Archive for Admissions

The Personal Statement: What We Look For

The personal statement is a common source of anxiety for applicants. We understand it can be difficult to articulate your past experiences, policy-related passions, professional goals, and how SIPA can help you achieve them in just 400 words. In this blog post, we’ll be anonymously reviewing two essays to give you some insight into how we think and hopefully help relieve some of that anxiety.

Prompt: Please elaborate on why you have chosen to apply to the MIA/MPA program. How will this program enable you to achieve your career goals? Describe your academic and research interests and career objectives.

Applicant 1:

This essay starts out with a personal anecdote about international travel. The first paragraph definitely grabs my attention, but the applicant loses me in the next paragraph by turning this into a creative writing exercise. It would have been far more effective to grab my attention with the first paragraph, and then immediately start telling me about their background, goals, and how SIPA fits into that beginning with the second paragraph. There is very limited space, so spending so much time telling a story is not the most effective.

The next two paragraphs continue to tell stories about international experiences with little substantive detail and a lot of platitudes.

Now in the fifth paragraph we finally seem to be getting somewhere. The applicant describes a professional experience, but this time they are more specific about their goals and what they accomplished.

The applicant concludes with only 3 sentences about Columbia and graduate school. This is the first time in the essay where I’m reading about how graduate school fits into their career, and it is very vague. This essay could be used for any school, and there is no detail about why this applicant wants to attend SIPA specifically.

There is also no detail about the applicant’s professional goals. The applicant simply tells us that they want to work in the foreign service. SIPA is a professional program and we want our applicants to have a clear, detailed understanding of how SIPA will benefit them in their potential career. It’s vital that applicants demonstrate that they’ve thought this through. Tell us very specifically what you want to do and what you hope to accomplish. The foreign service is very broad; the applicant does not even specify if they mean the U.S. foreign service. Tell us what region of the world or functional issue you hope to focus on and why you are passionate about it. If there are specific offices, embassies, or departments you’d want to work in, tell us that. The more detail you provide the more confident we are that you’ve thought through your path following SIPA.

Overall, this essay was not very effective because it told me almost nothing about the applicant and was not at all tailored to SIPA or even Columbia. Most importantly, the applicant does not answer the questions in the prompt.

Applicant 2:

This applicant begins their essay by stating their policy-related passion and how a degree from SIPA fits into that. This is a strong and direct opening.

In the next paragraph, the applicant explains the origin of this passion by describing the influence of their past experiences. They even briefly summarize the impacts of certain policies on this issue. They end the paragraph by stating their specific goals as it relates to this policy issue. I can sense the applicant’s passion.

By the third paragraph, the applicant is specifically articulating why SIPA is the right fit for them. The applicant mentions specific concentrations, specializations, and other aspects of the program that are unique.  This statement was clearly written for SIPA. The applicant even manages to slip in a mention of a specific professional accomplishment that is applicable to the program without simply repeating the information on their resume.

The applicant concludes with one sentence summarizing their interests and professional experience.

Overall, this essay effectively articulates the applicant’s passion for international affairs and public policy. It also answers the prompt and clearly demonstrates that the applicant has considered how SIPA fits into their goals. However, the essay is not specific about the mechanisms through which the applicant will achieve those goals. They do not describe their ideal career path with any specificity. The admissions committee does not expect that every applicant will have a perfect idea of what they want to do after SIPA, but they do want to see that you’ve thought about it and can articulate a specific potential career path. We want to ensure that you have enough of an idea to be able to spend your limited time at SIPA in the most beneficial way possible.

In short, ensure your personal statement clearly answers every question in the prompt, is specific to SIPA, and relates your personal story in a way that is relevant. Hopefully this will help you as you write (and revise!) your personal statement prior to our Fall 2020 deadlines. For more tips, we encourage you to read our other blog posts on What’s in an App: Personal Statement and How NOT to write your personal statement.

Studying Cybersecurity at SIPA: A Course Guide

Photo: SIPA students and recent graduates traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with senior industry professionals and SIPA alumni working in the field of cybersecurity and threat intelligence.

Threats emanating from cyberspace impact governments, the private sector, non-profits, and individuals. The borderless nature of (most of) the internet as well as the fact that the private sector owns much of the infrastructure creates difficult policy challenges that governments and companies continue to confront. Thankfully, SIPA is helping train students to tackle these challenges through innovative coursework that allows students to explore the technical, legal, and policy aspects of cybersecurity.

As a current student, I’ve taken several courses focused on this area, and I’ve found SIPA to be a great place to study cybersecurity policy. While I concentrate in International Security Policy, there are courses applicable to students in all concentrations. An International Finance and Economic Policy student might explore cyber risk to financial stability, for example, while an International Security Policy student may be more interested in cyber conflict. As you apply to SIPA and prepare your personal statement, use this guide to assist in your research and allow you to explore the potential paths you can take in this exciting field.

