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

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:

4 minute read

July 20, 2009, 8:43 AM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


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

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. She taught previously at at the University of Minnesota, directing the Metropolitan Design Center (2002-2007), Harvard (1999-2002), and the University of Massachusetts (1993-1999) where she was co-director of a small community design center, the Urban Places Project. She has held short-term positions at Columbia, Macquarie, and Sydney Universities.

Aerial view of New York City architecture with augmented reality visualization, blue digital holograms over buildings and skyscrapers

4 Ways to Use AI in Urban Planning and City Design

With the ability to predict trends, engage citizens, enhance resource allocation, and guide decision-making, artificial intelligence has the potential to serve as planners’ very own multi-tool.

February 20, 2024 - ArchDaily

View from shore of Sepulveda Basin water catchment basin with marsh plants along shore.

LA’s ‘Spongy’ Infrastructure Captured Almost 9 Billion Gallons of Water

The city is turning away from stormwater management practices that shuttle water to the ocean, building infrastructure that collects and directs it underground instead.

February 25, 2024 - Wired

"It's The Climate" sign over street in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Oregon Town Seeks Funding for Ambitious Resilience Plan

Like other rural communities, Grants Pass is eager to access federal funding aimed at sustainability initiatives, but faces challenges when it comes to meeting grant requirements.

February 18, 2024 - The Daily Yonder

Front view of stone home with severe tornado damage and portions of roof ripped off.

10 States Where Insurance Costs Impact Housing Affordability

Insurance companies are responding to the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather events caused by climate change by raising home insurance premiums in high-risk states, adding another hurdle to housing affordability in the U.S.

4 hours ago - Fox Business

View of small pedestrian bridge in Prescott Preserve Palm Springs, California with palm tree oasis and mountains in background.

Rewilding the Golf Course

How former golf courses are being transformed from manicured lawns to vibrant habitats.

5 hours ago - The New York Times

Red Los Angeles Fire Department fire truck parked on pier in San Pedro, California at Port of Los Angeles.

Safe Streets Ballot Measure Runs Into Unexpected Opposition

Los Angeles's Measure HLA would compel the city to make serious upgrades for walking, biking, and other forms of active transportation, all in the name of saving lives. Its biggest opponent: the firefighters union.

6 hours ago - California Planning & Development Report

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.