How to Write a Policy Essay for a Fellowship Application

Jan 18, 2022

Woman typing a policy essay

By ProFellow Founder, Dr. Vicki Johnson

Many fellowships, funding awards, and graduate programs in the field of public policy and policy analysis request a policy essay as a component of the applicant. This is common for professional fellowships where policy analysis and research are part of the fellowship activities. A policy essay for an application is typically 1-3 pages and outlines a persuasive argument in favor or against an existing policy, or an argument for a new policy, or an explanation of how a social challenge could be addressed through policy. This part of the application is a test of your skills – both your persuasive writing skills and your critical analysis skills.

Some fellowships that require a policy essay as part of the application include the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, a professional fellowship that provides college graduates with the opportunity to work at a Washington, DC-based policy think tank focused on key issues of peace and security. It’s also required by the Meridian Institute Fellowship, an opportunity for early-career professionals to work with the Meridian Institute, a mission-driven, non-profit organization that develops and implement solutions to complicated social problems.

Here’s an example of the policy essay prompt from the Meridian Institute Fellowship application: 

“Meridian works on a variety of social and environmental policy issues including agriculture and food systems, climate change, environment, and natural resources, forest, health, oceans and coasts, resilience, science and technology, and water. Briefly describe a critical public policy issue facing society today and suggest how a collaborative process could be effective in helping address that issue. If applicable, include details about which parties should be engaged and what challenges might be faced in trying to bring them together. Please limit responses to one page only.”

I’d like to provide some key application tips on preparing a successful policy essay for a fellowship or graduate school application.

Tip 1: Write on a policy topic that is aligned with the organization’s mission and focus areas

Before you choose a policy topic to write on, it’s important that you understand the mission of the funding body, whether that is the fellowship organization, a graduate school, or the organization where you would be hosted as a Fellow. This is to ensure that you choose a policy topic that is within the scope of the funding body’s work and will be understood and appreciated by the selection committee. You can research the funding body’s mission by looking at the organization’s mission statement, values and history. You can also get clues about the program’s mission by reviewing their specific areas of focus, the partners that they work with, and the projects that they have initiated or funded recently. 

Tip 2: Choose a topic you are familiar with

A policy essay for a competitive application is not a good place to “dip your toes” into a brand new subject you have no knowledge of! A strong policy essay will demonstrate your knowledge of the issue. I recommend choosing a policy topic you have engaged with through coursework,  professional work, or volunteerism. If you have read recent news, journal articles, and policy papers on the subject, you will be better equipped to write a persuasive argument. If you are struggling to choose a topic, reach out to a current or former professor or colleagues in the field for advice on policy essay topics that are timely. 

Tip 3: Choose a niche subject, rather than a broad subject 

When you have only a page or two to express your ideas about a policy topic, it can be easier – and more memorable – to choose a highly specific and niche subject to write on. For example, rather than write a policy essay on a policy to address “global climate change challenges”, choose something more focused such as a policy that addresses “the impact of climate change on aquifers in California”. You’ll find it easier to find and summarize the current science of a niche subject needed to support your argument. Also, a niche topic is also more memorable to readers!

Tip 4: Determine if your essay is an argument, proposal, or another format

Some applications will request an argumentative essay, where you need to express both sides of the issue and end with your argument in favor of one side. Other policy essay prompts will request that you propose a policy change or solution, supported by evidence. There can be other formats and expectations for policy essays! Read the essay prompt questions carefully to understand what outline is needed. A great way to get insights into what the selection committee is looking for is to connect with current and former fellows for their advice. 

Tip 5: Start with an outline 

I always start with an outline before drafting a policy essay or personal statement. A one-page essay is about 5 paragraphs, so you’ll want to outline in advance the flow of your essay and consider how much space you have to make your argument. For an argumentative policy essay, a suggested outline could be:

  • Paragraph 1: Overview of the current policy challenge
  • Paragraph 2: Arguments in favor of the policy
  • Paragraph 3: Arguments against the policy
  • Paragraph 4: Your perspective on the issue
  • Paragraph 5: Conclusion: your choice of side and why

For the Meridian Institute Fellowship prompt above, I would suggest a different outline:

  • Paragraph 1: Overview of one specific (niche) public policy issue facing society today
  • Paragraph 2: Description of the parties most impacted by this issue (people, institutions, ecosystems, etc)
  • Paragraph 3: Discussion of the institutions that should be involved in addressing this issue (e.g. corporations, government agencies, non-profits, community groups, researchers, etc)
  • Paragraph 4: Description of some of the challenges faced in trying to bring these stakeholders together to solve the challenge
  • Paragraph 5: Your proposal to develop a collaborative process that brings these groups together

Even with limited word count, it’s important that you use specific examples to express ideas rather than generalizations. For example, within a policy essay on “the impact of climate change on aquifers in California”, you could discuss statistics regarding reduced snowfall, or California cities and counties challenged by reservoir management or new technologies that are showing promise in addressing the issue. This will require your reading of recent publications, news articles, and reports on the subject. Most early-career opportunities do not expect you to be an expert on the subject, but they do want to see that you’ve done your research.

Final advice: Cite your sources of information if necessary

You may need to cite sources in the policy essay. I suggest doing this inline (e.g. “The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states…”). You can also have a brief reference list at the end of the essay. Be sure to check with the fellowship organization that a reference list will not be considered as part of your word limit. 

Seeking more resources on preparing a winning fellowship application? Check out:

How to Answer “Why”: 3 Tips for Fellowship Applicants

What Makes a Great Personal Statement?

How to Write an Effective Diversity Statement for Graduate School

How to Tailor Your Resume and Cover Letter for Any Opportunity 

3 Keys to Developing a Winning Research Proposal for Fellowships and Grants

Good luck! The ProFellow community is rooting for you!

Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, an award-winning online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding. 

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