Archive for Application Tips

So many concentrations, so little time

An alum once told me that the best and worst thing about being at SIPA is the amount of choice we have. Those words could not ring truer today. Seeples are spoilt for choice when it comes to courses on offer, even more so when we have the opportunity to cross-register (in layman terms: take classes from other Columbia University schools).

It’s easy and tempting to want to do everything, but that quickly becomes overwhelming when you’re trying to juggle school, internship/work, student organization, school events, sleep and wellness, and having a social life.

When I first came to SIPA, I had no idea what my graduate school game plan was – what skills did I want to develop, what classes I wanted to take, what knowledge I wanted to get which would help me towards a meaningful career after graduation. I did the safe thing and opted for core classes in the first semester to buy myself some time. While you’re not locked into your concentration when you’re at school, it helps to have a clear idea of what direction you want to head in. Here are three tips to help you find what concentration/specialization works for you:

#1 Figure out your area of interest and choose a concentration that caters to it

AKA, why do you want to go to graduate school. By now, you may already be in the early stages of your personal statement, which has hopefully helped you think about what drives you and what your career goals are. There are six concentrations for both MIA & MPA degrees and each curricula has a different subject matter and focus. The focus of each concentration is quite self-explanatory as they are rather distinct – economic development, energy, human rights, international finance, international security, and urban & social policy.

Choosing a concentration does not restrict you from taking classes that might relate to other concentrations. Rather, it serves as a starting point to help you focus/tailor your graduate school academic life. One of the biggest concentrations is Economic and Political Development (EPD), which I belong to. I chose EPD (and stuck to it) because of the breadth of courses and the focus on development and emerging markets. As I hope to return to Southeast Asia, this emphasis on the developing world is important for me.

#2 Identify your specific interest or leverage your professional background to specialize

Choosing a specialization is SIPA’s way of helping you further focus your degree. Most people have one specialization but some do have two specializations, because why not. Specializations require less credits to fulfill the criteria compared to concentrations. But don’t fret because you only need one to graduate. If you’re unsure of how to choose, go with your gut because SIPA offers flexibility in changing your specialization. Management is a popular specialization because it offers a wide range of flexibility, especially if you’re looking to take classes outside SIPA. Some Seeples also specialize in a region. Some specializations such as Technology, Media and Communications (TMAC) are still broad and offer more breadth and further focus such as cybersecurity.

The tl;dr version is don’t stress because there is a lot of flexibility to explore and choose your specialization if you’re admitted. It might be more helpful to think about what geographic coverage you might prefer.

#3 Recognizing how much flexibility you want to pursue electives

Every concentration has different requirements and the amount of credits you need to take to fulfill that requirement. Concentrations such as EPD, Energy and Environment (EE) and the International Finance and Economic Policy (IFEP) may have more core requirements compared to others. This might limit your ability to take more electives and classes outside of SIPA, if that is what you are looking for, or if you’re not keen to take full 18 credit semesters. Some requirements may also be challenging to fulfill. For example, EPD has a second language requirement and language courses can be 4/5 credits. This might limit the number of electives you can take per semester if you are required to take language classes and cannot test out. Similarly, IFEP is a more quant-heavy concentration which requires satisfying more advanced economics and quantitative courses.

Think about the trade-offs of what experience you are looking for out of graduate school and how much flexibility you require for your own well-being.

Start early! Four things applicants should do now

The 2020 application is open, and we encourage all applicants to get an early start! While the deadlines for regular consideration are not until January 5, 2020 (for fellowship consideration) and February 5, 2020 (no fellowship consideration), applicants who apply by November 1, 2019 will receive early action consideration. Spring applicants have until October 15, 2019.

Whichever deadline you’re shooting for, starting now will make the application process much smoother.

Here are the first four things you should do:

  1. Create a checklist

As you research your graduate school options, it’s important to consolidate all of the application requirements and deadlines into a checklist to keep you on track. I used a simple Excel spreadsheet to track my progress on each of SIPA’s application requirements and assigned myself a deadline to complete each of them. It can also be helpful to share your goals with a friend or family member who can help keep you accountable.

  1. Schedule the GRE/GMAT

Schedule your exam date now! I scheduled my GRE as soon as I started studying and it really helped motivate me to stay on track with my study plan (especially with the prospect of the $205 test fee going to waste). I also recommend taking the exam as early as possible so that you have time to retake it if you are not satisfied with your score the first time. SIPA will consider your highest scores.

  1. Contact potential recommenders

Begin contacting potential recommenders now to give them plenty of time to write a strong letter of recommendation. SIPA requires two letters for the MIA/MPA application, but applicants can submit up to three letters. It is a good idea to have 3-4 recommenders in mind just in case something falls through with one.

