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Personal Statement For Mpa

Tom O’Toole, Executive Director of CIPA, offers his perspective on making the personal statement section of your graduate school application truly stand out.

When it comes to graduate school admission, the personal statement/essay represents your chance to truly shine.  In addition to providing a tremendous opportunity to convey the quality of your writing to admissions committees, the personal statement allows you to highlight your purpose for pursuing graduate studies.  A few tips for making sure your essay reaches its full potential:

1)      The Personal Statement is a Writing Sample: Some graduate schools require writing samples as part of their applications, and some do not.  For those that do not, the personal statement is the only sample of your writing that the admissions committee will see.   For this reason, it is important (particularly for a professional program where writing skills are essential), to tell your story in a clear, coherent manner, and to proofread carefully.  Grammatical errors, typos, and colloquial language will severely diminish the professionalism and credibility of your statement.  These errors will also indicate that you do not invest much effort into representing yourself well.

2)      The Personal Statement is not a Restatement of Your Résumé/CV: One of the biggest missed opportunities that I see in personal statements is when an applicant wastes their entire essay restating, verbatim, every piece of information presented in their résumé/CV.  This is a frequent error in cover letters, and it unfortunately carries over to personal statements as well.   By simply restating the information on a résumé/CV, applicants miss an opportunity to highlight aspects of their background that are not included in their résumé/CV.

3)      Graduate Admissions Committees are Immune to Guilt: Although admissions committees do look for evidence of resilience and perseverance in applicants, many applicants spend their entire statement conveying difficult personal circumstances they have had to overcome, and explaining why, because of these circumstances, they are deserving of admission.  This tells the committee very little about whether an applicant has the drive to succeed in graduate school, and many reviewers find being “guilted” into approving an application off-putting.  Focus instead on experiences that are directly relevant to your motivation for pursuing a specific graduate degree.

4)      Are you Ready for This? Another common error in personal statements is conveying that graduate school is the “logical next step” in an applicant’s career.  Graduate schools want to admit bright, capable individuals who have a genuine interest in making intellectual contributions to their field.  They are not keen on admitting applicants who are pursuing graduate studies because they cannot figure out what to do with their lives, or are avoiding a difficult job market.  Graduate school is a rigorous, challenging commitment, and conveying that it is the “logical next step” in an applicant’s career doesn’t convey a strong clarity of purpose behind the application.

5)      Tailor: One of the many problems associated with the “revolution” in electronic applications is that electronic submission encourages applicants to be generic.  The “point, click, apply” mentality that yields poor results on the internship/job market also yields poor results for many graduate school applicants.  Each statement should be tailored for the strengths of the individual program in question, (convincingly) citing faculty, courses, and specific initiatives that the applicant intends to leverage as a student.  Part of what admissions committees are looking for in applicants is intellectual capability, but they are also looking for “fit.”  As an exercise, if the applicant can replace the name of our program with any other MPA/MPP program in their statement, and the statement still makes sense, the statement isn’t well-tailored to a specific program.

6)      Tell us a New “Story”: After reviewing several hundred applications, admissions officers find that each statement tends to run together because applicants rely on many of the same strategies to tell their story.  The trick is to balance professionalism and maturity with creativity.  Give us an example of how you resolved a problem using an interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial approach.  Discuss a public policy space that you feel would benefit from a new infusion of energy or ideas.  However you decide to tell your story, make it innovative.

Applying to graduate school, like applying for a job, requires a personal statement—but don’t confuse it with a résumé. Although they contain similar information, a résumé tends to fragment your experiences into constituent parts. A personal statement, on the other hand, should synthesize thoseparts and form a compelling, future-oriented story that connects your background and aspirations to your pursuit of a graduate degree. This is why MPA@UNC refers to the document as a statement of purpose and asks the question: “Why do you want to earn an MPA from UNC-Chapel Hill?” Your statement must be about you, and it must also demonstrate clarity of purpose. The goal  of a personal statement is to present yourself as a unique and qualified individual, who has thoughtfully considered a public service career, supported by research and self-assessment, to establish that the program is the most fitting route to pursue.

With this goal in mind, here are four tips for making your statement more personal and purposeful.

Don’t hold back. 

People with a clear purpose tend to exude passion for their work. Failure to portray sufficient desire and drive into your statement could inaccurately represent your commitment. While you should avoid sounding boastful, you must demonstrate confidence, enthusiasm, and ambition. Describe how you will be an asset to UNC and add value to the communities you plan to serve after graduation.

Before you begin writing, spend time contemplating what motivates and inspires you. The more in touch you are with your core values and motivations, the easier you will find writing about them. Find a story angle or “hook” from your experiences that crystalizes who you are. Concentrate on crafting an opening that draws readers into your narrative and establishes a theme that holds the entire essay together.

Give examples.

A writing maxim is “show, don’t tell.” Use concrete examples to personalize your points. Instead of simply saying, “I am committed to nonprofit development,” you can say, “Fellowships helped my mother achieve her dream to be a violinist. I want to ensure aspiring artists get that same chance.” Consider the difference between a banal sentence (“I’m a people person.”) and a poignant one (“My three years as intake coordinator for a congregate meals program taught me the value of empathy.”).

Choose examples that clarify how your experiences have shaped you. Describing specific examples of what you want to accomplish in the short and long term further helps establish your strong sense of purpose. By doing so, it will be easier for the admissions team to envision your projected path and how the MPA degree can support your goals. Choose your words carefully, but beware of over-reliance on your thesaurus; use language that sounds like you.

Leave some subjects out.

While striving for vivid, concrete examples, remember the advice offered by the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, who said, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything." Like cropping a photograph, trimming extraneous details from your personal statement will enhance its focus on your intention. Personal statements are only one to two pages, so plan your story arc appropriately.

Stick with subjects directly related to the MPA degree and your goals for earning it. Part-time jobs and childhood experiences may not be relevant. Some topics may be unsuitable. Since you are writing for multiple unknown readers, be especially cautious about attempting humor or broaching sensitive, partisan, or controversial topics. As an applicant, you want to stand out, but, to be selected, you must fit in.


Admissions committees form first impressions while reading applicants’ personal statements. Make sure they see your best work. Don’t let typographical errors, poor grammar, or confusing sentences diminish the quality of your story. The MPA@UNC admissions committee seeks articulate students who can express themselves clearly in prose. The statement should be considered as a writing sample as well.

Set your completed draft aside for a while, so you have time to re-read it with fresh eyes. Reading aloud can also help you spot errors. If anything interrupts the flow or leaves way for assumption or misinterpretation, revise it until you’ve resolved the issue. Ask people you trust for feedback, but do not enlist others to help write your personal statement. Admissions officers want to see only your own, honest work.

Like any endeavor, if you invest sufficient time and effort and follow proven strategies, then your personal statement should be an accurate and compelling representation and introduction of your candidacy to the MPA@UNC admissions committee.

Learn more about our admissions process.

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