2020 Application Pro Tip: Writing an Effective Policy Memo

Nov 24 2020
By Graduate Admissions Office

Applicants frequently ask us to provide guidance on writing an effective policy memo, which is a required component of the MPA and MPP application. This blogpost serves to answer the most frequently asked questions and provide tips for doing just that.

Our admissions committee takes a nuanced approach to your policy memos, as they provide details on how you would identify challenges, assess solutions, and implement them into practice. Considering this, we recommend you pay attention to details while writing. Ensure your policy memo is logical, free of spelling and grammatical errors, and original. Your ideas and voice should read clear throughout the memo, so try avoiding recycled papers or copying from the work of others.

To quell any anxiety around writing your policy memo, we consulted with members of our admissions committee to compile helpful tips for preparing your memo.   

Here are our best tips:

Pick a topic that matters to you. When writing on a topic you are passionate about, your personality and voice are more likely to be on display. Follow this idea when choosing the subject of your policy memo. When you are interested in the topic, you will write with more conviction, clarity and expertise. It is this that we want to read when reading your memo. Although it may be tempting to discuss a hot button issue (ie: COVID-19, election integrity, etc.), do not feel the need to discuss these if that is not where your interests and expertise lie. Be yourself.

Be direct, and give us your bottom line up front. State your policy issue and recommendations clearly and directly. We should not have to sleuth through your memo to understand what you are writing about and which side of the issue you favor.

Recommended actions should be clear. Recommend a specific solution to the problem or issue your memo seeks to tackle. Connect the background with your evidence and proposed action. 

Write how you would speak. We discourage you from trying to impress our committee with complex verbiage and platitudes. Write clearly and concisely, in such a way that your language and recommendations are accessible. Write in an active voice and keep your sentences to the point. 

Structure your memo. Your memo’s format should flow and enhance readability. It should not read as one long essay. Divide it into sections and use headings. Do not bury major themes in the middle of a paragraph, but make them clear and upfront. Additionally, format your memo in a style that suits you. Some will use MPA, while others will choose APA. Feel free to use whatever format fits your style of writing and tells your story. We have no preference, as long as your memo is structured and clear.

For those still at a loss, please consider this sample outline:

- Description and significance of an issue or problem
- Evidence and scope of the issue or problem
- Factors contributing to the issue or problem
- Recommendations or conclusions to the issue or problem
- Counter-arguments against the issue or problem (as well as a rebuttal to these counter-arguments)
- Implementation issues for any recommendations (i.e. political, economic, environmental, technical)

Keep in mind this memo serves as one portion of your application, something that will be factored into our holistic application review process. Speak with confidence and discuss a policy issue that resonates with you.

Wishing you all the best!