Admission committees are simply piled with documents of honor students, competition champions and other remarkable students. Everyone writes how good he is and how eager he is to study in this particular institution. But how to choose among thousands of profiles just a few dozen of those who are really worthy to study there?
In this article, we look at the world of admission through the eyes of those who make this decision. And we will tell you in detail how to write the one motivation letter (also called the statement of purpose)that will break through this insurmountable barrier.
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"It is possible to redeem yourself (in certain cases) or to kill your chances of admission with the personal statement." — Ruth Miller, Former Director of Graduate Admissions to The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (Princeton University).
A motivation letter through the eyes of the heads of faculties and the admission committee is the most important document in the application of the student. The rest of the papers will not be able to tell much about your personality unlike a motivation letter. In a few hundred words you need to fit your interests and achievements along with your hopes and dreams. Yes, it’s not easy... But it’s worth doing, because it is right here where you have a chance to turn the tides and show your uniqueness, even with sub-par language skills and not so outstanding achievements.
Let's try to figure out how to write a perfect motivation letter. After all, your future depends on it.
What does the admission committee expect?
The answer is quite obvious. The selection committee wants to find out who is hiding behind a mountain of similar documents that end up on their hands.
Motivation letter should create a vivid idea of personality. What describes you as a person? Ambition? Sense of humor? Self-awareness? Imagination? Sociability? This is what you have to find out during the preparation of the motivation letter.
Here are some citations of the representatives of leading American universitiesHow to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, Mark Alan Stewart confirming this idea:
“The most important thing [for me to do] is communicate what we’re not looking for, which is to say that there is no magic formula for admission, there are no right answers.” — Bob Alig, Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid, the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania).
“Applicants make a mistake when they try to write something they think will please the committee. When they try to anticipate what that might be, they run a great danger of going astray.” — Albert R. Turnbull, Associate Dean for Admissions and Placement University of Virginia School of Law.
“We look for honesty (as far as we can discern it), simplicity, straightforwardness.” — Dr. Andrew G. Frantz, Chairman, Committee on Admissions College of Physicians and Surgeons (Columbia University).
“You want to come alive off the page and write the story that only you can write.” — Linda Meehan, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, Columbia Business School.
An interesting short story written in a vibrant, dynamic language is the main requirement that experts insist on. Through a motivation letter, professors want to find out what goals future students are pursuing, what they want to achieve in life, how they can be useful to their university and society as a whole. The main thing is not to overdo it: avoid wordiness, deceit and floridness in the text. No need to send a letter that is bizarre and hard to follow — you need to be yourself, but try to express your thoughts vividly, since you can not use gestures and facial expressions.
More precise recommendations were made by Vince Gotera, professor of English Language and Literature, University of Northern Iowa. In his opinion, the motivation letter should show the applicant as a person:
Passionately interested in the field. You can do this at the very beginning of the letter using the “hook”, which will be discussed in the following sections;
Educated, which is obvious from the letter itself, its structure, expressiveness, logic, etc .;
Well-trained academically, which can be demonstrated through the use of highly specialized terms to describe the achievements of the applicant, and by the achievements themselves;
Able to cope with the curriculum of the university and finish the program on time, which can be confirmed by prior experience in overcoming problems with performance;
Ready for cooperation with professors and other students, in other words — collegial. This is not a priority, but developed soft skills will be an obvious plus;
A potentially prominent representative of this university in the professional field, which can be deduced by the current success of the applicant, as well as by how the student speaks about the previous educational institution.
This is a lot of stuff to fit in a few hundred words, so it is worthwhile to approach each of the points sensibly. No need to describe them in the same order in which they are on the list of the university. Combine, move them, do everything to show yourself as an inventive person, and not a parrot following a line of Brazil nuts to crack.
What you should not do? A comment from UniPage
Many students perceive recommendations for writing a motivation letter as unbreakable rules, dogmas, a universal template. It seems that if there are six bullet points, then every single one should be mentioned, although in reality all this may mean nothing for the admissions committee, and even for the student himself. Often, one achievement can dwarf all others. A purely hypothetical example: there is a student, a physicist who destroys local competitions, in his spare time builds a time machine and compiles on C. But he read in our instructions that it is necessary to mention this and that, and wastes a whole paragraph of already limited page real estate in order to tell how he helped old ladies to cross the street. Of course, volunteering is a good experience, but does it say anything about a real passion for the profession? Words and sentences in a motivation letter are your "nonrenewable resources", which should be spent only on really significant information. A real case: a student was applying for a computer science program. In his time he had already launched two startups and in his letter described his apps a little. Then he moved on to the painfully familiar and tired pattern about how he wanted to study and how much he was interested in the chosen field. I asked him to write some more about the difficulties in development and how he had overcome them. This information is not only directly related to the profession, but also demonstrates to the admissions committee that the applicant is able to think critically and has problem-solving skills. He very quickly came up with another half-a-page about how he had troubleshoot various bugs and implemented features. It was a vivid, interesting read and, most importantly, it demonstrated the genuine interest in the profession that could so easily be lost in a series of general statements and cookie-cutter phrases. At the same time, for some reason, he did not consider it to be necessary to write this in the first place, despite the fact that this exact thing matched the profile of his education. The point of the whole story is that if you have a relevant shtick, then it should be the core of your motivation letter. There is no need to spend valuable space on often mundane and insignificant information in an attempt to tell about everything in the world just because the article says so. As Barbossa said in "The Pirates of the Caribbean": “The code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules”. There are general principles, tips, but the final result depends solely on you.