Basic Technical Background (a great place to start!)

  • Computing in Context – This course teaches the Python programming language through a series of lectures and labs taught by a computer science professor. Then, a SIPA professor explores how these skills can be applied to solving public policy problems. This is an extremely popular class at SIPA that provides a very marketable skill set. While I haven’t personally taken the course, I’ve spoken to several fellow students who found the course challenging but highly practical.
  • Programming for Entrepreneurs – This hands-on short course, which requires no technical background, takes place over an intensive four days and covers the fundamentals of computer science, data structures, web development with HTML/CSS, as well as some basic SQL. While I had some basic web development experience from my undergraduate studies, this course still provided me with valuable skills and was a great first course to gain some additional technical background prior to taking other courses on this list.
  • Basics of Cybersecurity – This course equips students with the basic technical knowledge needed to succeed in other cybersecurity courses at SIPA. Students learn the basics of how computers and the internet work, networking concepts, and network defense and security. When I took this course, it was taught by an active-duty U.S. Army cyber officer, and it was fascinating to learn these concepts directly from an experienced practitioner.
  • Cyber Risks and Vulnerabilities – This course complements the Basics of Cybersecurity course by focusing on the risks and vulnerabilities of various devices and protocols. The course includes demonstrations of common hacking techniques or tools to illustrate how these vulnerabilities are exploited and the potential impact. You should aim to take this course after taking Basics of Cybersecurity.

General Problems in Cyber Policy and Cyber Conflict

  • Cybersecurity: Technology, Policy, and Law – This innovative seminar course brings together professors and students from SIPA, the Computer Science department, and the Law School to explore cybersecurity issues from the lenses of all three disciplines. The course culminates in an interdisciplinary research project. Students interested in any aspect of cybersecurity or the impact of technology on policy and law will benefit greatly from this course. Tip: if you’re interested in this course, demonstrate your interest in cybersecurity by taking other related courses and joining the student Digital and Cyber Group. The course always has a wait list and this will differentiate you.
  • Dynamics of Cyber Conflict – This course focuses on the national security aspects of cybersecurity, specifically how cyber conflict has developed and how it differs from other types of conflict. Through an interactive exercise, students will learn how to formulate practical policy recommendations to respond to a cyber incident. Taught by Professor Jason Healey, the editor of the first history of cyber conflict, this course is always popular and comes highly recommended.

Skills-Based Courses

  • Introduction to Cyber Threat Intelligence – This course introduces students to the skills required to work as a cyber threat intelligence analyst in government or in the private sector. While not required, students will benefit from having some prior technical knowledge, either from another SIPA course or from work experience. Taught by Professor JD Work, who has extensive government and private sector experience, the course has numerous hands-on intelligence analysis exercises that provide valuable experience (and are fun!).
  • Cybersecurity and Business Risk – This course examines cybersecurity from the perspective of the private sector. It explores the risks of conducting business connected to the Internet and how businesses understand and manage these risks. This course is especially beneficial to International Finance and Economic Policy students interested in cybersecurity. Taught by Professor Neal Pollard, the CISO of UBS, the course will help prepare you for cyber risk related roles in a wide variety of industries.

SIPA is a leader in training the next generation of leaders in cybersecurity policy. I encourage you to explore these courses as you craft your personal statement. A personal statement that clearly demonstrates how SIPA will advance your career goals is a great way to stand out in the application process, and cybersecurity courses from SIPA are a great way to stand out in your future job hunt.

“Should I apply?”

I had the pleasure of meeting many prospective students while attending Idealist graduate fairs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle recently. A question I kept getting over and over was, essentially, “Should I Apply?”

I’m still not sure how to answer because:

    1. You are the only person who knows if this is the best time for you. I can’t decide for you, nor can your family, mentors, or academic advisors. It’s a personal decision to make.
    2. If you are afraid of rejection, I promise you that I cannot “chance” you with the few pieces of information you provide when we chat. The SIPA website goes over what we look for here. We value a diverse class who can learn from and support each other, drawing from their various personal experiences, different areas of study, and career trajectories. This is the benefits of an interdisciplinary program like SIPA’s.

But if you want a short answer to “Should I apply?” — here’s my best shot at answering.

“I’m not sure if I’m the right type of student for SIPA. Should I apply?

