Archive for Application Tips

“I didn’t get the decision I wanted. What now?”

Decisions for Fall 2019 were recently released for Columbia SIPA, so by now you should know your SIPA admissions decision. I’m sure you went through a mix of emotions before and after checking your status page.

Whatever decision you received, here are some things that waitlisted candidates, and those who weren’t granted admission, should know going forward.

Reapply to SIPA

I’m putting this at the top of the list, because you applied to SIPA for a reason, and our community is made of committed candidates, students, alum, faculty, and prospective students like you. If you didn’t get the admission decision you were hoping for, we wholeheartedly encourage you to reapply to SIPA.

As a reapplicant, you will go by the same deadlines, fees and requirements as first-time applicants. A benefit is that you may reapply using the personal statement, reference letters, test scores and transcripts from this year’s application. As the essay questions change every year, you should submit new ones (and possibly new recommendation letters). When next year’s application goes live in mid-August 2019, email us at sipa_admission@columbia.edu with “Reapplicant Request to Use Past Materials for Your Name” in the subject line and specify which of your materials you want to reuse.

Details on reapplying to SIPA are here, and my piece of admissions advice for reapplicants is to take a critical look at your application and compare it against What We Look For. Looking at your application, maybe you’ll notice that your work experience isn’t quite relevant to what you want to study at SIPA. Maybe you’ll notice that you have no evidence of your quantitative skills in your application. This will help you focus on what you can work to shore up before the next application opens, like requesting quantitatively-heavy projects at work or taking an macroeconomics or microeconomics course.

The Waitlist

Admissions at SIPA is competitive, and our waitlisted candidates showed promise. While seats are limited and went to more competitive candidates, some of you will move to the admitted students list over the next few months.

SIPA does not rank the waitlist. Since the waitlist is not ranked, and the entire admissions process is holistic and reactive to the applicants we receive, it will take some time for the waitlist decisions to come out. You should know that we look over the waitlist starting in May and will release final decisions for waitlisted candidates over the summer. If you’re an international student, you’ll still have time to apply for a visa – just make sure you don’t procrastinate the process once you’re admitted.

Please do not email to ask if your status has changed. We promise that we have not forgotten about you, we’re just unable to provide periodic updates on your standing. Please only contact us if you have a specific request about your waitlist application, like updating your application or removing it from consideration.

Waitlisted applicants can send in updated test scores and transcripts. I want to emphasize that we’ll only review new supplemental materials so you can keep us updated on your academic and professional pursuits. If you’ve retaken the GRE/GMAT or TOEFL/IELTS/PTE, or you’ve taken or completed additional quantitative coursework, you can send that information to sipa_admission@columbia.edu by June 1.

Make sure you include the documents, your name and application number, and the subject line “Supplemental Waitlist Materials from Your Name” in the email. And because you want us to be happy, please send it all at once, and not piecemeal.

You can remove yourself from consideration for admission by emailing us at with your name and application number and letting us know that you’d like to be removed from consideration.

Requesting Feedback

Due to the volume of applications we receive, we cannot offer individual feedback. However, we recommend you review What We Look For in applications, and common feedback suggestions for applicants.

“Can I appeal an admissions decision?”

No – all decisions are final. The Admissions Committee reviews each application thoroughly and with great care; as such, there is not an appeals process.

Thank Yous

Chances are that you talked to a lot of people during the application process, from your recommenders to SIPA students and alumni, and perhaps even faculty. No matter the outcome, you should thank them all for their help. They invested time and effort into your future, and I’m sure they’re curious on how things turned out. Even if you weren’t admitted, this can lead to an opportunity for advice from someone with a different perspective, or suggestions on strengthening your application for next year.

Our Thanks to You

On behalf of the entire Admissions Committee, I want to thank you for your effort. We all got to know you through your application materials and it was an honor to read about your achievements and ambitions for the future.

If you ultimately decide to decline your admissions offer, remove yourself from the waitlist, or won’t reapply next year, please know that we hope you’ll continue to develop your academic and professional experience for whatever your future might hold.

I sincerely wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

The Waiting Game

The people who all knowingly state patience is a virtue must have never felt the acute anxiety that accompanies waiting for graduate school application decisions. They must have never have known the paranoia that comes with the obsessive refreshing of your inbox in hopes (or deep fear) of seeing that subject line: There has Been an Update to Your Application Status. I remember this feeling vividly when I was applying to graduate school, and the anxiety consumed me so much that I actually had to turn off my email notifications because I found myself checking it even when I had not received a notification, just in case one “slipped” through.

Playing the waiting game is stressful, especially when your future hangs in the balance. But as you wait, remember, you’ve done all you could do. You put your best foot forward on your application, in your test scores, in your letters of reference, in your personal essays where you talked about that life changing study abroad experience. Having come out the other side of this dark tunnel, I wish I could have managed the anxiety better.

While nothing alleviated the nerves entirely, I did try and preoccupy my time with two simple distractions. First, I made sure I occupied my time with activities. Either with taking on more projects at work, sort of the more occupied my mind is the less I have time to worry about the decisions. Or hanging out with my friends, because when I was out having fun I wasn’t thinking about checking my email. It also helped that I have some pretty great friends and former coworkers who were my support group and “knew” that I was going to be ok no matter what the decisions ended up being.

