Archive for English as a Second Language

Some Tips for International Students

Erisha Suwal will be graduating from SIPA soon and she composed this entry to provide insight to international applicants and students.  On a side note, culture shock is not limited to international students, even for someone that grew up in the United States moving to NYC can be a shock.  Do not worry though, as the famous quote goes, “This is New York, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”


SIPA is a very international school, academically and in terms of its student body. About 60% of the students in the MPA and about 40% of students in the MIA program come from outside of the US. Being an international student is exciting. Living in a new country, in one of the biggest cities in the world can be quite an adventure. As an international student about to complete my SIPA education, I want to share a few experiences and give a few tips, especially to those international students who will be leaving home for the first time.

Applying to SIPA

For those reading this blog that will apply in the future, language can be a major hurdle for non-native English speakers. If you did not complete your undergraduate in an English-medium institution, you have to take TOEFL or IELTS. If you have ample time before the test, read anything you can find in English. Watch as many English movies as possible to improve your listening skills. Then you have the GREs. The verbal for non-native English speakers is usually challenging. So work extra hard.

On the other hand, your mother tongue or national language can also exempt you from taking language classes. All students enrolled in the MIA program must be fluent in a second language in addition to English.  The language requirement also applies to MPA students concentrating in Economic and Political Development. However, you can get language exemption by proving proficiency either by taking a test offered at SIPA or elsewhere. In my case, I am a native Nepali speaker and I had taken a language exemption test during my undergraduate studies at Wellesley College.

I had my dean from Wellesley write to the deans at SIPA and was exempted. Not having to take a second language frees up a lot of time to take other classes. At the same time, it could be fun and beneficial to take a second language, especially languages needed for UN and World Bank jobs.

Once Accepted

If you need to take a loan, you need to apply to a private lender, usually CitiBank or Sallie Mae. Loans from private lenders have higher interest rates and they require an American co-signer to act as a guarantor. Finding a co-signer maybe difficult for many international students. Even if you do have an American co-signer, whether or not the loan will be approved is up to the lender. Dealing with these issues from outside of the US can cause much anxiety. Make sure you go through the information provided by the private lenders thoroughly to understand the system. Read the fine prints. Talk to anybody you know who has gone through this before.

Another option to secure financial support, at least partially, is to explore other funding sources such as your undergraduate institution, foundations, and fellowships.  You never know when an opportunity will appear. I contacted undergraduate alums to find out if the organizations they work for such as the Ford Foundation or even Pepsi Co. would fund students pursuing a master’s degree. Funds from outside are competitive to receive, but it is worth exploring all options.

On a side note: having been in the US for almost eight years now, I have learned that it is always important to ask unequivocally for something if you need it; without being an annoyance of course. Sometimes, international students come from cultures where asking directly for something is considered rude, selfish, inconsiderate or against the cultural norm. However, unless you ask, no one knows your needs. The worst that can happen is that you will get no for an answer. 


After you have your finances taken care of, its time to get a visa. The visa process varies depending on your country of origin. It is smooth for some and rocky for others. Give yourself ample time.  If you encounter any problems, reach out to the International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO). They are very helpful with the immigration process and have tips on how to prepare for the visa interview as well. For those applying for visa for the first time, remember that how you finance your education and whether or not you plan to come back to the country in the future matters to embassy staff.

For those traveling for the first time, keep in mind that the US immigration laws have changed since 9/11. Do not be surprised at random checks and it can be a lengthy process.

Experience at SIPA and New York

Culture shock is inevitable for first timers. I remember my first days in the US. People spoke English too fast and with an accent I wasn’t familiar with. Public display of affection was acceptable. Dance floors were a whole different world. I constantly converted dollars to Nepali rupees. Early experiences in New York can be even more intense with its fast-paced life, crowded subways, and people dressed up in crazy attire.

I asked a few other international friends to share their experiences. A friend from Japan said, “I did not have culture shock since the way of modern life does not change regardless of where we are…oh, the staffs in restaurants are friendlier than in Japan and attendants in supermarkets are much more impolite.”

