which is very important when applying for graduate study in the UK. And it’s similarly very important when you’re applying to the US.

So there are a lot of similarities across the board when it comes to graduate study. The degree programs vary. So we have different degree structures in the UK, so you have an MRes, for example, which is a research degree and different types of degrees to the US perhaps, which maybe there are two different types of graduate programs when it comes to masters. But specifically thinking about Oxford and Cambridge, what’s quite different is that when you’re applying to Oxford and Cambridge, you are applying to not just a department, but also a college. So that’s quite a big difference, which my US students who are applying to Oxford had to get used to like, “What is this? We’re applying to a department, but also a college. What does that mean?”

So for example, if you’re applying for a master’s in social policy, so you’d be applying to the social policy department, that’s where your application for that MSc would go. But then you would also be selecting a college on your application, and you can choose a college out of the colleges that are available or you will be randomly allocated a college. And the college essentially is your home. That’s where your lodging is, that’s where you live. You will also have tutors and fellows there. So it’s a very academic environment, and you will be attending seminars and some graduate colleges in Oxford. I was at Nuffield myself and we had about three, four seminars every week. One on politics, sociology, media, economics.

So the environment is very academic, but your main academic learning, like your lectures, that happens in the department. So that’s where you would be going for your lectures and your classes, but you’d be living in the college. But both are trained to develop you and to benefit you academically. So it’s a dual system in Oxford. So I think that’s probably what US students would have to, would find new when applying to Oxford or Cambridge. But with other universities, I think it is a very academic environment, and we can talk a bit more about that.

If I get it correctly, the colleges have a social/communal aspect to them in addition to perhaps a certain academic focus, whereas the departments are strictly, like you say, your classes, your lectures, etc. [5:34]

Yes, exactly. But it also means it’s perhaps a little bit more expensive if you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge because you have a college fee and you also have a department fee. So this is another sort of a surprise when you apply to Oxford or Cambridge, “Oh, there’s more money involved.” But you may be eligible for scholarships or bursaries. So it’s understanding, because some students ask what’s the purpose of having two, but actually the system works really well. You get a lot out of your college and the interaction that you have, for example, when you’re having lunch or dinner or going to high table, you’re meeting fellows, you’re meeting alumni, you’re meeting, and then they have, you can go to different colleges for dinner. So there’s a lot of learning that happens quite informally over the table when you’re discussing research papers and ideas. So I think that’s, and I found that very fruitful when I was doing my research there.

Conversely, if you’re applying to US graduate programs from the UK specifically, is there something that internationals need to have explained to them? What would be different? [6:44]

So let’s look at it culturally first. I think overall what I found when looking at different universities in the UK and the US, I think the UK overall has quite, like I was saying earlier, an academic approach, quite a formal approach. And there’s more emphasis, for example, if you are applying for a graduate program or a PhD, the modules that you studied, what were your marks in those? So it’s more academic, the requirements, but when you’re applying to the US, and I explained this to my UK students, there’s also the extracurricular activities, the work experience, which is also quite important for US colleges. Whereas I think in the UK that’s not in the same way. But I think if you’re applying to the top US universities, you would be required to prove some work experience also. So I think as well as your statement of purpose, your work experience matters a lot.

But also then the standardized testing, so the GRE, the GMAT, that’s something for UK students that takes them some time to understand. So, where do they stand? If they have a 2:1, what does that translate into a GPA, is that 3.5 or 3.7, et cetera? So getting used to the idea of a GPA and how they stand in that. So measuring themselves in those metrics, but also accumulating that work experience. And then of course, the other things are quite similar, the recommendations, that both countries require good recommendations and transcripts, etc. But it’s the difference between there’s more work experience which the US universities look for in their applications.

In the academic arena, like for example sociology, political science, or masters of public policy, are internships adequate? Or is full-time work experience important? [9:12]

I think internships are adequate. It is just demonstrating on your CV, on your resume why you want to apply for that graduate program. What’s the motivation, what is your incentive? And I think that helps your application. So it’s not a requirement, but I think it’s just the culture of US universities, that they do like to see more than just your academic marks. So the internships, have you done something relevant in two or three years while you were doing your undergraduate? Have you perhaps worked with a professor at your university while you were doing your undergrad? Have you co-authored a paper or thought about the process of research?

