Photo by Alexa Mazzarello via Unsplash
By Rebecca Isjwara
If you have applied (or plan to apply) for a coveted spot in your dream institution, you know the feeling when you stumble upon a very daunting two words:
It is there, it is in every single admission page that you visit, and it confuses you to no end because you have never encountered this pair of words before this whole ordeal of pursuing a further educational degree.
Simply put, a motivation letter is a mini-essay that states the reason for your application to that specific institute (be it for educational purposes or for a job). A “motivation letter” can also sometimes be called a “personal statement”, “statement of purpose”, or some variation of it. They all serve the same one purpose: to persuade the selection committee to admit you as their latest addition.
Candidates often undermine this element of the application process because it does not seem as “official” as your academic transcripts, your reference or recommendation letters, your identification documents (birth certificates, passports, visa applications), or even your CV or resume.
However, the motivation letter serves a purpose that these documents cannot: to convey your story to the selection committee. It is the only component that is open to some level of subjectivity or can appeal to the committee's emotional side, so use it is important to use this to your advantage.
A motivation letter is the only chance for the selection committee to get to know you as a person, not just for the awards or the internships you have scored and listed on your CV. It is the best way to convey your personality, which they could use to assess your compatibility with the institution you have applied for.
By submitting a motivation letter that represents your personality well, the committee would be able to see a side of you they would not have access to otherwise.
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There is no one specific formula for a motivation letter, as the best motivation letter would be one that represents an individual wholly and uniquely. If you happen to read a few of your friends' motivational letters and find that one differs from the other, do not fret about it - it is supposed to be that way. However, there are certain elements that consistently comes together to make up a good motivation letter.
In no particular order of appearance, these elements should exist somewhere in your statement:
Do you wish to save the world by healing cancer?
Do you want to alleviate poverty by creating a startup that enables micro-lending services to undocumented migrants?
Do you have a dream of being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company?
Highlighting your life’s purposes is one good element to have in your motivation letter, as it not only allows the selection committee to evaluate whether or not you are a good fit for the institution, but also for you to assess whether or not this institution’s purposes align with where you want to go in life.
Are you attracted by their state-of-the-art neurology laboratory?
Put that down.
Are you amazed by their extensive exchange network and/or partnerships with other universities?
State that too.
This is the part where you not only flatter the institution a little bit, but it also lets them know which key features they have that are attracting potential students like you.
Also, listing out why you would want to go to this institution is a big portion of why they choose to have you onboard as their latest student/addition to the organisation.
This is where you sell yourself a little.
Not only should you highlight your achievements, your relevant experiences, and/or your qualifications, you should also offer something in return. This is where you can say confidently, “I will bring x, y, and z to the table if you admit me in your programme.”
What exactly can you bring to the table?
Your roots or culture of origin might be one point. Every institution nowadays wants to be international or globally linked, so bringing a new culture to the mix is a nice splash of colour. Your expertise and/or skills could also be of use to the institution in enriching their latest student cohort.
Nope, you do not.
A CV is somewhat chronological and is filled with facts and numbers of your achievements and your qualifications (your education, you certifications, or the job descriptions of your previous job). A motivation letter can be (but is not limited to) the story behind some of those aforementioned achievements.
Sometimes, motivation letters could highlight some part of yourself that is not included in your CV, such as a life-changing event or a personal experience that does not fit the resume format but is crucial in why you want to pursue a certain degree or why you have a certain view on the world.
That does not mean that your motivation letter’s contents should be mutually exclusive to that of your CV’s. It could still contain some highlighted experiences, but be careful to not repeat yourself. The selection committee would have read your CV thoroughly already, and they do not need a repetition of it in your essay.
In short, your motivation letter should complement your CV, and the two should be able to showcase you as a whole person, both from the achievement side as well as your personality.
A good starting point is to ask people who were admitted into your dream institution for their motivation letters.
This can be done by either asking your friends if they have any contacts in that specific university, or by browsing through your dream institution's student ambassador pages and reaching out to them.
Another underrated place to look is Facebook.
Most universities would have Facebook groups whose members are international students of the respective universities, so do submit a request to join and/or reach out to the administrators of the group.
If you could read what motivation letters make it into the institution, you might have a better idea of how you want to shape your letter.
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The first step is always, always research.
