Not Your “Average” Profile: Things to Consider as a Young Applicant to SIPA

The following post was submitted by Brittney Bailey.  Brittney is working in our office this year and she, along with several other students, are contributing posts throughout the year.  Another helpful entry on this topic written from an administrator standpoint can be found here.

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One of the most common questions we at admissions are asked is:

“What are my chances of getting into SIPA if I am a younger applicant?  Do I even stand a chance?”

Usually these questions come from prospective students who have been out of school for 1 or 2 years or those who are in their final year of their undergraduate program and want to transition straight into graduate school.  And many times, these specific questions are deferred to me.

I entered SIPA one year after graduating from undergrad and was commonly marked as the “baby” of every group assignment or SIPA bonding-experience.  The reality is that SIPA does lend itself to students who exude a certain clarity and confidence in what they want to do and know how their degree program will specifically fit into their career goals. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but older students with more professional experience generally fall into this category.

So, from one “young” student to another, I wanted to list a few key tips to keep in mind when approaching the admissions process to professional schools like SIPA.

Be aware of the statistics

  • About 5%-10% of accepted students come directly from undergrad each year. These students tend to have extraordinary academic records, significant internship and/or study abroad experience and a fairly clear idea of what career path they want to head on.   Note, the more substantive the internship experience, the better. Yes, having lots of internships at big name organizations can look good on your resume.  But keep in mind that the Admissions Committee does more than glance at this section.  They expect to see a CV longer than one-page (see resume entry here), unlike a typical job resume, and are really looking at content.  So, making sure that even a few internships, fellowships or part-time jobs can better demonstrate your ability to handle relevant and substantive work is vital.
  • In many cases though, students with very strong academic backgrounds are not offered admission but are in fact, encouraged to reapply after gaining a year or two of relevant work experience.  Applying for competitive or prestigious short-stint programs like Teach for America, the Peace Corps or Fulbright and Luce Scholarships are a good stepping stone into graduate programs that can further give you the hard skills, connections and credentials you need to advance in an international affairs career.

Think Quant!

  • I could not stress enough the need to familiarize yourself with quantitative analysis before applying to SIPA.  Honestly, I avoided quant classes like the plague during my undergraduate career, even though basic economics courses were required as part of my international relations degree.  This was definitely to my detriment! Although I ended up loving my economics courses at SIPA, especially those that applied to development, I have always felt as if I were playing “catch up”.  Having a few courses in Micro and Macroeconomics, statistics, and mathematics under your belt are incredibly important tools for the SIPA experience and any international affairs or policy career.  Not only do they make your transition into graduate school much easier, but they serve as a form of “leverage” in the application process when being benchmarked against many students who have years of applied, practical knowledge.

Be clear about career objectives

  • As a young student, you inevitably have less “tools” to work with.  Your CV will most likely have less pages than an average SIPA student who was the Director of an NGO on the Thai/Burma border working with refugees for five years or who moved up the ranks as a Senior Analyst at Citibank in New York, Hong Kong and New Delhi offices.  Not to worry! Even if your goal is to essentially become one of your peers, a SIPA degree can very well enhance these career paths. Being as clear as possible in your personal statement about how to achieve this path is imperative.  Ask yourself regularly: What do I think I want to do? Have I already taken all of the basic steps to get there?  And how will this degree at SIPA and many of its components – from the concentration, specialization, professors, locale to the potential student body – help me to get to this goal?It’s not a simple question to answer at whatever age.  But, it’s an imperative one to address and drive home in your personal statement, particularly as a student with limited professional experience.

Don’t be afraid to “stay out of the game” (for a bit)

  • I know that this is usually not the answer people want to hear.  But speaking from personal experience, had I gone through the admissions process all over again I would have spent another year or two working in international development.  In fact, after my first year at SIPA, I took off some time, in part, to do just that. Gaining the additional professional experience helped me to really refine my objectives at SIPA.  I am much more confident in what I have to offer to a future employer and what I need to take from the program here.  Staying out of the SIPA game for just a few years can really enhance how well you play once you’re in it.

Having said all this, it is possible to be a young student at SIPA and make the most of your experience.  I hope these tips, at the very least, help out some of you who have asked this common question.

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