In this article I want to share my approach to writing a cover letter – sometimes known as a motivation letter. This step-by-step process has helped me win numerous scholarships, and proved itself effective for others, too.
Many universities rely on test scores, grades, and percentiles to sieve through the prospective candidates. These indicators provide a good cut off but how do you select the top candidates?
That’s when your academic experience and extracurricular activities come in.
What’s In It For The University?
When you write a cover letter, you need to approach it from two sides. First, you need to show off your best and most relevant qualities.
Second, you need to hit the nail on the bull’s eye with the criteria the organisation is looking for.
Once you find an overlap between what you can offer and what the organisation needs, you’ve hit the jackpot.
What Are They Looking For In An Ideal Candidate?
The number one place to look for the criteria is the job/programme description.
If you pay attention to the tasks and responsibilities or a description of an ideal candidate posted on the website, you’ll quickly realise that it’s pretty much a step-by-step plan you could go through to see what personal experience of yours is relevant.
A good strategy here would be to create a table and come up with a personal anecdote for each of the criteria/responsibilities. This then will help you justify you being experienced.
Your Whole Life In Just 500 Words
The number one problem that we encounter when writing a cover letter is waffling. When your word count is limited, you can include ever so many details about your experience.
But what if I won’t be able to mention all of my projects/competitions/ social activities?
The main point of the cover letter is to provide a scope of highlights from different areas of your life. (With more emphasis on academic/work experience).
What To Write About – Your Experience In Five Steps
If you don’t know where to start, do a sorting exercise. Put all your life experiences into five categories and go from there:
- Academic achievements
- Academic achievements beyond curriculum
- Hobbies and projects
- Work experience
- Future plans
Talk about your results, being in the top 5% of the class, mention your attempts/success in science competitions.
Summarise your interest in the field and how you’ve already taken steps towards mastering certain skills.
Also, what have you done to go beyond the curriculum?
Do’s And Don’ts
- Start drafting your essay ahead of time.
- Check the requirements for the programme – word limit, specific information to include, etc.
- Check for typos!
- Write in a positive tone and avoid being a Debby Downer.
- Show your genuine interest in the programme through your experience!
- Use words you can’t explain – admission officers don’t have time to search for word definitions.
- Waffle – it’s ok to word your thoughts differently from what you initially intended. Don’t get bogged down by the wording.
- Exaggerate or lie. Don’t try to be who you aren’t.
- Wait until the last minute. Come on, we’ve been here before.
Typical Mistakes To Avoid
Having No Structure
Try to develop your thoughts so that you have a clear introduction, the main body with arguments, and a conclusion.
Later in the article I will provide a structure that works every time I write a motivation letter – adopt it, modify it, and use it.
Long Sentences With No Details
Although linking words and introductory phrases are an acceptable way to show the flow of your thoughts, avoid fluffy sentences that are not information-dense.
An Essay Plan That Works Every Time
Paragraph One: Introduction
Please do not start with a quote. This trivial move will only take up the precious words. Instead, talk about how you became interested in the field and which problems you are aiming to solve.
Mention a life mission that you’re striving for – it’s always nice to show that you’re planning your life beyond the programme of studies.
Paragraph Two: Academic interests and achievements
Elaborate on your academic interests and talk about how your previous studies are linked to the desired programme. What is it that makes this programme unique to you?
Paragraph Three: Achievements beyond the curriculum
Don’t mention your GPA or exam results unless they will have a WOW effect on the reader. Instead talk about how you apply the knowledge you received previously in real life.
Give examples of topics/practical work/ projects that spurred you to dig deeper and lose track of time.
Also, this paragraph is a good chance for you to show your academic maturity. Provide evidence of you taking your academic interest beyond the curriculum.
Include information about university-level courses (or online courses) you attended, Olympiads and competitions you took part in, and the internships you took.
Paragraph Four: Work experience
Here you can mention relevant work experience that will differentiate you from the rest of the applicants.
Show the reader that you have the competitive advantage that will put you ahead of the curve.
In case your only work experience is in something not relevant to the field of study you’re aiming for, you have two options.
You can mention the skills you acquired during that placement and talk about how they will help you with the studies. Alternatively, you can focus on relevant work experience only.
Paragraph Five: Other interests, achievements, activities
You probably have taken part in projects outside the academic scope. It could be some volunteering opportunity, leadership training, or a hobby.
Here you can talk about the books you’ve read on the topic and the lectures you’ve attended. Show what makes you distinct.
Paragraph Six: Conclusion – How will my experience help me succeed?
Make sure to summarise all the information you’ve previously talked about by covering two points.
First, explain why studies at a university abroad will be beneficial for your future career. Second, share the results you’re aiming for as part of your studies
This concludes the rough plan you can use to structure your thoughts. And now let’s zoom in on one paragraph and talk about strategies you could apply to avoid waffling.
How To Create Strong Arguments
- The ABC Method. This is a good old acronym that helps you smoothly develop your thoughts.
First, mention the activity (A), then explain the benefits (B) you received upon completing the task. In the end, summarize how exactly this benefit, e.g. knowledge or a skill, will help you throughout your studies/course (C).
- Alternatively, you can use the SEXI body technique borrowed from the IELTS preparation article.
Develop your thought by giving a topic sentence or a statement (S), then explaining your idea (E) and providing evidence through examples (X). And to top it all up, mention the importance of the activity (I).
There you have it. Hopefully, with these little tricks and the plan writing a cover letter will become more enjoyable.
Remember to be open to change and know that it will pay off in the long run!
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