How to write a good motivation letter

Couple of times some friends of mine asked me to give comments to their motivation letter or personal statement either for applying for master studies, scholarship, or job applications. I’m not an expert either, so here I will try to share some tips based on my experiences in writing motivation statement for my scholarship, PhD, and job applications. Hope you might find it to be useful.

1. Try to be as concise as possible

Can you imagine that sometimes universities, professors, or the hiring management have to read not only 10 – 20 applications but hundreds. I always try to limit my personal / motivation letter to a page or a page and a quarter A4 page with decent fonts. Before you start writing it, try to think first what can make your letter stands out compared to the other applicants? Why should they spend time to read your applications? What makes you different from the other applicants?

2. Start with a little personal stories

A little personal stories won’t hurt, especially when you are applying for scholarship. I always start my motivation letter with personal stories. I give the example from the motivation letter I prepared when I applied for VLIR-UOS scholarship:

My mom is my first and best math teacher. When I was a kid, even before I attended school, my mom has taught me math. She always used the simple example that I can find in real life and used what I like to attract my attention. She always used the logical and real life approaches that I could easily imagine in almost every cases to help me having easier understanding. My joy in working with math continues when I had to decide which department that I would like to join when I was accepted into one of the best universities in Indonesia, Bogor Agricultural University in 2006.”

3. Do some researches about the company / university / scholarship you would like to attend

A little research will help you to gain more positive feed back. They will see that you are really enthusiastic in the position you are looking for. Some information that you can look for when applying for university:

  1. Their research group, how big it is
  2. Related research topic they have done in the past years
  3. Papers they have published (from specific professor or research group)
  4. What kind of research they want to do in the future

While some information that you can look for when applying for company:

  1. Company profile
  2. Their visions
  3. Their missions
  4. The team
  5. The job description

And for scholarship:

  1. Their visions and missions
  2. Their interest
  3. What do they offer

Then once you found it, try to link it with your personal experiences that makes you think you are the candidate they are looking for.

This is the example how I linked the information that I found with my personal experiences and educational background that I used when I applied for a PhD position in Germany:

 “I have been interested in applied statistics in genomics since I was a bachelor student at Bogor Agricultural University. During my study period, I was offered to join a research conducted by one of my professors (Dr. XXXX) to study the permutation test for Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) mapping. Then I continued my bachelor thesis by comparing methods in reconstructing the evolutionary tree under supervision of Prof. XXXX and Prof. XXXX. After I graduated, I continuously taking my passions in statistical genomics by taking some online courses from that covers the introduction to genetics and evolution in 2012. I foresee that Project 7 is what interest me the most as it is still related to my interest in gene-environment interactions on statistical term.

4. Boost yourself but not be arrogant!

It is important to “sell” yourself when preparing a personal statement, but try to avoid sounding arrogant. You are good, you are hard working, you can work under minimum supervisions, you can work with culturally diverged colleagues by showing your personal experiences. What have you gone through that makes you think you are a competent researcher / employee? As much as possible try to avoid saying “I am smart”, “I am extremely diligent”. Remember, they need people who are able to work in a team. Show that you are exceptional, you have prepared yourself for the opportunity today. Commitment is important!

This is the example:

Beside studying, I was active in some student organizations. I joined as a member of International Association of Students in Agricultural and Related Sciences (IAAS) and was the general secretary of IPB Debating Community (IDC). I was also proud to be able to represent Indonesia in 16th International Joint Seminar & Symposium in Mie University, Japan in 2009 and was the chief delegation of Indonesian students in 17th International Joint Seminar & Symposium the following year in Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

Presently, I am working as a Head of Technical Analyst in a local market research company, XXXX. My responsibilities include managing my team member which currently consists of two Indonesians and two Italians in regular statistical analysis and to develop new and more advance statistical analysis in order to answer varied problems coming from our local as well as international company. Even though my current work is challenging, my passion in biostatistics will not easily go away. In the middle of my regular working activities, I enrolled to some related online courses from This situation persuades me to apply for Master of Statistics with specialization in Biostatistics in Hasselt University under VLIR-UOS scholarship program.

5. Try to summarize a bit what you have written in your CV

It’s not uncommon that sometimes your interviewer only read and go through your CV at the time they have to interview you. Hence, try to summarize what is written in your CV a bit by mentioning the most important part that you thing might relate to the position that you apply. This can be helpful for the interviewers to judge whether your background suitable or not.

6. Connection

If you apply for scholarship / studies in foreign countries, connecting your motivation to recent issues / challenges in your countries and what kind of benefits you can take from you studies can be helpful too.

In my country, Indonesia, 28 million people still live in poverty and around 18 million of them live in villages where the access to proper health care system from the government is really poor. Those people also have higher risks of contracting tropical diseases that are common in Indonesia such as malaria, dengue, and chikungunya. Considering these conditions, I believe that the chosen field of study will benefit Indonesia in general. I also believe that I can do much better if I am trained and developed through Master of Science in biostatistics program.

Those are more or less the points that you can pay attention to when writing your personal / motivation letter. I hope you might find it to be useful. Aside from these tips, don’t give up on finding the school / company for you. The non-stop rejections can be hurtful, it’s true! I waited for 2 years before finally getting my scholarship from VLIR-UOS and I went through many rejections before I got accepted by a university hospital in Germany and the position at the company I’m working at the moment.

This moment can be a really frustrating moment. If you feel frustrated, you are allowed to go away temporarily just to breath and keep your sanity. But don’t give up. You would never know the opportunity awaits for you. Good luck 🙂


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