Archive for Admissions

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.

Struggling to plan for applications? Here’s my timeline.

Applying to graduate school can be daunting especially if you have work and personal commitments that make it hard to keep track of the what feels like an endless list of documents. Speaking from personal experience, it’s very normal to feel overwhelmed, especially when stress and anxiety start creeping in. To help you plan ahead, I wanted to share with you my personal timeline that helped keep me on track throughout the application process.

As an international applicant, I don’t think the process is too different from domestic applicants. For me, the biggest challenges were finding a GRE testing centre, managing the time differences for application/Q&As, and translating and notarizing documents where needed. For more tips on international applicants, check out Yiting’s post here.

My biggest challenge in meeting the deadline was for things beyond my control.  For example, recommenders must submit their Letters of Recommendation directly, so plan ahead to avoid added stress, especially if you have other commitments at the same time.

Phase 1: Plan ahead and map out a game plan

  • Essay questions: Spend some time thinking about these essays and draft a skeleton of key points. It’s a helpful tool for you to understand why you want to go to graduate school and what you hope to get it out of it
  • Professional Resume/CV: Pull out that old, dusty resume! Reach out to friends and colleagues for samples if you want some inspiration
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: Think about what skills and experiences you have that can go into this. Identify if you have gaps and think about how to plug those gaps.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Identify 2 (or 3 if you prefer) professional contacts who can help create the right narrative for you
  • Academic Transcripts: Unofficial transcripts are fine when applying, but you may still need to reach out to academic institutions and send those transcripts. This is a quick and easy win!
  • GRE/GMAT: Get those GRE/GMAT books and start studying! I personally ‘started’ (by started, I mean I bought the books…) 8 months before the deadline but only geared up 5 months before (I took the exam 3 months before the deadline). This is because I wanted to focus the last stretch on essays without the added stress of exams. As an international student, my home country had limited places and seats where I could take the test, so booking a spot early helped me plan my studying schedule accordingly. Need more tips? Check out Niara’s advice on preparing for the GRE here.
  • For TOEFL/IELTS/PTE: Even though I’m an international student, I didn’t have to fulfill this criteria as my undergraduate degree was taught in English. Based on other Seeples experiences, the timeline with TOEFL/IELTS/PTE, is similar to the GRE/GMAT. As I don’t have personal experience, I have omitted this from the timeline.

Phase 2: Execution and keeping yourself on track

  • Essay questions: Draft out those essay questions! I recommend getting feedback from 2/3 other people to help you fine tune your messaging (and to keep to the word limit!) but wouldn’t go more than that as it can get very  daunting. It took me many drafts before I was comfortable enough to get feedback. I also ended up re-writing one essay so that I could better capture my thoughts. Keep in mind this could be a long process of reiteration. It’s different for everyone!
  • Professional Resume/CV: Clean up your resume/CV, get feedback from trusted friends or colleagues, and submit! That’s two ticks down, which is a great way to keep you motivated.
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: I personally struggled with this and spent a lot of time thinking about what I should include. I ended up including everything I did at school and work that had a quantitative element (even if it was minor). A sample of the resume can be found here. Write that resume and submit. (Three things done!)
  • Letters of Recommendation: Reach out to recommenders and prep them! Once recommenders accept, share this useful outline to help them plan their letters. I also shared some key points and achievements that they may want to include. This approach does differ as every recommender has their own style. But don’t assume that they don’t need a little coaching to tailor their narrative for you, prepping your recommenders is key!
  • GRE/GMAT: Book your test date and study, study, study! I took the test during this ‘phase’ and it was a huge weight off my shoulders. And don’t forget, when you complete the exam, you have five schools you can send your scores to for free! If you’re set on SIPA, send it to 2161. It costs $27 to send it later.

Phase 3: The last mile and submission! 

via GIPHY

  • Essay questions: Final round of edits and click that submit button! By this point, you might be so tired of those essays, you’re just making unnecessary (and possibly detrimental!) edits.
  • Video essay: While this may seem terrifying, it’s only 120 seconds of your life! The video essay is available only after you submit your application and pay the app fee. More details on accessing it can be found here. The questions really range and I prepped for it by thinking about how I would best structure my answers to sound more confident and coherent. My only advice is breathe, be yourself and use those 60 seconds wisely!
  • Letters of Recommendation: Help recommenders by reminding them of the deadline and offering to help them with key points or messages. When they’re ready to submit, they should check their inbox and spam folders so that they don’t miss the link SIPA sends them. They will use this link to log in to the application system and submit their letter on your behalf. If they have issues with the online submission, they can contact sipa_admission@columbia.edu. Please remember that all letters should be on letterhead, signed and in English (or accompanied by certified translations). An applicant does not need to wait for recommenders to submit their information prior to submitting the application. There is no problem with an application being submitted before all of the recommendations have been submitted. The opposite is true as well – there is no problem with a recommender submitting a letter before the application is submitted
  • GRE/GMAT: If you’re still crunching for the GRE, that’s okay! You only need to submit self-reported test scores with the application by the deadline, so that helps ease the burden. Scores must be verified after admission to the program, but before your scores expire.

