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

<p class="MsoNormal"> 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<a href="/node/38163" target="_blank"> if planning is for you</a>, find the <a href="/27243" target="_blank">right</a> program, <a href="/26388" target="_blank">apply</a>, and <a href="/22992" target="_blank">decide</a> 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: </p>

July 20, 2009, 8:43 AM PDT

By Ann Forsyth

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
    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.

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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell.

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