It is important that you look up as much information as possible about the institution you are applying to, so you have a general idea of who they are, what they do, and what they look for. Learn all you need to learn about the programme you wish to enroll yourself in as well.
If the information is available online (or via a phone call or two), try to find who their student ambassadors are and look at their stories.
More often than not, top universities would showcase their students’ stories and experiences through a university blog or a You might be able to find a common thread between the stories that are available on the school blog.
For example, if you notice that a lot of the student ambassadors speak about entrepreneurship, then mentioning your entrepreneurial traits might help boost your chances in getting into your dream institution.
Create an outline first!
I cannot stress this important enough. In order to make a cohesive and coherent statement, you would need an outline to string all your ideas together.
Start by brainstorming the overarching theme or topic for your desired motivation letter, and see how you can elaborate each point. Play around with the different ideas, and mess around with it. Write them down on post its, stick them all over your wall, and rearrange them to your liking. Create a structure out of your ideas, and you have an outline!
Once you have that ready, you can start drafting your motivation letter. Just write everything down (and write as much as possible), and disregard the word count for now. The ideal length for a motivation letter is around 500-700 words (or whatever length is recommended by your dream institution). Worry about this after you finish writing the draft though, and only keep this in mind when you are trimming your draft down to a presentable length.
Be ruthless when trimming down your motivation letter, even if you end up with 300 words left. You have such a short space to encompass your whole self in it, so it is important for you to be as concise as possible. If you do end up with less than the ideal length, then brainstorm for more content, and not filler words.
Your motivation letter should be factual, concise, and firm.
Flowery language does not necessarily fare well amongst the selection committee as they are reading your letter to get to know you, not how beautiful the sky was when you won your first gold medal. The selection committee could also be going through hundreds of motivation letters before narrowing it down to their desired quota, so it is best that you get straight to the point.
This is not to say that you should not tell your story - as long as you keep it concise and limit it to, say, one or two paragraphs for dramatic effect, you should be good.
The selection committee might refer to your motivation letter during your interviews, so be sure to write about topics you are completely knowledgeable about.
If they bring up related topics, you should be prepared to answer them as well. It is important that you have an extensive knowledge on what is written down in your motivation letter to show your preparation.
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Here are a few things you should not overlook when preparing your motivation letter.
Proofread your essay for grammatical mistakes, or get your grammar-obsessed friends to do that part.
Not only is it important for you to get your points across properly (grammatical mistakes might prevent the selection committee from understanding what you mean), but submitting a grammatically perfect letter also shows that you pay enough attention and care to this important element of your application process.
Aside from that, English proficiency could also be something they are looking for. In short, there is no harm in having a grammatically perfect statement.
Find the harshest critics amongst your friends and present your motivation letter to them. Get them to be brutally honest and comment on your statement, and filter through those critiques to decide which suggestions you want to incorporate and which to ignore.
By gathering opinions from multiple people, you would be able to revise your letter accordingly to appeal to the selection committee.
In other words, begin your motivation letter with a hook and end with a memorable point. Bonus points if the hook and memorable ending are linked.
After going through hundreds of motivation letters, the attention span of the selection committee will be relatively short, but a strong beginning and ending will lead to higher chances of your essay in being remembered by them when they review your application and compare it to others’.
Affan Giffari, a STUNED scholar studying at Tilburg University, says that it would help to explain your background or upbringing in your motivation letter. Affan recommends putting it at the beginning of your motivation letter, so you could relate it to the subsequent contents of your essay, such as how it would relate to your future plans or how it boosts your standing at the moment.
Read Affan Giffari's story here.
Abdul Rahman Ismail, recipient of the Swedish Institute Scholarship and current student at Uppsala University in Sweden recommends setting aside your letter for around two days before taking another look at it for revision. The time apart from your letter would give you the distance and perspective needed in order to look at your writing with a fresh eye, allowing you to be more critical towards your motivation letter.
Read Abdul Rahman Ismail's story here.
Shantya Shafa Paramitha from Wageningen University mentions that although it would be amazing to really make yourself stand out by outlining your ambitious dreams in your motivation letter, you still have to be realistic. Mention an issue or two you are concerned about, do a little bit of research, and put a bit of your findings in your motivation letter. Not only will the facts drive home the strength of your dreams, but it will also prove that you are aware of what is going on with the issue(s) you are passionate about.