Five reasons why your motivation letter doesn’t deliver

A handful of my students are now living their academic dreams in Prague, Budapest and some other beautiful places in Europe. I like the feeling when they sent me a thank you email for editing their motivation letter; truly wonderful to hear that they are now in other parts of the world doing amazing things. Although, in a way, who am I taking the credit cz honestly, all I ever did was to put the icing on the cake. They had more than enough achievement to showcase in their letter. All I did was to help just a tiny tiny bit with the wording.

But not everyone is like them: chairman of this, winner of that, perfect GPA and the future shines bright. I know because my workshops on motivation letter writing somehow always wound up in pep talks. Some people struggle to even see their own worth, while all these exchange programs, scholarship schemes, youth development and the like, they are looking for someone who stands out in a crowd. See the problem here? Standing in a crowd takes confidence and self-assurance. As cliché as it may sound, but no one will believe you if you don’t believe in yourself.

Ok so what to do then? Plan. Make a list of situational questions and then jot down the ideas, write as much as you can. Imagine mining diamond: first thing is you need to look for the ore, and this ore is not gonna present itself, so you need to excavate the whole riverbanks. Only after you exhaust all the possibilities will you find the realest gem you want to present in your motivation letter. In doing so, there are a few things you might want to keep in mind, the five possible reasons why your motivation letter doesn’t pull through:

Reason #1: You’re a square peg in a round hole

Research the type of person the scholarship or the exchange program wants. One program is different from another depending on the sponsor’s agenda. For example, foreign government sponsorship might look for someone in their mid-career to be funded for a master’s degree. They don’t want a fresh grad cz their aim is to strengthen the bilateral relationships. They do this by targeting people with strategic positions in strategic institutions. If you’re a fresh grad with no prior work experience, then you’re a square peg in a round hole. Find something that suits you like a sponsorship that welcomes just about anyone, without looking at their home institution.

Then after you find something that suits you, you need further research. One program might look for someone with an extensive organizational experience, someone with outstanding leadership qualities who has done a lot of social initiatives. If you’re a super smart person with perfect GRE and things but has little experience in organization, you’re still a square peg in a round hole. Find a program that emphasizes on the academic competence instead. See also their area of priority. One program might prefer STEM graduates than the social science ones.

Now going back to riverbank excavation. Say that you have found the program that suits you the most. They still need to see if you person they’re looking for. They’ve got very specific ideas in mind yes? Meanwhile, as a person and a professional, you consist of multi layers and constellations. Without the excavation you might answer the scholarship questions with whatever first thing that crosses your mind. Oh, such a shame. There is this forgotten diamond just one dig away, the one that will make you shine the brightest.

Reason #2: You tell but you don’t show

OK now you know you stand a bigger chance in that one particular program. You have done your excavation, you’ve got a list of achievement and whatever things you can be proud of, and you’re ready to write your motivation letter. Remember that you need to show. Don’t just tell and expect people to take your word for it. Imagine to hear someone say something like: I am really good at fundraising and I am also very creative. Nope. Not gonna believe it. Show it. Show how good you are by presenting the cases, something like: During the second year of my study, I led the disaster relief in X. I was in charge for fundraising. I organized donations from students, general public, local businesses and government institutions. I used creative method of presentation to garner support.. and so on and so forth. Now this sounds more like it, don’t you think?

Reason #3: You don’t give credit to people

The way I see it, most scholarships are looking for an emerging leader, or at least a good team player. Don’t tell. Show. OK but the next thing is to acknowledge that you didn’t save the world all by yourself. No leader is going to take all the credit by themselves. Yes, it’s a motivation letter and you need to show your qualities but there is a fine line between that and self-glorification. Going back to the disaster relief experience. It’s I: I led, I was in charge, I organized. What about if we change this into we, something like: During the second year of my study, I participated in disaster relief in X. My team was in charge for fundraising. We collected donations from students and the general public. We also accepted donations from local businesses and government institutions in the form of emergency supplies such as foods, blankets, toiletries, medicines and tents. My specific task was to identify the most immediate needs in each refugee camp and allocate the sufficient amount of supplies and so on and so forth.

It's “my team” and “we” and “my task was” and not just centering the spotlight on the I. Yes, it’s a motivation letter and you need to show off but I’m thinking that maybe we can make it sound less like a display of inflated ego and grandiose sense of self.

Reason #4: You only tell about your professional achievement

In a workshop, a student asked, “But Miss, I don’t have the certificate to prove that I organized the charity” despite the fact that he did lead the team and everything else. I understand that our culture has made us obsessed with paper work, documentations, and other sociological artefacts. If there is no official stamp then it didn’t happen. If there is no paper with your name on it then you didn’t do it. Tell you what, when you are going to write your motivation letter, leave this mentality at the door. As long as it’s true, I would say, say it. I suppose selection committee will have plenty of ways to prove it, from the interview for example. It’ll show anyway. If it’s true then you’ll recall the details without any problem.

Then another student asked, “But Miss, I’m not a leader of anything and I have never organized a charity. How can I show that I have all these skills?” By they meant skills were the learning management, problem solving and other fundamental leadership qualities. So, then I asked them if they had gone through a hard time and made it out alive and they wowed me with all sorts of things, from tackling financial difficulty and family issues to overcoming the fear to speak in public, from teaching street children to cleaning up rivers. See the thing is, a well-rounded person is not all about the profession and the academic achievement. And that’s something students often fail to see.

Reason #5: You don’t use hedging

This is a linguistic thing. Hedging in academic writing is to be tentative and non-committal, to avoid making claims that are too bold. Logical fallacy in academic writing, especially by a second language learner, has a lot to do with hedging language. And this is a problem in motivation letter writing too. For example, someone wrote: “My initiative to start a discussion club made students from other departments follow suit” Yes, this is good but can we hedge just a little? What about something like: “My initiative to start a discussion club in the English department has encouraged students from other departments to follow suit”

Well, but this hedging thing takes practice. I see a lot of students with great potentials and they’re amazing in their fields of study but when it comes to presenting themselves in a piece of writing, they don’t look as wonderful as they are in real life. I wouldn’t blame them though. Second language writing, by all means, is not that simple.

Ok so that’s it then for now. This is February and I know some people are preparing their scholarship applications. Some have requested to edit or proofread their motivation letters, some are my former students, some are clients. Some seem to be on top of their schedule and manage to complete everything before deadlines are approaching, some seem to have lost it cz they were like gone and didn’t get back to me. See that’s gonna be my final remark. All these tips on motivation letter writing, there is one thing that holds the most importance: the grit, the endurance to follow through, the indomitable spirit. I can say a lot about the writing part, but at the end of the day, it’s the grit that’s going to help you succeed. Those who are now in Prague and Budapest, they have it. They didn’t back away when there was a setback and that’s that.