Writing motivation letter to the university
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How to write a motivational letter

Motivational letter vs Personal Statement. The difference

Motivational letters are not identical to personal statements. They focus on the future: your plans, career objectives. In short, the reasons why doing a particular course at a specific university is essential to your development and your master plan. Personal statements, in contrast, tend to dwell on past experiences and achievements.

Motivational letters should start by clearly stating which course you want to take and move on to describing your ambitions. Do not give your name, your place of birth, your school/university grades etc. This information forms part of your application form and is readily accessible to the admissions board.

Both pieces do share certain traits: they are personal and not discursive, and focus on you rather than resembling a generalized essay.

Even if you are not given a word count, neither motivational letters nor personal statements should exceed 700 words. Some universities will specify how many characters can be uploaded. For example, UCAS sets a limit of 4000 characters, which includes spaces – or how many words you can use. Do not exceed these numbers.

You must bear in mind that admissions committees read literally hundreds of motivational letters, and you need to plan yours well in advance. Thus, to ensure that it stands out from the competition and makes a strong case for your suitability, and persuades the assessors to accept your application.

Motivational letters – what to avoid

First and foremost, do not get tempted to download a template from the internet and personalise it. They are not well-written for the most part, and demonstrate a laziness which will antagonize admissions staff and virtually guarantee rejection. If you cannot make the effort to write a motivational letter of your own, this is a red flag. It indicates that you will take any and every shortcut in your academic career and think plagiarism is acceptable. It is not.

Do not boast or make any dishonest statements.

Vocabulary is important. Your motivational letter has to be extremely specific, so it won’t do to use generalised expressions, such as “I am passionate about biology”, “I have a deep interest in biology” or “I really love biology”. This is meaningless. Taking biology as an example, try, instead, to cite areas of biology you want to study : cell mutation, for example, autoimmunity and tolerance, preventing graft rejection. Whatever you have been attracted to and now want to examine in greater detail.

State which features of the field interest you, the questions you want to answer, and the topics you intend to pursue. If you are going to cite a particular author or book, there is absolutely no point in summing up all their arguments. The committee will already know what they say.

You could use their work to illustrate a point or challenge a school of thought. For example, you could quote Sartre’s  “to be is to do”, and state that you prefer Camus’ “to do is to be” – which is why you have been doing X, to strengthen your personal/academic development.

Take into consideration:

  • Do not use the phrase “I am applying to your prestigious university”, or similarly ingratiating vocabulary. Similarly, it is unwise to add a note of begging or entreaty at the end of your motivational letter.
  • Be factual: you want to study X because of Y, you are capable and hard-working, and you can make a significant contribution to your year, your department and the university.
  • Don’t use too many adjectives. Words like “really”, “very” and “passionately” are essentially padding and should be cut out.
Be attentive! Writing motivational letter requires effort
Be attentive! Writing motivational letter requires effort

Motivational letters – how to set them out

  • Choose a clear font – Times New Roman, Calibri or Arial. Keep the font around 11 or 12, so it is legible.
  • Do not imply that the reader is inattentive by typing phrases and words in bold. Emphasis has to come from the text, not heavy-handed use of fonts.

Structuring a motivational letter

Paragraph your motivational letter carefully. You could write a short intro and exit, and dedicate the middle and largest section to the subject, your experience and interests.

If these are varied, you could opt for the five paragraph approach, dividing the main section into three short paragraphs. This would be useful, for example, if you want to study nursing and have

1) spent time volunteering with an NGO;

2) taken part in a survey of nurse retention rates;

3) studied nursing history and its evolution.

Each of these topics, while linked, should be covered separately, and you need to emphasise what you learnt in the different environments. Therefore, how this has shaped your ambition to study nursing.

Keep circling back to the course!

Ensure your writing is both clear and succinct. Do not ramble, or repeat yourself or use phrases like “as I have already stated”. You have limited space to make your case for acceptance.

If you are going to talk about your character, then only do so if you can link your personality to your interests and experiences. Try not to say you are “curious”, and if you must use that word, explain exactly what you are curious about and how this motivates you.

Think of the motivational letter as a disc. The subject you want to study is the central hub, and everything else is linked to it. Unrelated information has no place in a motivational letter. If you wish to study medicine, then your volunteering experiences in refugee clinics are relevant. Whereas, your love of hip hop is less pertinent.

In a similar vein, if you want to state that you are a determined individual in your motivational letter, you need to link this to your academic potential. Show how your interest in a specific subject drove you, perhaps to take online courses, to learn a new programming language, to undertake a practical project or work as an au pair or tour guide to improve your linguistic abilities.

This is much more effective than merely listing a long, unsubstantiated and boring number of character or personality traits.

Be precise! A motivational letter requires structure.
Be precise! A motivational letter requires structure.

Motivational letters – be specific

Your motivational letter has to demonstrate that you know what and where you are applying to study. You need to read the university website carefully and understand the course, its modules and the teaching approach. You should cite the modules which you want to take, and explain why.

If possible, emphasise why particular professors or research projects being undertaken at the university attract you and tie in with your personal interests. And what you would like to contribute.

Instead of saying “I wish to be part of the university community”, spell out what you can do and add. Perhaps you are a great rugby player, a talented musician or actor/actress, or someone who wants to join a university business group. Once again, name the clubs or societies you would join, rather than simply saying that you enjoy sports and debates etc.

You need to show that you have chosen this particular course and university because of what it offers – and that you have researched your choices.

And finally…

Once you have finished the first draft of your motivational letter, put it aside for a day or two, and then reread it with fresh, critical eyes.

Next, read it to someone else and ask for their feedback. Listen to their suggestions and criticisms, and make any changes you feel will improve your motivational letter. Repeat this process one or two times, until you are convinced that you have produced a polished, finished product.

Finally, run a spellchecker to make sure that it is grammatically correct and not littered with spelling mistakes.

And there you are! Armed with a strong motivational letter to attach to your application form and ready to start the next phase of your educational journey.

Good luck.