Phew… that was a lot to digest but hopefully this helps. Everyone has their own journey and process when it comes to applying for graduate school so don’t be terrified if yours is different! Find your sweet spot but most importantly, plan ahead so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Good luck!

Why I Chose SIPA

I remember receiving the email on my decision like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my undergraduate institution’s computer lab, lazily scrolling through my email account, looking for a message a professor sent me earlier that week. Then I saw the subject line from SIPA Admissions; I froze for a second and then clicked on it. I had trouble remembering my account password and after a few anti-climatic minutes of picking my brain for my password, I eventually got into the system. I was greeted by streaming confetti down my screen and an audio clip of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York”. I had been accepted.

If I said that letter didn’t factor into my decision I would be lying! But in reality, Columbia was one of my top choices, if not my top. By the end of the admissions cycle, I was debating between two programs. One, an elite urban studies school located in the heart of one of America’s great cities. The other was SIPA. I went back and forth. I made charts and attempted to map my decision, listing pros and cons to every program and institution. I thought about how my degree would be perceived and the name recognition for both. I considered the reach of both programs alumni networks and looked over the biographies of dozens of professors I was interested in taking classes with.

After many days of deliberation, I ultimately decided on SIPA because of something I touched on in an earlier post; that is, out of all my options, SIPA seemed like it would provide the most comprehensive and interdisciplinary education I could find. Both programs are comparable in terms of reputation and both have very strong urban studies programs. However, I felt like SIPA’s ‘global’ and international curriculum provided me with more opportunities to take classes outside of my comfort zone, and to find synergies between my own areas of interest and entirely new subjects. I appreciated that the majority of my peers would be international; I knew that their perspectives in the classroom and outside would be invaluable as a future diplomat. I also liked that SIPA offered numerous opportunities to take classes at many of Columbia’s prestigious graduate schools, including the Journalism School and Teachers College. On a personal level, I relished the opportunity to attend events at these elite institutions and to be able to interact with a range of professors, like Sunil Gulati, the ex head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, to former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Relative to other locations, I knew that access to NYC and its immense social and cultural offerings would also further my education, and my personal growth.

When I fully realized that by attending SIPA I was really gaining access to all that Columbia offers, from its world class libraries to its world class faculty, I came to a decision very quickly. Before I accepted it officially, I played “New York, New York” once more on the acceptance letter portal just for fun and then I made one of the best decisions ever; I clicked the button to begin the enrollment process!

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.

ISP, Will You Be Mine?

In honor of Galentine’s Day and as an International Security Policy (ISP) concentrator, I thought I would write a blog post that not only gives incoming students interested in ISP a glimpse in to the concentration, but also provides some perspective on being a woman in a field that is often thought of as a patriarchal space. To do this, I enlisted the help of Ana Guerrero, Brit Felsen-Parsons and Caitlin Strawder, three current ISP concentrator SIPA students to discuss the topic and give advice. But before I dive in, let me introduce you to these ISP women.

Ana Guerrero MIA’19 is a second year, MIA, ISP concentrator, specializing in International Conflict Resolution. Ana completed her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College with a Bachelors in Spanish and Italian literature, and a minor in Portuguese. Prior to SIPA, she worked for an Italian petroleum company where got to explore her interest in geopolitics.  Ana is interested in Middle East conflicts, and during her time at SIPA, she interned for the Global Security department at NBC Universal, and is currently a Terrorism Analyst where she is learning the hard skills necessary to supplement her Theoretical education.

Brit Felsen-Parsons MPA ’20 is a first year, MPA, ISP concentrator, specializing in International Conflict Resolution.  Before SIPA, Brit served for two years as a shooting instructor to the infantry and commander in the Shooting School of the Israeli Defense Forces.  Brit then went on to complete her Bachelor’s degree at the College at Columbia University, double-majoring in Political Science and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies.  She also held research assistantships at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, the Columbia University Political Science Department, and the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.  While at SIPA, Brit supplements her studies as a research assistant at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at SIPA.

Caitlin Strawder MPA ’19 is a second year, MPA, ISP concentrator, specializing in International Conflict Resolution. Caitlin completed her undergraduate degree at Florida State University where she earned a B.A. in Political Science.  Upon graduation in 2013, she received two consecutive Fulbright English Teaching grants to serve in Colombia and while teaching she studied romantic languages, economic development, the then-present negotiations with the FARC, and conducted research on indigenous rights in Silvia, Cauca.  While at SIPA, Caitlin interned on the Colombia Desk at the State Department 2018, and maintains a position as a conflict resolution practitioner and operations analyst at New York Peace Institute.

Now that you know a bit about these ladies, let’s jump in:

Why did you choose to apply to SIPA, and specifically the International Security Policy concentration?

Brit: I fell in love with SIPA, and specifically with ISP, when I took the infamous ISP core class – Professor Richard Betts’ “War, Peace and Strategy” (WPS) – as a sophomore in college.  Since I did my BA at Columbia as well, I had the opportunity to explore SIPA, and I found myself most drawn to ISP courses and events.  In my first year of undergrad I was still torn between studying political science and neuroscience, but with that first ISP course I was hooked. A few courses later, I had decided that for me it was SIPA or bust, so I applied to the MPA program. It’s been three years since WPS, and I can honestly say I keep loving SIPA – and ISP – more and more.

