I was listening to an experienced colleague, who has served on various Admissions Committees around Columbia University, talk about a common mistake he saw with personal statements: being overly romantic about the subject matter. His insight rang so true with me that I felt compelled to write this blog post.

The personal statement is a crucial part of any graduate school application, especially SIPA’s. The difficulty of cramming your experiences, international affairs- or policy-related passions, career goals, and how SIPA can help you achieve them — all within 400 words! — is daunting.

I have often encountered applicants waxing poetic about the joy, happiness, and drive that spurs them in their area of policy. That passion is great, but when you focus solely on that, it ends up in an overly romantic view of what can be a complex field that requires a long-term and interdisciplinary view to problem-solving.

Take human rights and humanitarian policy, for example. I see a lot of extremely empathetic students whose hearts break for people and communities suffering from injustice. But when you write 400 words telling me how strongly you feel about doing something about it, it falls short for me. Why?

Because working in this arena takes long-term commitment and hard work, and practitioners know that the actual work itself can be frustrating at times. The end result of that work is absolutely worth it; but I sometimes take pause when I read an overly romantic essay because I am unsure if the applicant knows how trying this field can be.

I once read a poem from an applicant about how sad human rights atrocities made them; I appreciated the creativity, but passion is just one of the qualities the Admissions Committee looks for in a successful applicant. I often tell candidates that because graduate school is such a big investment, their applications need to specifically show they have done their research to connect why the SIPA program is best for their goals. This can be displayed in your CV through work experience, or through your recommendation letters; if you have all that covered, then I welcome a romantic poem.

This is not to say that you should not express your passion for any area of policy. We are asking you to tell us what drives you to apply to SIPA specifically. If your passion for the subject is your truth, I am not here to steer you away from it.

I do encourage you to remember that there are multiple qualities SIPA looks for in a candidate, and “I care the most, believe me!” rarely tells your full story. This is why we recommend you draw on your past experiences in your life, personal, academic, and professional, to tell that fuller story of yourself and why you are applying to SIPA.

You may find these other posts on the Personal Statement helpful: