Writing the “perfect” application letter for our MA in Communication for Development–insights from the first 2000 letters

As part of our application process for our MA in Communication for Development program we encourage applicants to submit a short application letter together with all the other application documents since 2016.
Applications are formally reviewed by Sweden’s University Admission authority and our teaching team only reads and grades the short letters for additional points in the application score.
We ask applicants to answer two short questions (about 500 words each) which we call “description of experiences” and “letter of intent” so applicants can write a bit more about their background and why they decided to apply to our program. We receive between 200-300 letters each year and even though we are a team of 6-7 teachers and I have not read each and every letter a few patterns have emerged as to what makes a good, solid letter and what some of the pitfalls are that are best to avoid or address directly.
There is probably a bigger lesson to learn here as I think some of the issues not just apply to our document, but to other application letters as well-especially those written by applicants at earlier stages of their lives and careers.



What are some of the points that make me nod approvingly when I read your letter?

Tell me that you read the website and are aware that our part-time online blended learning program is different from a standard MA
  • We are offering a unique program, so it may be good to briefly refer to our model and how it suits your learning goals: “The part-time pace is very attractive because I work/have care duties/do an internship” 
  • Our applicants tend to be a bit older/more mature/more experienced which is probably due to the study model we offer; the letter is also a unique opportunity to share 1-3 sentences about your trajectory: What has prevented you from pursuing a MA so far? Has there been an important turning point in your life? You do not have to share very personal details, but sharing a few details about your life will help us to get a better picture; and it *never* works against you; remember, we work in higher education, not the course completion dispatch industry, and if we can contribute a small piece to your personal, professional and/or intellectual development our job is pretty much done :)! 
  • It is Ok to have completed other MAs before-but do not just list them-tell us a little bit how our program will be complementary to what you already know & what your previous studies could bring to the course: “I already have three MAs, but as they say you can never learn enough” may not sound as motivating to us teachers as you think…
Do not “waste” space on re-telling your CV
  • The first question should not be a repetition of your CV; we do not have access to your CV, but even if we had, a 500-word text allows you to focus on one or two important encounters, situations at your job, internship etc. or how your life course steered you towards where you are right now, but you do not have to “impress” us with your full CV
  • Things you need to worry less about: Your English does not need to be perfect if there are not too many grammatical errors that could be avoided with auto-correction

What are some of the points that make me less excited to read your letter and award the maximum number of points to your answer? 

  • Your letter will be assessed by a seasoned professional; reading student works, grading them, discussing them with colleagues, reviewing scholarship applications or other types of applications has been part of my job for 15 years; I will always read your application with the respect and openness it deserves, but it is a mutual bind: Treat writing your letter with respect, and we will assess it with respect!
  • Your letter is way too short-as in literally four sentences long. You do not have to write a letter to be admitted to the program, so don’t then.
  • Being specific also means that I need to get an impression that you did your basic research: “I want to study ComDev because I’m passionate about corporate marketing”-it takes 45 seconds to figure out that this is not what our program is about
  • It is Ok to copy-paste certain parts of your letter from other application letters, but you still need to edit them; Malmö is not Lund, and our program is not an MA in Development Studies at Gothenburg
  • Do not describe the entire program back to me, i.e. listing every course or teacher or other part of the university’s website-be specific about the course or topic you are excited about! We already know that we have a great program because we designed it ;) !
  • Remember that we work in academia which means we have a highly developed BS radar together with our professional experience…so no references to how globalization is changing the planet, how communication is everywhere & how the Internet can be a tool for good or bad…and your fieldwork in Ethiopia for your BA thesis may have been important, but make sure you are also humble & self-reflective about it

There is never a perfect letter, and we already receive many excellent applications, but this is also a very specific genre of writing and these few pointers can help you to score higher marks and make reading your letter even more enjoyable.

The most challenging aspect is finding the balance between being as authentic as 1000 words allow and keeping in mind that we still want our students to have a great time studying with us AND finishing the program; it’s OK that you did not finish your previous two degrees, but then perhaps also mention why it will hopefully be different this time…

As with most academic writing genres and rituals I would love to change things a bit more and allow short video presentations, audio recordings or even drawings, but Sweden’s interpretation of “equal treatment” means that every applicant needs to follow the same format-so letters it is…

Good luck-and if you have other insights from either reading academic application letters or writing them I would love to hear them!

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