Second, I took what I call the “Ignorance is Bliss” approach, and tried to be proactive by pretending I got in to all the schools I applied to. This led me on a quest to get as much information about the institutions I hoped to attend. I did a lot of online research, but I also tried to set up as many chats as I could with alumni and students and visit classes. This was easier for some than others, based on the fact I had applied to several schools abroad. However, meeting or talking to people from the schools is a great way to learn more about the programs while also getting a feel for the type of people these institutions attract. I found it really helpful, and depending on the person and their personalities, they either made me excited about the result I might receive ( in one case made me rethink my decision to apply in the first place!).

It seems when we as applicants finish applying and are waiting for the results, we have this fear that if we don’t get in to our dream schools our futures will be drastically altered by some sort of cosmic shift, however, that is simply not the case. I know this because I received rejections from really great schools, schools I wanted to go to. But I also got into to schools I never thought I would get into. For example: Columbia SIPA.

We as individuals put so much pressure on ourselves that the fear of not succeeding can consume us while we wait. If we don’t get in, we want to know why. Why was I not qualified enough?  Even I am guilty of this — after all I’m only human. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to alumni from various graduate schools, it’s that there is no secret sauce for how to get in to specific schools. Every school has their own criteria, and honestly, that could vary from applicant to applicant. This knowledge made me realize I did all I could do. I created the best application I could muster, hit submit, and prayed that luck was on my side.

Of course, rejection of any kind can sting a bit. However, if there’s one thing I learned from the graduate school application process it’s que sera, sera — what will be will be. It sounds cliché, but I really do think applicants need to remember that life will go on after decisions are rendered. You may find yourselves in a place where you are accepted to all the schools you’ve applied to and you now have to choose between too many options. Pre-decision anxiety is real, but post-decision anxiety is a far greater beast.

My final piece of advice for those applicants currently in the thick of decision season is: No matter what happens this application cycle, you will be okay. You cannot make a wrong choice. You will end up where you are meant to be, and soon this will be a distant memory.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: MPA/MIA v. JD

This piece was co-authored by Julia Chung, my fellow program assistant at the Admissions Office.

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Image result for shrug emojiMadeleine Albright

For those of you who don’t know the International Affairs Building, where SIPA is housed, is directly attached to Columbia Law School. It is a very subtle reminder of the decision we, Julia and Samantha, made two years ago before they started graduate school. Julia, studied for the LSAT for a year after graduating undergrad, fully anticipating a career in law. Samantha, worked as a legal assistant for three years at a law firm in Washington, D.C., and similarly thought law was in her future.

Today, both Julia and Samantha are SIPA second-year MPA and MIA students respectively, and both made the crucial decision to pick graduate school over law school. We recently had a conversation about the decision to go with public policy instead of a legal degree:

Why did you want to go to law school in the first place?

Julia: In undergrad I thought that if I wanted to do public service and civil rights, the path was a law degree. I thought that to make the change I wanted to see in the world, I needed to do it through litigation. With this limited perspective on career paths, I studied for the LSAT in my senior year in undergrad and the year after graduating. (As a side note, my family told me that because I was good at arguing, I should be a lawyer. Don’t think that was sound career advice though!)

Samantha: I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to work in policy, and had met a lot of people in the industry, who happenstance all had law degrees. I thought that was the way it worked. After I graduated undergrad, I took a job with a law firm in Washington D.C. in order to gain experience in the field. It was sort of a test run, which I recommend everyone interested in law do before deciding on whether to go or not. It was long hours, a lot of work, but I loved it. Despite the intensity at times, the experience really made me think the life was for me, but I still was not 100% sold. I wanted to do policy, and I had yet to work with someone that was doing work in that realm.

What changed?

Julia: After taking the LSAT, I spoke to a Vassar alum who was a lawyer and he said: Only go to law school if you actually want to practice law or if you have $150k to spare. He said that I seemed to have passions other than law and I should pursue those first. Taking that advice and knowing that my heart was in civil rights, I started working at a community-based organization in Flushing, Queens, doing civic engagement work. After two years of working with many lawyers, I decided that the great work they did was not for me. I realized that law wasn’t my tool to make the changes in the world I wanted to see. I didn’t want to be worrying about legal precedence or writing briefs. I wanted to be more on-the-ground and not limited to finding solutions through law.

Samantha: A coworker was talking to me about how he was going to graduate school for a degree in international affairs, and this really piqued my interest. I started researching graduate institutions around the world, to see what kinds of programs were out there for international affairs and security policy. That’s when I came across a couple of schools whose programs really spoke to me. I ended up speaking to one of the partners I worked for about my career trajectory, and he told me not to go to law school unless I was 100% sure it was for me. He also said that we no longer live in the days where you need a law degree to inform policy. Since I was not 100% sure of whether law school was for me, despite my experience, I chose to apply to graduate school.

Why did you choose Columbia SIPA?

