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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!

Your Frequently Asked Questions, Answered by Current SIPA Students!

Hello! The Admissions team would like to say congratulations to all Admitted Students! We have been receiving a lot of questions on a variety of topics, from housing options to SIPA’s quantitative coursework. We decided to compile our answers to some of your most frequently asked questions. Feel free to drop other questions in the comment!

What is SIPA’s quantitative coursework like? Will I be able to pass macro/micro economics?

Samantha: The quantitative coursework for the core courses at SIPA consist of three courses: Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Quantitative Analysis (statistics). Usually students take Micro in the fall semester, and Macro in the spring semester. However, Quant can be taken in any of the four semesters, but most students complete it in either of their first two. The workload is going to be a bit heavy, as you have homework, recitation, lecture and exams for all of these quantitative courses, but it’s all doable. You don’t need to be an expert in either of the three areas in order to do well in them, but getting in some practice before hand can’t hurt. In order to prepare yourself for the coursework I recommend completing the summer math tutorial SIPA provides, as well as attending the Math Boot-camp during orientation. However, If you’re still panicked about the fact that you’re going to see numbers and have instantaneously forgotten all the math(s) you’ve ever learned, remember you are going to be ok and I guarantee you will pass.

Julia: I would also say that the weekly homework are done in groups so some of the stress is shared. Many students don’t have an economics or statistics background (like me!) so you won’t be alone! The professors are also very approachable and helpful if you are struggling.

What is the SIPA community like as a whole? Or for a specific concentration?
Dylan: The SIPA community is generally very open and welcoming. Before arriving at SIPA, I assumed that most people would be very competitive and serious. While everyone here cares about their academics and career, I have found the opposite to be true; in general, people are very supportive and friendly. I think one of the other benefits of having such huge incoming classes is that you are always meeting new students. So on top of it being a friendly, collaborative environment, I’ve never really felt like I lacked opportunities to meet new people.

I’d say most people end up befriending people within their concentration. Makes sense right? You take a lot of classes with them, you probably end up at the same events, and you naturally share a lot of similar interests. As a USP concentrator, I met most of my USP friends my first semester and we’ve remained close since then.

What is the recruitment/job-hunt like at SIPA? Does the Office of Career Services, or SIPA in general, support students?

Julia: SIPA students have very diverse interests, so there isn’t a standard way students go through the internship or job search. When I was looking for my summer internship last year, I used the Office of Career Services internship database, which is a detailed account of all the internships previous students have done, to give me an idea what I could be interested in doing. I then applied for internships through the job/internship portal on SIPAlink. I would also say the info sessions that OCS organize are helpful as well. I just went to an ACLU panel discussion last week that was inspiring and exactly I needed to motivate me in my current job search!

What is something you wish you knew about SIPA before attending?
Dylan: I wish I knew more about cross-registration and dual-degree options at SIPA. That was more me not doing my due diligence on researching SIPA’s program offerings before attending, but it is something all students can do if they prepare in advance.

What has been the best/worst part of your time at SIPA?
Dylan: The best part has been developing my interest in anti-corruption policy and journalism. I came from a very theory focused Political Science background, and SIPA was the first place where I was able to really dive into policy.

Worst time has definitely been the quantitative coursework. I appreciate it and I begrudgingly recognize its importance. But it can be an enormous pain! That being said, everyone who comes to SIPA will pass the core quantitative classes. Do not fear!!

Julia: My best time was traveling with other Seeples on student trips. Last summer I went to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and this winter break I went to Israel. It’s a great way to learn more about the politics and history of the region, but also spend quality time with your fellow Seeples.

What are the housing options like in the Columbia area? How much can I expect to pay and where should I generally look?

Samantha: I would say that most students who do not get Columbia student housing generally live near or north of campus. Most of us live in shared apartments in Morningside Heights, Harlem, and Washington Heights. Living with roommates helps keep the cost down, and living near or north of campus is 1. Convenient and 2. More affordable. While rents vary, I say students usually pay anywhere from $900-$1500 a month in rent. The farther north you go from campus the less expensive apartments become, so if you’re looking to cut costs I recommend looking uptown. The benefit of living near campus is that it is close enough for you to walk to, so you wouldn’t have to pay for transit expenses to get to school like you might need to if you live further north.

How do you manage time between classes and internships/work?

Dylan: This is a hard question to answer because it really depends on the classes I’m taking and the way assignments are structured for each class. Some weeks, I’ll have no assignments due besides reading for class. During those weeks, I obviously attend classes, work around 15 hours at SIPA Admissions as a program assistant, and do my readings either in the afternoon after classes or in between classes while I’m still on campus.

Other weeks, it’ll feel like my professors conspired to absolutely slam me with assignments. In those cases, I’ll usually plan on working 11am – 5/6pm-ish on weekends (at least) and then work in the afternoons after classes are finished and in between classes. If I’m particularly stressed with my program assistantship work, I may ask to take a few hours off and make them up at a later date. Most SIPA jobs are understanding and flexible with students.

Next Steps for Admitted Students, Fall 2019

First, another congratulations to you on being accepted to Columbia SIPA! I hope you celebrated this achievement – it was a competitive applicant pool – and are now ready to go over a few things that every newly-admitted student should know. Top takeaways for you:

  • Check the Welcome Portal – a lot. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll end up here yet. Honestly, the Welcome Portal has everything you need regarding next steps. If you don’t want to read two iterations of this information, I would recommend the Welcome Portal.
  • Submitting your official documents and transcripts. This probably applies to you and is a new policy for SIPA.
  • Check your Status Page to avoid delays in registering for classes at SIPA.
  • Money, deposits and financial aid.

