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Application to a German Graduate School: The letter of motivation

By Christian Wilbers

It is an important part of every application, for some graduate schools the most important one: The letter of motivation. It helps selection committees recognize a candidate's academic enthusiasm, the most reliable sign for the personal perseverance necessary to make it to the PhD finish line. academics has summarized what you should include in your personal statement - and what you would do better to leave out.

Application to a German Graduate School: The letter of motivation © travellinglight - iStockphoto.com A guide on how to write the letter of motivation when applying to a German graduate school
Personal motivation is one of the most reliable predictors of a successful dissertation project. Whether it's academic passion, the prospect of career advancement or a higher salary - with the right goal in mind, many PhD students successfully weather even the most difficult periods in the dissertation process. But even though one's desire for career advancement may well provide enough personal drive for an individual to push through, German graduate schools prefer those PhD students who are looking to pursue a career in academia, motivated by personal idealism or scientific enthusiasm. That is why the letter of motivation is an important indicator for many German graduate schools during the selection process. After all, those in charge of making the decision need to find out, which candidates have the necessary perseverance and are in it with their whole heart instead of just professional advantage. Therefore, the letter of motivation is your chance to give a personal note to the application and convince the committee of your passion for research and science.

What you should include in your letter of motivation - and what you should leave out

Graduate schools in Germany seek motivated PhD students. In the letter, you should describe your motivation to pursue your research using tangible examples. These could be anything from your personal connection to the country, whose society you want to discuss in your dissertation, or the passion for technology that you discovered during a volunteer engagement that now pushes you towards a career in research and development. At the same time, you need to be careful not to rely too much on personal anecdote: Unlike the "personal statements" that most American universities ask for, the letter of motivation should not become too personal. More importantly, you should illustrate how you have already prepared yourself for a career in academia and why now is the right time for you to pursue a PhD at a German graduate school. The letter of motivation should not, however, be used as a platform to explain potential gaps in your vita, unless those breaks contributed to your decision to write a dissertation. "Don't explain your deficits," recommends Andreas Stützer, who helps students across Germany write their letter of motivation. "Instead, you should document your strengths and show the selection committee why you are the right person for the position."

No question: To accomplish all of that in one to two pages is no walk in the park. Nonetheless, many applicants get lost in empty phrases that bore readers rather than exciting them - and thus give away a great opportunity to impress the members of the selection committee. To avoid sharing that fate, allow as much time as possible for the preparation of the letter of motivation and go about it methodically - for example by following the academics-plan in four steps.

A convincing letter of motivation in four steps

Step 1 - The concept

First, you should think about (a) why you are pursuing a PhD, (b) what qualities you bring to the program, and (c) why the graduate school you are applying to is the right one for you. Brainstorm for ideas, collect them and shape them into a convincing concept. Make sure that everything is perfectly tailored to the specific graduate school's expectations, for example the location, research opportunities or faculty at the university you are applying to.

Step 2 - Layout/Formalities

Just like the rest of the application materials, the letter of motivation should have a personalized, consistent letterhead. Use the setup function of your word processor to ensure that the font, line spacing (1,5 or 2), and margins convey your professionalism. And: Make sure you are aware of the graduate school's preferred formatting expectations and standards. Do they ask for one or two pages? Is there a maximum number of words? Do they prescribe font size or line spacing? Of course, you should adhere to such standards. If no such standards exist, we recommend submitting a letter of motivation no longer than two double-spaced pages (ca. 750 words).

Step 3 - The structure

Just like every academic essay, your letter of motivation should open with an introduction that can be recognized as such and be followed by the main body of your writing. However, it makes sense to start writing the main part first and then formulate the introduction to your letter of motivation last. After writing the body, you will have a better understanding of how to summarize its contents. After all, the first sentences usually briefly summarize the arguments that are discussed in the main part. This strategy will help you create a common thread that will run through your letter and culminate in an effective conclusion, which once more indicates your personal advantages.

Step 4 - Fine-tuning

Even though complex syntactical constructions are popular among academics, you should avoid them in your letter of motivation. Instead of unnerving the reader with long sentences, you should keep them short and simple. Try to get feedback from friends and fellow students, who will give useful advice and find spelling errors that may have escaped your attention. Spelling and grammar are critical factors in every application: Overlooking mistakes in your own application demonstrates a lack of thoroughness that may lead the selection committee to conclude that you are not a careful researcher. Such errors are seen as indicators that the applicant's work lacks quality and are frequent reasons for a candidate's rejection.


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academics :: January 2014

If you are looking for a PhD position, a place at the right graduate school is an amazing choice - with secured financial support, a fixed time frame and a course focused around you. academics.com gives you an overview of all the graduate school options.

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Graduate School of Economic & Social Sciences (GESS)