  1. Start drafting your personal statement

The personal statement is a vital part of your application because it tells the Admissions Committee how your past experiences prepare you to succeed at SIPA and how you plan to have an impact after graduation. Starting this early allows you to carefully research the academic and extracurricular opportunities available at SIPA so that you can articulate specifically why you are a good fit for the program. You’ll also definitely want time to have a friend or mentor review your personal statement. They can help you spot grammatical errors, and they also may have a great suggestion for something you should include about yourself.

Taking these four steps now will give you a great head start on the application. We wish you the best of luck as you complete your application!

Ten Tips on Managing Stress During the Application Process

Thanks to Melanie Pagan, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Wellness at the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) at SIPA, for this post in response to Patricia H. Dean Pagan earned her MSEd in Higher Education Administration at Baruch College’s School of Public and International Affairs and has more than 10 years of experience in higher education supporting undergraduate and graduate students at various institutions including Yale University, Connecticut College and Columbia University. Her pronouns are she/her/hers.

Submit your idea for a blog post here.

Applying to graduate school can be as stressful as much as it is exciting. It’s normal for one to experience anxiety at some point of the process but there are ways to manage that stress while (and after) you apply. Here are my ten tips on how to stay relaxed, productive, and positive during the application process.

Tip #1: Start Early!

Graduate school applications can be quite involved. At SIPA, application requirements include a personal statement, letters of recommendation, official transcripts, the GRE/GMAT or TOEFL, and a video essay. Each of these requirements can take some time to complete so starting early can not only help you feel less stressed, but it will allow for any potential bumps in the road that could derail the process.

Tip #2: Get organized.

In addition to starting early, getting organized is key to managing anxiety while applying. Regardless of how many programs you are applying to, there is a lot of information to keep track of. Whether you use pen and paper or digital organization system, my suggestion is to create a grid with each school, their requirements and deadlines. When I applied to master’s programs, I used a notebook where I created a grid with each school’s application components and checked off things as I completed them. I also added deadlines to my calendar on my phone and set reminders for a week and a day before a deadline.

Tip #3: Take Breaks.

Although it may be tempting to spend all your time on your application or power through it due to time restraints, it’s important to take breaks for yourself (and for your application). Rest your eyes of the blue light from your computer screen. Step away from your writing for a bit. This allows you to come back with a fresh perspective. Your best work comes from your best self and taking a break helps. Take a walk, listen to music, dance at home, have dinner with a friend, watch an episode (not the entire series) of your favorite show.

Tip #4: Sleep, Eat, and Stay Active!

When we are stressed, we sometimes neglect the things that our body and mind need like drinking water, sleeping well, eating well, and staying active. In addition to taking breaks, it is important that you participate and maintain healthy habits. Unhealthy behaviors like sleep deprivation, remaining inactive for days at a time and drinking a lot of coffee can lead to burnout, forgetfulness, and loss of creativity.

Tip #5: Seek Support from Friends and Family.

Talk to your support system. Whether is it a friend, a coworker or a family member. Let them know if you feel overwhelmed or stressed. They’ve supported you through other stressful times and they will do so again.

Tip #6: Talk to a Counselor, Advisor or Mentor.

Talking to a professional counselor, trusted advisor or mentor can also be helpful, especially if you do not have someone in your support system who has gone through the graduate school application process. Talk to your therapist, reach out to mentor at work or a college advisor from your undergraduate studies. They can help you with any anxiety that you are experiencing and can share with you any advice they might have.

Tip #7: Limit the Amount of People You Have Look at Your Application.

It’s important to reach out to people you trust to look over your application. They can help you with writing edits, studying for the GRE/GMAT and/or TOEFL/IELTS/PTE or give you feedback on your video essay. However, try to limit how many people you have look over your essays, especially as you are making final edits. It can cause unnecessary stress and lead you to feel overwhelmed right as you are getting ready to hit submit. Additionally, if you have found a GRE or TOEFL study course/books that work well for you, do not look into new programs or testing techniques right before you take the exam. Stick to what you know works and go into the exam room with confidence.

Tip #8: Keep Yourself Occupied While You Wait.

Once you have submitted your application, find ways to keep your mind occupied as you wait for a decision. This was especially important for me when I submitted my graduate school applications. I reached out to friends I hadn’t seen in a while and attended events I had to skip while studying for the GRE. I also started going to the gym more which helped tremendously as endorphins help you feel happy and stay positive.

Tip #9: Resist the Temptation to Constantly Check Your Email (or call the Admission Office)

It is so easy to constantly check your email, especially now that our inbox is literally at out fingertips. One way to help with the temptation of constantly checking your email is to disable email notifications on your phone. This is a general tip I give to anyone trying to have a better work-life balance, but it is also helpful during the waiting period. Admissions offices will mostly likely not email you after business hours, so limit checking your email to that time frame and turn off the notifications that make you run to your phone with every “ping” you hear. This also goes for constantly checking graduate school forums or calling the admissions office repeatedly. Be patient. The admissions office will reach out in due time.

