July 19, 2024

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Motivation letter content predicts academic success for master’s students

Motivation letter content predicts academic success for master’s students


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July 3, 2024 If interest in the specific content of the master’s programme is reflected in the motivation letter, the candidate’s performance will be better. This is demonstrated by Utrecht’s research on the relationship between motivation letters and study success in master’s programmes. Motivation letters can reveal intrinsic motivation and are therefore very useful selection tools, according to the researchers.






Photo: Scott Graham


Motivation is a frequently used selection criterion for low-income courses. Tools such as a motivation letter should give admissions committees insight into students’ non-cognitive qualities. However, measuring motivation is a waste of time, as researchers in Groningen wrote in 2021: Motivation does not predict study success and puts students from lower socio-economic status at a disadvantage.

Previous doctoral research by Utrecht researcher Karlen Suppe showed something different. For courses outside the STEM sectors, candidates’ interest and motivation were shown to be important predictors of study success.

Movements In a motivational message

Motivational messages can actually be a good indicator of study success – as long as they are evaluated properly, researchers from Utrecht University write in an article. Last postThey subjected 820 motivational messages, “the most widely used and least studied selection tool,” to text analysis. They thus distinguished seven themes (‘Movements‘) In the motivation letters, five of them relate to academic success.

The data analysed come from four cohorts of Master’s students at the Faculty of Geosciences at Utrecht University. They were divided into eleven Master’s programmes and started their studies between 2014 and 2018.

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Positive and negative impact

The seven themes examined were “master’s specific,” “interest in learning,” “research skills,” “social influence,” “city and university,” “previous education,” and “extracurricular.” To isolate the relationship between whether or not these themes were mentioned in the motivation letter, the researchers controlled for six other factors associated with the likelihood of admission or success in the study—for example, the length of the motivation letter, gender, or international background.

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The analysis shows that if the topics “Master specific” and “interest in learning” are included more often in the motivation letter, this has a positive effect on the study results. The opposite applies to the topics “research skills”, “social influence”, and “city and university”: if they appear more often in the motivation letter, this predicts lower grades. The frequency with which the topics “previous education” and “extracurricular” are included has no effect on the subsequent study results.

Intrinsic motivation in motivation letter

The researchers write that the difference between positive and negative impact on study outcomes actually comes down to the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. “Students who write about the specific content of their master’s degree and their interest in learning get better grades. This confirms the idea that students who demonstrate strong intrinsic motivation for the specific course in their motivation letter are more successful.

Research skills are more general, such as the desire to make a social impact or to study in a particular city or at a particular university. “This suggests that students are more extrinsically motivated. (…) They have less intrinsic motivation to acquire master’s-specific knowledge and therefore receive lower grades than students who wrote more about ‘master’s-specific knowledge’ and ‘interest in learning,’” the researchers say. “This supports the current theory that intrinsic motivation is the most effective driver of success.”

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Keep using this selection tool.

Admissions committees should therefore continue to use motivation letters as a selection tool, the Utrecht researchers wrote. “It is a relatively effective tool, and we see significant effects from some Movements On the success of students.” This Movements Therefore, they must be carefully weighed, especially when it comes to intrinsic motivation and specific interest in the Master’s programme curriculum.

“We recommend using motivation letters to test both intrinsic motivation and specific knowledge,” the researchers said. “We also recommend using a relatively free-form message format, because asking for discussion of specific topics detracts from the discriminating value of motivation letters as a selection tool.”

In contrast, researchers say that topics that have a negative or no impact on the success of the study should carry little weight in the admission decision.

Non-European students perform worse.

The analysis also shows that other factors also influence the final study success of candidates for a master’s degree programme. For example, a longer motivation letter is associated with higher grades. The same applies to the average grade for a bachelor’s programme: the higher it is, the faster the master’s students graduate and the higher their grades. Gender also has an effect: women get higher grades. The age of the candidates makes no difference.

The international background of students has an impact. Students from Africa, Asia, Central America and South America score lower than students from Europe. “This is consistent with existing literature, which shows that international students, especially those from other continents, can suffer from cultural biases, which negatively impacts their academic success.”

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