Check the Welcome Portal, even if you’re not sure where you’ll end up yet.

The Welcome Portal has everything you need regarding next steps. Even if you’re still deciding where you’ll be for the next few years, the Welcome Portal provides information to help you make that decision: about accepting your offer, upcoming deadlines, student housing information, and special events and webinars, including Faculty Q&As and Financial Aid advice.

The Welcome Portal also breaks down the following information about official transcripts, test scores, and other items that require a few extra steps for you to ensure you can start your school year off with no delays.

(For conditional admitted students: Some applicants were admitted on the condition that they take additional quantative preparation courses, or to enroll in ALP courses for the summer/fall, prior to enrolling at SIPA. Your overall application and achievements are admirable, and we believe you’ll be better equipped for success at SIPA by completing this coursework. Please check the Welcome Portal of the specific requirements and deadlines for these conditions.)

Submit your Official Documents – This is really important!

When you review the Welcome Portal, you’ll see a section that outlines upcoming deadlines for the Application Checklist materials, also known as official documents. These are hard deadlines for the Admissions Office to receive your official documents, mainly transcripts and test scores.

I suggest you triple-check your Status Page to make sure all official Transcripts and Test Scores have been received by our office. If we don’t get these official documents by August 20, you will not be able to register for classes.

In the past few years, at least 90% of our accepted students did not submit all of their official documents to our office. This might be because you just haven’t submitted it because it wasn’t required until now. Another possibility is that items are sent to the wrong address or not delivered correctly, or for some reason the document submitted is not considered “official.” For example, even if you opened and scanned your official transcript from your college registrar, we cannot consider it “official” because it has technically been altered.

Check your Status Page

The last thing you want is a delay to starting off your school year, and that is easily avoided by checking in with the Status Page. This is where you’ll go to review your Application Checklist. Even though you’ve been accepted, there are a few items on the checklist that we need to finalize your academic record before August 2019. And if your record isn’t finalized, you won’t be able to register for classes during orientation. Don’t be that person!

Distinguishing if you’ve submitted your official vs unofficial documents can be confusing, so I’ll walk you through how to check this on your Status Page.

When you look at your Status Page, you see a green checkmark that indicates what we’ve received. Hover over this checkmark to see the pop-up text that will indicate if this item was “Received,” or we’ve only “Received Copy.”

An example of an official received item – hovering over the green checkmark shows a popup of Status: Received.

However, this applicant’s popup states “Status: Received Copy” next to their PTE Score Report. This means that their official test score has NOT been received by the Admissions office. (We’re sorry about this, we know it’s a hassle, but it’s a quirk of the system that we’re working with here.)

“How do I send in my official transcripts and test scores?”

All of this information is in the Welcome Portal (seriously, check it out if you haven’t already), but: Official transcripts and test scores must be on file by August 20, 2019. International students who won’t have conferred degrees until after the deadline should email us and we’ll make a note on their account.

There are extra requirements for students who attended Chinese institutions and students who attended a non-U.S. university. Specific instructions for all of this are, again, in the Welcome Portal.

A note on official test scores: If you truly know you sent us your official scores but we haven’t received them, there may be a workaround from re-ordering your test scores. Chances are your application name and email address are not recorded the same as the name and email address you registered to take the GRE/GMAT or TOEFL/IELTS/PTE with a few months ago. Thus, we couldn’t match the exam to your account because of the mismatch.

If that’s the case, contact the testing center and confirm your full name, date of birth and email address associated with your account. You’ll need to send us that information, along with the batch/cycle number and test registration number, for GRE and TOEFL scores; the appointment number and identification number for GMAT scores; or send us the official score report for IELTS/PTE scores.

Money, Deposits, and Financial Aid

Your enrollment deposit: You have until the date on your admission letter to accept your enrollment offer AND pay the $2,000.00 USD admission deposit. This deposit ultimately goes towards your tuition bill. While you don’t have to accept and pay the deposit at the same time, your deposit payment must be paid in full at once (so no partial payments). (UNIs will be generated within 1-2 weeks.)

Financial Aid and Fellowships: If you received a scholarship or fellowship, you will have received a separate notification letter about your funding along with your letter of admission. (Early-action candidates had to wait until now to learn about their funding status.)

All students, whether funded their first year or not, will be able to apply for second-year funding. Most of this funding is in the form of assistantships for second-year students who succeeded in their first year of studies. (You’ll learn more about these opportunities during the spring semester of your first year.)

We also encourage you to visit the Financial Aid page for more information about funding your education, which includes a database of external funding opportunities.

Tuition, Fees, and Billing: Columbia University releases an annual estimated cost of attendance, which you can view for the 2019-2020 year here. Your tuition bill will be generated closer to the start of the academic term. You also have the option to set up a payment plan or coordinate your payments with a third-party sponsor. For more information on that process, browse the Student Financial Services website. (Note: The Office of Admissions & Financial Aid is not involved in this process.)

Contact Us

If you need anything give us a call or send an email. If you’re an admitted student with specific financial aid or fellowship inquiries, please email them with a descriptive and informative subject line to sipa_finaid@columbia.edu. Admissions questions can continue to go to sipa_admission@columbia.edu or sipa_new@columbia.edu.

You should also follow us on Instagram @Columbia.SIPA to share your admissions story and connect with future classmates!

And once again, congratulations to our admitted students!

“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 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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