I linked this post from 2012 that still rings true:

You should not apply if you don’t know what you want to do when you graduate. SIPA’s MIA, MPA and MPA-DP programs are only two years, which is not a lot of time. Knowing what direction you want to take your future in is important for moving your career forward, and using SIPA to get you there. Decision paralysis is real when you get to Columbia – each one class you take might mean 10 you cannot take. The Admissions Committee looks for your direction in your personal statement and application. Graduate school is challenging and a big investment, and we want to make sure this is the best path for you and your needs.

You should not apply if you’re interested in a straight theoretical/academia experience. There’s a reason we look for professional experience in the application is because SIPA’s programs are meant to prepare students as practitioners in their field, who can apply the theory as well as learn it.

You should not apply if you can’t interact with people with different perspectives. Even for a policy and international affairs school, SIPA is on the more diverse side (and working towards improving this), with almost 60 percent of our incoming class this year made up of international students. These different experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives all add to the learning experience of the classroom, but if you cannot engage these differences without going on an angry rant, for example, you should not apply.

I know SIPA looks for relevant professional work experience, but I think I’m ready. I’m coming straight out of undergrad. Should I apply?

Some people said “No, don’t apply yet” because you more out of the SIPA program when you come in already having enriching experiences.

Another student coming straight from undergrad said a strong yes. “SIPA’s rigorous education forced me to think about these issues in ways I previously never had.”

I highly recommend reading the linked blog post for perspectives from actual SIPA students who applied straight from undergrad. “Know that you are the only person who can decide when the time is right for you; and that the Admissions Committee does see applicants that would be fantastic candidates after a year or two of working. Graduate school is a huge commitment in time, resources, and opportunity cost, and every candidate should make sure they can get the most out of their time in school.”

“There is a part of my application that isn’t so great. Should I apply?

My short answer is, if you truly believe this is the right step for you, “Yes” — and use the optional essay to explain any unusual situations that you weren’t able to address anywhere else in the application.

I think there’s a misconception that successful people, like those who get into Columbia University SIPA, never fail. That they are flawless people who succeed in everything. But for anyone who has work experience, mistakes happen, and successful people learn from failure. Failures can help you grow.

We also understand that sometimes, life happens, often unpredictably. Adjusting to college as an 18-year-old can be difficult. Some people have employment gaps because they overworked themselves, or had a chance to travel the world and grabbed it. Sometimes you have personal issues that affect you, and you don’t realize it until much later.

That being said, we want to ensure students who attend SIPA can handle the rigorous curriculum here, which includes a foundation in policy and quantitative coursework at a graduate level. We want to ensure that you are certain SIPA is the right decision for you, and that you are able to articulate that.

Use the optional essay as an opportunity to address this. And if you have nothing to address, that is totally fine too. That’s why it’s optional.

Why I applied ‘Early Action’

I applied Early Action to SIPA, where decisions are non-binding, in November 2017 to start in Fall 2018. I applied early because, quite simply, I wanted an early decision. More than that, I applied early action because my graduate school journey started way back in 2016. I started thinking about going to grad school in early 2016, and it took me a while to decide this is what I really wanted.

Applying Early Action was the best decision for me because…

It gave me a deadline and…

SIPA’s Early Action deadline is in early November (for Fall 2020, it is November 1, 2019!), which was the earliest of all the schools I applied to. I used this deadline as an ‘early EARLY action’ in my planning and figured if I worked towards SIPA’s deadline, I would be prepared for all other schools’ deadlines. It was helpful for me because I worked backwards from the deadline to fulfill the application checklist. The checklist is also quite similar for the other schools I applied to, with the difference being the essays. This helped me gather everything I needed pretty early on, which was a huge burden off because you’re working through that checklist. Working on the essays for SIPA’s deadline also helped me articulate clearly why I wanted to go back to school and what I hoped to accomplish. This made it a lot easier to write the other essays too.

I heard back super early…

Applying early action means you get a non-binding early decision! I heard back from SIPA right after Christmas, which was a nice way to usher in the New Year. The admission e-letter plays Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” (turn that volume up!) and has falling confetti. It was basically just perfect. (That added touch made me so happy like you can’t even imagine.) (Sad story but the SIPA decision email actually went to my spam so I actually saw it two days after it was sent, but that doesn’t matter. So worth it.) And it adds to the holiday festivity. Given that you hear back around 8 weeks after you apply, and because it’s around the holiday season, I was definitely preoccupied so I didn’t have any anxiety or stress while waiting to hear back. So apply early action because no stress, no mess!