Another friend from China mentioned that it took her time to adjust to the social scene in New York. She said that she was not used to the idea of going to bars to drink a lot.   A few other friends mentioned that coming a few days prior to orientation is good idea. It gives time to explore the city on your own and to get used to the place before your schedule fills up with orientation events and then classes. Coming earlier is also a good way to make some friends before classes start. After the first two months or so, you will adapt to the place and its pace.

Some international students have mentioned that they continue to struggle with English, and at times it can get frustrating not to be able to express yourself.  However, they say that perseverance is the key.

SIPA has numerous events throughout the years to help students socialize and have a good time. There are also many student organizations based on regions, cultures and interest. ISSO also organizes many events for international students. For those who only have their passports as the official identification card, get a New York state ID or maybe even a driver’s license. If you are going to bars or buying alcohol, it is easier and less risky to have an ID than carry your passport around.

Other Tips

If you need to find an on-campus job, reach out to people. Check libraries and IT centers for vacancies. Email professors you find interesting not just in SIPA but in the whole University, and ask them if they need a research assistant. I found a research assistant position in my first semester by emailing a professor. Advertise to teach your national language or any other skills you might have. Some students babysit to make some cash.

Be prepared for cold weather. This winter New York had 20 inches of snow!

Finding an apartment in New York can be stressful, but there are ways to get cheaper housing besides campus housing. The loan serves as an income guarantee. Check out but be careful of scams.

Explore not just New York, but most of the US, if you have the chance.

English as a Second Language Tests and Admission

First let me say from a personal standpoint that I admire anyone who is able to communicate at a high level in more than one language.  Mastering a second language is certainly a huge achievement.  My wife speaks three languages very well and each time she rapidly transitions from one language to another it makes my head spin.  And she types all three languages well even on an English keyboard with no foreign language characters.  She’s my hero.

Half the time when I try to speak a bit of Korean I end up speaking broken Spanish, and when I try to speak Spanish broken Korean comes out.  I am convinced that my Latin American apartment neighbors think I am crazy because half the time when I try to say hello, Korean comes out instead of Spanish.

Mastery of English is very important to the Admissions Committee at SIPA due to the rigorous and fast paced nature of our curriculum.  I thought I would provide a bit of insight into how the Admissions Committee views English test reports submitted by applicants that do not speak English as a native language.

SIPA will accept three tests that measure the ability to communicate in English:  TOEFL, IELTS, and a test administered at Columbia University called the English Certification Test (this test must be taken on our campus).  Scores can be divided into three categories.

  • Category 1: We cannot offer admission based on the score regardless of how impressive the rest of an application may be.
  • Category 2: We can offer provisional admission (only for the fall cycle).  Candidates offered provisional admission must enroll in a mandatory, three week, intensive English course hosted at SIPA in the summer.
  • Category 3: We can offer unconditional admission.

For categories 2 and 3, applicants must of course not only score at high level on the English exam, but must also put together a compelling application in all other regards.

We do have minimum scores for admission and they are:

  • TOEFL iBT: 100
  • TOEFL Computer: 250
  • TOEFL Paper: 600
  • IELTS: 7
  • ECT: 7A

We can offer admission to candidates that achieve these scores, the offer will be provisional however if the scores fall within the following range:

  • TOEFL iBT: 100 – 109
  • TOEFL Computer: 250 – 267
  • TOEFL Paper: 600 – 633
  • IELTS: 7 -7.5
  • ECT: 7A – 8A

And finally, we can offer unconditional admission to candidates that achieve the following scores:

  • TOEFL iBT: 110 and above
  • TOEFL Computer: 270 and above
  • TOEFL Paper: 637 and above
  • IELTS: 8 and above
  • ECT: 8B or above

In all cases scores must be less than two years old.  We do not require official test reports to consider candidates for admission.  Candidates can self report test scores on the application Web site all the way up to the Admission Deadline.  Therefore, if you take a test at a late date, as long as you can log in to the application site prior to the deadline to submit the scores achieved, the scores will be accepted for consideration.  Only candidates that are offered admission will then later be asked to submit official test scores for the permanent academic record.

We do recommend that you list our code when taking the TOEFL.  Our TOEFL test code is 2161.

"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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