First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.
Sanskriti Sanghi is a 2019 graduate of the Gujarat National Law University, and completed the LL.M. from the University of Cambridge in 2020. She is currently a lecturer at Jindal Global Law School. In this FPA, Sanskriti shares a few insights into her LL.M. application journey, the challenges (and rewards) of the Cambridge LL.M. and a whole lot more.
How early on did you decide to apply for a foreign LL.M.? Was this something you consciously worked towards as an undergraduate student at GNLU?
From the time I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue higher education abroad. The school I was studying in at the time—the Vasant Valley School, New Delhi—had a massive role to play in shaping this decision. At VVS, I had the opportunity to learn about the innovative pedagogy being employed by universities abroad which was alluring for the aspiring academic in me.
Several classmates of mine from VVS were also applying abroad for undergraduate education at the time, a process from which I gathered several insights that continued to influence my applications for the LL.M. The idea, however, was in nascency while I was still at school.
It was at the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, my alma mater, that this decision took on definitive contours. Across five years of undergraduate education, I developed an interest in several areas of law and delved into them with passion and rigour. I benefitted from guidance from my professors, interactions with my peers, and my engagement with several co-curricular activities at GNLU in that they helped me nuance my understanding of my areas of interest and improve my capacity to analyse and critique the law.
With the passage of time and each new experience, the question of when I should apply for LL.M. programmes—as opposed to if—became more urgent. Having explored a few options by my fourth year, I decided to pursue an LL.M. directly after the completion of the 5-year integrated program at GNLU and thereafter academia due to the realization that what I enjoyed most about law was its unravelment within the classroom, as a student and a teaching assistant.
I never consciously worked towards the elusive ‘perfect LL.M. candidate’ profile, mainly because I don’t think such perfection can be defined. Since I knew fairly early-on that I wanted to pursue higher education at a renowned university, I did emphasize on academic success. To me, academic success is a reflection of not only knowledge/understanding of a subject, but also of the hard work invested in reaching there—a trait that I believe is of great value.
Personally, I feel that my efforts to do well academically also contributed to the manner in which I read texts, attending to the minutiae amidst the major. Aside from the emphasis on academics, however, I did not consciously attempt to formulaically structure or supplement my CV. I opted for (multiple) projects which intrigued me and committed to producing meaning out of them to the best of my capabilities.
As a result, my CV came together quite organically. While applying for LL.M. programs in my fifth year, I simply sifted information on the basis of personal priority and fit for the relevant school.
What were some of your expectations from the LL.M., and what schools and universities did you shortlist on the basis of these expectations?
My overarching expectation from the LL.M. was an immersive educational experience in my areas of interest, i.e., International Law and Legal Theory. In order to break this expectation down into smaller (manageable) chunks, I prepared a spreadsheet with details of over 30 LL.M. programs (I KNOW!) from around the world.
Apart from the application-related information about deadlines, requisite application components (e.g., Statement(s) of Purpose, Letters of Recommendation, Curriculum Vitae), and scholarships available, I also made columns to compare these programs on a host of other qualitative factors.
These factors included: courses/modules on offer, faculty, co-curricular activities, location, size of the cohort, opportunities for professional growth, academic support, finances, and the global nature of the campus.
Having researched thoroughly into the LL.M. programs of some interest to me, I asked myself a pivotal question, ‘Am I excited by the prospect of studying here?’. I applied for all the LL.M. programs for which the answer was in the affirmative.
The universities offering these programs were: University of Cambridge, University of California Berkeley, Cornell University, New York University, Columbia University, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Yale University, Harvard University, and the University of Oxford.
With respect to the Cambridge application itself, some of the questions are to be answered in a very succinct manner. Any advice on how to go about this?
The application for the LL.M. at Cambridge can be quite daunting due to the brevity—and by extension clarity—it demands of applicants. My first draft for the essays at Cambridge revealed that the challenge of the task lay in arriving at the heart of the questions posed in the application rather than in encapsulating a life in law as a lexicon of achievements.