Formats and structure of motivation letter
In general, most motivation essays can be divided into two categories — unstructured letters, and essays in the form of interviews (or short essay answers to specific questions). The latter are often written by the applicants of overseas MBA programs. In an unstructured essay, the candidate provides information about himself — his achievements, personal qualities, interests, experience, and future goals. Despite the name, in an unstructured essay it is also advisable to adhere to a specific structure, or format. For example:
Option 1: Yesterday — Today — Tomorrow
I have the experience necessary to study at a university successfully;
At the moment I want to get the knowledge for further development;
Your program is ideal for these purposes since I can achieve ...
Option 2: I — You — We
The description of my achievements, talents, interests;
The chosen program fully corresponds with my ambitions;
My potential in combination with your program will bear the following fruit ...
Option 3: What — Why — For what purpose
What exactly I want to study;
Why I want to study this particular specialty, why it is so important to me;
The selected program will help me achieve my goals ...; I expect to receive...
An additional variation of the structure
Introduction. What is my main point? What brought me to this program? (The first paragraph should attract the attention of the reader. It can be a simple, funny or interesting anecdote from life, leading to the essence of motivation letter).
Why me? What significant knowledge and experience I already possess? What have I learned from this experience?
Why here? How does my academic experience correlate with the faculty / field of study? Is there a specific project I want to work on, or a specific teacher with whom I am eager to work?
Why now? What are my short / long term goals? How will teaching on this program, at this time, at this university, help me in their implementation? What will I achieve with this knowledge?
Conclusion. What is the reader meant to take away? How will they remember this personal statement in particular? (Here you can create a ring composition by linking the conclusion with the initial thought and ending the essay with the thesis emphasizing the unique features of the applicant and the contribution that he or she will bring to the new learning environment).
Non-standard questions of the admission committee
Many universities (especially at the master's and doctoral levels) offer applicants specific, sometimes tricky, questions that involve stepping outside the template structure. Here are some of them:
Describe an experience (either personal or professional) in which you failed. What did you learn from that experience?
How would you want your professional achievements and contributions to be remembered after your death?
Discuss an ethical dilemma you have faced and how you dealt with it.
If you could have dinner with any three people (alive now or from another era), who would they be and what would you hope to learn from them?
If you are unable to submit the minimum number of recommendation forms that we request, please give your reasons.
Please explain anything in your application that does not accurately reflect your abilities or potential for successful graduate study.
Discuss any unique aspect of your personal or professional background that may not be adequately presented elsewhere in this application.
Describe a situation in which you were compelled to take a stand against the majority. How did this experience strengthen your understanding of leadership?
What is interesting is the fact that, in general, any question presented here can fit seamlessly into a narrative of an unstructured motivation letter. But separately, they provide the student with more opportunities for an in-depth analysis and disclosure of the topic.
Tips for organizing the text of a motivation letter
The requirements of a specific university. This is especially important for candidates who wish to apply for a master’s program. Some universities request not one, but two motivation letters for different master's programs. Others require you to send only handwritten versions of motivation letters, specifying even the color of the ink that should be used. You can find the exact instructions on the official website of the selected university.
The introduction should start with some original statement or a fact from life in order to grab the attention of the reader and make him follow the whole story to the very end;
The most interesting facts should be presented at the beginning of the letter, or at least in the first part since no one knows if a member of the admission committee will want to finish reading your letter.
A logical and sequenced story: as you read through the letter, the character in it should develop as a person in all areas of his or her life.
An easy-to-follow narrative. Divide the text into smaller paragraphs and try not to use long and flowery expressions along with complex grammatical constructions. This will help you to avoid unnecessary mistakes and confusing punctuation. Each paragraph should have its own small story with the beginning, climax, and end. The speech should be simple and clear, although it is acceptable (and even encouraged) to use highly specialized terms, provided that you understand what they actually mean.
The conclusion should be a summary, briefly reviewing the information and expressing hope for further cooperation with the university. Reading the letter should leave a pleasant aftertaste, do not describe any negative events or criticize yourself.
Stages of writing a motivational essay
"If you are going to write a winning personal statement, you cannot do it in two or three hours; it requires a lot of thought." — Faye Deal, Director of Admission, Stanford Law School.
A good essay cannot be written at the snap of a finger. That is why many experts advise starting preparing a few weeks, or even months, before the deadline.
For convenience, let us divide the process into three stages: preparatory, main and final.
Preparatory stage: study and reflection
"What I would love to have people do in preparing their essays is to do a great deal of self-assessment and reflection on their lives and on what’s important to them because the most important thing to us is to get a very candid and real sense of the person." — Jill Fadule, Director of Admissions, Harvard Business School.
It is often difficult for people to start writing something personal about themselves that requires introspection. If you often face a fear of a blank slate, try the following tips. Creative solutions will not take long.
Record all events that happen to you, be that new experiences or abilities. Never underestimate anything. You may think that a summer trip to Europe, a recently read book or your newly discovered talent as an artist is not so significant, but it is. The sooner you start doing this (several weeks, months), the better. At the same time, you should not immediately evaluate your experiences in terms of their usefulness. Keep this until the next stage.
Try creating an experimental sample of your essay. Imagine that you are taking a creative writing course, and your task is to write a couple of pages about an event from your life that has had a significant impact on you. This must be done so that after reading the essay in front of strangers, they feel as if they have known you for a very long time. It might feel like a rather stupid exercise, but as we heard from the statements of the members of the admission committee, they expect this approach from the applicant.
Before you start writing, it is advisable to brainstorm ideas. Try to answer questions about yourself, your goals and features, while outlining as many variations as possible. Then select those that will serve as your guidelines in the process of writing your essay. Be honest and remember that the answers often lie beneath the surface.
Questions for a brainstorm
What is special, unique or impressive about me? What details of my life can help the admission committee to better understand and distinguish me from other candidates? (Remember the history of the family, the significant achievements, the people or events that shaped you or influenced your goals).
