How to Write an Effective Scholarship Motivation Letter
Believe me when I say that not all scholarships are won purely by an outstanding academic record. Sometimes, smart self-marketing is all that's standing between you and that European scholarship.
By now, you must already know that writing a motivation letter is and will be part of every higher education degree application. Love it or hate it, you will have to live with it if you'd like to pursue a master's or a Ph.D.
So, what is a motivation letter?
When you pay for an expensive gadget like a new laptop, you'd like to know what it can do and why you should buy it. A motivation letter works pretty much the same way: it helps the evaluators allot limited resources and choose a candidate who they think can both contribute and gain something significant through the program.
A scholarship motivation letter for a master's or Ph.D. program is around 450 to 1000 words long and typically requires you to state your academic interests, why you have chosen that program, and what your plans are after graduation.
If it's your first time applying for scholarships and writing a motivation letter, do know that it's most likely that you'll have to revise it multiple times. There's also a certain tone to adopt when writing for an academic audience, and a motivation letter is no exception. This is not the time to go all sentimental and anecdotal - treat it as you would any piece of academic writing.
Having mentors and colleagues check your work also make a whole lot of difference. I got in contact with a former professor who was studying his masters with a scholarship at that time, and he gave me very useful feedback as to how I could improve my motivation letter. So don't feel like you're in this alone: get help from professors, supervisors, and colleagues.
What makes a scholarship motivation letter effective?
The first thing you need to do is to read up on what the program you're applying to is about. A motivation letter should show a good fit between you and the program, so you can't just go on and write about how much you want that scholarship. You have to convince them to give it to you.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What are the program's objectives?
- What kind of professions are they preparing their students for?
- What's their vision for their graduates?
- How will my previous degree, work experience, background, and interests fit in all these?
If you're changing careers through a masters degree, it's normal to feel like you don't have enough experience in the field. But don't worry - scholarship evaluator, are quite used to applicants from diverse backgrounds and often see a lot of value in it as their unique perspectives make class discussions more interesting.
For many sectors like education, international relations, and policy, interdisciplinarity is highly valued. If you propose to use your background with the program's focus in a unique way, you will actually increase your chances of getting the scholarship.
Let's take a look at how I managed to relate my clinical practice to my master's program's objectives and create a tailored scholarship motivation letter:
Firstly, I read my program's objectives and picked the ones I could connect to my personal trajectory (objectives lifted from the program website):
- Train professionals to design and develop educational policies concerned with lifelong learning
- Train professionals to develop the competences required in order to mediate between the educational community and the needs of the local environment
Although I've never worked as a lifelong learning specialist, much less in the formal education setting, I was able to draw a plausible connection between my occupational therapy practice and education policy through the following steps:
1) In relation to the first objective as stated above, I provided a clear example of how I got interested in education policy as an occupational therapist. I had a hunch that there were a lot of structural limitations impeding my clients to live their full potential, so I showed that a clinical practitioner like me acknowledges that half of the problems lie outside the therapy room (e.g. lack of policies to support the special needs population).
2) In relation to the second objective, I highlighted my experience working with families, teachers, and other professionals in an interdisciplinary setting to show that I was involved in the community and was attuned to the needs of the local environment.
3) I made it clear that learning concerns me as a professional. I qualified my occupational therapy practice as a teaching experience, although you can see that I'm not a classroom teacher and that my approach was clinical and not entirely pedagogical.
If you're curious how I made the connection between my background and the program's objectives in my scholarship application, download a free sample of my motivation letter as part of a workbook.
Frames a problem and proposes a solution
Your motivation letter can be more more persuasive if you frame your participation in the program as an effort to solve a problem or to fill a lack.
I did just that when I applied for an international student scholarship in Europe. I had been working as a pediatric occupational therapist at that time and had zero experience teaching in the classroom. I also had very limited knowledge on education policy issues both in my country and worldwide.
You'd think I won't stand a chance, right?
