What I wish I knew as an international applicant

Graduate admissions is competitive. Even the most proactive and organized applicants need help with their resumes, essays, and financial aid applications. Add the complexities of being an international applicant, and the whole process can become intimidating. As someone who applied to SIPA last year as an international applicant, I’ve decided to write about my thoughts and experiences while my memory of them remains. I hope that by reading about my experience, it’ll help prepare other students who have similar backgrounds.

Here are my recommendations for international applicants.

Start preparing early
I wish I knew about the application process much earlier so that I could make plans ahead of it and get things done in a more organized way. In order to get into a prestigious and competitive school, you might want your scores to look “pretty.” So did I. I started planning to take GRE and TOEFL tests in late June, but I wasn’t prepared for the great “demand” of taking these tests in my home country, China. As a result, I could not sit for both exams until two months later, and I had to take both exams in one week. Fortunately, the results were good, which gave me some relief. So, my suggestion for new applicants is to really start preparing early, especially for the GRE and TOEFL tests if you do not feel confident of them. And give yourself three to four months to prepare all the required documents listed on the checklist so that you won’t drive yourself nuts.

Use your resources wisely
Living in another country prevents many applicants from visiting SIPA prior to applying, which can be beneficial as you can meet with admissions staff in person. I personally found it very helpful to access resources that are available online and around myself: if read carefully, you will find SIPA’s website (and this blog) provides all kinds of useful information for the application, as well as some information you might be interested in. Additionally, you can always seek help from the admissions office’s email (sipa_admission@columbia.edu) for personalized questions. I also spoke with one alumna in my home country about her advice for application and her opinion on SIPA. She provided me with great insights on what I can get out of the two years and encouraged me to pursue my graduate study at the school. While SIPA alumni are located across 155 different countries, it might still be hard to find alumni in your area. So it is useful to know that SIPA also provides applicants with chances to connect with its current students through its website.

Translate all parts of your application
I found myself lucky since my college offers official translated transcripts. Meanwhile, my recommenders were comfortable with writing letters of recommendation in English. However, some international applicants may have materials that are not in English, which should always be translated and notarized. For this concern, some appropriate ways to get things done: send them to an accredited translator, or have a service like World Education Services translate the documents when they evaluate your materials. Which gets back to my first point: since translation can take several weeks, you really want to start preparing for it early!

Stay calm and be optimistic!
“What’s the chance for international students being admitted, or offered a fellowship at SIPA?” is a question I hear from other applicants often. It turns out that SIPA cares more about your personal goals and professional and academic background than which country you came from. In fact, in my opinion, SIPA has a relatively high acceptance rate of international students. (More than 50 percent of the student body is international!) Therefore, I strongly recommend international applicants to impress the Admission Committee with your unique experiences and thoughts, instead of worrying too much.

I wish you all enjoy the application process and be successful! Now that you’ve read my advice, click here to work on you application.

[Photo By Courage Fu, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)]