When was the first time I showed interest in this professional field? What have I learned about it and about myself since? What contributed to the development of my interest and strengthened my confidence that I was ideally suited for this profession? What conclusions have I made?
How did I find out about this profession/field/activity/area of training? (Perhaps it was in the classroom, at work, during a conversation with practitioners).
If I already had work experience, what did it teach me? (Leadership, managerial skills, etc.) How did work contribute to my personal growth?
What are my career goals? (Don’t be afraid to dream. It doesn’t matter whether everything goes according to plan or not, the main thing is to find what you really want to do, no matter how ordinary or extravagant your dream is).
Are there any though spots or discrepancies in my academic performance at the previous place of study that I should explain? (For example, stable excellent grades but the average result of the entrance exam; a sharp improvement/decline in performance in one of the training periods).
Have I had to overcome unusual obstacles or difficulties in life? (Health problems, financial, family difficulties, etc.).
What personal qualities can help me achieve success in the profession? (For example, honesty, compassion, perseverance). How can I confirm this?
What skills do I have? (Leadership, communicative, analytical, etc.).
What makes me different from other candidates? What will allow me to be better / stronger / more successful / more efficient in my chosen professional field?
Why me? Why should my candidacy interest the selection committee?
The same questions can be used to prepare for the interview. As in the letter of motivation, members of the selection committee will want to hear the information that you personally consider important or worth their attention. Having thought over the answers in advance, you definitely will not get confused during the conversation.
An outside perspective
It is equally important when preparing a motivational letter to find someone who could share their perspective. If you could not immediately answer all the questions from the previous exercise or if you have doubts, seek help from professors, friends, colleagues, and just acquaintances whose opinion is valuable to you. You can send a small questionnaire by e-mail or ask to answer in a personal conversation.
Questions for friends / colleagues / teachers
What do you think should the admissions committee know about me?
What seems to be the most unusual / unique / impressive about me?
Do you know any events from my past that might be of interest to the admissions committee?
Do I have special qualities / skills that make you think that I will succeed in studying and working in my chosen profession?
Enrich your list with more specific questions, depending on who you ask. Tell them which university you are planning to enter. Give each person the opportunity to comprehensively and objectively evaluate your experience and abilities.
Main stage: writing a motivation letter
In the main section, we decided to provide some practical recommendations from the article How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose by the Professor of the University of Northern Iowa, Vince Gotera.
The best advice from Vince Gotera
The Statement of Purpose required by grad schools is probably the hardest thing you will ever write. I would guess virtually all grad-school applicants, when they write their first draft of the statement of purpose, will get it wrong. Much of what you have learned about writing and also about how to present yourself will lead you astray. For example, here's an opening to a typical first draft:
"I am applying to the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Okoboji because I believe my writing will blossom at your program since it is a place where I will be challenged and I can hone my writing skills."
How's that? It's clear, it's direct, and it "strokes" the MFA program, right? Wrong. All of it is obvious and extraneous.The admissions committee knows you are applying to their MFA program because everyone in the stacks of applications they are reading is applying for the same thing. The admissions committee will also know that your writing will "blossom" there since they feel they have a strong program. Of course you will be challenged — all undergrads going on to a grad program will be challenged, no matter how well-prepared they think they are. And of course the new grad student will "hone [her] writing skills" — isn't that the main purpose of the MFA program?
Let's assume the required length of this particular program's statement of purpose is 300 words. Well, with this opening you will have used up 15% of your space saying virtually nothing. 15%!
In fact, not only is this opening paragraph obvious, extraneous, and space-stealing, it's boring! Imagine who's reading this and where: five professors "locked" in a room with 500 applications. Do you think this opening paragraph will command their attention? Will they read the rest of this statement of purpose with an open mind that this applicant is the kind of student they want? Will they remember this application later? You be the judge.
"Hook", which demonstrates the applicant’s passion for the chosen subject.
For a successful motivational essay, you need the so-called "hook". For example, one student of the master's program in library science made an excellent “hook”. It looked something like this:
"When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me with something that changed my life: a library of 5,000 books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian."
Everything is clear, it's direct, it's 45 words, and, most important, it tells the admissions committee about Susan's almost life-long passion not just for books but for taking care of books. When the committee starts to discuss their "best picks," don't you think they'll remember her as "the young woman who had her own library"? Of course they will, because having had their own library when they were eleven would probably be a cherished fantasy for each of them!
But what if the first paragraph would have been written like this ...
"I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian." Surely the admissions committee will not remember this student among the other 500 applications they are wading through. Probably more than half of the applications, maybe a lot more than half, will open with something very similar. Many will say they "have had a love affair with books" — that phrase may sound passionate until you've read it a couple of hundred times.
The connection of the chosen course with an event in life or extracurricular activities
A student named Jennifer wanted to get a master's degree in speech therapy. When asked why she chose this direction, Jennifer said she had taken a class in it for fun and really loved it. But during further discussion the girl remembered that her brother had problems with speech. This was a discovery to her. She had not entered the field with that connection in mind — at least not consciously. But there it was; Jennifer now had her hook.
You have the same task: to find this "hook", to understand why the choice fell on this particular direction, what benefit the applicant can bring with his work in the future, how this will affect him and the others. Find your own truth, and then choose a memorable way of expressing your thoughts.
Equally important for the commission will be your extracurricular activities and hobbies associated with the educational activities. For example, you want to enter the faculty of linguistics, you speak a foreign language at a decent level and help others to study it by organizing free courses.
Universities require a letter of motivation not only to learn about the performance and awards of the applicant, but also so that the applicants themselves really think carefully about why they generally take such a serious step in life as entering a university, and whether they truly desire this.
Is originality the key to success?
