Archive for Admissions

Use the optional essay to your advantage

Application deadlines are here, and the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid has been getting a lot of calls and emails lately. We’re glad you’re reaching out to us with your questions.

I’m choosing to tell y’all about something that has NOT been asked about, which is the optional essay.

[Before you get too far:  You are not required to write this! If you’ve said all you need to say about yourself as a candidate and you don’t have it in you to write more, that’s totally understandable! The optional essay is truly, Optional. And don’t feel guilty about being relieved that you don’t have to read the rest of this post.]

So why answer a question that hasn’t been asked? Because I think it’ll give some of you an advantage in your application. This is what the optional essay is in the application for: An opportunity to discuss something you weren’t able to address elsewhere; OR, an opportunity for you to explain a situation that needs more detail.

SIPA does not have an ideal model of an applicant. Our candidates come from more than 100 countries around the world, with a variety of undergraduate and graduate studies, career backgrounds, expertises, and aspirations. We value this diversity immensely because these differences enrich the class experience for everybody.

Instead, what the Admissions Committee looks for falls into the broad categories of: relevant professional experience; proven academic ability; quantitative coursework; and a passion for public policy and International Affairs.

Because there is no One Ideal Applicant, the admissions process is holistic – meaning, the Admissions Committee takes the whole of your application into account. We are looking at the gestalt of your application, if you will.

This is where the optional essay – and knowing what the Admissions Committee is looking for – comes in. Use the optional essay to explain any discrepancies or unique situations that you weren’t able to address anywhere else in the application. Is there something that you want to tell the Admissions Committee because it will add to you as a whole?

Tell us why you’d be a stellar policy candidate despite your previous studies being in something unrelated. Tell us why you’d come out on top of the core economics courses at SIPA despite the quantitative grades on your transcript not reflecting that. Tell us what unique perspective you can add to the classroom, even though you have an employment gap due to family reasons.

Life happens. The Admissions Committee are people too. They’re understanding and respectful. But sometimes there is nothing for them to take into account as a whole, if you are the only one who can provide the information and don’t do it.

Because each applicant is so different, we can’t possibly tell you what specific topic we’re looking for. I will just say: The optional essay is NOT another personal statement, or a place to rehash something already explained in your application. Perhaps it’s just a few paragraphs that can’t all “flow” together, and that is fine. Maybe your optional essay is just one sentence – we appreciate brevity.

Remember, the optional essay is not meant to trip you up, nor is it a ~secret admissions test~. It is simply an opportunity for you to address your situation(s) to the Admissions Committee that you weren’t able to in other parts of the application.

For another perspective, here is an overview of the Optional Essay from a student who went through the application process.

Wishing you all the best of luck!

“I’m coming straight out of undergrad. Should I apply?”

When we here at Admissions talk about what we look for in a SIPA candidate, the first item on that list is professional experience: “Most successful applicants have had at least three years of work or internship experience relevant to their intended course of study.” But every year, the incoming class has a small percentage of students who come straight from undergrad.

We often have people asking us, “Should I apply if I’m coming straight from undergrad? What are my chances?” Only you know when the time is right to apply and attend graduate school – for some people that’s at age 22, and others maybe 32 or 42. (Regardless of your academics and experience, you have 0 chance of getting in if you don’t submit your application.)

An anonymous student who came straight from undergrad says, “Don’t Apply Yet, Undergraduates” in this piece on The Morningside Post, a student-run platform for SIPA experiences and opinions:

“If you are an undergraduate student thinking about applying to SIPA, don’t rush. Expose yourself to the best, most enriching experiences so you can to get the most out of a truly unique graduate program like SIPA.”

As another student who came to SIPA straight from undergrad, Dylan shares his thoughts:

“As a junior and senior in undergrad, I naturally got caught up in the anxiety that surrounds the job recruiting process. As young twenty-somethings, we are expected to make decisions that will shape the trajectory of our careers and our lives, with little experience to draw from.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a State Department fellowship that made my decision much easier. However, I still felt like I lacked the skills and experience to know how to best take advantage of this opportunity.

Now, two years later, after completing three semesters at SIPA, I have a concrete idea of what I offer to State and what I hope to specialize in. I credit SIPA and Columbia for providing me with the skills and exposure to new ideas and fields that I previously knew nothing about. Now, as a prospective Foreign Service Officer, I hope to build upon my anti-corruption and good governance coursework, by applying what I’ve learned in the field.

While the decision to jump straight into graduate school after undergrad is a difficult one, it has been rewarding for me and most of my other peers who made the jump. Here are some things to consider before making the decision to apply.

I majored in Government and History in undergrad. I loved my undergraduate education; it was holistic, I developed my reading and writing skills, and I learned a lot about political theory. While great, I didn’t leave undergrad with a field or area of study that I knew I wanted to study in-depthly. At times, I was drawn to Latin American studies. Other times, I wanted to focus on human rights and post-conflict resolution.