So demonstrating some extra, more than just your marks that you’ve received. So internships, yes, absolutely, it is just proving what your motivation is. When you’re applying for a graduate program, you have to prove why you want to take that one step further into higher education. It shouldn’t be just that, “I don’t know what else to do”, or “I don’t want to work in the real world yet.” And a lot of students say this, they say that, “I just don’t want to go into the real world yet. It’s too scary, or three years just ended before I knew it, and I just want to keep on studying more.”

What universities want to see, and that’s the UK, US, Europe, everywhere, what they want to see is why that extra year or two years now? So you do have to show that motivation, and that should come across. And the more practical experience you have to prove that the better.

It’s pretty hard to write a statement of purpose if you don’t have a purpose. That’s just kind of the bottom line. Now, let’s say you have that purpose, you have a good reason for wanting to pursue graduate study. Let’s assume it’s an academic master’s or a PhD. How do you recommend that applicants decide where to apply? [11:03]

I find that a lot of the applicants who I’ve worked with actually already have a good idea of the four or five schools that they have in mind. And they’ve already thought about it, but sometimes it’s the subject. So they’re very sure that this is the subject I want to do, for example, I want to do anthropology, or I want to do sociology, or I want to do economics. And I always tell them to start thinking about it quite in advance. Think first of all of the schools. If you’re not sure about your subject, let’s research and let’s have a look at four or five universities and their ranking. What is their research culture like? Speak to current students in that university. So as much research you can do beforehand. So investigative research to make your decision firm. And because that will then come across in your statement of purpose or your personal statement.

So I always say, think about the subject and think about your four or five universities that you have, and I can work with them on that usually. But I think these days, the students are very digitally capable and I think students do that research and the more, it is a full-time job applying for a master’s or a PhD, and a PhD becomes even more specialized. So you really have to think about your research question and spend some time developing your research proposal.

I remember when I was applying for my PhD, I spent about a week. I took a book out from a library on research methods, and I sat down and thought about, “What are the four or five interesting topics that I would like to research on for four or five years?” And it is not an easy thing, because it has to be a topic that you’re very passionate about. And then I looked at research methods and I studied that and I wrote a research proposal, a draft one, and then I emailed it to a few academics in different universities. And then I got a response from a couple of them, and I went to meet them. So I did all of that.

I think a PhD is even more specialized and that requires you to really think hard. But yeah, I know we’ll talk about that a bit more. So I think that’s my approach when thinking where to apply.

Being competitive is part of that process, isn’t it? I assume if you’re applying in a different country, it’s a little bit harder. If you’re in the United States, you can assess if your stats are competitive, based on published data. But what if it’s not published for your department or your area of study? Do you have any recommendations in that case in terms of assessing competitiveness? [13:44]

Yeah, there are many different ways that you can look at the competitiveness of that university. You can look at their research ranking, their research culture, and how many, you can also email them and you can ask them. I don’t think we should go into this blindly. So if you look at the admissions requirements, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, you could email them and get the answers to that. I think just finding out beforehand when the deadlines are, when should you be thinking about writing your SOP or your personal statement? Planning ahead. Who will you ask for recommendations?

And if you don’t, perhaps students don’t meet the requirements, they don’t have the GPA or the required, but they really want to go to that university and do that course. And then we also think through quite creatively, could we actually make it happen somehow? Were there extenuating circumstances that maybe didn’t lead the student to achieve the result that they wanted to? It’s not that black and white in my experience, I think. Especially in US universities, perhaps there is a little bit more that could be said about the informal relationships you do have amongst your networks and how that plays a role as well.