The average size of a motivation letter is 300 words, but for some applicants three dozen are enough to declare themselves. One such example is an essay by a student named Nigel, who said that he had written a three-sentence statement of purpose to get into Stanford:
"I want to teach English at the university level. To do this, I need a PhD. That is why I am applying."
That was the whole thing. It definitely portrays Nigel as brash, risk-taking, no-nonsense, and even arrogant person. If this is how you want to portray yourself, then by all means do this. But you should also know that Nigel's statement of purpose is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can bet there will be members of probably any admissions committee who will find Nigel's statement of purpose offensive, even disrespectful. And they might not want such a student at their school, although there still remains a chance to get the approval of one of the professors.
Try to make your paper-and-ink self come alive. Don't just say, "I used to work on an assembly line in a television factory, and one day I decided that I had to get out of there, so I went to college to save my own life." How about this: "One Thursday, I had soldered the 112th green wire on the same place on the 112th TV remote, and I realized the solder fumes were rotting my brain. I decided college would be my salvation." Both 35 words, but the latter is more likely to keep the admissions committee reading.
Explain the controversial moments of your academic past
If there are controversial moments in your academic past, tell about them so as not to lose the trust of the admissions committee. For example, in one of the semesters you had only Cs. In this case, it is worth writing a short paragraph about what caused this (emotional problems, life difficulties), then demonstrate how skillfully you were able to deal with this, and now your average score is quite high. Presenting such a situation under a favourable angle, you will make an impression of a determined person, able to face challenging situations and overcome difficulties in a timely manner.
Experience and internships
If you have already managed to work somewhere or took an internship, be sure to indicate this in a motivation letter. Pay particular attention to the details of employment that are directly related to the chosen profession. Consider how you can relate the work done and experience gained to the acceptance criteria.
Skills, abilities and achievements
Members of the selection committee are interested in your strengths: talents, skills, sports achievements, victories in school or university competitions, participation in scholarship programs and more. It’s not at all necessary that the achievements are too significant; it’s enough to tell in a motivational essay what you recall with pride and warmth in your heart, for example, you successfully passed exams at a music school, participated in various clubs (drawing, sports, dancing, etc.), or did volunteer and charity work. It is important to describe those moments that speak of you as a talented, versatile, and interesting person. At the same time, members of the selection committee are interested not in a dry list of skills and achievements (for this there is a CV, or resume), but your ability to reflect and draw conclusions from the experience gained.
How to talk about skills? ABC Method
To get away from a simple enumeration of skills, we recommend using the ABC method. Its essence is to describe each skill, answering three questions:
A — Activity
What have I done?
I am the school captain of the football team.
B — Benefit
What skills have I gained?
This shows I have good communication and teamwork skills.
C — Course
How will this prepare me for the course?
This is relevant to business studies as being able to communicate effectively is an important skill when working on group projects.
The above example is quite simple and aims to show how to provide evidence to each skill you mention in an understandable way.
Mentioning specific university professors
To begin with, describe the reason you chose this university. Then name one or two professors and what exactly attracts you to their program. Such an approach will introduce you as a person who "did his homework", who is so interested in the chosen direction that he laid the groundwork.
You do not just need to write their names, since anyone who uses the Internet (which is almost everyone) can do this. Mention something that will show respect for the work done by professors. Moreover, it is not necessary to choose the most famous of them, since it is likely that other potential students will do the same. It is better to opt for a lesser-known professor who really seems interesting to you.
The final stage: evaluation and editing of a motivation letter
"The best essays that I've read are from people who've said they’ve learned a lot about themselves through this application process." — Sally O.Jaeger, Director of Admissions, The Amos Tuck Business School, Dartmouth College.
Before sending the final version, be sure to take the time to analyze the resulting essay: you should carefully review its contents, pay attention to the presentation style, the presence of grammatical and lexical errors. Usually even the obvious errors cannot be seen on the first or second reading, so ask a friend or senior colleague to check the motivation letter. Or just let it rest for a couple of days and then read it again to understand what needs to be fixed.
Questions for self-reflection
Does my letter meet the formal requirements? (Look at the questions initially posed, the required wordcount, and other requirements of the university).
Does it make the kind of impression that I would like to make on the committee? (Refer to the list of qualities and skills that you made during the preparatory phase).
Are there any ambiguous phrases in my text, conflicting points?
Did I learn something new, unusual about myself after writing a motivation letter?
Is my story unique? Does it contain cliches and bland phrases that other candidates may include?
Was I honest with myself?
Evaluation of the final result
Yes, we already said that it is worth getting an opinion from the outside, but this time you are asking questions not about yourself, but about what you got as a result. Ask professors or teachers about the format and style of writing that is most appropriate in a particular case. Along with the text, be sure to indicate the initial requirements that were presented to the letter of motivation.
Questions for a teacher to evaluate your letter
Did the opening paragraph draw your attention?
In general, did you find the motivation letter interesting / well-structured / optimistic?
In your opinion, is the essay an honest and sincere representation of me?
Does it answer the questions posed?
Is there anything important that I missed / should be added?
Were there moments that seemed out of place to you?
What conclusions did you draw about me after reading?
Have you encountered any typos or errors in the text?
In your opinion, will this letter set me apart from other candidates?
Do you consider my desire to enter __ (university) __ on __ (specialty / specialization / program) __ justified?
Similar to the preparatory stage, complete this list with specific questions for each case. Maybe you have doubts about representing events correctly, or whether you translated the names specific to your university accurately.
Adjust the essay, taking into account the advice received. But do not think that this is where your work on the letter ends. An epiphany may strike you even after sending an essay to a university. This might end up being crucial information so it is wise to write it down in case you want to submit documents again for later deadlines.
