WWS Blog

Application Pro Tip - Policy Memo

Nov 9, 2018
Published by:
Graduate Admissions Office

Applicants ask us all the time to give guidance on our request for a policy memo as a part of the application. This blog serves to do just that. In short, take it one step at a time.

Yes, we read them. Yes, we look to see if they’re logical. Yes, we notice spelling and grammar mistakes. Yes, we can tell when the memo is a recycled term paper. Yes, we know when they’re too long. Yes, it’s obvious when something is copy-pasted from somewhere else. Yes, we understand that part of your coming to the Woodrow Wilson School is to gain experience in writing policy memos and confidence in your ability to expertly produce them. No, we are not going to duplicate all learning outcomes of 501 here. (501, aka The Politics of Public Policy, is one of our core courses for a first year MPA student.)

In preparing this post, we polled Admissions Committee members to see what mattered to them, consulted with Laura De Olden, our current Associate Director of Graduate Student Life and Diversity Initiatives and former instructor in 501, as well as reviewed the past advice from Steve Frakt, a WWS writing advisor, who has been advising WWS students for 20 years.

Here’s where we come out.

Pick a topic that matters to you. It is common to see several memos in any given admissions cycle on a similar topic. It is even more common to see several memos on the current hot topic of the day in public and international affairs. While this shows us that you stay up-to-speed on current events, this also sometimes shows us that you are writing what you think we want to read. We do not care what you write on. The best policy memos are the ones written about a specific issue you care about and know. You’ll certainly have to write memos in 501 on topics for which you have zero experience; however, for your application for admission to Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, pick a topic you have a degree of expertise or experience with. You will write with more authority and with higher degrees of clarity.

Give us your bottom line up front. We should not have to read through to page three to understand what you are writing about and what side of the issue you favor.

Recommended action 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. 

Proofread. Aloud, if necessary. Your memo should not be overly filled with complex verbiage and platitudes. State ideas simply. Say them straight. (And preferably with a smile.)

Be brief and use clear language. Each sentence should advance your memo. Use clear, direct language. Avoid jargon. Eliminate repetition. Write in active voice. Keep sentences short.

Structure your memo. We do not care what format you use, but the format should enhance readability. Your memo should not be read as one long essay. Divide it into sections and use headings. Do not bury major themes in the middle of a paragraph. Memo formats can vary among disciplines - we do not have a preferred format. If you have a preferred style, bearing in mind the above, go for it. For those still at a loss, please consider the following:

- 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)

Photo credit: Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

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