2010 Application Information Post #4: Personal Statement Changes

Another change that will be made to the application process in the coming year pertains to the essay requirement.  In the past the Admissions Committee has required one essay that has been referred to as a personal statement.  The personal statement has always been extremely valuable in ascertaining an applicant’s fit with our programs.  The essay section will continue to be the key barometer to help the Committee determine an applicant’s fit with our program, however this year the Committee has decided to ask multiple questions rather than a single, broad question.

The main reason for this is that in the past, applicants have often submitted personal statements that are broad and lacking the specificity the Committee hopes to see.  By asking multiple questions the Committee is seeking to ensure that applicants provide information on the motivation behind applying to SIPA as well as personal qualifications/experience that shed light upon why a policy degree is relevant to an applicant’s future.

In the past the personal statement was restricted to 850 words.  In the new format two questions will have a 400 word limit and the third a 200 word limit.  Below are the questions/statements that we will require responses to for the 2010 admission cycle.

1.    Please elaborate upon your professional goals and how has your prior employment/volunteer experience helped to prepare you to meet these goals?  Your response should be no more than 400 words.

2.    Describe what you consider to be your most significant past or present contribution to a community.  Your response should be no more than 400 words.

3.    Please provide any additional information about yourself that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee.  Your response should be no more than 200 words.

I feel the need to provide guidance on question #1, however questions 2 and 3 are meant to be interpreted by each applicant.

At the heart of question #1 should be a focus on what you hope to accomplish in the future.  The Committee wishes to see a glimpse into how you hope to make a contribution to the policy community – specific details are encouraged.  While some information from your personal/professional history can be referenced to frame your response, the answer to question #1 should not be dominated by describing your past.  When information about your past is included, it should have a descriptive purpose.

The résumé and personal statement/essay questions should tell us different things. One common mistake some applicants have made in the past is to write a personal statement that reads like a résumé. Effective statements expound on future goals and illustrate how the applicant believes concepts learned at SIPA can be applied in the formulation of effective policy.

Last year I wrote an entry on how to write an effective personal statement and the same concepts still apply.  You can read the full entry here, and below is an excerpt:

Strong statements are focused and clear. An example of not being focused is to say that you wish to work for the United Nations. Just 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.

Questions 2 and 3 are meant to be interpreted by each applicant.  Community can mean different things to different people and we want your interpretation.  And as far as question #3, each applicant can go in any direction they wish.  I will provide one piece of advice.

I have stated before and will state again that the typical résumé submitted to SIPA is three to four pages in length (the standard résumé – see this previous entry for information on the new two résumé requirement).  I have always encouraged people to put information in their résumé that might not fit in other places in the application and to not worry about keeping the résumé short by doing things like shrinking the font and the margins.

For example, let’s say an applicant suffered a serious illness while in college but s/he did not wish to withdraw from classes.  Perhaps there was a drop in the GPA due to the sickness.  This is important information for the Committee to know and the résumé is a perfect place to highlight information like this.  We would rather have you focus on your goals, aspirations, desires, etc. while answering your essay questions as opposed to writing about other things (such as a sickness that impacted your grades) in the essay section.

In sum, if there is personal information you wish to share with the Committee that does not fit into the essay question section, please feel free to include this information in your résumé.  Keep your focus in the essay questions on your passion, drive, goals, motivation, and how you believe that SIPA will help you to impact the policy community.