Letter structure, text organization;
A “hook” that demonstrates your passion for the selected field;
Achievements in the chosen direction;
The logical connection of your motivation with your achievements;
Special and additional courses in relevant disciplines;
Extracurricular activities in the selected field;
Publications and other professional achievements in the direction (reports, papers);
Explanation of controversial issues in the academic past (if any);
Arguments for choosing this university;
Mentioning specific university professors whose work you are interested in;
Features of the university program that attract you;
Gathering advice from teachers or professors;
Checking and adjusting material;
Further refinement of the letter for subsequent deadlines.
Top 10 mistakes in writing a motivation letter
In order to spark the interest in the admissions committee, you should avoid the most common mistakes made by applicants.
Repetition of the information that is already given in the academic resume. A motivation letter is a chance to show your personal qualities and desire to develop in the chosen academic field. Therefore, your past victories and achievements should not be the sole focus of your letter, try to look into the future.
The dull beginning of the essay. Feel free to skip the lengthy introduction of yourself at the beginning of the letter. It would be much better to immediately describe a situation or circumstance that influenced your decision to study in this university. At the same time, try to avoid expressions such as “As a child, I was fond of,” “For as long as I can remember, I liked ...” and other cliched phrases. According to a UCAS study, every year they number in the thousands.
Writing a single essay for all universities. This approach is fundamentally wrong, because each university has its own advantages, which are worth highlighting in a motivation letter. Having thoroughly examined the site of the chosen university, you will be able to evaluate its contribution to the development of science.
Faceless narration. Not every motivational letter is embedded in the memory of the members of the selection committee, and the reason lies in the presence of many superficial phrases and the lack of personality. A good essay stands out from the rest with the uniqueness, truthfulness and originality of the author's judgments.
Unfunny jokes. In their practice, members of the selection committee meet a lot of comedians who want to be remembered for their sparkling sense of humor, but this approach is not always appropriate. The joke may seem harmless to the author of the letter, but members of the selection committee will not appreciate it and might call it offensive. Here you need to clearly understand that everyone has a different sense of humor, and in case of foreign universities — they also have a different worldview. Therefore, we advise you to exclude jokes, of course, if this is not subtle English humor.
The desire to write as much as possible about yourself. For each topic, it is worth dedicating a single paragraph to reveal more details. Focus on the information that is not in the academic resume.
Lack of spell checking and text editing. Before sending the letter, ask a teacher or another competent person to check your essay to avoid annoying typos and errors. Even the most interesting motivation letter might be put aside if members of the committee find mistakes in it.
Writing an essay a few days before sending it. It is advisable to devote enough time to writing a motivation letter. Try to write several letters, then compare them and choose the best.
Demonstration of other people's achievements. Never appropriate qualities and merits that are not really yours. Be yourself, disclose in your letter only your positive aspects, hobbies, hopes for the future, because in a personal interview, members of the commission may ask you about a fictional hobby or achievement, and then you will have to improvise...
Lackluster representation of the topic. When writing a motivation letter, it is advisable to adhere to a certain structure of the text, i.e., to gradually explore each paragraph. Otherwise, instead of an ordered essay, you will get a messy gibberish, which will definitely not interest the admissions committee.
Analysis of motivation letters
We have collected several interesting excerpts from the motivation letters of real students in two versions: the original and edited by UniPage specialists.
* Spelling and punctuation of the authors are preserved in their original form.
Unipage specialist’s comment
Pretty good "hook" in the introduction part of the letter. Here we can see a story of a third-generation builder. In the original excerpt we can sense the idea of craft inheritance, but it is not explicitly expressed with words. After editing the motivation of the student goes beyond the desire to preserve the family craft, and transforms into the idea of leaving the legacy in the form of a building, that will keep the memories of its creators. This might seem a little too sublime, but it shows the author's personal stake in the profession, that now has a subtle sheen of valor and nobility.
Unipage specialist’s comment
An excerpt from the letter of an experienced journalist, who already works, but strives for more. The body of the letter was fine but the introduction part felt incredibly dry. For example the essay competition "hook" could have been way more fun, it certainly has potential, but as is, the whole introduction is unacceptable for a journalism program applicant. In editing we fixed some of the stylistic issues and made it more sophisticated. There’s not much factual information, but it sets the benchmark for the applicant’s literary talents. The core theme is of uncertainty about the future and gradual realization — the calling was always close.
Unipage specialist’s comment
A very original and lively letter. The irony of the situation is that the author (a girl) has nothing interesting to say, unlike her peers that often come up with "special" reasons and situations. This is the case when a lack of an interesting story turns out to be a really engaging one. In this context a simple desire to learn and realize your potential sounds sincere and immediately makes the reader empathise with the author. After editing this thought reached a conclusion: no matter how mundane your reason is, it is a good one, since a lot of people don’t have any reason at all. A rhetorical question helps to create an illusion of an actual conversation, and in turn bridges the gap between the author and the admission committee, helping them to know the person behind the letter a bit better.
Unipage specialist’s comment
In version 1, you can write the title of literally any book and the meaning of the paragraph won’t change. It is very inconsequential and says nothing about the author's personality. Variant 2 has that personal touch, but has its own issues. For context: the author is applying to a certain prestigious university and wants to study politics and international relations. Being diplomatic is crucial. However not only the author gives a pretty binary representation of Singapore’s first prime minister, but also uses offensive language. For example saying "jealous neighbors" might be considered an insult towards SEA countries. In the last sentence, without mentioning any particular politician, the author manages to insult the whole professional group, which might lead the admission committee to question the applicant's diplomacy skills. In the editing we softened the edges while trying to preserve the authors position, taking other perspectives into account. It is important to understand that we cannot predict the personalities of the people responsible for the admission of applicants, we don’t know whether they sympathize with this politician or not. In general this advice is applicable to the majority of programs, you should remain sincere, speak your mind, but not paint the world as black or white.