This type of oscillating is natural; however, SIPA’s rigorous education forced me to think about these issues in ways I previously never had. In turn, after a few courses that threatened to draw me in a million different directions, I realized that I really loved two things: anti-corruption policy and writing.

At SIPA, I have access to world-class experts on the issue of good governance, who continue to serve as mentors. In terms of writing, I took a course with Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times reporter, who completely blew up my style – and changed it for the better.

I do not encourage students to apply if they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing post-grad and want to delay going into the professional world. However, if you have strong interests and a general idea of what fields/careers you want to pursue, going into graduate school immediately after undergrad is a great option. It provides you with perspective, exposure and ultimately the connections that can only be found in places like SIPA, where theory and practical application are taught by experts who are active in their field. By taking classes, completing internships and befriending your peers, you will slowly gain a better understanding of where your strengths lay, and how to begin your journey into the professional world.”

We hope this gives you more information in making your decision about graduate school. 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 another 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.

Energy & Environment Concentration Q&A

We’re just about halfway through our SIPA Concentration Webinar Series, where each Concentration Director gives an overview of their area of study, what they look for in strong SIPA candidates, and answer questions about their concentration. Professor David Sandalow and Concentration Manager Elora Ditton took the time to answer some extra questions about the Energy & Environment concentration from prospective students:

Q: Do you think the policy nature of the program would be valuable to someone who does not want to commit to only in the public sector? Are there any components of the program that address business concepts in energy and how they interact with policy?
A: Absolutely. Our graduates are equally employed by the private and public sectors. Particularly when studying energy and environment, it’s important to consider policy, business, technology and science and the interactions of these sectors. As such, our curriculum focuses on giving students a comprehensive understanding of how all the key stakeholders interact, while giving students the flexibility to cater the curriculum to their specific interests.

A handful of EE students come into the program looking for employment in the private sector, specific to energy. These students tend to take courses on financial modeling and markets related to energy, and intern at financial institutions or consulting firms.

With this said, you can’t work in energy and not know the regulatory policies that affect business decisions, and similarly, you can’t work in policy and not consider markets or the financial tools needed to fund projects/infrastructure. Considering this, though we are a policy school, many courses apply concepts from business/finance to energy issues.

Q: What are some of the career outcomes of SIPA EE graduates? Especially some of the climate policy graduates – do you see the majority of them working in NGOs, industry, finance, directly in governments, or some combination of these post-graduation?
A: A mix, particularly since we offer a broad range of courses which allows students to tweak the curriculum based on their career objectives.

For example, if a student knew they wanted to work in energy finance, we have a lot of courses specific to this (e.g. corporate finance, renewable energy project finance, international energy finance), so many of the students who go down this track end up in private sector jobs. If a student wants to focus in climate policy, we have equally the number of courses and opportunities here (e.g. climate change policy, environmental conflict resolution, environmental economics). These students might apply to be EDF fellows for an internship and may end up in local/federal government and/or NGO positions post-SIPA.

In other words, where students end up post-SIPA is largely determined by what their focus is during their time here. A benefit of SIPA EE is that we have the courses/curriculum to support a broad range of interests and outcomes. It also depends on if students are trying to stay in the U.S. or are going to work internationally (particularly for placement in government and the political landscape for climate policy).

Here are a few examples of recent employers: Rystad Energy, NYSERDA, International Finance Corporation, Connecticut Green Bank, Lazard, Bloomberg, Citibank, UNDP, The World Bank, Deloitte, Accenture, McKinsey & Company, ICF, ConEdison, GE, PG & E, EDF, the Earth Institute, the Nature Conservancy, WWF, ExxonMobil, CohnReznick Capital, Powerbridge, US DOE, USDS, and more…

Q: Hi there, can you talk about how the EE concentration would vary from the MPA-DP program? How does it break down within the MPA and MIA tracks? On a different note, I notice many policy professionals have a law degree. Please convince me that SIPA is a better option! Thanks so much!
A: The MPA-DP program is going to give you more exposure to hard sciences while EE focuses more on quantitative skills (e.g. economics, financial modeling, etc.). There will be more flexibility to fine-tune the curriculum to your interests in the MIA/MPA track whereas the DP curriculum is pretty set.

MIA/MPA gives you tools to design, incentivize, implement, and assess policies so you have more flexibility in application of the degree over a law degree, which is going to give you a very specific skill set. It really depends on your career goals and what you think makes the most sense for you.

Also, you can take law classes as a SIPA student! Environmental Law, for example, counts towards our EE policy requirement.

Q: Can you talk about SIPA Energy and Environment concentration as it relates specifically to energy in international development?
A: SIPA in general offers many courses in international economic and political development, and in EE, you will consider sustainability and other geopolitical and security issues related to energy and the environment.