Which means I could plan the next 8 months…

Hearing back by the New Year also gave me time to plan the next 8 months leading up to SIPA. It gave me space to plan time for family, holidays, boring admin like banks and visas, and more crucially, when to leave my job. I didn’t feel stressed that I had a hundred things to do before moving, and I had time to troubleshoot problems. SIPA requires that you provide official documents once you are accepted. While some institutions have this all figured out and you only need to click a button, others have a more complicated process that requires many emails, calls and mailing paper transcripts (and things can get lost in the mail – trust me on this), for you to complete this and get the verified documents check. Lastly, I received a conditional offer for SIPA, which meant that I needed to spend some time improving on my quantitative skills (read: I had to take economics classes). Again, the 8 months gave me time to plan ahead on how to meet this requirement. But conversely, if I had not been accepted, I would have had time to apply to other/more schools, reapply or figure out an alternative.

And gave me a sense of security. 

Once I heard back from SIPA, I felt relieved. I felt strangely secure that at least someone wanted me. This gave me the confidence to apply to my remaining schools because maybe they would want me to? Probably not but maybe. This security also meant that yes, I was going to graduate school and got me very excited!

Was Early Action the right choice?

Applying to grad school made me very nervous, anxious and scared because I felt all my hopes and dreams were on the line. Applying Early Action was absolutely the best decision for me. I felt hugely relieved once I applied because it was out of my control by then. Because I’m a planner and I liked having the extra time to figure out a game plan, the early decision helped. That said, there are people who applied at the very last minute, so I think it boils down to personality and your comfort with uncertainty.

So, what you are waiting for? Apply Early Action!

The Fall 2020 Early Action Deadline is November 1, 2019.

Demystified: The Quantitative and Language Resume

One of the most challenging parts of the application process at SIPA is the Quantitative and Language Resume (judged by the amount of questions we get about how to craft it). Although there is a helpful template on our website, it won’t help you know exactly what do put in it, which is what this post is for.

What is the Quantitative and Language Resume for?

The Quantitative and Language Resume is basically a tally of, in your own words, the quantitative experience (both academic and professional) and linguistic exposure you posses. Your content should show you can keep up with the required courses for the degree program you are applying to.

For example, if you are applying to the Economic and Political Development concentration at SIPA as an MIA/MPA candidate, you might want to show proficiency in a second language. While it’s not needed to apply, you will need proficiency to graduate. Depending on your specialization, you might need to take upper-level quantitative analysis and economics courses at SIPA. Therefore, your Quantitative and Language Resume should include the relevant courses taken during prior study and details like the grade you received, textbooks and other materials used, and a brief summary of what was covered in the class.

If it’s been a few years, the Admissions Committee understands! If you want to be exact, information like what the course covered could be found in your university’s course catalog if you struggle with providing these details from memory. You can supplement your course experience, or lack thereof, with any quantitative experience you may have accrued at work such as visualizing data for presentations or doing preliminary analysis for a report.

What should I submit if I’m changing careers or don’t have a background in economics?

If time at SIPA is a vehicle for switching career direction from the more qualitative to quantitative, some applicants take a few courses in economics or statistics at a community college or university, or request more quantitative projects at work to beef up quantitative skills and application. Planning ahead will increase your probability of being able to show to the Admissions Committee that you will be able to keep up with the economics and quantitative core at SIPA. If you have plentiful quantitative coursework or experience, parse out what is useful. Courses in Chemical Engineering are applicable, but if you have statistics and programming experience in STATA and Python under your belt, prioritize that.

I don’t need a language to apply, so what do I put in this resume?

The language portion of the Quantitative Language Resume can strike fear in those of us who haven’t taken a Spanish class since High School. If you know that you are going to apply to a program without a language requirement ( e.g. an MPA in the Urban and Social Policy concentration), the language section can just be a elucidating footnote on your cultural competency. Even if you are applying for a course where language is a core component of the core, such as the MIA program or the Economic and Political Development concentration (regardless of degree), fluency is not a prerequisite.

What this section of the Quantitative and Language Resume is trying to suss out is how exposure and commitment to the language or culture you’d like to commit time to at SIPA. For programs that require it, in your two years at SIPA you should be able to test out or achieve a B or higher in the upper-intermediate language of your choice. You can come to SIPA with little or know background in a language and learn it here — it will just take time. In fact, Amanda Schmitt ’19 gave some tips on how to maneuver that in a blog post earlier this year.

If you have a rich background in foreign languages, either through self-study, life experience, or taking up to 300-level courses during your undergraduate study, please elaborate on it to show off your international experience or outlook. Remember, fluency doesn’t come from just listening to a few foreign language songs or watching movies, but from a concerted effort to learn or develop structured exposure. Put only what will show what foundation you have to build on through coursework.

The Quantitative and Language Resume is one of the ways in which SIPA practices holistic admissions and how all of your experiences make you into a competent candidate with the potential to thrive here. Use it as an opportunity to show the steps you’ve taken to ready yourself for graduate school, your ability to follow our curriculum, and, most importantly, your potential as a Seeple.

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

Boiler Image