Many students think of the Letter of Motivation (LOM)/Statement of Purpose (SOP) as another piece of paper they have to submit while applying for university admissions. Let me tell you that mostly motivation letter is THE most important document in your application. It reflects not only your achievements, but also your personality. Take a moment and think of it as an interview. Admission committee is asking you questions and you write answers on a piece of paper. For example, question like
- Who are you?
- Why are you interested in our study program?
- Why should we choose you?
As you are communicating through writing, you cannot convey the charisma of your personality that you might have conveyed in an interview. So, you’ve got to convey the message through words and tell them why you stand out. This, you can do only if you know how to write a good statement of purpose.
NOTE that I’m using statement of purpose (SOP) and motivation letter as interchangeable phrases. Some people might argue that these are two different types of documents. I, however, am not going into that debate. I’m basically talking about writing that “essay”, which presents you to the admission committee, let it be the SOP, motivation letter, personal statement or any other name depending upon how the university is calling it. I’ll use the term “motivation letter” in this post.
Following are some tips that would help you write that essay and stand out as a candidate.
Read the instructions carefully
Some institutions have clear instructions on writing a motivation letter.
- Length: number of pages or words.
- Specific questions: sometimes universities ask you to answer specific questions. For example, some programs that require work experience might ask how your experience will help you through the course of study. So you not only mention your work experience in the motivation letter, you should also try to relate it to your intended course of study.
- File format: pdf works most of the times, but it’s always a good idea to double check the file format required by the university.
Pick a good writing style
Your motivation letter should be a good combination of formal and casual tone, slightly inclined to the formal language. Neither should it sound too formal like a letter to a company or organization, nor too casual like an email to a friend. It should be written in a way that keeps your readers interested by entertaining them, yet conveys your message in a persuasive manner. Be careful with your jokes. A good sense of humor is appreciated, but don’t go too far unless you’re applying to become a comedian.
Learn to portray yourself
Motivation letter is your chance to portray yourself. Introduce yourself briefly, sum up your academic career as well as life experiences. Don’t believe in the statements you hear like “motivation letter is just a detailed version of your CV”. Think about it, why would a well-educated and experienced group of people (admission committee) ask you to do so? They’re capable enough to sketch you through your CV. Convey them the charm of your personality before they make assumptions about you. This, you can do, only if you know how to portray yourself in a good way.
Following are some of the qualities you should convey through your motivation letter
- Clear vision
- Willingness to run an extra mile
- Communication skills
- Team work
It’s a good practice to show these qualities indirectly. Avoid writing “I am self-motivated, dedicated and so on.” Rather, convey these attributes through life events, through stories. Stories are always interesting to read.
Do your homework distinctively
Admission committee wants to know why you are applying to their study program. Dig deeper than Google and Wikipedia because every other student has probably done that too. Do some unique research; ask alumni, explore the history of the program and the institution, get to know about their current ventures and future goals. That’s how you make them believe that you really are interested in their program. For example, if you know that a particular school is famous for its football games, for instance SEC schools in the USA, and you’re a football fan, then show them your passion for the game by using the nickname they have for their team and say a few words about the environment they have on college game days. This shows them that you’ve done your homework distinctively.
By the way, they know that you’re applying to other universities as well because top notch schools have acceptance rate that is normally less than 10%. You have to convince them that despite of the fact that you might have applied to other universities to be on the safe side, you want to join their program (well if you really do).
Convince them for “Why You”
Relate your past experiences and especially your future goals to the program you’re applying for, tell them how would you benefit from the program more than other applicants. Additionally, show them how the program might benefit from you (this point might matter particularly for the marketing purposes when you’re applying to some private institutions). If you’re applying for a master’s degree or a PhD, choose a professor or a research team that is working in the specialization field you’re interested in and write that you would like to work with that professor or team. This shows that besides being interested, you’re also focused.
Don’t do this
Here are some of the points you should try to avoid while writing your motivation letter. It will affect the whole impression of your writing and won’t convey the message in the way you wanted it to be conveyed.
- Don’t start your introductory paragraph with cliche lines such as “I always wanted to be a neurosurgeon since my childhood.” Or “Many of my family members and friends are mechanical engineers, so I also want to become one.” Trust yourself, you can do better than that. Be creative!
- Don’t digress, otherwise you won’t be able to convey as many points as you wanted to. For instance, it’s okay if you want to write that the nature of your parent’s job had an impact on your decision making but it’s not fair to start writing details about their jobs (unless you feel that it’s necessary to include some details to really convey your idea). Try to convey the influence of different life events on your personality and decision making, instead of adding small details of those events.
- Don’t make grammatical or spelling mistakes. It’s a bad impression.
- Don’t copy and paste. Other than resulting in the disqualification of your motivation letter in most of the cases, it might also make you face some copyright issues.
Explain your weaknesses
Some students use their motivation letter to talk about any weaknesses in their admission application. You can, for example, explain why you got bad grades in a particular semester. You might have been sick or you’ve had some family reasons. However, be careful about this decision. Write about any weakness only if you think that this particular weakness could have a negative impression on your application and more importantly, if you really have a good explanation for it.
Take feedback from your professors
Normally students get some feedback from their friends, which is good because feedback always helps. However, most of the times, friends just praise your work or they’ll make fun of it just to tease you. So, it’s always a nice idea to approach some of your professors and show them your motivation letter. Additionally, the professors you’re approaching for help might have been members of admission committee at some point in their lives. Even if that’s not the case, they may definitely give you valuable feedback. However, make sure to check the confidentiality conditions with the university you’re applying in because some universities might ask you to keep your motivation letter confidential.
Master the art of Tailoring
One of the most common question that every student comes across is, should I write a general letter and send it to all the universities or should I write a completely different letter for every university? I think neither of these approaches is a smart. You should actually learn how to tailor a writing. Some people prefer to write a motivation letter that is a thousand words long, and then they cut it short for different universities according to the theme they have in mind for that university and according to the word limit. On the other hand, some people like having a short letter consisting of some key words. They use it as a base and write the complete letter using the theme and word limit. Choose whichever method suits you or create one of your own. But, you should have something that you can modify and save time in case you’re applying to many universities, yet being unique for every piece of writing.
To sum up, there is no “one solution fits all” sort of approach when it comes to Motivation letter. Just remember the fact that almost all the students getting accepted to a particular study program have their motivation letters written in different styles. Some people, for example, start writing the past events, then they move on to the present projects and build a base to write about their future goals. While some others prefer starting with their present or future. I would suggest you to be yourself, focus on your content and try to convey it in the best possible way you can. Start with the first draft of your motivation letter, revise it couple of times, get feedback from appropriate people and write the final version that you could tailor according to the requirements and nature of application for different universities.
In this post, personal views and opinions are expressed. If you have any questions or suggestions, please let me know in the comments below.