Julia: I looked at graduate school to switch career paths. I wanted to shift from community organizing to something else, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what “something else” was when I applied to graduate school. I came to SIPA because it is a full-time program that is academically rigorous with a strong student community, and has a strong Urban and Social Policy program with practitioners teaching courses. I sat in on Mark Steitz’s “Data Driven Approaches to Campaigns and Advocacy” and knew instantaneously that SIPA was right for me. I knew that SIPA would teach me the hard skills I needed to take the next step in my career.

Samantha: I chose SIPA because I felt the MIA program and the International Security Concentration would provide me with both the theoretical and practical foundation I needed to pursue my future career goals. I also liked the fact that SIPA’s cohorts are very diverse, and that I would be studying with students from all around the world. I felt very welcomed at SIPA when I came to visit during the application process.  I think I had some preconceived notions of what SIPA and Columbia University in general were going to be like; however, everyone was very welcoming and I just had a feeling that I was in the right place.

How will an MPA/MIA degree work towards your future?

Julia: I came to SIPA knowing that I needed more hard skills – policy analysis, data analysis, memo writing, program evaluation, etc. SIPA provided those hard skills and the opportunity to explore different policy areas. I came to SIPA only interested in civil rights, but will be leaving in May with knowledge on urban sustainability, design thinking in the public sector, and technology used in international crisis response. I think my MPA degree prepares me to think critically on today’s most pressing issues, but also gives me tools and the network to be able to address them. I also think that with a MPA degree, I have more flexibility to create the career path I want than I would have if I went to law school.

Samantha: I believe the MIA will help me in my future endeavors because it helped me develop both hard and soft skills which can be applied to the jobs I am seeking in the foreign policy and international security fields. In law school I would not have been required to take a quantitative analysis course, or a cyber-security course, and I think these courses have really helped inform the way in which I evaluate the world around me. While law school would be useful in terms of understanding legality and jurisdiction for policy, I believe the MIA program has given me the opportunity to think critically about current international security policy issues, in order to better understand the nuances the make them complex and challenging to resolve.   

Do you have any regrets about your graduate school decision?

Julia: None – I’m excited to graduate and put all that I’ve learned to test!

Samantha:  I have no regrets about choosing to get my MIA at SIPA.  Every now and then I do think about law school and reflect back on when I made the decision to not pursue a JD. I remember where I was in life, and what career goals I had at the time that made me think I was not 100% ready to get my JD. If you asked me today if I think law school is in my future, I would say “yes.” But if you asked me if I could go back in time and remake the choice between and MIA and JD again, would I choose differently? I would say “no.” This has been a life-changing experience for me, and I would not change a thing.

Look, if you are a prospective applicant of SIPA and you still can’t make a choice, feel free to call or drop by the Admissions office and talk to a current student or Admissions Officer.

And don’t worry, if you decide that you want both an MPA/MIA and a JD, you can also apply for a SIPA/Law School dual degree. For more information, you can take a look at the website here.

The January 5th deadline has passed. What happens now?

It’s Winter Break but January is a busy time for us here in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid due to the influx of applications (and application-related questions!). We’re very excited to be reading your applications, by the way. But enough about us – I’d like to update you a little on what to expect.

I submitted my application by the January 5th deadline. What now?

Now, we ask for your patience! In the meantime, you can review the Admissions FAQs for peace of mind: “Decision notifications are posted to the application portal. You will receive an email when a decision is available. The Admissions Committee will begin reviewing fall applications starting in January once all required materials have been received. Fall decisions are communicated in mid-March.”

You can also check out the SIPA external funding sources page, either to explore what is available or start on gathering (more) resources for scholarships and funding.

I’m shooting for the February 5th deadline, what about me?

Make sure you have everything in order to take your shot for February 5th. This blog itself has many resources, so do dig around a little bit. At this point I encourage you to follow up with your recommenders if your letters aren’t all in. Remember that all application materials must be in by the deadline for you to meet that deadline; the Admissions Committee cannot review an incomplete application.

If you have questions about the application, remember that we are here to help you with this process. BUT – you will receive a faster response from us if you email sooner. As in, don’t wait until the last minute! It’ll be difficult for you AND us! Here are some tips to communicate with our office so you can help us help you. (And the #1 Last-Minute Tip before submitting: Proofread. Once you submit your application, you’ll be unable to make changes to it.)

What can I expect the next few months?

Other than decisions releasing sometime in March, we’ll also have Class Visits coming up in a few weeks for the Spring semester – we’ll send an email once that is available. We’ll be highlighting some SIPA student life events here on the blog, and welcoming a new Program Assistant as well.

I’d also still encourage you stop by an Information Session because you can get your questions answered in person with our admissions staff. You can also check out the Columbia University and SIPA campus areas to get a feel for the place. Even though it’s a little chilly here, campus is beautiful in the winter. (Check out @columbia.sipa on Instagram for more sweet views and SIPA community highlights!)

And if you can’t make it in person soon, register for our Virtual MIA/MPA Info Session this Thursday, January 17. Executive Director of Admissions, Grace Han, and Financial Aid Officer, Rory Placa, will give an overview of the SIPA programs and the application process, and you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions via online chat.

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!

"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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