Tip #10: Most Importantly, Remain Positive!

You are smart, capable, and have so much to offer. You will find the right graduate school match and you will go on to be successful in whichever program you pursue. If you shift your thoughts towards gratitude, you will be in a better mood through out the day and sleep better. Stay positive. You got this.

3 Tips for Adjusting to the Grad School Grind

Thanks to Hon W. for submitting this blog topic. Submit your idea for a blog post here.

The average age of a SIPA student is 27, which means most of us have had at least a few years of work experience before starting school. While we made the decision to go back to school for our Master’s, there’s little that can prepare you for going back to school.  There are some students who make the adjustment from work-life to school-life seamlessly. There are others, like myself, who found it a bit challenging.

When you’re working you have deadlines and short-term projects, and you don’t always have to work on the weekends or past 5 PM. But when you get to SIPA, you are running a marathon. You have to make it through midterms and finals, and you may have to study on weekends or until 11 PM (this depends on the diligence of the student). So naturally, when you’ve been out of academia for a minute, the adjustment back into it can be hard to grapple with.

Here are my top three tips for those thinking about applying to, or arriving at SIPA from the working world.

  1. Be prepared to play the long game and train yourself to study again. School is hard, and it’s okay to admit that. It’s important to be honest when you need help, and to seek assistance. Professors don’t want you to be overloaded to a breaking point, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed I recommend you communicate that to them. Generally, they’ll work with you to find a solution. Also, make an effort to train yourself to study again. As one professor said to me my first week at SIPA, “If you’re reading every line of the assigned readings, you’re doing it wrong.” Remember this, because there is no way you can do 600 pages of reading a week with everything going on. To strike a balance, I recommend forming study groups, or reading groups with classmates to divide up the work. This really helps if you’re taking a reading intensive course such as “War, Peace, and Strategy” (get ready, all those ISPers out there).
  2. Make a schedule similar to that of the one you maintained when you were at work. A lot of fellow classmates told me one way they adjusted to school-life was by making a schedule that mirrored the one they had prior to SIPA. They stuck to working hours from 9AM-6PM, and this included classes, recitations, and study/homework hours. This helped them think of school like work, and therefore, they were able to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I failed to do this my first semester and wish I had, because I think it would have forced me in to a school=work mentality that I just didn’t come into grad school with.
  3. Cut yourself a break, and make sure to factor in “Me Time.” Taking time for yourself is important in preventing burnout. Plan time for you to workout at Dodge Fitness Center (or another gym), carve out time to not work on at least one day during the week (for me it was Saturday), or simply make time to go see New York. Getting out of the SIPA bubble is beneficial for a student’s mental health, and can really help put things in perspective. It’s also a great way to connect with fellow classmates outside the classroom.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things a student coming back in to academia can do to adjust, but these are the main ones I think a lot of us talk about most. Finally, everyone reacts differently to re-entering academia, but we all come out the other end with a Master’s degree and a boatload of experiences. Now that I find myself back in the working world, I feel I have the necessary toolset I need to get to that next level — one that wouldn’t have been possible unless I went back to academia and to SIPA.

Being a First-Generation Latina at Columbia SIPA

Thanks to Karla Henriquez MPA ’19 for this post, in response to a topic submitted by Adam B. Submit your idea for a blog post here.


“I got into Columbia!” I told my mom. She did not quite know what that meant. “Obama graduated from there.”

“Ah que bueno,” she said to me.

But she still did not understand what it meant for a first-generation Latina to be accepted into an Ivy League. And to be honest, neither did I.

I would break down the process of going to grad school into four steps: Goal setting, before applying, the application process, and your time in grad school.  Each have their own different sets of challenges. Let me break down what it meant to apply for grad school as a first-gen:

1) Goal setting: 

Write your goals down and they will manifest. It is a simple step, but one that helped me know what I needed to do to get where I wanted to. My goals were:

  1. Prepare for the GRE
  2. Take the GRE
  3. Apply for Grad School
  4. Move out of California

Those were the goals that got me to where I am today. I wrote them down and worked towards them.

2) Before Applying

While I would like to forget about the GRE, it is an important step in the process. Don’t let that stop you from trying.

One of my friends who was going through her first year of law school told me, “The GRE is just a number. Don’t let that define you, you have so much more to offer than just a number.” I took that to heart and prepared as best as I could for the GRE, but also did not limit my options because of a score.

There are affordable options to prepare for it. One thing that I would recommend is to identify what works for you. If you’re great at working on your own, Magoosh is a great option, it’s affordable and they provide you with a whole schedule you can follow. If you need more structure, a class might be best (that’s what I did, it took me some time to save but it helped me set time aside to dedicate to studying).

