Applying to Graduate School in Planning: Writing a Good Statement of Purpose

Ann Forsyth's picture

Summer is the time to start thinking about graduate school applications typically due in the late fall and early spring. Previous blogs have looked at how to investigate if planning is for you, find the right program, apply, and decide which offer to take up. This blog looks in more detail at the statement of purpose or letter of intent, an important part of the application packet. The following tips will help you craft a compelling statement:

  • Provide specific details about your past work, study, and activist experience preferably linking them to your plans for graduate work: Readers are unlikely to be familiar with the details of your day to day job or activist experience, or the content of a particularly relevant course. It can be helpful to describe specific duties and events; explain whether work was full or part time, for a month or a year; and list concrete outcomes of your activities (either in the world or in your own development). Remember, these days you need to demonstrate work experience-though it can be unpaid (e.g. volunteering with your neighborhood association or Greenpeace or the campus recycling group). One strategy is to talk about a dilemma and how you dealt with it, or hope to deal with it better after attending graduate school. This shows why you want to make the move to further study.
    If you describe personal details make them relevant to your career trajectory. If you grew up in a single-parent family you'd perhaps mention it to demonstrate a motivation for your desire to study rental housing discrimination. Or you may  want to bring it up to explain why your interesting experience in project management and conflict resolution comes from working (paid) summers in a canning factory or coffee shop rather than from doing an (unpaid) internship with some fancy planning nonprofit in an expensive city bankrolled by a rich relative. 
  • Assume an intelligent reader: Are you aiming to study with people who you think can impart useful skills, help you develop good professional judgment, and open your eyes to important structures and systems that both constrain and enable planning? In graduate admissions in planning, the faculty who will be your instructors are typically are the ones reading statements of purpose.
    As such there's no need to provide pages and pages of detail about the problems of the world's cities and regions-they have been studying such issues for years. Try to explain your areas of interest and concern in a succinct way. While readers need specifics about your experience, you can assume they will have the skills and knowledge to make assessments about how innovative and important your work has been. They will be helped by other information such as letters of reference. Your own statement can be more subtle.
  • Balance experience, opinion, and a desire to learn: In general, you need to strike a balance between showing interest and experience in the field, opinions about specific topics, and a need and willingness to learn more. I disagree with the opinions in many statements I read; often I find these particular statements to be very interesting. What I'm looking for is not agreement with my positions as a faculty member but rather openness to new and different ideas, and an interest in growing and learning. A student obviously applying to graduate school merely to gain a credential to certify the skills they feel they already have in order to apply ideas they think are fully developed will likely dislike graduate school.
  • Show an interest in the program to which you are applying: As I said in a previous blog post: "Because planning programs have such different emphases, letters of intent help admissions committees decide if you will fit in their particular program. They want to avoid unhappy students who want to study, say, sustainable design when the program emphasizes economic development. If you can't write a letter of intent that names specific faculty, courses [where you would meet students with similar interests], centers, or concentrations then you might want to reconsider applying to that program."
  • Finally, keep it short. And make the key points stand out.

Ann Forsyth has been on a number of admissions committees but is not currently on any. Thanks to Yelena Zeltser and Erica Gutierrez for helpful comments.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Communicate what you want to become.

I think Dr. Forsyth's comments are valid and aspiring planning students should take heed. As a recent graduate of an Urban and Regional Planning program, I had the opportunity to observe and overhear faculty discussing applications for incoming students. Here is my advice:

1) Do not appear to be a meandering student. What this means is to "be something." Indicate your interest in economic development, or housing, or transportation, or land use, or whatever it may be. But DO NOT demonstrate that you are an intellectual nomad, still finding your way. This is graduate school, not college. You should have already figured out what you want to be when you grow up. Being open to new ideas is one thing, but demonstrating you don't know what you want to study makes one question why you are applying to be a planner anyways. And it can communicate immaturity

2) Be specific about career goals. The faculty doesn't just want good students. They want good GRADUATES. What this means is they want someone with a plan in mind; someone that seems like they know where they are going. Plans can always change. But at least have a plan instead of "being open to anything." The latter comes across as lacking ambition and conviction.

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