I don’t have a PhD, but when I’ve talked to people who do have PhDs, including guests on the show, they’ve all emphasized the importance of the relationship with your advisor. You have a wealth of experience in admissions at Oxford. What do you think is critical for graduate applicants applying to the PPE program that you were a part of or applying to master’s degrees or PhD degrees in the social sciences? [15:39]

So particularly for Oxford, PPE is an undergraduate program. There’s an interview required for that. But for the graduate programs, usually there isn’t an interview required. Oxford follows minimum requirements so you need to have at least a 2:1, which would be equal to about a 3.5 GPA in an undergraduate. You’re also expected to receive a fairly good mark, if you’re applying for a PhD, for example, a good mark in your master’s thesis. And then three recommendations are required. That’s quite different to other universities. Most universities I know require two, but Oxford requires three and they should be from your professors. That would be ideal that, for example, if you’re applying for a PhD, so then in your master’s, who was the three most academics that you worked with? That would be mostly your research supervisor, and perhaps two other people that you worked with in that duration of your master’s.

So I think it’s the recommendations play a really big part because they will show how much research, how capable or how savvy you are with research, with research methods. And those recommendations play quite a critical role, but also in your academic statement of purpose, here again, so then this for a PhD, you really need to show that you have thought through your research proposal. What methods you’re going to use. So for example, it wouldn’t be enough to say, “I just want to study anthropology”, but what is it particularly in anthropology? What are there particular elements that spark your curiosity? So for example, what is it about different religions and beliefs that interests you? What causes ethnic conflict in the world? So being very specific about that.

So in sociology, I had to write out four or five different research questions and then why do they interest me? What does the current literature say? What are the methods that I’d be following? And then I went to discuss it with potential supervisors. So Oxford, I would say is quite robust in its methods, and they want to see that you’ve thought through the research methods, you have an understanding of research methods, if you’re applying for a master’s or a PhD. So it helps undergraduate students to be thinking like that, if they’re thinking of further study in their final year, in their senior year.

I read a book a few years ago written by Bernard Lewis, a Middle Eastern historian. He talks at one point in the book about interviewing a certain student. He never said which disputed land was involved, but this student wanted to research why this piece of disputed land belonged to country X, not country Y. And Lewis asked him, “What if it turns out your research shows that it belongs to country Y, not Country X?” And he said, “Well, it won’t show that.” He says, “Well, how do you know?” He said, “Because everybody knows it belongs to country X.” Lewis did not take him into his PhD program. He was not interested in somebody who was not willing to follow the research. [16:25]

Yes, this example proves that you should be open to finding an answer that you are not actually expecting, is challenging your own thoughts and being really open-minded about yes, just the answer. With a PhD the way to summarize it in my understanding is you’re creating something original, and that’s the whole process. But it’s a great exercise. If you can create that, then it helps you a lot in professional life later. The kind of steps involved in creating that original piece of knowledge. That’s a great example you’ve given.

How do you advise applicants to approach their application and the statement of purpose in particular? [20:25]

When I get asked this question the way I think there’s one way to think about it, which is to imagine that a professor is reading 500 applications, is locked in a room reading 500 applications, 500 personal statements. What will make him or her want to read your personal statement or your statement of purpose? More than just the first paragraph. A very typical introduction to personal statements is, “I would like to study this course, I’m applying for this, and this will enhance my skills and develop me professionally.” That’s something very obvious. That’s something actually, and it’s taking up a lot of the word count that you have. In three or four lines you could be, I always say to my students, “Look for, really question yourself first of all. Why do you want to apply for that course? And write that.” Write something that captures the curiosity of the professor reading it. And then he thinks, “Oh, I really, yes, I do want to carry on reading.” There has to be a hook. What’s that hook?

And you really have to dig for that hook sometimes, you have to dig through your own mind to find your hook, for your personal statement, that will keep the attention of that professor reading your personal statement. So really think hard and write something captivating. That should be, but having said that, the UK and the US, there’s a difference as well. In the UK they don’t want you to write something too dramatic. So I find that there’s also a cultural difference, but it has to be something different and something original that starts your personal statement and then it shouldn’t be too long. I find that this is a common mistake that applicants make. They write two pages or sometimes longer, it should really be even less than the full page. It should be very concise and very focused and not generic. But if for applying for a graduate program, you have to show some advanced thinking.

