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Going places: letter of motivation

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Six important tips

Going on exchanges changed my life, and later the lives of my sons, in a very positive way. But writing a good letter and getting noticed among sometimes hundreds of applications, can be very daunting and difficult. I love that challenge and have helped many students and job seekers editing their personal statements (UK), also known as letter of motivation in the USA, or job applications. Here are some of my best tips. I hope it will help you get what you want.

1. Check first whether you’re indeed eligible for the exchange programme, traineeship etc. It is a waste of your time and energy to apply for something if you do not meet their basic requirements or criteria. Ditto for scholarships you may rely on.

If you want to study/work abroad, make sure whether the requirements/criteria vary per country of citizenship. If this is the case, find out what applies to you. If you qualify, find out exactly what qualifications you have to meet and what the deadlines are. You may have to get certain documents officially translated or take tests such as a GMAT as part of the application.This takes time. Make sure you have everything in order well before the deadline(s), preferably with enough time left to tackle contingencies such as a resit. Shit happens, also to you. Be prepared.

Okay, let’s say you qualify in principle, so you are ready to apply. You are probably one of many. Your letter of motivation is your big and often only opportunity to make an excellent good impression. How do you “knock them dead” and make them want to choose you, will you ask? Take the below into account and you have a much better chance.

2. Often the letter of motivation consists of answering questions that are part of the application. If this is the case, then you do not have to worry about structuring your motivation in a logical way. They have done that for you. Always write short, but to the point, paragraphs to the questions and do not use more words than is indicated. For instance, if it is stated: “Your answers should (read: must!) be less than 850 words in total.”, do not make it 875. If this is not indicated, it might be wise to call them and find out how long, or short, they want it to be. Stick to the maximum, preferably a bit below. Do not go overboard and go for “super short”, as this may make you come across as lazy, flippant or just not very interesting as you can be summed up in only a few words. Talking about “super short”, use humour wisely in your writings, especially as humour may differ per country, culture and individual. Better safe than sorry is my advice.

If you have to write a motivation from scratch, do this in a structured approach. Write short, but to the point, paragraphs with appropriate headings. Do this in a logical way. Start with introducing yourself, then go on explaining what you want to study and where (if there are several options) and how this is related to your goals/current study, how you will prepare yourself before going (take language lessons, read up on culture etc), what you expect to gain from it personally, and how you think it will benefit your future study/career goals. End with what you think you can contribute to the team/programme/university. By doing the last, you will demonstrate that you are also a giver and not only want to join the programme solely for your own benefit (see also 5).

State clearly why you want to participate in a way that makes you both look professional and stand out. For instance, you are studying medicine in Holland and you want to do your third year in China. You could write in your motivation: “It would greatly broaden my cultural competence, thereby helping me to become a better doctor for Asian patients. Being Dutch, I am used and trained as a doctor to think with a Dutch mindset. China is the most populous country and ranks third in the field of biodiversity. People in China suffer from infectious diseases unknown in Europe. Seeing and experiencing first-hand China’s health care system would greatly help me broaden my academic skills and thinking.”

3. Inventarise your specific traits and work/study experiences that are relevant to the position and make you stand out, and explicitly mention them in the letter. Mind you, this probably varies per programme, so make sure that your letter is relevant and to the point for each application. A knack for languages is handy to list for a French Summer Course but not necessarily the trait that will land you a place in Psychobiology. You don’t have any relevant things to list? Of course, you do! Go brainstorm with others to get a broader perspective. Are they going to apply too? Please do not all use the same phrases and traits.

To help you, an example answer to the question ”Why do you want to apply for the International Summer Immersion Course Japanese culture?”: “I love languages and am fluent in three (French, Flemish/Dutch, and English) and know some Spanish (beginner level). I love to take on challenges that enable me to grow and learn and take me out of my comfort zone. For instance, after graduating from Sint Lodewijkscollege in Brugge, I was an exchange student (average score: 3.5 GPA) in Chicago, USA. I studied new subjects such as Spanish, sports marketing, CAD designing and architecture. This year abroad taught me not only a lot about other cultures, but also about myself: I love being in an international environment and picking up new skills and interests. A summer in Japan would enable me to broaden my horizon in many more different ways, not only by learning a new language that is very different from the one I already know.”

4. Make sure that you can back up your statements. In the end, you don’t want to fall flat on your face during the interview or programme. If you don’t speak Chinese, don’t say you are “rather fluent” at it but had some basic lessons in high school which sparked your interest. If there is a requirement that you’re really not into and which makes up a big part of the programme: think hard before applying. It is listed for a reason.

5. I always advise to not only include what you want or think to gain from the experience, but also to end the letter with what you bring to the table and what you would like to contribute in return for the opportunity to participate. The team you want to join, foreign students that you will work with, the foreign university you will attend can also benefit from you, your culture and your skills. For instance, if you want to join the international case competition team of your university/college you could include things like: “As I have been temping as a waiter and international delivery driver to pay for college, I am used to adapting quickly to different (work) cultures and environments. Gathering information quickly and producing a professional, coherent presentation is one of my specialties. As I do diving in my spare time, I have learned to overcome obstacles by quick, resourceful thinking and to remain calm under pressure.” All handy skills to have in the team.

6. Happy with your letter? Check for spelling mistakes. Even better: have someone else check it for you. And no, preferably not your dyslectic brother (you may laugh at this but believe me: it happens!). Ask someone who is top notch in the language you’ve written your motivation in. Is this still important, as so many things are written incorrectly nowadays you might ask? Yes, it is! One of my coachees reported back the other day that during his final interview for pilot school he was complimented on the fact that he was the only one who had no spelling errors in his letter. Could he explain that? His (honest) reply was: It is not my strong point. But being accepted in your school is very important to me, so I made sure there were no spelling errors. He past with flying colours (pun intended, ?).

And do not forget the following things …

- You have to list your mobile telephone number? Make sure that you have an appropriate, professional photo on your phone account. Remember: First impressions are hard to undo, so start off on the right foot.

- Check your public social media (Facebook, LinkedIn etc.) and delete everything that is inappropriate. Or might be inappropriate. Golden rule: When in doubt, delete. What’s wrong with private mode, anyway?

- Google your name and photos online. Delete, if possible, anything inappropriate. Or be aware that during an interview you could be asked about this. Be prepared.

As you probably have found out by now, writing a good letter of motivation is hard work and not that easy. Take your time for it. The rewards are often life and mind changing. So go for it!


Judith Niekel-Sjoerds

Levenslooppsychologe en Coach

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