Archive for essays

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.

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!

5 Tips for a stress-free admissions essay writing experience

Writing admissions essays can be one of the most difficult parts about applying to graduate schools. SIPA asks for not one, but two essays, plus that optional third essay that some of you may want to add. If you are like me and spent some time working before applying to SIPA your writing skills may be a bit rusty. Or maybe writing has always been a stressful process for you, prompting painful all-nighters and excessive amounts of caffeine. Fear not, we are here to help with your writing woes!

There are some great posts with advice on How NOT to write your personal statement, and offering 6 Quick-and-Dirty tips for and outstanding admissions essay. This post is meant to help with your essay-writing strategy so you don’t find yourself spending too much time stressing about the essays, or scrambling to change the focus of your essay at the last minute.

1. Start early.

Seems like easy enough advice, but this is for those chronic procrastinators out there (I’m one too), and basically anyone juggling multiple things at once. Sure the application isn’t due until January 5th for fellowship consideration, or February 5th without, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a great admissions essay. As soon as you create your application in the online system you should be brainstorming ideas for your essays. This gives you enough time to edit or rewrite your essay if you don’t like it. Submitting your best application means taking as much time as possible to write your essays and make sure you are following all instructions in the prompt and answering the question.

2. Create an outline.

Even if you don’t normally outline when you are writing papers, having a general layout of what you want to write helps to organize your thoughts. Make sure you have a clear idea of how you plan to answer the question and points to back up that answer. The word limits restrict your answers to only the most important information, so you want to make sure you hit each point in your outline. There is no need to spend hours writing up multiple drafts of essays if you have already planned out what you will write. Plus, creating an outline makes the actual writing of the essay go by faster when all you have to do is flesh out points you already wrote!

3. Be yourself.

We all want to make ourselves look amazing in our applications, and I’m sure everyone applying to SIPA has something great to offer, so just be yourself. It can be tempting to want to embellish your essays with language or quotes that show-off your knowledge, don’t overthink it! The admissions committee wants to know about you and how SIPA can get you where you want to go. The essays are a chance for you to show SIPA what you’re made of, all that extra stuff won’t help your essay, or your stress levels. You chose SIPA for a reason, so just elaborate on that reason in your essay.

4. Ask for help.

I know we are all strong independent adults forging our own paths in this world, but sometimes we need to reach out for some help or advice. Whether it is using friends and family as sounding boards to bounce ideas off of, or to proofread your essay after you write it, asking for help can take some of the stress out of writing an admissions essay. Having another set of eyes look at your essay can make sure mistakes are caught before you submit. They can also provide feedback about weak areas in your essay, or even point out something you didn’t know about yourself that would make you a strong candidate.

5. Take a breather.

Just step away from the essay for a few days or even weeks if you have the time. Sitting down for a marathon writing session to just get things over with and submit may seem like a good idea initially, but we’re all human and it can be easy to miss small (or even large) mistakes the first time around. Applying for graduate school in general is stressful with all of the boxes that have to be checked off, so don’t let that get in the way of putting your best application forward. Reward yourself for the great work you have done, and then go back to it at a later time to make it even better!

[Photo courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/83633410@N07/7658225516. CC BY-SA 2.0.]

Don’t forget about these helpful blog posts

With the Fall 2016 application just one week away, I wanted to remind everyone of a few blog posts that will help as you finish your applications of admission to SIPA.

For those missing exam scores, “What’s with the GRE/GMAT and TOEFL/IELTS?” offers some great insight into how to self-report them. (Just keep in mind you’ll need to also upload a copy of your TOEFL/IELTS score report, which is a new requirement this year for our international applicants.) As for the official test scores: we only need the official records once you’re admitted to SIPA.

Also keep in mind that all three recommendation letters must be submitted by the application deadline. It’s OK if you submit your application before these are received, but follow-up with your recommenders and remind them of the pending due date. PA Adriana Popa and I share some great advice in “3 things every recommender should know” and “4 Tips for Letters of Recommendation.”

I also write about some insights into the MIA/MPA essay questions in “​How NOT to write your personal statement,” “How to answer the Fall 2016 short essay,” and last year’s “6 Quick-and-Dirty Tips For An Outstanding Admissions Essay.”

​If you’re stuck on how to format your quantitative and language resume, browse current student Yiting Xu’s “A Quantitative/Language Resume Breakdown,” which outlines the process thoroughly.

Regarding your missing college transcripts, we only need your unofficial records for admission. You can scan these (back and front, with grading scale) and upload them into your application, or upload a copy of your academic records from your university’s student portal. (Both self-uploaded versions are unofficial records, and are acceptable for admission purposes.)

And as an international applicant, this October 2015 blog post, “What I wish I knew as an international applicant” offers a few first-hand reflections on the application process.

If you need more help, review “Eloy’s Top 12 Application Questions,” which was our No. 1 blog post in 2015.

Thanks to our hardworking team, the Admissions Blog is full of helpful hints like these, so I encourage you to spend some time this weekend exploring the blog further. You can also take a closer look at all of your missing materials on your Status Page. Then, read this blog post that outlines the nuances with the Status Page, which can be tricky.

If you have any additional questions about the application process, please do not hesitate to contact us at sipa_admission@sipa.columbia.edu or 212-854-6216.

And don’t forget: the Fall 2016 application deadline is February 5, 2016. You may find out more about the admissions timeline here.

Good luck on your applications! Finish your applications here.

P.S. Confused by today’s meme? This should help.

How to answer the Fall 2016 short essay

Last week, I shared some tips on what NOT to do when responding to the personal statement (aka long essay). Today, I’m tackling the short essay. Read More →

"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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