Most university courses, from undergraduate degrees onwards, expect a fair bit from applicants. Not only does each course have set academic requirements and forms to fill out; most applicants will also be asked to provide examples of their work, a CV, and even undertake special course-specific preparatory exams. Many masters courses – especially some very competitive ones, like the top MBAs – encourage applicants to obtain letters of recommendation from senior colleagues or academic supervisors. Atop this sheaf of papers sits the most intimidating prospect of all: the motivational letter.
A motivational letter, also known as a personal statement or a cover letter, is a short piece of writing all about you; your past, your ambitions, your personality, and your interests. While completing CVs and forms can be a little dry and boring, motivational letters can be hard to write. The combination of needing to produce such an intimate piece of writing, worded in such a way that it comes across as both authentic and professional, and then using it to sell yourself to a university, creates the perfect recipe for social awkwardness and writer’s block.
Despite the difficulty of writing a decent motivational letter, it’s a fundamental skill in today’s jobs market – once you leave full-time education, you’ll need to write motivational letters to potential employers. With this in mind, writing a motivational letter for a masters degree is excellent practice. Below, we’ve prepared a couple of fail-safe techniques you can apply to writing a motivational letter so that it won’t either sound sterile or arrogant, and will help you stand out from the crowd.
Cover the basics: The central function of a motivational letter is to convince the admissions team at the university of your choice to offer you a place, or invite you to interview. Make sure that the letter is structured in such a way that it serves this purpose – it is usual to conclude a motivational letter by asking directly that you be admitted or invited for interview, depending upon what the next step of the admissions process is. Equally important is the calibre of your written language; if your motivational letter is riddled with grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, or doesn’t make sense, the university will almost certainly refuse to admit you. A great starting point is to look at some templates for motivational letters in your chosen field, to see how they are structured, and what key points you need to cover.
Get personal: A standard for all cover letters – including those for job-seekers – is that you must address your letter to a specific person. For your masters course, it could be the Head of Department, or the academic staff member responsible for your masters study programme. If you will be working closely with an academic supervisor – as with most research degrees – your cover-letter should be addressed to the academic you’d prefer to supervise you. Use the university’s website to figure out who the right person is, and address the letter to them using their name and title.
Show, don’t tell: This is true of CVs, and is true of motivational letters too. “I am a good leader” sounds a lot weaker than “I led a group of my fellow students on a week long climbing expedition, where we successfully…”. Avoid any overly ambiguous statements, as these can diminish the confidence the admissions team may have in your motivations. Also, make sure not to show things twice – if you’ve discussed something extensively in your CV, don’t dwell on it in your motivational letter.
Do your research: Academic institutions often have a lot to say about their values, priorities and vision. What’s your target institution’s motto? Do they prioritise sports, arts, or something else? Do they have a statement of values? How do you reflect these things? The most important question to think about in relation to these things – why is it that you want to go here? Weaving your knowledge of these things into your letter is a great way to assure admissions tutors that your choice to study at their institution is an informed one.
Be specific: One of the biggest problems at application is that candidates don’t adequately explain why it is they want to study what they’ve applied for. Remember, you’ve got to explain your choice of subject, and your choice of institution. Not just “Why Biology?” but “Why Biology at this university?” If you don’t yet have answers to this question, then it is well worth going through the University’s website again, to work out what inspired you to take the next step, and apply for your chosen course.
Write a story: People love stories. They like to be taken on a journey, and brought to a satisfying conclusion. A list of superlatives or accomplishments is nowhere near as compelling as an epic story that weaves all that you’ve done into a coherent account, that supports the choice you’ve made to apply. Like all stories, make sure your motivational letter has a clear beginning, a middle, and an end. These should all follow logically on from one another, so that the reader is left feeling convinced of the suitability of your chosen course and institution, to your skills, experience, and goals.
Be interesting: This is without doubt the most important feature of a motivational letter – you absolutely must capture the reader’s interest. If you come across as boring (or worse, bored) on paper, it’s much less likely that you’ll get a positive reply. But furthermore, the interest you express has got to be personal, and it must relate directly to your motives. It’s absolutely no use whatever to produce some bland, boring page or two about hard work and how interested you are in your subject. This is exactly what every other candidate will write, and for the most competitive courses, you will want to stand out. But the best way to do this is not to try to be someone else; be yourself. Mention the fact that you like juggling. Talk about how you felt when your father was laid off work. Begin from your earliest memory. So long as what you say relates to what makes you the person you are, and then why that person has chosen to apply for this course, it deserves to be there.
What underscores all these points is a simple, and very ancient, piece of advice; know thyself. Nobody expects you to have everything figured out when you apply for a masters, but they will at least expect you to have a firm grasp of what you want out of the degree you’ve chosen to apply for. It’s in nobody’s interests for students to undertake courses for which they are ill-prepared, or that they haven’t really thought through – all you need to do is show your chosen university that this doesn’t apply to you.
And let’s face it; a masters degree is a fantastic opportunity, that will allow you to gain an expert understanding of a field about which you are passionate, and will build a bridge to a career that excites you – what could be easier to write about than that?