Caitlin: I applied to SIPA blindly following the Top Ten online rankings for international affairs degrees (like so many of my peers) and was delighted to get in. Joking aside, I had been living in New York for a few years and wanted to start the MPA adventure without sacrificing the family I found, my job, my apartment, or saying goodbye to the greatest city in the world. I was originally attracted to the program because of the International Conflict Resolution specialization, and I saw the ISP concentration as an ideal complement. I also thought it was important to study ISP particularly because I knew so little about it, while cognizant of its importance.

What are some misconceptions you have faced about the ISP concentration, in general, and as a woman in the ISP concentration at SIPA?

Ana: Students not in ISP think everyone in the concentration is either active or former military and male. They are very surprised I am neither of those, which always proves interesting.

Brit: I think some students might have the impression that ISP is very militaristic and masculine, and to a degree I can understand why. It’s true that many of SIPA’s military veterans (though certainly not all!) are studying ISP.  Additionally, I know a lot of women studying ISP, and we make a unique, significant, and highly valued contribution to our classes and to the ISP community.  I recognize that I might feel more at home in ISP because I’m a military veteran, but I think the non-vets in ISP have no trouble holding their own in the classroom or in conversation, because we all recognize that we bring different experiences and skills to the table. Although I may be biased, I think ISP is one of the most familial and welcoming concentrations at SIPA, in part because it is influenced by the military culture of camaraderie and toughing it out together.

Have there been any challenging aspects to being a woman going into the ISP field?  If so how did/do you address them?

Caitlin: In terms of diversity, so much of getting the opportunity to work in some environments is the compromise of waiting until you have experience and standing before being able to authoritatively question assumptions of gender and roles in the workplace. 

Ana: I think traditionally the ISP field has been seen as a “boy’s club”. To combat this, I am trying to learn as much as I can, both in classes and in internships, in order to compete. Additionally, I believe it’s important to foster a strong female network within ISP in order to help each other succeed in the field. For me it’s a double whammy: I knew being a first-generation woman of color in a traditionally white male field would be tough. But I also knew that would be the case regardless of the field.

What do you recommend those students who are interested in International Security Policy consider before they attend SIPA?

Brit: I would recommend that students sit in on a few lectures or events if they can, and that they talk to current SIPA students to get an impression of the culture, the workload, and the opportunities here. Columbia University has a distinct culture, and SIPA has a culture-within-a-culture all its own, which you can only get a sense of by talking to people who are part of it. Also, reading course descriptions probably won’t be as informative as hearing a lecture or two, in terms of getting a feel for SIPA classes. For those for whom that’s not possible, I would recommend reading up on SIPA’s faculty and centers/institutes (Saltzman, Harriman, the Middle East Institute, etc.) to get a sense of the kind of research being done in-house.

Ana: Think about what you want to do after graduation and where you want to work—and work backwards from there. If you’re thinking of working for the government with some level of clearance you should start looking at those applications (if they’re available) even before you arrive on campus for orientation. Also look into fellowships for federal service and keep an eye on those deadlines!  Additionally, knowing where you want to end up will help you plan your course list so you get the most out of your precious two years at SIPA.

Are there any words of wisdom you have for women looking to go into the ISP field, and/or pursue the ISP concentration at SIPA?

Ana: As with anything we set out to accomplish — once you set out to achieve your goals, don’t take no BS!

Caitlin: Constantly look for networking events, career panels, and mentorship match-ups so that you have a chance to connect with different practitioners.  Especially for women—give prospective employers a preview that the nature of the field is changing and they should anticipate a high number of specialists in technology, geopolitical conflict, and analysis who happen to be women.

Brit: First and foremost, don’t be intimidated by security studies or by ISP. It’s not all machismo all the time, or all military lingo all the time. Some of my closest friends (and the best people I know) at SIPA study ISP, and the concentration draws a diverse crowd from all walks of life. I’ll be honest: the workload can be heavy. The readings can be loooooong and dense. But if you are passionate about security studies, and about studying them in an incredibly diverse and cosmopolitan setting, then the ISP concentration at SIPA is the place for you. And if you are a woman interested in security studies, then I highly encourage you to apply. ISP is a pretty close-knit and supportive community here at SIPA, and it’s a great place to challenge yourself academically in order to best prepare yourself professionally. I love it, and I hope you will too!

I want to give a big thanks to Ana, Brit and Caitlin for their advice, and I hope you found it useful. I’d like to leave you with one final thought:  ISPer’s at SIPA are diverse in nationality, experience, and gender; and while the ratio is not 100% perfect, it is evening out.

Madeleine Albright, a SIPA alum, once said, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” I think this sentiment rings true for many of the women I know in the ISP concentration who continue to move the needle on women’s roles in ISP, and who are not deterred by the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the field.

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and Happy Galentine’s Day!

Parks And Rec GIF by NBC

"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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