To figure out the program that fits more with your goals, I would recommend attending the Idealist graduate fairs . Not only are schools there to answer all your questions, but you can also get a feel of the different programs offered at the schools. Another great thing about fairs and attending a school’s open house is that some schools waive application fees. That can be extremely helpful when application fees can be from $50-100 each.

3) The Application Process

I relied on a lot of my friends for help. While no one in my family had attempted this, I did have mentors from undergrad and friends who had applied to graduate school. I asked them for help reviewing my essays, my applications, for help with recommendation letters, encouragement, etc.

I applied to five schools, each with a very different application process, and I tried to start early and knock them out one at a time. I know that sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, but this is the time that we cannot be shy. Find those around you that are willing and comfortable doing this, you will see that there will be those willing to edit your whole essay and help present your best self. Talk to those that know you, to help you identify those parts of your story and professional experience that you should definitely highlight.

Guess what? I got in… to all of my schools!

It was an exciting time, but then came the time to decide. I relied on friends and family to make this decision again. One big part of this process was also money. I had saved some money from working, but I also asked my family and friends for support. My aunts and cousins helped me plan a fundraiser to get enough to cover my moving expenses and the deposit to come to school. Family and friends came over my Tia’s house one day and bought “Panes Rellenos,” a Salvadoran favorite, to help me raise money for the move. We raised around $2,000 that day and created a GoFundMe to raise more.

4) Grad School

I decided on Columbia SIPA because I felt that it would provide me with the opportunities that I did not have prior to this. While I got a chance to visit during Admitted Students’ Day, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I got here. In my mind, it would be a mix between Gossip Girl and Legally Blonde, where everyone was going to be preppy and question how a girl from a state school made it to Columbia.

I was soooo wrong. While, yes there is some of that, I was also able to find a community of people who I relied on for support and encouragement. Through SIPA Students of Color, I found classmates like me who were also first-generation, who also identified with my immigrant background, and who I did not have to explain myself to. We continued building this community by gathering over the weekends for our Women of Color brunches — a community that continued growing as the year went on.

While sometimes you will find yourself in spaces where people ask a thousand questions about what you did before school (which to be honest gets exhausting really fast), finding a community of women where it was not only about our professional goals but of who we are as people was so refreshing.

Through Columbia’s University Life – First Generation Graduate Student initiative, I was able to attend a panel of first-gen faculty where I not only felt seen, and cried as I never had, but it also felt like validation of what I was feeling. From imposter syndrome to not only doing this for yourself but also bringing your whole family with you, to sometimes not having enough money to pay rent or food — These were all things I had faced.

Going to Columbia was a whole experience, and I am not going to tell you it will be easy. As a first-generation student sometimes it’s hard to ask for help because many times you are the one person your family relies on. When things got really hard I wanted to find a way to solve things on my own, until my mom found out and asked me why I did not ask her for help. She then got my aunts together, everyone pitched in $100 or so and they helped me make sure that I had enough to cover rent.

I always thought, “She has a lot going on, I don’t want to be a burden,” but sometimes you need to let go of those thoughts and ask for help. My biggest recommendation would be to seek and ask for help. It’s okay not to have the answers to everything especially when you are used to having them in the past.

I took advantage of tutoring and the many office hours offered for Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Quantitative Analysis. When I did not do that great in my first exam, I spent more hours at the library.

When anxiety and sleepless nights kicked in, I took advantage of the counseling services, with many counselors being available for first-generation students. Other resources I should have taken advantage of were

  • The Food Pantry at Columbia with a mission to reduce food insecurity among students.
  • Emergency funding provided by SIPA’s Office of Student Affairs.

Last Thoughts

Never allow yourself to feel that your first-generation experience is a disadvantage. Many times in class, experiences that either my family or I have gone through were discussed. As policymakers, our unique perspectives bring a valuable point to the conversations. We have lived through things that many just read in case studies, and who is better than the people who have experienced them to solve the issues faced by our communities? I stopped seeing my experience, being a first-generation student, as a disadvantage and instead saw how my lived experience can create more inclusive policies for all.

My mom was excited to come to New York for the first time to celebrate my graduation this May. She said her coworkers all congratulated her because her daughter was graduating from Columbia. She made the trip here and I thanked her because it took her, my tias, and my friends to get me here. From pitching in $20 to help me move or pay rent, to proofreading my essays, to sending me texts of encouragement, I cannot emphasize enough that even though our families might not have a fancy Ivy League degree, they provide their support in other ways.

I hope that if you decide on Columbia, or whichever school you decide to attend, you are surrounded by a community of people who will cheer you and support you along the way.

"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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