Ah, the personal statement. Perhaps there is no part of the application more anguished over, more edited and re-edited, more emphasized than this.
First off, as the applicant you should embrace the personal statement! An applicant doesn’t always have control over how his or her final microeconomics grade turned out, or his or her GRE verbal score may be a little lower than desired. But the personal statement is a place where the applicant has full control. So feel empowered!
It is important to note that the admissions office sees the personal statement as the most important part of the application. It helps us to learn about your passions, your goals, and your desire to impact the world and make it a little brighter. Due to the volume of applications we receive, we cannot conduct interviews with our applicants, but we do think of the personal statement as a type of interview.
With this in mind, if you could only spend 10 or 15 minutes in front of the Admissions Committee, what would you say? What’s your best sales pitch? We want to hear it.
Our personal statement section is broken down into three distinct parts, with an optional fourth essay. Before we dive into those questions, here are some common questions that we receive at the admissions office regarding the essays.
Question: Do I have to follow the format of the personal statement?
Answer: Yes. Please follow these instructions, for your sake and ours. Stay within the stated word limits. And know that you will be judged harshly if you try to substitute a statement written according to another school’s requirements. Following the directions (on all parts of the application) is a critical part of applying to SIPA.
The majority of this entry addresses the first part of the personal statement. We generally do not provide instructions regarding the second and third parts because we want each applicant to answer in his or her own way. For the second and third parts, we are interested in how applicants choose to respond to the question and thus have no specific advice on what constitutes a “good” part 2 answer and part 3 answer.
The fourth part of the personal statement is wide open. We provide space where you can include information you wish for the Committee to be aware of that might not be highlighted in other parts of your application or that you feel will shed light on some aspect of your past or future goals. Part four can focus on things you are proud of, or perhaps not so proud of. You may also use this part to address any concerns in your application. The Admissions Committee would prefer to see something in section four, so please try not to leave it blank!
Question: Do you have any general advice regarding the personal statement?
Answer: Yes, and the rest of this entry will focus on advice for you to consider.
For one, it’s probably not a good idea to quote someone in your personal statement. For example, it would not be wise to say something along the lines of the following –
I want to join SIPA because like Gandhi said, “I wish to be the change I wish to see in the world.”
While this is a nice quote and Gandhi was an incredible person, the Admissions Committee is not making a decision to admit Gandhi to SIPA – we are considering admitting you to our program. Thus we are not so interested in what Gandhi has to say. Rather, we are interested in what you have to say! Also, when you quote someone else it in essence says, “I could not think of anything on my own to say, so let me let someone else do it for me.”
At SIPA we are looking for creative, passionate, smart, driven, and competent people. The best personal statements are just that – personal. We want to hear from you. The best applicants each year become quotable. When an Admissions Committee member is impressed with what an applicant has written, they will often call attention to this when discussing the application. So your goal should be to become quotable, not to quote someone else.
Another note is that your answer to section one should not simply be your résumé in paragraph format. In order to get your point across in your personal statement it might be necessary to restate information already included in your résumé, however do not restate information without a specific reason or goal.
One thing not to do for example is to tell us in your personal statement where you went to school. Many applicants will mention the name of their school in the personal statement. What is wrong with this? Well, you sent us your transcript and you state where you went to school in your résumé, why would we need to be told a third time where you went to school? Use your personal statement to get across new information that might not be contained in other parts of your application. Tell us things we don’t know. Give us great reasons why you absolutely have to be in our new entering class.
Your answer to part one of the personal statement should particularly be about what you hope to accomplish in the future. What are you passionate about? What are your goals? What impact do you hope to make on the world? Most of the contents of your application are about your past, we want a glimpse into your future.
One thing we are trying to determine is if SIPA is the right program for you. We are also trying to determine the type of contribution you will make as a student and alumnus of our program. We do understand that you might not know exactly what you wish to do, however you should try to be as specific as you can. For example, if you are interested in development, is there a region or particular group of people you wish to focus on? If you are interested in international security policy, what do you hope to do with the skills you attain while at SIPA?
