With the Columbia SIPA application now open, Grace Han, Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, shares her advice on graduate school applications. If you’re thinking of applying this year, join us at a live information session to get prepared. The below article was originally posted here.


As Executive Director of the Admissions Office, I’ve read hundreds of applications over the years.

I encourage you to think about the personal statement early. Columbia SIPA’s suggested limit for the personal statement is only 400 words, which is not a lot. It’s one of the most important parts of the application for me, and I often see many common mistakes that can be easily avoided. Here are the top three mistakes I’ve seen in a personal statement:

1. You’re being too vague.

The personal statement is one of the only places for you to express yourself and your career and academic goals within the entire application, so be as specific as you can with your motivations and future aspirations. We don’t hold you to it once you become a student, but it is necessary to have a clear vision to get the most out of any graduate school education.

There are many reasons applicants are too vague – sometimes it’s because they really are unsure why they are applying to grad school, and other times they think they need to fit a certain mold of a Columbia student. What we want to know is your specific reasons for applying to not just graduate school, but to SIPA. If you’re interested in a particular faculty member, research institute, or course, state that. It’s important for us to know what exactly attracts you to SIPA.

Think about your interests as an individual, with your unique lived experiences, and how it brought you to SIPA. What is the reason you would tell me in person about why you are applying to graduate school? Where are you now, and how will SIPA get you to where you want to be?

2. You’re telling me things I already know.

A common mistake I read in personal statements is applicants walk through their resume or academic transcript, telling me how it led them to apply to graduate school: “After I took this class, I took that internship, which led me to this job, and now I want to attend SIPA.” When 75% of your space is used up by information I can read from your other application documents, it does not effectively use the personal statement in demonstrating the different parts of yourself, your aspirations, and how that fits with graduate school.

Another way applicants make this error is by describing the problem they want to address in graduate school without tying it back to themselves. You do not need to use 300 of your 450 words describing the dangers of climate change and how important is environmental policy – the Admissions Committee already knows that!

3. You write unnaturally in an attempt to show your smarts.

Policy school does include a lot of writing, and the Admissions Committee does look for writing skills throughout an application. Writing well can be difficult, but I see many common writing mistakes applicants use in an effort to demonstrate their intelligence.

This includes using “big words” that often read unnaturally or are used incorrectly. Another common error is quoting other politicians or movement leaders. I am extremely familiar with the quotes of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln; what I want to read is your words and thoughts around public service.