Top 10 Tips for 2012 Application – #3 The Personal Statement

This is the third entry in our “Top 10″ list to assist you with understanding the process of submitting your 2012 admission application to SIPA.  This entry is focused on advice regarding the personal statement.

The personal statement is probably the most important part of an application because it helps us to learn about your passion, goals, and the impact you wish to make.  As much as we would like to, we are unable to conduct interviews with applicants as part of the admission process and you can think of your personal statement as a type of interview.

If you could only spend 10-15 minutes in front of the Admissions Committee, what would you say to ensure us that you would be a contributing student in our program?  Your personal statement is your opportunity to “speak” to the Admissions Committee.

Question:  Do I have to follow the format of the personal statement?

Answer: Yes.  Our personal statement is broken into three parts, each with an associated word limit (one year PESP applicants see special note below).  Applicants should follow the instructions and keep within the stated word limits.  Applicants that obviously try to substitute a statement written according to another school’s requirements are judged harshly in the admissions process.  Following directions is an important part of the process of applying.

The majority of this entry addresses the first part of the personal statement.  We generally do not provide instructions regarding the second part because we want each applicant to answer in their own way.  For the second part, 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.

The third 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 three can focus on things you are proud of, or perhaps not so proud of.  The Admissions Committee would prefer to see something in section 3 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, I would not quote anyone 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.

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?

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. 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.

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.

Here again are the three parts of the personal statement we are asking applicants for the fall 2012 semester to respond to.  SPECIAL NOTE: applicants to our one year Program in Environmental Science and Policy should ONLY respond to section one and have 1,000 words to do so.  All other Master degree applicants should address all three sections.

Section One (500 Word Maximum)

What distinct impact do you hope to have on the world in the future? Please be as clear as possible about your future goals, the policy/public service issue(s) you are passionate about, and your personal motivation(s). Be sure to include details regarding the features of SIPA that you believe are integral to helping you in your pursuits and what skills you need to develop to achieve a lasting impact.

Section Two – (300 Word Maximum)

Please CHOOSE ONE of these options to write about – do not address both, pick one or the other.  All relevant information should be included in the statement.  For example, the organization information (option 1) or issue you are responding to (option 2) should be included in the 300 words.  In other words, you may not submit more than 300 words so include everything in your response.

1. A competition is being conducted that will provide one million dollars as seed funding to start a new organization.  The competition requires a 300 word essay/statement.  Compose a 300 word essay/statement to submit in order to be considered for this seed funding.

2. You have just read a news story that has deeply moved you.  Compose a 300 word response in the form of a letter to the editor.  The news story you are responding to can be real or fictional and does not need to be limited to the present time – it can be framed in the past, present, or future.

Section Three (200 Word Maximum)

Please share any additional information about yourself that you believe would be of interest to the Admissions Committee. Please focus on information that is not already reflected in the other parts of your application or might not be clear in the information submitted.