Strong responses to part one are focused and clear. An example of not being focused is to say that you wish to work for the United Nations. Saying this alone is too vague. The United Nations is comprised of a multitude of organizations, doing a multitude of different things, in a multitude of different places. Listing a broad policy objective without context is also a common mistake. Whatever you hope to do, you should integrate the who, what, where, how, and why elements into your statement.
Address questions such as: Who do you wish to impact? Is there a specific region, city, country, locality you are passionate about? What population do you hope to serve? What concerns you about the future and how do you hope to address policy questions to make a difference? What skills will SIPA help you to develop? Is there a sector that is most appealing to you? (Non-profit, multilateral, for profit, public). Do you hope to go in a new direction and why? Specificity is important.
The most outstanding personal statements each year become a part of discussions amongst members of the Admissions Committee. Each person is different and has a different history and goals. Make sure to pour yourself into your personal statement and it will likely stand out because no two people are the same.
Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns at https://www.flickr.com/photos/janitors / CC BY 2.0
Admissions essays can be one of the most daunting parts of the application process. Applicants often spend hours (or days) staring at a blank computer screen, just hoping for the perfect words to flow from their fingers to the keyboard. They don’t want this opportunity to go up in proverbial flames by writing down the wrong response, and neither do admissions officers. But in reality, we’re not looking for the perfect response. We’re looking for your truth. So don’t be afraid to be honest in the words you choose.
To help you in the writing process, here are some tips that are sure to help your writing shine.
1. Follow directions.
It’s an easy step, but it’s one that applicants often fail to follow. We know you’re applying to multiple schools, so every year we develop essay questions and set word limits that will save you time. The guidelines also help our admissions committee make the best decision about your eligibility. So answer the essay question—and only the essay question—and abide by the word limit. (OK, you can go over by a few words.) And if you want to expand upon another topic, take advantage of the optional essay question.
2. Be concise.
Keep your responses short and to the point. Don’t waste your word limit on Brobdingnagian (really, really big) words and long-winded sentences. There’s a word limit for a reason: we want you to get to the truth of your educational/professional desires as quickly as possible.
3. Show us your hunger.
This is your chance to tell us your truth that we mentioned at the beginning of this post. Show us that you really want to be here and why SIPA is the only place for you. Introduce yourself, your intended program of study and your motivations and experiences. Did something interesting happen that led you on your path to SIPA? Then tell us about it, and what you want to accomplish. Don’t forget to cite specific examples of how SIPA can help you achieve your deepest aspirations.
4. Take advantage of the optional essay.
This is your chance to talk about deficiencies in your application. If you don’t have as much professional experience or your lacking quantitative skills, explain to use why you’re still a stellar candidate. There’s a reason you’re applying even if you don’t “check off all of the boxes,” so elaborate on exactly why. Or, just tell us something unexpected about yourself. What makes you unique compared to other applicants? What’s something specific you can bring to the program?
5. Don’t quote MahatmaGandhi. Seriously.
It’s nice to read that applicants admire great people throughout history, but admissions officers don’t want to read the same inspirational quotes time and time again. (Besides, you’re quoting them wrong.) We want to read about what you have to say, not what other great people in history have said or done. So keep your essays focused on you, and you alone.
6. Proofread your work. When you’re finished, proofread it again.
Believe it or not, spell check doesn’t catch everything. So make sure you proofread your work carefully. Heck! Ask someone else to read it as well. A great trick is to print out your essay and read every single word backwards. (You’d be surprised at how mistakes you’ll catch!) Also, a good way to catch grammatical and sentence-structure mistakes is to read the essay aloud. For example, if you have trouble catching your breath between sentences, tighten things up.
Are you ready to write an outstanding admissions essay? We thought you might be. You can start (or finish) your MIA/MPA application here: MIA/MPA Admissions Application.