How NOT to write your personal statement

One aspect of the application people stress the most about is the personal statement, or long essay question. The topic varies every year, but the advice never changes. Here are some things you should NEVER do when responding to your personal statement.

Failing to answer the essay prompt
The personal statement (or long essay) asks three or four questions, all around a central theme. This theme is valuable to the Admissions Committee because it allows us to determine, in part, how you’ll perform at the graduate level (and who you’ll be as a graduate student). Oftentimes, applicants will only address the first question, or ignore the prompt altogether and submit a generic personal statement that resembles something from their undergraduate application. The Admissions Committee asks several questions in the prompt because we want to see how effectively you’ll address it within a limited amount of space. We also want to force you to examine your objectives and narrate them in a strategic and effective format. In short, answer every part of the prompt to give the Admissions Committee a comprehensive look at who are as an applicant. TIP: Limit yourself to one paragraph per prompt question, and flesh it out from there.

Going over the word limit
It’s important for graduate students to write clearly and concisely in everything they submit to their professors (and beyond). The personal statement is a good place to practice this format before actually arriving on campus. So keep your sentence structure tight, and avoid posturing in your essays (i.e., close the thesaurus app on your phone). While we don’t mind if you’re a word or two over the limit, we can definitely tell the difference between 400 words and 800 words.

Being vague about your interests
We understand 200, 300 or 400 words isn’t a lot of room to get your thoughts on paper…and that’s the whole point. To reiterate the statement above, we don’t need to read a 20-page thesis on why you’re applying to graduate school; that’s just filler text anyway. We want to read about what makes you outstanding to the Admissions Committee and to your potential professors. Drill down on what you hope to accomplish at SIPA; how you’ll be an asset in the classroom; how particular classes, professors or SIPA initiatives sparked your interest; where you want to work after graduation, etc. TIP: If you want to join the foreign service, show us you’ve done your research on the cone/track you’re interested in; or if you want to study with a certain professor, mention the research they’ve accomplished and how it ties into your academic interests. You don’t have to be extremely detailed, but you do have to show you’ve done the legwork when it comes to your education. Which brings me to the next point…

Not doing your homework on the SIPA blog and website
There’s nothing that upsets people more than when someone asks a question they could’ve easily found the answer to with a 30-second Google search. You know what I mean: What time does that restaurant close? How long can a tweet be? Or, in the Admissions Office’s case: Where is SIPA located? Are there any information sessions? Do you require the GRE or GMAT? Graduate school requires you to be proactive and it is an opportunity for you to stretch your limits and find yourself. That all starts with researching the programs and institutions you’re interested in learning these valuable lessons from. So try searching for the answers before contacting us. (Believe me, applicants feel pretty silly when they realize the answer was just one-click away under the Admissions tab.) For example, last year’s post on the essay questions in general offers some good advice. Read it: it’s called “6 Quick-and-Dirty Tips For An Outstanding Admissions Essay.” There are plenty of nuggets like these throughout the blog (and website), so do some browsing to see what you can find to help bolster your application.

Forgetting to hit spell-check (and proofread in general)
As you would (and should) with any other academic paper, job application, email, or Facebook post, spell-check your admission essay. The Admissions Committee reviews Every. Single. Aspect. of an application, and we’re suckers for details. Make sure you spell SIPA correctly, that your pronouns match the professor you’ve mentioned, and that you know where we’re located (hint: NYC).

Now that you’ve read some advice on how to prepare your personal statement, give it a rewrite before submitting your final application. And don’t forget, the MIA/MPA/MPA-DP fellowship deadline is January 5, 2016, and the final deadline is February 5, 2016.

[Photo courtesy Florian Simeth, | Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]