You just finished school, your bachelor’s – or master’s degree and want to apply to a study program and you need to include a motivation letter? I have written a few of these myself, but most importantly, I was part of the admission committee of our master’s program and read and graded a lot of these letters for two years in a row. I noticed some mistakes that applicants commonly made and decided to share them with you here to help you avoid making them.
First of all, why is a good motivation letter important? Most universities receive hundreds, if not thousands of applications on a small amount of available seats. All of those applicants are unique, inspiring, and probably have good reasons for applying. Unfortunately, the university needs to somehow sort them out by specific admission criteria. The master’s program I was part of had for example only 20 places. Applicants were ranked based on their overall grade of the previous degree, prior experiences in neuro- or cognitive sciences, and the letter of motivation. All of these parts got them a specific amount of points. The more points you have, the higher the chances that you will be admitted are. With a great motivation letter, you will be able to compensate your grades or experiences.
Let’s start with the 8 common mistakes people make when writing a motivation letter:
1. Not Stating the Reason for Choosing This Specific Program and University
This is probably one of the biggest and most common reasons some applications get rejected. If you only state that you want to study e.g. in Germany, why should the admission committee choose you for this program if there are a lot of other universities in Germany, too? Did you even read the description of the program? Or are you just sending the same motivation letter to every university? Trust me, the admission team notices. It is totally fine to base your motivational letters on the same draft, but you should at least adjust it to the program and the university you are applying to.
Tip: Maybe even name a few courses or practices you are especially looking forward to participate in! What do you like about the structure of the program? This way you make sure that people notice that you did your research on the program.
2. Addressing the Wrong Person
Usually it says on the website of the university which person to address with the applications. If you are not sure or it is not clear, use a neutral form of address.
Examples: Dear XX / To whom it may concern / Dear admission committee
3. Not Explaining Why You are a Good Fit
The letter of motivation is not only there to show why you will benefit from the university and the program, but also to sell yourself as a good fit for the university. What qualifications do you already have and how did you get them (e.g. internship, bachelor’s thesis)? What are you currently doing? How will the university / research group and the other students benefit from you?
4. Over- or Understating Yourself
Be realistic. Don’t brag about all your amazing grades and awards that you have received. They should be listed in your CV and transcript of records and it could make you look like a ‘know-it-all’. Don’t underestimate your skills either. Find the right balance for advertising yourself.
5. Not Stating Your Motivation
Weirdly enough for a motivation letter, some people forget to include their motivation and only explain their CV in sentences instead. The motivation is the most important part of your letter, especially if you can’t show too many skills or experiences in the field yet or your grades are just on the borderline. Your well-explained motivation can be worth more than grades and experiences. It shows that you are eager to gain new knowledge and improve your skills. It shows that you want to engage with the program and that you want to learn. Your motivation could be personal experiences or specific interests that you have always liked to follow up on. Here is where you can get personal, but remain professional. Make it a small story and interesting to read and make sure that it fits the program you are applying to.
6. Not Meeting the Requirements
This one should be rather obvious, but definitely stick to the requirements (e.g. word limit, page limit, questions) that the university you are applying to has. If you have a page limit of one page, make good use of it and don’t hand in a significantly shorter piece.
7. Using Overly Flattering Language
Be positive, but don’t exaggerate. If you are using too flattering language it can make you seem desperate.
8. Writing the Letter in the Wrong Language
This definitely depends on the program. Some do accept several languages (English and the first language of the country). However, if your program will be conducted in English, this is a good opportunity to show your English writing skills, especially when you haven’t taken the English proficiency test yet.
Things to Consider When Writing the Motivation Letter
- Include a title (e.g. Letter of Motivation for the XX Program at XX University)
- Which personal experiences and interests make you motivated to study in this program? How did your interest in the field develop?
- What are your career goals?
- Where are the connections between your career goals and the chosen program and university?
- Why is it exactly this program that will take you further?
- How will the program help you to further develop your skills and knowledge?
- Why are you a good fit? Which skills do you already have? How will the university / the other students benefit from you being part of the program?
- Don’t forget to finish with a conclusion (something like: ‘In conclusion, I am certain that I will productively contribute to the XX program and that it will be a great opportunity for broadening my knowledge and skills, personal growth, and my academic career. Thank you for taking my application into consideration, I am very much looking forward to your response.’)
Tip: Don’t answer these questions one after another, try to make it a flowing story with a nice introduction. Everyone loves to read stories. When stating your skills, try not to list them either but rather state the actions that made you develop those skills (for example that you did an internship or gained teaching experience supervising a class). Make sure to check for grammar and spelling mistakes and format the letter neatly.
I wish you the best of luck with your applications and career goals! Let me know if you found something helpful here for you.
Stay safe. Stina. ❤
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