If you’re starting to apply to public policy programs, I remember being in your shoes. It can be nerve wracking and frustrating especially when you have years of professional experience, but in a non-traditional field. Coming from a background of working on political campaigns, I knew what skills I had developed and how they could help me be successful at SIPA, but I wasn’t sure how my resume would translate to an admissions committee that might not be familiar with the intense work environment, time management, and quantitative skills that one builds on the campaign trail. Luckily for me I was able to make that argument because, here I am! I want to share some advice I wish someone had given me early in the application process. These tips can be useful to everyone, but especially those coming from a non-traditional working environment.
Here is some advice I wish someone had given me in preparation for the grad school application process.
1) Take some classes. Even though SIPA does not require any specific courses as a prerequisite to admission, you need to be able to show you have strong quantitative skills on your application. I knew where these skills came into play on a campaign, but I knew it would be less obvious to others and scoring well in a math or econ class can help solve that as well as give you a leg up in your first year econ courses. In addition, if your grades weren’t great in college, as mine were not, taking classes gives you an opportunity to prove that you’ve matured. Finally if you’ve been out of school for a while, it’s an opportunity to cultivate an academic reference, and one who is more experienced in writing letters of recommendation than your professional colleagues are likely to be, which brings me to number 2…
2) Give your references plenty of warning, and coaching. You should probably do this anyway, but it goes double if your references are from a field where they are not usually called on to give a recommendation. In my case asking my former bosses to write a reference in October of an election year would have been far from ideal. You don’t want to miss out on a reference who knows you well because they don’t have time and you don’t want them to do a rushed job. In addition, your friends and colleagues may be unfamiliar with the application process so it useful to give them plenty of coaching about writing a good recommendation. Send them a copy of your personal statement so they have a sense of your professional goals and can relate that back to your prior experience. Talk to admissions officers (or read on our website) about what we are looking for in an application and then use your recommendations to highlight your strengths with specific examples and to help address any holes.
3) Start your applications early, not just the essay. I made this mistake with my early applications. I spent weeks writing answers to the long essay questions, but had not considered what I would include in my resume, what if anything, I would write about having been sick in college in the portion where they ask if there is any additional information the admissions committee should know, and how long it would take to track down and upload my transcripts in the proper format. Ideally I would fill all of these out ahead of time, and have uploading my final essays as the last step.
4) Visit the campus. Trying to distinguish between schools from their websites and viewbooks is kind of like online dating- you won’t get a real feel for them until you meet them in person. Undergraduate institutions have distinct personalities and so do their graduate counterparts. Not only will pre-application visits save you time and money on applying to places you wouldn’t actually want to go, they will help you get a feel for the culture of the school and thus what to include in your application. SIPA offers info sessions on most Mondays and Fridays as well as the opportunity to sit in on classes and interact with current students. Send us an email! I’d be happy to help you set this up.
5) Be able to make an argument for why you need your degree. I like to joke that I have a PhD in Campaign Management from the school of hard knocks, and yet here I am pursuing a Masters of Public Administration. Think long and hard about what you want out of a graduate degree and which programs fit your career goals before you begin to apply. If you can’t explain to yourself why you need a degree from that institution to achieve your goals, then how can you explain it to the school? There is no shame in researching a program and deciding it isn’t the right fit for you. The more specifically you can articulate how your program of choice will help you reach your goals, the better your chance of admission and the better for you personally.
I’m looking forward to helping you through the process!
Best of Luck,
Nancy Leeds is a Democratic Campaign Operative and blogger pursuing her MPA in Social Policy and Management at SIPA. She is specifically interested in voting rights and electoral systems.