And again, when students are applying for undergraduate, they have a lot of help. They have a lot of support from their counselors, from their teachers. But when you’re applying for graduate study, you are almost on your own, and you have some of your close professors that, or your lecturers that you have a good relationship with that may help you. But start thinking through that. What is your truth? What is that hook for your personal statement? Write your truth. And I would say make it personal. And it doesn’t have to be so academic. What are the personal reasons for why you want to apply for a master’s? What is it that? What is your profound reason? And write a draft and get someone to proofread it. Get some comments, get some feedback. Use your network. It could be family or friends. Get someone to read it, get some feedback, because it is good to get that criticism beforehand rather than not getting accepted, not getting offers later. So I think revise that draft and really make it your own. Make it your truth and start early with the personal statement, the statement of purpose.

I also like to say the statement of purpose or the MBA goals essay should show how that graduate program is going to be the bridge between where you are today and where you want to go. [23:59]


Many applications, certainly US applications, ask for either a resume and or a job history. What’s your recommendations for that? [24:38]

Again, your resume for graduate study, it’s almost like your resume, it’s for a job, but it’s in that you would be putting your work experience and showing your skills, your work experience. Your resume really has to be geared towards the program that you’re applying for. So tailoring that to each application, and again, not making it generic. So your education, educational qualifications and your work experience, the skills that you’ve developed, any publications you may have. So it’s almost like, yes, it’s like a professional resume or a CV, but it comes to graduate applications. So I think, again, the US schools I find prefer a shorter resume, maybe one page or maximum two, whereas the UK sometimes yes, a CV can be two or three pages, but I would certainly recommend it should be short and concise, maximum two pages. I wouldn’t recommend going more than that.

But for the US one page would be concise and crisp, and very focused on your work experience if you have any. If you’ve taken a few years after your undergraduate and accumulated work experience, if you haven’t, then any internships you’ve done, any activities, extracurriculars that demonstrate, yeah, that demonstrate. And it should, again, the work experience that you list in that CV or resume, think about the bullet points, think about what each experience is, how is that demonstrating that this is relevant to the program that you’re applying for? So it would mean changing and tailoring perhaps each CV for each university application because the programs may vary. So in the social sciences, you might be applying for different strands of the social sciences and different universities. Thinking about the varied detail in each experience as well, and the more you can demonstrate how you are a better fit for that program would help.

How should applicants choose recommenders/ Should they prep them at all? [26:56]

Again, start to think early, like who they have a good professional relationship with also, but I think again, two or three recommenders are the requirement. So if you have a recommender who’s related to the subject you’re applying for, that’s absolutely perfect. Even if it’s not somebody who knows your work, who knows your academic work and can give you a reference about that at all. If you’ve done internships, that could also be a reference. But I would say, if it’s two references and two recommenders, keep them academic from your undergraduate lecturers and your academics who’ve been teaching you, who you have a good relationship with. And I don’t think there’s much we can do in terms of prepping them, but yes, giving them as much information as possible about the course you’re applying for, giving them time. Not just expecting them to write your reference within a week, but letting them know.

And that again, I think links back to your own planning and your own timeline. So if you start thinking about it a year ahead, I would say, it is applying for a job. And then thinking about identifying the recommenders, letting them know well in advance, a few months or a couple of months at least. Or giving them enough time about the course you’re applying for, your motivations for applying and how that would lead to your future career. Do you want to do a PhD afterwards, or do you want to go and start working in an investment bank, etc.

You’ve been doing this for a long time and have many years of experience. What are the more common mistakes that you’ve seen applicants make? [28:38]

I think a common mistake in a personal statement or statement of purpose is spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, which shows that they haven’t proofread it. And they’ve spent so much time preparing that application, but haven’t done those very basic things. And it could be linked to other mistakes, which is that maybe they’re applying on the day itself. So I would say don’t apply on the day of the deadline, apply a day or a couple of days, because often what happens is then they miss some key requirements. They may not be able to fulfill the recommenders, for example. Or again, that doesn’t give a good impression if you have spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.

Another common mistake is that personal statements are very generic. So they’re not geared or tailored towards the school that they’ve applied for. And as someone who’s reading your application, we would like to know why that university? What is it about that university? Have you looked at who are the academics? Who are the people in that department that you’re applying to? What is their research? What is it about that department? Is it the research methods? Because some departments have a very quantitative approach, some have a very qualitative approach in terms of their research methods. So have you thought about that? So showing as much as you can in that personal statement that shows that you’ve actually done your research. I think generic personal statements are another common mistake. These are probably the most common mistakes.