Unipage specialist’s comment
Originally the author speaks about his work experience, which in itself is very important, but due to the dry listing of facts it doesn’t make a desired impression. No doubt, there’s a lot of hard work behind all these achievements and speaking about it (without boasting of course) might show the applicant’s determination. Very often the admission committee is interested not so much in the end result, but in the journey the applicant took and his ability to overcome obstacles.
Unipage specialist’s comment
This excerpt from the conclusion is remarkable due to the fact that the author mentions people whose work inspires her. Thanks to this her choice of the academy sounds justified and thought out. During editing we added some all-or-nothing attitude (the student was interested only in this university) and wishful thinking along with some creative decisions like rhetorical questions and casual style. Please note that this approach might work for creative specialties (fashion in this example), but in other fields might be considered insulting and frivolous.
Ideas for writing a motivation letter for various specialties
In addition to general recommendations that apply to almost any motivation letter, it is necessary to take into account the specifics of a future specialty. We tried to collect tips for you in several areas of preparation. This section, of course, does not provide comprehensive recommendations, but can be a source of inspiration and ideas.
Politics. First of all, note that politics as an academic discipline is not just the current political agenda covered by the media. The ambitious plans to become a prime minister or president would look somewhat superficial and are unlikely to set you apart from other candidates. Try to dig deeper into your chosen course to understand what exactly attracts you to it. What topics of political debate do you like? What books and ideas fit your understanding of the profession? Of course, the selection committee will be interested to learn about how you came into contact with the world of politics, in what activities you participated, but the ideological filling of your essay will come to the fore.
Philosophy. Applicants to programs related to philosophy are advised to have some prior theoretical training. Describe your reading experience. You may also have attended lectures on philosophical topics outside of class. Do not be afraid to express your own opinion on issues of morality, free will, and consciousness. The best way to show the level of your readiness for studying philosophy is the ability to think rationally, deeply analyze problems and argue your case, which should be reflected in the entire content of the motivation letter.
Sociology. Your task is to demonstrate awareness of social issues and, ideally, a desire to help the social perception of a diverse and rapidly changing world. Think and personally formulate your interest in studying the relationship between a person and the society.
Geography is a fairly large-scale discipline, which includes many types of activities and research areas. You can mention your travel experience, but at the same time, it is worthwhile for the members of the selection committee to specify your scientific interests: geographical information systems, individual regions, tropical savannahs or coastal zones, tourism, geopolitics, etc. If the course you are applying for already has a specialization, for example, migration or marine ecology, refer to actual scientific discussions on this topic or to your own practical experience (you may have made notes during one of your trips and came up with the conclusion...).
History. Describe which historical periods, topics or trends attract you and why, what books you have read or maybe historical places you visited have influenced you, made you love history. At the same time, do not limit yourself to the banal “I fell in love with history when my dad took me to the castle on a tour” or “I think that history is important for understanding the world in which we live.” Try to identify the reasons, give specific examples. You may recall a powerful documentary or a discussion with your grandfather about World War II. Give evidence that you or any other modern person interacts with history in one way or another. For example, you play in a band, looking for inspiration in the music of the early 20th century performers. If you wish, you can even reflect on the fundamental issues of historical science, such as whether there is the only right and truthful way of displaying historical events.
Economics. Think about the unique characteristics of a local, national, regional, or global economy that you can highlight. Show understanding of economic and mathematical principles and concepts, but avoid retelling. Your task is to communicate something new, describe how these principles can be applied in the modern world in general and in everyday activities. A typical economics applicant will indicate that he is subscribed to The Economist, The Financial Times, or Frakonomics, thinking that this is a very original idea. Well, it is not. Better choose a couple events or questions and analyze their implications.
Psychology. Many applicants focus solely on the practical part of psychology — helping people, and neglect the importance of scientific theory, statistics and experiments, which often repels the admissions office. You are not required to retell the work of Sigmund Freud — it can be thematic books, magazines, websites or even podcasts that you found out of a love of psychology. If you have a personal story that brought you to the program, you can share it, but you should not spend a whole page on autobiography, describing every little detail of your mental condition. If you do not have any experience in the professional field, examples from your life will come to the rescue. For example, you can analyze the observations from your previous place of work or your participation in volunteer and other extracurricular activities.
Social work. In most cases, a social worker is not limited to helping only one group of the population, so it is worth showing your involvement with the problems of various layers of society. In your essay, remember the moments when you supported someone, be it in nursing homes, youth clubs, Sunday children’s groups, kindergartens, mentoring programs, or anti-bullying campaigns. Perhaps you had the opportunity to talk with a social worker and you have your own thoughts on the matter. Remember that the letter should carry the value of non-discriminatory behavior and awareness of the consequences of social inequality.
Teacher training and education. Tell us about your experience of studying or working in an educational environment. What, in your opinion, is the role of the teacher? What challenges do they face? What strategies of motivation and involvement do they use in the classroom? Describe the skills or qualities of the teacher that you think are of the utmost importance. Does any of them match with yours? Do not forget to explain why you chose the profession of a teacher, a specific age group of students and subject specialization. At the same time, avoid cliches like “I love children”, “I was born (a) to teach”, “Since childhood I (dreamed) to become a teacher”, etc.