But instead, I used it to my advantage. I related the problems I was seeing among my clients on an everyday basis with the objectives of the program. I pointed out that my very ignorance on relevant policies governing my clients was a problem. I highlighted the scarcity of policies guiding the special needs population in my home country and why they should get me for that very reason.
To write an effective scholarship motivation letter, craft a discourse that makes sense and turn your lack of experience in the field into an asset.
There's nothing more off-putting than an academic piece full of typographical and grammatical errors, so it pays to proofread your work. An extra pair of eyes sure won't hurt, so I advise you to ask for help from a mentor or a colleague to go through your scholarship motivation letter and check for errors. If you want to go the extra mile and are keen on improving your English skills in general as you prepare your application, check out the platform iTalki where you can find qualified teachers who can help you improve your writing and speaking skills or even run through that motivation letter with you. Private classes are paid by the hour and can go as low as 8 USD. You can check it out here.
I also highly recommend Grammarly, a free grammar checker tool that provides critical grammar and spelling checks. You can use it in just any kind of writing. I currently use it for proofreading important emails, blog posts, and academic articles. The free version prompts you whenever it spots critical grammar and spelling errors, which is always helpful after long hours doing deep mental work.
You can download and start using Grammarly FOR FREE here:
I got to try out the premium version, which includes advanced features like punctuation, context, sentence structure, vocabulary, and genre checks and suggestions. I got even more confident with my writing and I highly recommend downloading the free version here to see if it's for you.
How do I structure a scholarship motivation letter?
State who you are, where you're from, what you do, and what program you're applying to.
Relevant work experience
Include both paid and unpaid work opportunities that relate to the program's objectives. If you've worked in several places and sectors, present your work trajectory chronologically and show how they're connected.
A problem, need, or gap and how you plan to address it
Based on your work experience, highlight a societal or academic problem that you've found to be relevant and that you'd like to learn more about by participating in the program. Also highlight how the program can contribute positively to your personal and professional life.
Plans after graduation
Relate your post-graduation plans with an intention to help solve or alleviate the societal or academic problem you had previously identified and an example of how you can do it.
Mentioning your desire to do some work in your home country after graduation through academic work, advocacy, further research, and inter-institutional collaborations will also be evaluated positively, more so if the program you're applying to requires a return service (meaning you're required to go back to your home country and work for some years).
What should I avoid?
As a final note, try to avoid these pitfalls when writing your scholarship motivation letter.
Vague phrases and clichés
Phrases like "opportunity to learn many things," "contribute to society," "improve my life tremendously," and "make the world a better place," won't really add value to your piece. Stay away from these vague phrases and clichés and try to be more specific. Instead of saying "contribute to society," identify a specific group of people in mind that you think will benefit from the work you'll do and provide concrete examples.
I sent a copy of the first draft of my motivation letter to my mentor, and he was quick to point out how my tone was off and informal. I learned my lesson and from then on has treated any scholarship application letter as I would any academic piece of writing.
Also, avoid colloquial phrases, contractions (e.g. use "I would" instead of "I'd"), and informal words (e.g. stuff, till, a bit, etc.).
You can download a copy of the motivation letter that got me my scholarship as an example of how to use the formal tone when writing for an academic audience.
Remember to Breathe. You can do this.
Applying for scholarships and writing motivation letters can be stressful, so don't forget to breathe and relax. As much as you'd like to get it all perfect in the first couple of times, learn to appreciate the process.
Revise your motivation letter, get in touch with a colleague or a mentor to proofread your work, request the help of a private English teacher, use a grammar checker like Grammarly, and read through your work several times over.
Then let it go. You've done your best, so pat yourself on the back for taking on such a challenge!
There you have it! I hope you found this post useful. Remember that you can have exclusive access to my sample motivation letter, a brainstorming worksheet, and other useful materials in our Resource Library.
Over to you. Have you ever written a motivation letter for a scholarship application? What did you struggle most with? Let us know in the comments section below!
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