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Writing a motivational letter and a personal  statement: a practical guide

Personal Statement and Motivational Letter: instructions

Are personal statements important?

Imagine you are assessing a thousand applicants who all want to study mathematics. How would you choose the right people? Maybe they all have similar grades and equally strong references? Perhaps their school transcripts are much of a muchness? 

Assessors faced with a mountain of application forms need to make decisions, and they do this by taking a holistic approach to candidates, and not merely by adding up scores, grades and exam results. And this is where the motivational statement comes in, since it gives them an idea of who you are and what you offer, and provides you with a golden opportunity to speak directly to the people who will either offer you a place, or reject you. Seize this opportunity to shine and to make your pitch for a place on the course you want to study.

The quality of your personal statement can make a difference, so it is essential to do yourself justice and write a strong case for why you should be admitted.

How long should a personal statement be?

This varies, depending on whether you are applying for a Bachelor’s or a Master’s course, where you are sending your application and the country where you wish to study. UCAS, the UK’s central admissions system, specifies 4000 characters (including spaces) and 47 lines, while other countries accept from 500-1,000 words. You can check these requirements on the university website, or call us at Elab and we will give you the information.

At first sight, 4000 characters may seem like a lot, but in fact this translates into approximately one typed page of A4. You need to plan what you are going to say before you start writing, and to make sure that you structure your statement and include an introduction, the main body of the text and a short conclusion.

What should a motivational statement contain? 

You need to remember that the university will already have your grades, a list of the subjects you have studied at school and transcripts of your results, so do not waste time re-stating this material. Admissions tutors have advised that 80 per cent of your motivational statement needs to be focussed on academic content, and 20 per cent can describe your extra-curricular activities.

According to the so-called “necklace approach”, one effective method for structuring your piece is  to end with the idea or assertion you mentioned at the very beginning, and close the circle. For example, you may have said that the first time you danced in front of an audience showed you that dance was the career you intended to pursue. Using this example, you could end your statement by saying that you are now looking for new stages, bigger audiences and leading roles.

Pitfalls to avoid when writing your personal statement

University application departments have compiled a list of phrases they do NOT wish to see in your personal statement, including:

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Be specific. If you want to make the world a better place, talk about concrete examples: the cheap water filtration system you have been researching, or your ideas on cleaning the oceans and reversing the trend for fast fashion through social media. If you are open to other cultures, provide examples of how you have incorporated their traditions into your work. When Paul Simon was struck by the beauty of South African choirs, he produced something – and recorded the Graceland album. Companies such as Body Shop admired the use of natural ingredients in other parts of the world, and started selling argan oil, while interior designers popularised the introduction of the Mexican piñata, which is now widely found at parties. Maybe you did something positive on a smaller scale – did you organise an “empty the cages” day at your local dog shelter; set up a successful recycling scheme or work within your community to turn wasteland into gardens?

Introductions should not include the following phrases :

“From a young age I have been passionate about/interested in…”

“For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in/passionate about…” This does not sound convincing.

In addition, do not try to pull at heartstrings by laying bare your insecurities, social awkwardness and shyness, talking at length about your family business and how much you love your grandmother -who usually made you passionate about something! – or mention tragedies – unless they have some bearing on your degree course. For example, if your grandfather was ill for many years, and you followed the course of treatment and read up extensively on his condition and potential alternatives to his treatment, this could have played a major part in sparking your interest in becoming a doctor. Seeing one brilliant play , however, is unlikely to inspire you to study drama.

Finally, avoid humour – the person reading your motivational letter may be unamused by your attempt to raise a smile.

And do not quote others. This statement is about you. You may think you are showing that you are well-read and  sophisticated by stating “Martin Luther King had a dream – and so do I” – but whoever reads this will find it contrived and, frankly, annoying.

Be real and do not try to be cute or clever. It is unlikely to work.

Sections of your personal statement – what should they include?

Introduction

This should be a brief explanation of why you are applying for the course, and it is important to show that you know what it involves. Keep your sentences short and concise and avoid cliches. You could start by making a statement, to catch the reader’s attention. For example, you could say something provocative : “medicine is said to be a tool of big pharma, not a science”, “ history is a narrative created by the oppressors, not the people”, “mental health is the greatest threat to today’s society”. Make sure you can link your statement to the course you wish to study – whether to substantiate or argue against it. 

Main body

Now you have established why you are interested in studying a particular course, your next task is to show that you have the skills, and experiences, which make you a suitable candidate. You can refer to the course description and the skills it demands, and then demonstrate that you possess them. Show you are capable, ready and can make a contribution to the class. List your achievements, if they are related to the subject, or your academic qualities. Do not be frightened of emphasising what you have excelled in and provide examples. After all, if you do not state that you spent three months in China to hone your pronunciation, that you signed up for a series of laboratory experiments or that you volunteered on an archaeological dig in Sicily, the admissions department has no way of knowing. 

Work and voluntary experience should go in this section. Perhaps you volunteered to teach refugees because you are interested in language acquisition, or raised funds for a cause which is linked to your interests – and thus your degree. Make it clear why you took these jobs, what they taught you and how they impacted on your study and career decisions. Do not exaggerate, but let your enthusiasm shine through your writing.

Extra-curricular activities

These should go in the main part of your statement but make sure that you do not end up creating a boring list, such as “ I love art, reading, hip hop, YouTube documentaries, music, sport and nature”. This approach is not impressive. 

You will find that US universities leave a large amount of space in their application forms for extra-curriculars – which is not the case in the UK and Europe. Try to avoid the tired old statements about learning time-management and teamworking through sport – this is a little obvious.

Consider what unites your extra-curriculars: do they help you relax or excite you? Find a theme. Maybe you are highly sociable or enjoy visual stimulus? Think what links your hobbies and interests, and approach the subject from that angle.

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Conclusion

This is your opportunity to combine your skills, interests, experiences and personality and show the admissions board what you offer, both now and in the future. Talk about how  the course will help you reach your career goals – and spell them out. Do not end this section by asking for a place/a positive response!  This approach does not work.

Motivational/personal statements – a summary

When you are applying to a university, you are essentially a name or a number, and admissions boards know nothing about you except for quantitative data and whatever your referees decided to highlight. Writing a motivational/personal statement is the best opportunity you will get to leave an impression on the reader, particularly now that interviews are less frequently used to assess candidates and, at best, are held via Skype or Zoom. Interviews can and do make certain people very nervous, and many applicants respond by talking too fast, drying up, losing track of what they planned to say and forgetting half the information they wanted to share.

In contrast, a written document can be approached calmly, and you can take your time to revise what you have stated, until it is an accurate reflection of you, your achievements and your goals. It is important to ensure that you have made no spelling mistakes, that the grammar is impeccable, that you do not repeat yourself.  Try to find a balance between being confident and boastful, remain matter of fact when you are describing what you offer the university, and read the finished product out loud to family and friends, for their comments and suggestions.

If you would like help, then contact us, here at Elab. We have many years of experience and have submitted thousands of motivational and personal statements. Our consultants can give you objective  feedback and guidance, and help you polish this important document.

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