Literary study. Obviously, in literature, as in no other direction, the admission committee will be especially sensitive to the language content of your letter. However, you are not required to imitate Tolstoy’s skill. Abstract philosophical statements, sentences stretched over the entire paragraph, elaborate syntactic constructions or overly complex vocabulary — none of these is the winning tactic. Indicate the works of the writers you like, which areas of literature you are particularly interested in. Be careful when choosing the most popular or well-known book from the school curriculum, but at the same time do not pick some strange poem or an eccentric writer for the sole reason of making an impression on an admission committee. What matters here is not what you have on the bookshelf, but whether you can demonstrate creativity, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking. At the same time, you can also appeal to broader cultural interests — theatrical productions, journalistic texts, etc. Of course, all this should be connected with the chosen course — the tale about Cinderella, that you read when you were 6, is unlikely to interest the commission.
Linguistics, modern languages. When writing a letter, take into account the specifics of the course you are applying to. If the focus is shifted towards applied linguistics, tell about the methods of learning languages that turned out to be the most effective for you. For specialties related to intercultural communication, note what opportunities for immersion in culture you used. It is not a single experience that is important, but the process of developing your interest, and the degree of involvement. If you have been abroad — what thoughts do you have about the culture, history, politics of the country you visited? If you spent a semester as an exchange student — were there any difficulties and how did you cope with the language barrier? If you watched an English film — are there any major differences from French movies that cover the same themes (for bilingual programs)?
Media studies and journalism. Decide in advance what you want to do — conduct media research, create your own media content, or combine both activities. Demonstrate an understanding of the role of media in the modern world, its social and cultural impact. You can even select a movie, TV series, game, website, indicating what features of their production, distribution and analysis you would like to master on the program. In case of practical journalism, it should be clear from your letter that you know about the work of a journalist, correspondent. Be sure to follow the main stories that are circulating in the media at the time to confirm your awareness if necessary. You can reflect on the difference in coverage of events and its objectivity. Although the admission committee insists on having work experience, do not be discouraged if you have none. A personal blog or school newspaper can sometimes teach more than a news agency. You can refer to your publications in a motivation letter, as well as send them along with the application documents.
Biology. Remember how you came into contact with biology in real life. Perhaps it was a camping trip or a visit to the university’s laboratory. Make sure to specify the areas of biology that interest you the most: the cellular structure, human physiology, the environment, or the science of living organisms in general. Do not mix biology with medical specialties, thereby showing lack of motivation in this area.
Environmental science. Show your knowledge of the subject and describe what attracts you to it — its interdisciplinary nature (research approach) or the possibility of a comprehensive theoretical and practical training. Think about the current environmental issues and what impact they have on you personally. What new ways to deal with them can you offer?
Chemistry. Many applicants try to demonstrate their knowledge by describing a particular theory or by bringing unsystematic observations on a subject that do not intersect with their real interests. Most often this is what the experts from the admissions committee know as well. Instead, try focusing on one or two examples of applying chemistry knowledge in real life. This may be a case at work, a lecture you attended or a documentary you watched — the main thing is to show that your interests go beyond the classroom. Do not forget to describe how you imagine the learning process itself (why are you sure that you will not get bored for 3-4 years of lectures and chemical experiments in the laboratory?) And your career goals.
Art and design. Name the artists or designers that you admire, reflect on the exhibitions or art galleries that you recently visited and which influenced your own work. Of course, it is important for members of the admission committee to understand your view on contemporary art, but it is much more important to see the uniqueness of your practical experience. Remember that a motivation letter is a kind of addition to the portfolio: you can refer to specific pieces you submitted, projects, explain what they represent.
Photography. Describe how you interact with visual art, what forms your professional interest (photographers, exhibitions, magazines and even websites), but do not limit yourself to the sphere of photography alone — perhaps you are also inspired by artists or writers. Do not forget to turn to your own work: the admissions committee appreciates the applicants who can tell what is hidden behind the objects in the picture, what methods the creator used to convey his idea of how he left the comfort zone. At the same time, be careful indicating your narrow specialization (for example, fashion photography), if you submit documents for a course with a general curriculum — this may reduce the chances of admission.
Performing arts. It would seem that motivation letters for such creative specialties, such as performing arts, should demonstrate the greatest degree of creativity. However, it is here that the most cliches can be found: “I am a natural born dancer”, “on stage I become a different person”, “music is my life”, “music is a universal language”, etc. Talking about your practical experience, it is worth remembering that your desire and ability to perform and play are good, but not enough for the university level. You need to understand what kind of professional development the degree can give you. The admission committee expects analytical skills, the ability to think critically, to interpret certain dance, theater, and musical works.
Dance. According to experts, the experience the student has in areas related to the movement, be it sports, martial arts or even a circus is very important. The main thing is to show how this led to the chosen program. Remember, in which dance groups you participated as an artist or organizer, what lessons you learned.
Drama. Write a letter knowing the program you are applying for, the alleged ratio of theory to practice is especially important. Think what areas are interesting to study: the work of directors, artists, designers, editors, theater troupes.
Music. Music is the basis for a number of programs: from creation technologies to stage performance, from composing lyrics to writing journalistic reviews, from pop to opera. Be prepared to justify your passion for a particular area, not music in general.
Architecture and building
Architecture. Given that architecture belongs to creative professions, many admissions committees insist the applicants present themselves and their motivation creatively. For others it is important to hear what specific buildings, structures you like. However, avoid the dry listing of tourist attractions — look for reasons. Indicate the architects whose work you admire, their signature style, and your opinion about them.
Construction, Building. Remember that each program is unique: if you apply for “Architectural Technologies”, you should not say that you want to become an architect, because it means that you do not know the difference and take this program as a backup option.
Planning. Explore the social, economic, and political aspects of urban planning, its relationship with design, and environmental factors. Find out what problems professional designers are dealing with, what ethical and practical challenges of this profession, you may have to face personally.