You’ve worked as an advisor in the UK, in Pakistan, and now you’re doing it in the United States. What do you like about advising applicants, specifically to graduate programs? [30:33]

I really enjoy the process of just working with students. I mean, going through my own journey of education, I went straight from a bachelor’s to a master’s to a PhD. I didn’t have a break. But I learned it on my own, I learned it by myself. I didn’t have the advice when I was doing it, I didn’t have all of these resources I think. I had to learn the hard way, made my choices, and then learned. And I want to pass on my knowledge to students, and I want to advise them the best that I can so that they make informed choices, that they’re not making unnecessary mistakes or they’re not confused. I really enjoy that process of passing on the knowledge to students. Here in Pakistan, the US, the UK.

Yeah, there’s something quite meaningful about this work, which is more than just the commercial side of it. It’s more that you’re making an impact on someone’s life. You’re making, and I say this to my students, what you study today for your bachelor’s, your master’s, or it doesn’t necessarily determine your future or your career. It’s quite dynamic. It can change, and that’s okay. And I did economics and econometrics, then I did IR, and then I did sociology. So all three different subjects, all social sciences.

I find this very rewarding, and I just enjoy interacting with applicants. It’s a two-way process. I’m learning from them also. The world is changing and people and what they want to study and how they, and now with this, and we spoke about this, about Chat GPT and how people are using that. And how do you keep yourself original in a world of artificial intelligence? And how do you keep your mind active and thinking in its own way? It’s a very rewarding field and I love working with students.

The one-on-one is delightful. And of course when you get to the point when somebody calls you up or emails you and says, “I’m in! I got into my top choice!” It’s wonderfully rewarding. [32:44]

Yes, yes.

What do you wish I would’ve asked you? [32:58]

You’ve asked me wonderful and very important questions. We’ve covered most of the important aspects. I think perhaps what can be challenges or struggles for women or at least in my culture. I come from Pakistani culture. The challenges I faced could be unique just to my culture, but it was, “Why do you want to do a PhD?”

Was your family supportive? [33:35]

I think they were supportive up to a point. And then when I wanted to do my PhD, it was very challenging because I was, yes, my family did not support me when I wanted to do my PhD because they thought I should get married, and there was lots of pressure on me to not to do it. But I got accepted into Oxford and that was my dream. And it’s a story that I often share with my students. I applied to Oxford three times, and I got accepted the third time. I applied for the PPE first, I didn’t get accepted. Then I applied for a master’s, I didn’t get accepted. Then I applied for the PhD, and I did.

So for me, it was a huge achievement that I’ve finally now going to Oxford, my dream. But there was also that conflict of get married, and I had to do it on my own. I had to face a lot of obstacles. I went to Oxford alone on the day, on the very first day. So it was very difficult achieving my dream, but that’s what makes it worth it. Like they say, like the famous quote, “No one said it would be easy, but just that it would be worth it.” So some of the challenges we really have to be open about them. And for me and women in my culture, it’s not very common that they study so much. So I think-

How did you overcome the challenge, were you just very determined? Did you have some friends that you turned to, or were you just your own internal strength? [35:01]

I think mostly it was my own internal strength because Oxford was too important for me to give up. So I went there, and I went to Oxford without funding. That’s another challenge, because I had a fully funded PhD offer from Bristol, another university in the UK. But I gave that up because I wanted to go to Oxford. So I had to be quite creative, and every year I had to think, “Where will I get funding from?” I would be applying to my college for a bursary or my department for a scholarship, I applied for a few bank loans. I did a lot of jobs alongside.

I did teaching, which worked out really well because then after my PhD, I got electorship in that same year because of the teaching I had done. But I had done that for financial reasons. So it was a very difficult time, but also I think because I was so passionate about it, it was the internal strength which just made me, and eventually, I think your family does come around to it. But I think yes, I made very good friends and Oxford is just such a magical place. People have different challenges. A lot of my students who are applying have funding challenges, financial difficulty, various challenges. But being open about them and thinking through them and seeing how you’re going to, especially if you’re doing a PhD because it’s a long four or five years.

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