Archive for gpa

It’s About the Story

One of the most common questions we receive centers around the question of what could be called “eligibility” for our program. I completely understand where applicants are coming from regarding such questions, but I do want to emphasize that the Admissions Committee at SIPA does not use any sort of formula to admit students. The process of evaluating applicants for admission is very holistic and we look at each part of the application.

Besides possessing a college degree, there are no specific criteria for admission. There are surely things applicants can do to strengthen their candidacy for our program but we do not require a specific GPA, certain test scores, a particular major, or a certain number of years of work experience. We get questions such as the following all of the time:

  • I studied a major unrelated to what I wish to study at SIPA. Does this disqualify me from admission?
  • I have not taken an economics class, does this mean I have no chance of being admitted?
  • I have only worked for one year, does this mean I will not be admitted?
  • I did not score well on the GRE/GMAT – does this jeopardize my candidacy?
  • The work experience of I have does not really relate to my proposed field of study, is this a problem?
  • Is it worth my time to apply based on my background?
  • There certainly are generalizations that can be made about the majority of those who are admitted to SIPA. The average age of an admitted SIPA applicant is approximately 27. However we have had students as young as 21 join us. The majority of applicants that apply to SIPA have completed a microeconomics and macroeconomics class. Is it a requirement that all applicants have completed such a sequence prior to being admitted? No.

    I do not want to sound like a politician who is dancing around the question and I understand the desire applicants have for “concrete” answers, but admission decisions really come down to an applicant’s story – a story the encompasses each and every part of the application.

    In the past I worked for a school with a strong focus on arts, entertainment, music, and media. One faculty member left an impression upon me because he constantly stated something along the lines of the following:

    “The success of a movie has everything to do with the story. You can have the best actors, the best special effects, the best soundtrack . . . but without a good story such resources just go to waste.”

    Something similar can be said about applicants.  Some applicants possess very relevant experience but are unable to bring everything together in their application.  This may result in a scattered application with no real discernible theme or story.

    On the other hand, there may be an applicant with seemingly unrelated experience and a major that was far afield from what they wish to study at SIPA, however s/he does a superb job of making sense of all of the parts by weaving all of the parts of their application together into a compelling story.  This might be accomplished through the choice of recommendation writers, compelling volunteer work, and a focused personal statement.

    The personal statement really is the “glue” that holds the entire application together.  We would love to interview each candidate for admission but are unable to do so.  Thus your personal statement is where we get to know you.  It is divided into three questions and in question #1 you really should focus on your passion, future goals, what you hope to gain from SIPA, and what you will contribute to SIPA.  Questions 2 and 3 are wide open, but you should write wisely and try to include information that contributes to the story you are trying to convey in your application.

    In sum, there are general characteristics that we look for in an applicant, but in the end a compelling story, mixed with evidence of academic and professional competence that will allow one to handle our curriculum, is really what helps an applicant to stand out.

    One final note, some applicants have questions concerning our desire to see evidence of success with quantitative methods/economics at the undergraduate level.  Why is this important?  Well all SIPA students, regardless of degree or major, are required to take a full year of economics, a quantitative analysis class, and a financial management class.  As you might imagine, those with little to no previous experience in these areas would likely struggle greatly with our curriculum.   Also, second year fellowship consideration is tied to academic performance in the first year of study and a certain way to disqualify oneself from fellowship consideration is to do poorly in these classes, which are all first year requirements.  Thus, we do like to see evidence in an application of success in classes that relate to quantitative methods.

    The Matrix

    I am hesitant sometimes to use personal experience/opinions when blogging about admissions issues, but every once in a while I will toss in a cultural reference that I understand maybe not everyone will understand.  We have applicants from over 100 countries each year and I understand that not everyone may understand the context, but I try to add enough detail to make the point understood.

    One of my favorite movies is The Matrix.  I remember pondering the plot for days after I first saw it.  A good movie for me is one that makes me think for a while after seeing it.  I was not huge fan of the second and third installments, I think they should have left it at one movie, but such is the Hollywood model of producing sequels when a first installment of a film is a hit.

    Anyway, for those who have not seen the movie the plot is based upon machines that set up a virtual reality called the Matrix.  Computer programs are written to provide humans with a world that they believe is real, but is not.  Humans are connected to the Matrix and do not physically live in the world, rather they live life as if a character in a computer program.  Why?  Well the machines wanted to tame humans and use them as energy sources after the war between machines and man cut off sunlight to the earth of course!  If you have not seen the movie, no, sleep deprivation from my travel schedule has not caused me to go off the deep end, it really is the plot =)

    What does this have to do with admissions?  Well I think that sometimes we buy into a sort of Matrix regarding goals we wish to accomplish in life.  In some cases our society convinces us that there is a formula associated with the goals people have or achievements we seek to accomplish.  Admission to graduate school is a goal many have and society has led many to believe that admission to a graduate program is a Matrix.  Why do I believe this?  Primarily because two of the most common questions I have been asked as I have been traveling this fall are:

    • What is the average GPA required for someone to gain admission?
    • What are the average GRE scores of an incoming student?

