WWS Blog

Policy Memo Writing Tips:

Dec 8, 2017

Applicants often ask us to provide some guidance in writing a policy memo.  Steve Frakt, WWS writing advisor, has been advising WWS undergraduate and graduate students for the past 17 years.  Steve meets with students one-on-one during his office hours to advise them on their various writing assignments.  Graduate students in our Masters in Public Affairs program are required to take a core course entitled "The Politics of Public Policy" in which special attention is given to writing skills as they apply to the roles of advisers and decision makers in public-sector organizations. 

Below is an excerpt from Steve's policy memo writing guidelines he provides to the graduate students in that course:

Purpose.  A policy memo provides information, guidance or recommendations about an issue or problem to a decision-maker.  It must be well-organized, clearly written and succinct, with a logical connection between the background information, evidence and conclusions/recommendation.  The reader should be able to identify the essential points in a quick scan of the memo (particularly the section headings and topic sentences).

Structure.  The format of a memo should enhance its readability.  It is not written as one lengthy essay. Rather, it is divided into sections, with headings that identify the content or major point of each section.  Each paragraph should begin with a significant point (the “topic sentence”), to be supported or expanded upon in the rest of the paragraph.  Each major point should be the focus of a separate paragraph.  Do not “bury” major themes in the middle of a paragraph.

A typical memo may include the following sections:

  • Description and significance of the issue or problem you are examining.
  • Evidence of the scope of the issue.
  • Factors contributing to the issue or problem.
  • Recommendations or conclusions about the issue.
  • Counter-arguments against your position.
  • Rebuttal to counter-arguments.
  • Implementation issues for any recommendations (i.e. political, economic, environmental, technical, etc.). 

Language.  Policy memos require brevity and specificity.  Each sentence must serve to advance your presentation.   Be concise and do not waste words.  Use clear, direct language, free of bureaucratic jargon, pompous language or clichés. Eliminate unnecessary words and avoid repetition.  Write in the active voice, keep sentences relatively short, and minimize the use of adjectives and adverbs.  Avoid vague language and sentences that have no substance or state the obvious.  Also, refrain from dramatic embellishment, hyperbole and emotional rhetoric (you are not writing a political speech or an op-ed article).

What Counts as Relevant Work Experience? Our Master’s degree students come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, primarily in the public and non-profit sectors. Post-graduate work experience can be obtained over time, beginning with summer employment, internship experience, volunteer experience, and professional experience after graduating from college. 

While you are in college, be sure to seek out your institution’s career services office for internship opportunities during the summer and during the semester (if your schedule permits). We do count those experiences as valid work experience, particularly if jobs are relevant to public service or international affairs. For example, some students are able to secure a semester working in Washington, D.C., or with their state or local governments, working on political campaigns, volunteer for their local boys and girls club or tutoring in their communities. Other students find opportunities to volunteer in many capacities while they are studying abroad. 

Upon graduating from college, many students pursue short-term positions with organizations like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, or they pursue fellowships opportunities with organizations like Fulbright. These programs offer relevant professional opportunities that demonstrate one’s commitment to public service and also provide prospective applicants with relevant experience abroad. This is another way to highlight major accomplishments and areas of leadership.

These are examples of the type of work experience applicants can pursue during and upon graduating from college to gain a few years of professional work experience before applying to and enrolling in graduate school. What most interests you?

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