From the process of preparing and editing scores of drafts, my first piece of advice to prospective applicants is to read the prompt carefully and break it down into sub-questions which require attention. These sub-questions will, of course, differ from one applicant to another as the prompts will take on different meanings for persons with different trajectories. However, thinking seriously about the scope of the prompt in this manner will facilitate a lucid structure and urge applicants to exercise discretion while selecting elements to include.
I would also advise applicants to ensure that specificity is not compromised on the anvil of succinctness as the former characteristic can play a pivotal role in distinguishing one applicant from another. Given the word-count, this will require applicants to artfully balance the general and the specific within their narrative.
The last piece of advice I can offer prospective applicants about constructing cohesive short essays of the kind required by Cambridge is to commence working on the drafts well in advance of the deadline. This will permit them time to read and edit their drafts repeatedly over a few rounds prior to submission, an exercise which can greatly elevate the quality of the essay by helping them eliminate the extraneous.
If applicants are comfortable with sharing their drafts with seniors/ professors/ peers, they can simultaneously have their drafts reviewed. Such readings can help applicants account for overlooked errors and incongruous elements, add information, or nuance their narrative.
Also, with reference to the letters of recommendation, how did you narrow down on whom to request?
This was not a particularly difficult decision for me.
One of the primary criteria on the basis of which I selected my referees was the kind of work I had done under their guidance and the duration over which I had been engaged with them. Since I was applying for the LL.M. right out of the 5-year integrated program, my professors at GNLU fit this criterion better than most supervisors from my internships/ assistantships.
Expertise in subjects of interest to me and the referees’ role in nurturing my understanding of themes within those subjects was another criterion I relied on to make my decision. The number of referees required by the universities I was applying to and their indication of a preference for (or against) academic/ professional/ personal referees also facilitated the decision.
Cumulatively, on the basis of the foregoing criteria, I registered academic referees who had taught and mentored me at GNLU for the universities located in the United Kingdom. Given that I was applying for courses which can generally be clubbed under International Law and Legal Theory, I requested my professor of International Human Rights & Humanitarian Law to be one of the referees. He could, I hoped, attest to my acumen and passion for the subject as displayed by my interactions within the classroom, assignment submissions, and co-curricular activities such as the Henry Dunant Moot Court Competition.
I also requested my professor of Sociology, who was the faculty convenor of the GNLU Centre for Law and Society of which I was the student convenor, and my professor of Political Science and Political Theory, who was the faculty convenor for the GNLU Journal of Law, Development, and Politics of which I was a member and to whom I had been a teaching assistant.
For the universities in the United States of America, particularly the ones which value professional work-experience, I also requested my supervisor at ACT Alliance, an organization I had interned at for around three months, to act as my referee. It was my hope that his Letter of Recommendation (LoR) would bring to the fore aspects about my conduct in and contribution to a global organization working towards targets for thematic areas such as gender equality, child rights, and climate change through policy and fieldwork.
My suggestion to prospective applicants is, thus, to read the guidance issued by the universities they are applying to carefully and to then select the referees that best align with the aims and ethos of their application.
Given how laborious and time-consuming the process of drafting LoRs is—and, as a Lecturer at Jindal Global Law School (JGLS), I am speaking from my experience of being on the other side of the table now—I would also recommend that prospective applicants request referees for the LoRs sufficiently in advance of the deadline and supply them with relevant information about the programs. Since LoRs are undeniably integral to the application, I strongly urge prospective applicants to devote thought and care into the selection of and communication with referees.
Looking back, what were some of the most rewarding aspects of the Cambridge LL.M.? Also, the most challenging?
Oh, this is going to be a tough question to answer, simply because so much of the Cambridge LL.M. experience was thoroughly enjoyable.
One of the most rewarding aspects would have to be the rigour and depth with which we were encouraged to study the subjects we opted for and the generative nature of classroom discourse which accompanied it. I can vividly recall walking out of my classrooms at the end of the two hour-long classes, in wonderment of the stalwarts I was being taught by and peers I was surrounded with.
