Tips for Writing Columbia SIPA's Personal Statement

Originally posted July 30, 2015
Last updated September 15, 2016

Columbia SIPA’s Personal Statement prompt reads: “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.” (400 words maximum)

Assuming you have at least the minimum qualifications for acceptance to the program, this part of the application is undoubtedly the most important component of your submission materials, so let’s take some time to go over the key must-haves so you nail this part!

This is the place where you become a real person to the admissions committee, not just another set of GRE scores, undergraduate grades and a resume that quite honestly looks like every other resume they’ve seen. Rest assured you are not the only person who has started an NGO in a foreign country, worked on the Hill, volunteered with the Peace Corps, and written impressive articles published in major papers. You need to show them something more. And if you are at all concerned that your other materials (resume and all) are not that impressive, this portion is ever more critical.

The first thing to remember: follow the instructions. Stay within the word limit. In general it’s best to be concise wherever possible. This may sound like I’m saying to write as short an essay as possible, but what you want to do is aim for roughly just under the word limit. Don’t fill your personal statement with superfluous details, but also don’t undercut yourself by turning in a statement that is only 400 words if the limit is 1000. I find most people have more trouble cutting their essays down, so think hard about what you want the key take-away of your statement to be.

Get clear on your key take-away. Give yourself an internal heading like “Heidi is a talented go-getter with formative experience from her time spent working with youth in Ecuador, deep passion for promoting human rights in post-conflict settings, and a motivation that began when she founded a young women’s group in college.” Yours might be “Mike is a former marine looking to leverage his critical thinking skills and experience with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his undergraduate degree in business, to dive into a career in management of large scale refugee camps, after a transformational interaction with a Kurdish refugee last year.” You’ll need to figure out the heading that works for you. Make sure it is impressive and tells the story that will make you a contender for the program. You’ll never actually use the heading, but the idea is to make sure someone reading your essay leaves with this key take-away.

Avoid quotes! Especially Gandhi. I was a student reviewer for applications (SIPA asks selected 2nd year students to review incoming applications) and it was a joke shared between student reviewers and deans alike to say “I’ve got another one!” (meaning another “Gandhi-quoter”.) It’s unoriginal and only shows you know how to look up quotes. You want to set yourself apart, not sound like everyone else. The reviewers want to hear your voice, not Gandhi’s, no matter how impressive a prospective student he might make.

Show that you have something to offer. SIPA and many other graduate schools have a huge teamwork component and students are asked to complete work in groups for almost every course. Additionally, you’ve probably heard the comment “half the benefit of grad school are the connections you make to your fellow students.” It’s true, and student reviewers are instructed to judge applications under the rubric of “Would you want this applicant in a group with you? Do you want this person as your peer?” This means demonstrating that you’re smart, interesting, have great experience to draw on and that you’re a team player.  If you sound too pompous, that’s not likely to earn you any brownie points. But don’t sell yourself short. It’s all about striking a balance in the personal statement.

Don’t just restate your resume. The same goes for mentioning where you went to school. They will have your resume and transcript sitting right in front of them and don’t need a summary. You can reference experiences in your resume and expand on them, but focus on using the personal statement to round out your resume and help you jump off the page.  Think about what makes you special, what motivates you, what someone wouldn’t know from looking at your resume.

Make clear ‘why SIPA’. I remember one application that was rejected because the person couldn’t articulate why SIPA was the next step. He had a stellar resume and already had a graduate degree from a top notch university and I expect would have no trouble getting in the door for job interviews. Experience aside, his personal statement couldn’t articulate what SIPA could offer him. It’s about showing why you’re good for SIPA, and why SIPA is good for you.

Read it over. Then read it over again. Then get your friend to read it (or an Art of Applying coach!) There is no excuse for typos, for misspellings, for sloppy wording. Admissions staff read a lot of applications and if they are down to you and someone else just as good, you don’t want those two typos in the first paragraph to give them a reason to toss your application to the side. It also makes you look like you couldn’t be bothered to proofread, and just don’t care enough.

Now get writing!

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