Physics. The main requirement is to demonstrate a genuine interest in science and technology. You can tell about how diligently you studied a particular issue of physics, what literature you found particularly interesting. But do not just say “I read “A Brief History of Time”(by the way, a fairly typical choice of the applicants). It is better to express your opinion on an urgent problem, for example, whether it is necessary to build more nuclear power plants. The most striking may be the part of the letter in which you talk about your own discovery, or even invention. Perhaps you built a rocket launcher out of a water bottle, and then realized that it was operating under Newton’s second and third laws. Similar stories really stand out.
Maths. Reading math books that are not in the curriculum, participating in math clubs, winning competitions, solving non-standard math problems. Try to remember the moments that brought you closer to choosing a future profession. Perhaps you participated and won in mathematical competitions. Which area of mathematical science is closer to you? Algebra, geometry, statistics or something else?
Computer science. Judging by the statements of the members of admission committees, letters with a story about the purchase of the first computer at the age of three did not age very well. Be unique. Express your point of view regarding a professional issue that has been a point of contention for you, for example, data privacy (consider the profile of the course you have chosen). Since computer science is closely related to mathematics, experience in both areas can make a difference. In addition to reading relevant literature, indicate whether you have been involved in programming projects. You may have written one simple program, but even this may be enough to show your involvement in the subject. Avoid general statements like “I am excited about artificial intelligence” or “You cannot do without a computer in the modern world” if you cannot explore them in a new and interesting way.
Engineering. Describe the work experience, project, or training course associated with the selected course. What was so interesting about them? What caused you some difficulties? If you haven’t had the chance to try yourself in a specialized field, focus on something that helped you develop your technical abilities and soft skills. However, do not go as far as talking about how you liked to play Legos or that the first word you spoke was “hydraulics”. Better remember your recent experience. Even if you just like to disassemble and repair items, watch their internal structure, include this in your essay.
Law. Any experience related to the activities of lawyers can be significant, be that actually working in a law office, a mini-internship, volunteering in the department of citizen counseling or just attending a court session. At school or university, you could have participated in debates or even been the organizer of your own debate club. Show that you have or are doing everything you can to develop the skills that are important for a lawyer — public speaking, persuasion, attention to detail. Mentioning certain events, show your interest in the analysis of their legal component.
Medicine. In medicine, practical experience is especially valuable. However, it is obvious that not everyone is able to observe the work of a doctor before admission (such a practice is known as shadowing a doctor). You can show interest in the profession by indicating the experience of caring for patients, mentioning some real situation that happened in the hospital (the doctor helped the unconscious patient, how the staff quickly manages even the most unusual incidents, etc.), including from the side of the patient (maybe once you were helped). At the same time, it is important to mention not so much the knowledge of medical techniques (which most likely you could not get by just observing), but your own understanding of the profession of a doctor, as well as ethical issues related to it. So, one of the representatives of the admission committee said in an interview that they are looking for candidates who not only want to help people, but also are really interested in improving the healthcare system and the wellbeing of society, and are not afraid to talk about death.
Dentistry. Perhaps the most popular and highly paid medical specialty. Of course, this may serve as a motivation for choosing the profession of a dentist, but ideally, the selection committee expects you to have a higher goal that is significant for society. In any case, always be honest with yourself. As in the case of general medicine, practical experience is valued here, which is not limited to medical practice alone (just observing how the doctor applied the filling is already an experience if you can tell what you learned from this). It will not be superfluous to mention a hobby that requires fine motor skills (modeling, playing a musical instrument), which will confirm good hand-eye coordination and attention to detail — important qualities for a future dentist.
Nursing. Describe your experience with the healthcare industry as a practitioner or observer. However, you do not need to spend valuable space on a general explanation of what the nurse is responsible for (rest assured the admissions committee knows this). You will demonstrate a greater understanding of the future profession if you reflect on what you personally thought was unusual, interesting, and special in nursing practice. Depending on the course you have chosen, consider what challenges you may encounter when working with people suffering from mental health conditions (mental health nursing), children (child nursing), adults and elderly people (adult and elderly nursing), etc.
Business and finance
Business and management. In this field, the selection committee wants to see a future innovator, an entrepreneur who is able to effectively communicate information. The structure and organization of a motivation letter is especially important here (otherwise how can you organize yourself if you cannot organize your letter). Express your own point of view on topical business issues: for example, why this or that company went bankrupt, which factors contributed to the revival of a brand. Present yourself as an initiative person who is able to identify and solve real business problems. You may have personal observations related to consumer market behavior, management styles, or marketing campaigns.
Marketing. Demonstrate an understanding of the marketing industry, how it changes depending on the needs of society, what role marketing plays in the functioning of business operations. Describe the situation when you were directly involved in the marketing processes. At the same time, it is important to show not the extent of the impact, but how this experience benefited you, even if the project as a whole turned out to be unsuccessful. Therefore, school or university initiatives also matter if you can properly sell them. You can mention the statistics that you read in reliable sources or a meeting with a successful businessman (of course, indicating that the conclusions were made by you).
Finance, accounting. In addition to general requirements, it is worth showing your interest and ability to quantitatively analyze business related issues. It is worth giving specific examples of how you applied mathematical skills to the analysis of business cases. By analogy with the previously mentioned fields, any experience counts: from an internship in a large financial company to a simple conversation with an accountant, from your own business to a student part-time job in a retail clothing store. What conclusions could you draw from this or that activity?
The article covers only the general principles of writing a motivation letter. In order to account for all the subtleties, you can seek professional help from UniPage. Based on the many years of experience, we will edit your motivation letter: we will cover your strengths and add depth to your essay, check grammar, improve the presentation style, help you to avoid generic writing and make your application truly memorable. You can find examples of our work in the "Analysis of motivational letters" section. Moreover, not only we can improve your motivation letter, but also take upon ourselves the handling of a full package of application documents, thereby saving you from the unnecessary paperwork hassle.