And, though I had initially felt constrained by the choice of only four subjects, I gradually came to realize the cornucopia of (interwoven) themes I had the opportunity to explore as a result of the model. If we could find the time to do so, we were also more than welcome to audit courses/classes we had not formally opted for, which helped assuage the fears of missing out I identify above.
Intellectually nourishing as the interactions in the classes were, I also gained massively from the individuated feedback provided by the professors on our formative essays. I firmly believe that any proficiency I possess at tasks such as identifying research questions, applying relevant frameworks to them, and constructing coherent and defensible arguments, was developed through such interactions.
Another particularly rewarding aspect of the LL.M. for me were the co-curricular activities I had the opportunity to be a part of and the teams I had the experience of working with.
During my time at Cambridge, I was primarily engaged as an editor for the Cambridge International Law Journal and as a researcher for the Cambridge Pro Bono Project. Both of these activities—and the excellence they demanded—made me more adept at legal research and writing. They supplemented my knowledge in my areas of interest and, in-fact, expanded/nuanced them further. In the process of reading for my courses (or leisure) and researching for my co-curricular activities, I explored the unparalleled collections of literature housed in the remarkable libraries at Cambridge.
Any conversation about Cambridge would be incomplete without a dedication to the wonderful friends I made within the LL.M. cohort, for which we have the course to thank. The social life at Cambridge, be it in the form of a quick coffee right outside the Squire, a formal in a grand hall, long chats after classes, or over a regular meal at one of the colleges, was often the perfect antidote to mid-week blues (read as: stress about the mounds of unfinished readings).
More importantly, among all that I get to take away from the Cambridge experience, it is perhaps the longevity and companionship of these friendships that I am most thankful for.
Preparing for the examinations amidst the Covid-19 pandemic—particularly with the aim of securing a First Class Honours—was definitely a challenge. I would attribute this to the extensive nature of the reading material for each course and to the noticeable differences in the style of questioning at Cambridge than what most of us are used to at Indian universities.
However, developing a habit of steadily and consistently reading through the material across the year and making notes alongside, as I did, can offset the challenge significantly. Similarly, participating in a study group, sharing formative essays marked-up with professors’ comments, availing the assistance of the college tutor, and/or planning revision ahead can be of great help in navigating this challenge.
Another challenge I faced, particularly during the first few weeks of the course, was learning how to adjust to the weather (e.g., the perpetual cold, the early setting of the sun). Though seemingly insignificant, it wreaked havoc on my schedule due to how unprepared I was for that change.
Though gradual adjustment is the only solution to this challenge, being more aware of these peripheral challenges can facilitate finding ways to cope with them faster.
Lastly, the course and students’ learning at Cambridge relies heavily on individual motivation. One of the most tricky challenges for me was to sustain this motivation—which isn’t limitless—over the months the course spanned. In my experience, identifying professional goals which are disjoined from the course, social activities which excite, and taking breaks during the holiday months can replenish motivation.
As a lecturer in an Indian law school, what are some of the best practices (if any) from Cambridge that you wish more Indian law schools followed? And vice-versa as well?
This is a fantastic question!
Though I do have some thoughts on ‘best practices’, it is worth noting at the very outset that my experience as a lecturer has been limited to the 5-year integrated program thus far. In my opinion, undergraduate programs of this sort are not directly comparable to advanced degree programs such as the LL.M. due to the differences between them with regards to factors such as aims/objectives of the course, the prior knowledge usually possessed by the cohort, scope for specialization etc.
Additionally, given the differences between the approaches to pedagogy adopted by faculty members within and across institutions, to think about ‘practices’ as fixed categories is to conflate diversity. I urge readers to think about the ‘practices’ I speak of, drawing on my experiences, with these disclaimers (of sorts) in mind.
The workshops conducted by our professors at the LL.M. program in Cambridge are constitutive of a practice I derived great value out of. The workshops—which were conducted once or twice per term for every course—were differentiable from the seminars/lectures as per which our courses were otherwise organized.
