Archive for application tips

Application submitted! What now?

So you’ve just submitted your application and, like I was, you’re probably dreading the thought of waiting for decisions to be released. March seems so far away right now, but it will come sooner than you think! While you wait, there are several things you can do to make productive use of the time and keep your mind occupied.

1) Take a break!

First off, congratulations on finishing the application process! I know from personal experience that writing and editing numerous essays, studying for the GRE, coordinating with recommenders, and gathering all of the other required documents is a significant, and sometimes stressful, task. Take some time to celebrate your accomplishment and relax. Emerge from your GRE studying cocoon and spend time with friends, re-engage with your hobbies, and stop thinking about graduate school for at least a week or two.

2) Have a backup plan

SIPA receives thousands of impressive applications each year. Unfortunately, this inevitably means that some applicants do not receive the decision they are hoping for, and therefore its vital that you have a backup plan in case SIPA is not in the cards this year. Take this time to think about your plan in the event that you don’t get admitted. Maybe you’ll want to stay in your current job for another year and reapply, or maybe you’ll spend the summer taking an economics course to strengthen your next application. Also make sure you don’t make any major life changes until decisions are released. Please don’t quit your job and move to NYC just yet! (We love to see the enthusiasm, but really, it’s a bad idea.)

3) Plan your budget

This is a great time to plan your budget for graduate school. Take the time to apply to outside scholarships and fellowships, and explore any other means of funding. Subscribe to the SIPA Admissions blog for updates on upcoming scholarship deadlines, research outside funding on the SIPA financial aid page, and read this great blog post on budgeting by the Associate Director of Financial Aid.

4) Visit SIPA

If you’re admitted, we highly encourage you to attend our Admitted Students’ Day in April. While you wait for your decision, however, please consider visiting a class if you find yourself in the NYC area. There is simply no better way to learn more about our academic programs, meet current students, and meet a faculty member. It’s also important to get a feel for the campus and the community, something that can’t be done through online research alone. Visiting SIPA made the decision to come to SIPA easy for me. I felt that the staff and students were extremely welcoming, the faculty were impressive, and that living in NYC would be an exciting adventure. The last year and a half has proved all of that to be true.

The Personal Statement: What We Look For

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

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

Applicant 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applicant 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying Cybersecurity at SIPA: A Course Guide

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

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

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

Basic Technical Background (a great place to start!)

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

General Problems in Cyber Policy and Cyber Conflict

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

Skills-Based Courses

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

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

Applying to SIPA as a Veteran or Active Duty Service Member

The transition from military service to graduate school can be intimidating, and veterans may have many concerns including how to express their experience in the application, funding opportunities, and whether they will fit in at Columbia. As a veteran and current SIPA student, I can confidently say that Columbia University is an extremely welcoming community for veterans. Columbia University has a long history of supporting veterans (Dwight Eisenhower was President of Columbia from 1948-1953!), and Columbia currently has the largest student veteran population in the Ivy Leagues. Except for funding opportunities, all of this applies equally to both U.S. and international veterans.

Patrick Dees, MIA ’20, speaks to a student about the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association (CSVA).

Tell your story!

If you’re a veteran or active duty service member applying to SIPA, the most important thing is to tell your unique story in your essays. As a school of international affairs, SIPA values your experience in the military greatly. You have spent considerable time executing national security policy, and you’ve likely had a front row seat to interesting events that you may even find yourself studying in the classroom. Your military service also demonstrates a commitment to public service, and you’ve certainly had valuable leadership experience. All of these things strengthen your application, so make sure to include them in your essays in plain language.

I recommend asking a friend with no military experience to read your essay to ensure that you’ve removed or explained any military jargon. I used Service to School, a free service that pairs you with a mentor that has gained admission to a program similar to the ones you are considering, and I found it to be extremely helpful.

Apply for all funding opportunities

Columbia has numerous resources to help veterans fund their education. Columbia’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs has an extensive website full of detailed information on funding opportunities. I highly recommend you review it. Almost all of the veteran-related funding opportunities are unfortunately only available to U.S. veterans or active duty service members.

The first step is to ensure that you apply for all GI Bill benefits for which you are eligible. If you are eligible for 100% of benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, SIPA offers additional funding through the Yellow Ribbon program. You will receive an email when the Yellow Ribbon application opens, and SIPA makes every effort to fund every eligible candidate.

Second, you should apply for funding from Columbia University. If you submit your application by the fellowship deadline, SIPA will automatically consider you for scholarships. You will also have the opportunity to apply for assistantships at the end of your first year. Information on these and other internal funding opportunities can be found here.

Third, you should research outside funding opportunities. Columbia provides a list of the opportunities most applicable to veterans and service members here. One of the opportunities I applied for, and was honored to receive, is the Tillman Scholarship. Columbia University is a University Partner school, and there are several Tillman scholars currently at Columbia. The Tillman scholarship provides not only funding, but extensive professional development opportunities and access to an amazing community of veterans, spouses, and active duty service members.

Join veterans’ organizations at Columbia and SIPA

The most important thing at SIPA is to find your community. SIPA has a large and active veteran community led by the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association (CSVA). The CSVA is happy to assist prospective students, and they host several events to welcome new student veterans. Throughout the year, CSVA holds events and socials to build the veteran community. Last year, veterans had the opportunity to attend discussions with Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. CSVA also hosts one of SIPA’s most popular events, “Beer and War Stories,” in which student veterans and other guests share their experiences with fellow students and answer questions about the military in a casual, open discussion over beer and food.

Members of the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association meet with the Commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli

Opportunities after SIPA

While many assume that all veterans choose the International Security Policy concentration and pursue defense-related careers, veterans at SIPA have found their niches in a wide variety of fields. SIPA’s Office of Career Services can connect students with an alumni who volunteers as SIPA’s career coach for transitioning veterans. The U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University (Milvets) is the undergraduate student veteran group, but their events are open to all veterans. They host numerous career panels and networking opportunities throughout the year. Whatever your interests are, SIPA will provide you with avenues to explore potential careers and take advantage of your valuable military experience.

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!

"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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