Studying in Sweden: seven tips for perfecting your application letter

Thinking of applying to study at a Swedish university? You’ve got a lot to consider. Should you start learning Swedish? Can you really treat your professors and lecturers as equals? And where are the secret nightlife spots you need to know about?

Studying in Sweden: seven tips for perfecting your application letter
Stockholm University student Narmina Guseinova

But wait! Before we come back to any of that, you need to make that all-important application to ensure you get into the university – and the programme – you’ve set your heart on. That’s why we’ve teamed up with Narmina Guseinova, an international student at Stockholm University and digital ambassador for Study in Sweden, to bring you seven simple tips for writing a successful application letter. Not all programmes require such a letter – also known as a motivational letter, personal statement or application essay – but for those that do it’s important to get it right.

Want to study at one of the world’s top 100 universities? Applications for Autumn 2022 at Stockholm University are now open

1. Introductions: Be brave (but not boastful)

The thing about first impressions is that, well, you only get one shot at it. That’s as true of an application as it is of a first date. If you really want that university place, don’t make the mistake of being instantly forgettable. 

“There are hundreds of motivation letters that the admissions team needs to read,” says Narmina, originally from Georgia, who is studying the two-year Master’s in Sociology programme at Stockholm University. Having an interesting introduction will make the reader more interested in the rest of the letter. You need to be creative – I know you are, just show it!” 

So, ask yourself what makes you stand out – or ask your friends! You don’t need to boast. But you do need to make your best qualities leap off the page! 

2. Do your homework!  

Think homework is only for school kids? Wrong! Universities want highly motivated students. You need to research the university and the programme you’re applying for, advises Narmina, and then be specific about what interests you and why. 

“I’m not telling you this because I’m a sociologist!” she says. If you do your homework, you’ll avoid writing the kind of banal sentences those poor admissions officers have seen a million times before.

“Instead of saying that the programme offers interesting, relevant courses, try to find out why,” adds Narmina. Go to the programme’s web page, read the syllabus, and find out who’ll be teaching you and what skills you’ll learn. Then get writing. Explain precisely why your preferred choice is the perfect fit for you – and vice-versa!

Check out the programmes available at Stockholm University (applications are open until January 17th)

A group of students on a university campus using their smartphones. Photo: Getty Images

3. And some research on Sverige!

If you’re applying from outside Sweden, remember to research the country as well! Still wondering about those questions above? Well, learning Swedish can be fun but the locals speak excellent English, so you’ll be fine without it – plus there are a huge range of programmes in English at Stockholm University. We hope you at least understand the word Sverige, though? (that’s Swedish for Sweden).

And, yes, international students often find the relationship between professors and students much more informal than in most countries. Now what about the nattliv (nightlife?) Perhaps you can take care of that one once you’ve finished your application. Who said homework is boring?

4. Be specific: show don’t tell

So, you’ve made a good first impression and done your homework. Well done! There are only a certain number of places, however, and the competition to fill them can be stiff. You’ve still got more to do before you can celebrate clinching your spot. “Why do they need to admit you and not other applicants?” says Narmina. “It’s time to show that you deserve this place!”

Keep in mind the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. Don’t put the admissions officer to sleep by telling them you’re ‘hard-working’. Do show them exactly how your hard work turned around a challenging situation – whether in your school studies, a job, or another area of life. Now, you’re taking shape as a real person in their eyes!

Stockholm University’s Frescati campus in the snow. Photo: Stockholm University

5. Focus on the future 

Going to university is the biggest investment in your future you can make. So, don’t write only about what you’ve already done. You also need to give a clear picture of your future intentions. Making a clear connection between the degree or Master’s you wish to study and your personal and professional ambitions will ensure you stand out as someone with the energy to pursue your life goals.

6. Highlight how you’ll help others

This being Sweden, you don’t want to talk only about yourself – and risk breaking Jantelagen (the Law of Jante) before you even know what it is! If you’ve already done some volunteering or fundraising work, be sure to mention that.

When writing about your future, ask yourself how you’ll use your university education and new skills to benefit other people. Don’t forget society and others,” says Narmina. “Try to include some details where you show that this particular programme, by being helpful for you and your plans, will in turn be helpful for others.”

7. Be your authentic self

You’ve heard stories of people exaggerating (or outright lying) in applications. But untruths can spiral out of control. Start as you mean to go on – as your authentic self. You’re applying for a coveted university spot because you’re brilliant, right?

“If you want to be creative, outstanding, and interesting, you need to be yourself,” says Narmina. “Nobody else can be you.” 

Want to study at one of the world’s top 100 universities? Applications for Autumn 2022 at Stockholm University are open until January 17th

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Swedish university exam unlikely to go ahead at all this year

It is looking increasingly unlikely that 'högskoleprovet' – an exam used by thousands of students every year as a way to enter Swedish university will go ahead – despite a government U-turn.

Swedish university exam unlikely to go ahead at all this year
In a normal year, 100,000 students sit what is known as the SweSAT or 'högskoleprovet'. Photo: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/SCANPIX

The Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test (SweSAT, or högskoleprovet) is normally held twice a year, but was cancelled in spring and then later in autumn due to the coronavirus pandemic. But after pressure from opposition parties, the government last week said it would pave the way for the test to take place on its usual date in October in a limited format, open only to people who had not previously sat it.

Usually around 100,000 people sit the exam each year, around 40 percent of them doing so for the first time. The exam is not compulsory, but many people use its results to get into university, and it is seen as a crucial second chance for those who are not able to get accepted based on grades alone.

But any hope lit by the government's announcement last week was quickly extinguished this week, when university principals said it would still not be possible to organise a coronavirus-safe sitting. In the end it is up to the exam organisers to decide whether or not to hold it, so the government holds limited sway.

“They [the university principals] do not want to take responsibility for conducting the exam during the autumn, but would rather spend time and resources on conducting two tests as safely as possible in spring,” Karin Röding, director-general of the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR), told the TT news agency on Tuesday.

“I have no reason to have another opinion,” she added.

“It appears to be the case that you are going to have to wait another few months before an exam can be carried out in an infection-safe way,” confirmed Sweden's Minister of Higher Education, Matilda Ernkrans.

Meanwhile the political pressure eased on the Social Democrat-Green coalition government to ensure the test could be held before the deadline for applying to the spring semester of university, when the Liberal party joined the centre-left in voting no to pushing for an autumn sitting. Last week there was a majority for a yes vote on the Swedish parliament's education committee, consisting of right-wing parties Moderates, Christian Democrats, Sweden Democrats and the Liberals, but after the latter switched sides the committee voted no.

The Mdoerates blamed the government for not acting sooner to help the exam go ahead, by for example allocating more money and investigating the possibility of using more venues.

“There is one person who is to blame. That's Matilda Ernkrans,” said the party's education spokesperson Kristina Axén Olin. “The government has handled it really poorly and now it is thought to be too late and impossible.”

Ernkrans argued that she and the government had done everything they could, including making sure that test results from previous years will be valid for eight years rather than the usual five, as well as allocating extra funding to make it possible to hold more than one exam next spring.

Swedish vocabulary

cancel – ställa in

test/exam – (ett) prov

second chance – (en) andra chans

government – (en) regering

semester – (en) termin (note the false friend – the Swedish word semester means holiday)