For the workshops, the class was divided into smaller groups, and the workshops were used as spaces for student-led conversations about specific modules and/or questions from examinations conducted in the past. Sometimes, workshops were also conducted by visiting faculty or PhD students and accompanied by innovative exercises.
Due to the manner in which they were structured, workshops facilitated knowledge sharing between peers and self-evaluation about course learning.
Another practice I was particularly appreciative of while at Cambridge was the skilful integration of our professors’ research with the curriculum. To me, this was particularly fascinating as it permitted us to explore not just the prescribed text but also the research which underscored or extended it. Equally, I appreciated that our professors treated us as contributors to the classroom, valuing our opinions and seriously contemplating our questions.
In my opinion, a cumulation of these practices yielded a will or desire to attend class even though attendance was not mandatory. A lesson for the Indian education system here might be to consider removing the attendance requirement for students. Instead, faculty can be encouraged to have an honest and frank conversation with the students about our respective responsibilities towards the classroom.
With respect to your follow-up question, a practice followed by Indian law schools that the LL.M. at Cambridge can benefit from considering is either an increase in the duration for which each class is conducted or an increase in the frequency of classes per week.
At Cambridge, we had one 2-hour class per course each week, with each class typically being a site for the discussion and completion of one module. Given the vast and, often, complicated material assigned each week, the 2-hour classes sometimes felt a tad too short. Though the architecture of the course is deliberate in that it seeks to promote self-study and use the classes primarily as sites for interaction/clarification, it can present a bit of a challenge.
Despite the mitigation offered by the workshops or the availability of professors to chat after classes and address questions over email, I think that the 3-hour class/once a week model followed by JGLS for advanced courses (e.g., the PhD program, the Blended LL.M. program) or the 2.5-hour class/twice a week structure adopted for the undergraduate programs (e.g., the 5-year integrated program) can be beneficial for students’ learning.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a Master’s abroad?
- Have clarity about why you wish to pursue higher education. Conduct research into LL.M. programs and shortlist the ones you think will be a good fit for you in view of your motivations to pursue an LL.M.
- Read the guidance issued by the universities you are applying to carefully. This applies equally to the applications for admission as to the applications for scholarships. Ensure that you align your application with the guidance (e.g., page-limit specified for your CV, word-count delineated for your SoP).
- Decide upon your referees on the basis of the nature of your interactions with them as opposed to on the basis of their designation. Approach them well in advance and supply them with key information about the programs you are applying to.
- Permit your CV to coherently communicate information about your experiences and achievements to the reviewers. Make choices about which information is to be retained and how it is to be presented. Be succinct, clear, and mindful of small details.
- Procure the relevant documentation required for your applications from your university sufficiently in advance of the deadline (e.g., transcripts, English language certificate). If the university is required to dispatch the documentations, submit your request to the designated office in a timely manner (e.g., the Examinations office).
- Plan to take the TOEFL/ IELTS a couple of months before the applications are due. If you do not wish to take the test and can avail waivers for all the universities you are applying to, I would suggest initiating that process well in time. Use the free practice tests available online to gauge how much practice you require for the test, if any. Ensure that you are aware of the overall and section minimums required by the universities you are applying to.
- Ensure that your SoP is not merely a retelling of your CV. Think of it more as a narration of your journey or as an explanation of your motivations to pursue higher education at that particular university. Try to unpack what the prompt is asking of you and endeavour to address the heart of the question in a manner that is distinctively you. Invest care into thinking about the structure and be meticulous while undertaking revisions.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out to seniors from your university or professionals on LinkedIn for advice or a conversation about the programs they have attended and which you are interested in.
- Finances permitting, apply to all the programs you are genuinely interested in after having done thorough research. Some of them might seem out of reach, but are still worth the attempt. Even though this is easier said than done, be prepared for rejections. Try to take them in your stride and celebrate your acceptance(s). If you do not make it the year you apply, reassess and try again.