Q: Is it difficult to catch up in SIPA for the Science and engineering part? I have not been exposed to professional undergraduate environment and energy knowledge.
A: Nope! We have many career switchers where this is their first exposure to energy and/or environment. Our classes are designed to give you the basic technical and topical foundation to address energy and environment with a policy and/or business application. With that said, since we are a policy school, though some of our courses expose you to science and technology, none of our courses are solely in the hard sciences or engineering (though you have access to these types of courses through the other schools at Columbia).


Two Admissions reminders for you Fall 2019 applicants:

1. It’s less than a month until the January 5th application deadline, and we have a few more admissions information sessions before then:

2. For those who want to hear straight from the Concentration Directors, here are the final webinars coming up:

Five Things You Should Know Before Submitting Your Application

For you applicants submitting in the next few days (Early Action for Fall 2019 is November 1st!), here are some last-minute application tips. Our Admissions Committee reads many applications during the admissions process, which means they notice when people make similar mistakes in the applications. Here are some general application tips for before you submit:

  1. Proofread. Make sure little things like, say, the name of the school, is spelled correctly. And if you’ve looked over your application hundreds of times, get a friend or family member to look it over.  A fresh pair of eyes can really help.
  2. We do not need your official test scores at the time of application submission. There is a place to self-report your scores on the application. Once you have been accepted, we will ask for your official report, but if you have submitted unofficial scores to us there is no need to contact our office to see if we have received a report for ETS.
  3. Answer the (required) essay questions. Some schools may offer an “additional information” question as an option to address special circumstances that may have affected your grades, scores or professional history. While this is one way to use this question, we really want to get to know all our applicants on a personal level, which is why answering the prompt – especially for the second essay – is required. (SIPA’s application does have an Optional Essay, which you can use to share that additional information.)
  4. We do not have a minimum GRE/GMAT score or GPA. SIPA is a competitive program and we encourage our applicants to do their best in the admissions process. But there’s no cutoff for GRE/GMAT scores or GPA, because many of our students are several years out of undergrad and have honed skills they may not have had five or ten years ago. The one exception to this is our hard rule in English proficiency tests (TOEFL/IELTS/PTE). As SIPA classes are taught in English there is a minimum level of proficiency necessary to participate and contribute. You can view the cutoff and preferred scores for the TOEFL/IELTS/PTE here.
  5. Do not waste words in your essays. It is hard enough to confine your professional experiences and goals to a 400-word limit, so you need to be strategic about the way you write. Do not waste essay space rehashing information that is available elsewhere in your application, for example your name or the grades you received as an undergraduate. In addition, we want to hear from you, not Gandhi or John F. Kennedy. If you choose to include a quotation in your personal statement make sure that it is necessary and supports your personal story.

We can’t wait to read your applications — good luck!

Reworked from this 2013 post.

Come meet our Admissions staff to get your application questions answered

Where will the Columbia admissions team be in the next few weeks? We’ll be traveling to you, available on campus, and connecting with you online.

We’re coming to you!

We’ve been traveling around graduate fairs speaking to prospective students (shoutout to the person in Seattle who recognized our names from this blog!) and would love to chat with you at an upcoming event.

The full calendar of off-campus recruiting events is available here, and below are a few highlights:

  • Oct. 22 – 25: Oregon and Washington
  • Oct. 29 – Nov. 1: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana
  • November 6: APSIA Graduate School Fair – Madrid, Spain
  • November 7: APSIA Graduate School Fair – Paris, France
  • November 8: APSIA Graduate School Fair – London, UK

Virtual Info Sessions

While you may not be in an area that we are, we’d like you to know about it just in case you happen to be able to attend, or know of someone that would be interested. So for those of you who won’t be in the areas we’re traveling too, join the Executive Director of Admissions, Grace Han, and Director of Financial Aid, David Sheridan, for a Virtual Information Session focused on the 21-month full time Master of Public Administration and Master of International Affairs programs. You will have the opportunity to ask questions via online chat.

Are you coming to us in NYC?

  • Class visits are open for this semester. You can sit in on up to two classes and get a feel for the actual SIPA experience and community (and the beauty of NYC in the fall). If you’re unsure how to figure out the SIPA courses available, Julia provides a walkthrough here. You must register in advance for a class visit, so schedule it soon as spots can fill up quickly.
  • On-campus information sessions are available every month. Right now there are weekly info sessions for the MIA, MPA and MPA-DP programs. You’ll learn about Columbia University, SIPA, our curriculum and community, and get insider application tips from admissions staff. You’ll also be able to ask any questions you want about the application process. When their schedules allow, there’s also an optional tour of the International Affairs Building led by a current SIPA student, who can share their SIPA experience as well.

"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

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