The personal statement is a common source of anxiety for applicants. We understand it can be difficult to articulate your past experiences, policy-related passions, professional goals, and how SIPA can help you achieve them in just 400 words. In this blog post, we’ll be anonymously reviewing two essays to give you some insight into how we think and hopefully help relieve some of that anxiety.

Prompt: Please elaborate on why you have chosen to apply to the MIA/MPA program. How will this program enable you to achieve your career goals? Describe your academic and research interests and career objectives.

Applicant 1:

This essay starts out with a personal anecdote about international travel. The first paragraph definitely grabs my attention, but the applicant loses me in the next paragraph by turning this into a creative writing exercise. It would have been far more effective to grab my attention with the first paragraph, and then immediately start telling me about their background, goals, and how SIPA fits into that beginning with the second paragraph. There is very limited space, so spending so much time telling a story is not the most effective.

The next two paragraphs continue to tell stories about international experiences with little substantive detail and a lot of platitudes.

Now in the fifth paragraph we finally seem to be getting somewhere. The applicant describes a professional experience, but this time they are more specific about their goals and what they accomplished.

The applicant concludes with only 3 sentences about Columbia and graduate school. This is the first time in the essay where I’m reading about how graduate school fits into their career, and it is very vague. This essay could be used for any school, and there is no detail about why this applicant wants to attend SIPA specifically.

There is also no detail about the applicant’s professional goals. The applicant simply tells us that they want to work in the foreign service. SIPA is a professional program and we want our applicants to have a clear, detailed understanding of how SIPA will benefit them in their potential career. It’s vital that applicants demonstrate that they’ve thought this through. Tell us very specifically what you want to do and what you hope to accomplish. The foreign service is very broad; the applicant does not even specify if they mean the U.S. foreign service. Tell us what region of the world or functional issue you hope to focus on and why you are passionate about it. If there are specific offices, embassies, or departments you’d want to work in, tell us that. The more detail you provide the more confident we are that you’ve thought through your path following SIPA.

Overall, this essay was not very effective because it told me almost nothing about the applicant and was not at all tailored to SIPA or even Columbia. Most importantly, the applicant does not answer the questions in the prompt.

Applicant 2:

This applicant begins their essay by stating their policy-related passion and how a degree from SIPA fits into that. This is a strong and direct opening.

In the next paragraph, the applicant explains the origin of this passion by describing the influence of their past experiences. They even briefly summarize the impacts of certain policies on this issue. They end the paragraph by stating their specific goals as it relates to this policy issue. I can sense the applicant’s passion.

By the third paragraph, the applicant is specifically articulating why SIPA is the right fit for them. The applicant mentions specific concentrations, specializations, and other aspects of the program that are unique.  This statement was clearly written for SIPA. The applicant even manages to slip in a mention of a specific professional accomplishment that is applicable to the program without simply repeating the information on their resume.

The applicant concludes with one sentence summarizing their interests and professional experience.

Overall, this essay effectively articulates the applicant’s passion for international affairs and public policy. It also answers the prompt and clearly demonstrates that the applicant has considered how SIPA fits into their goals. However, the essay is not specific about the mechanisms through which the applicant will achieve those goals. They do not describe their ideal career path with any specificity. The admissions committee does not expect that every applicant will have a perfect idea of what they want to do after SIPA, but they do want to see that you’ve thought about it and can articulate a specific potential career path. We want to ensure that you have enough of an idea to be able to spend your limited time at SIPA in the most beneficial way possible.

In short, ensure your personal statement clearly answers every question in the prompt, is specific to SIPA, and relates your personal story in a way that is relevant. Hopefully this will help you as you write (and revise!) your personal statement prior to our Fall 2020 deadlines. For more tips, we encourage you to read our other blog posts on What’s in an App: Personal Statement and How NOT to write your personal statement.