    These are two questions that I dodge like an adept politician (or should I say like Neo dodging bullets?).  Why?  Well two primary reasons are the diversity of age in our applicant pool along with the fact that we receive applications from over 100 countries each year.  Last year we received transcripts from close to 900 different universities and the youngest enrolled student this year is 21 and the oldest is 51.  With so many countries, universities, teaching styles, and grading systems you might think that it would not be fair to establish a singular standard for all applicants.  I agree – no single standard should be used to judge all applicants to SIPA.

    We evaluate each applicant as an individual and the process is very holistic.  There is no Matrix.  Each person has a different story, background, education, experience, and goals.  Yes, we do look at GPA and test scores, but we put them in context and scores and grades are relative to the experience of an applicant.

    Another example I could use to state why average GPA is not important is strength of schedule.  One applicant may have a “soft” academic record in terms of courses chosen while another applicant chose very challenging courses and achieved a lower GPA than an applicant who chose an easier pathway.  Should we punish the applicant that chose the more challenging path?  The Admissions Committee does not believe so.

    How about the GRE?  Would it be fair to expect that an applicant that speaks English as a third language should score as well on the verbal portion of the GRE as someone who speaks English as a native language?  Again I believe the answer is “no.”

    I do understand the desire of applicants to have information regarding GPA and GRE.  It is valid to seek an answer to the question, “How can I tell where I stand in terms of previous successful applicants to your program?”
    I will offer up a few comments, none of which ever puts anyone totally at ease, but bear with me.

    First, the younger someone is the more attention we pay to grades and test scores.  Why?  Well younger people have less work experience.  The older someone is, the more we might give them a “break” in terms of grades and test scores.  I would not expect that a 51 year old applicant would do as well on the GRE as someone that is 21 and just graduating.  However the 51 year old has decades of experience that the 21 year old does not.

    Second, overall GPA is not as important as grades in particular courses.  Let’s say that an applicant majored in Economics and had a GPA of 3.1.  Perhaps this applicant went “off the board” and took some challenging classes that were unrelated to their major.  Maybe he or she got a “C” in a Sociology of Religion class.  Intellectual curiosity is admirable and average grades in a few classes may not be looked upon as a negative, but rather as a positive for wanting to expand one’s intellectual development.

    I hope you understand where I am going with all of this – there is no formula we use to admit a student.  I know this still will not put you totally at ease so I will offer one final comment on test scores.  On the GRE we look more at percentiles than we do number scores.  Let’s say you scored a 680 on the quantitative portion of the GRE.  This may have put you in the 71st percentile meaning that 29% of those that took the exam scored better than you, and 69% scored lower than you.

    As a general guideline I can say the following regarding percentiles as viewed by the Admissions Committee at SIPA:

    • The low 80s to the high 90s could be considered superior
    • The low 70s to the low 80s could be considered excellent
    • The low 60s to the low 70s could be considered good
    • Scores in the 50s could be considered fair

    However, again realize that this scale is relative and we have no cutoffs.  An applicant may speak English as a third language and thus might have scored below the 50th percentile on the verbal portion of the GRE.  At the same time, this applicant could have scored very well on the TOEFL exam and the Committee will take this into account.

    And perhaps someone completed extensive quantitative coursework in college but is not a good test taker and does not do well on the GRE.  It is typical for us to use academic transcripts as more of a barometer of ability than test scores.

    I realize this entry will not put everyone at ease (just like watching the 2nd and 3rd installments of the Matrix left me unsettled) but I hope it helps provide insight on how we review applicants for our program.  We do not use a formula or Matrix to admit students and you simply need to do your best in telling a compelling story in your application.  A compelling story is told by how you weave your application together.  Who you choose for recommendation writers, what you choose to write about in your personal statement, what you choose to include in your resume, and yes your grades and test scores also are all parts of your story.

    We look to admit applicants that are intellectually curious, committed to causes, possess diversity of experience, and are capable of handling our rigorous curriculum.  This mix does not lend itself well to formulas.  I have learned over the years that a bit of skepticism can be a healthy thing.  Be skeptical when society tells you there is one way to achieve something.  In the policy world is takes all kinds of people to make a difference, and we look to admit a class that we believe will assist the coming generations in addressing challenging policy problems – hopefully problems that do not include machines taking over our minds =)

    Official Transcripts

    In order for an admission file to be complete and forwarded to the Admission Committee for review we do require that official transcripts from any college or university attended be mailed to our office. Even if an applicant only took a few classes at a school, we still need official transcripts. Another way to look at it is this: if the college or university is listed on your résumé or on the application, we need official transcripts.

    For the majority of schools we work with this means that the college or university seals the transcripts in an envelope for delivery to our office. However we work with schools from all over the world and realize that policies vary. The point is that transcripts mailed to our office (we do not accept electronic delivery) must be authentic and official and this can be defined by schools differently. Examples of ways that schools certify transcripts can include:

    • A heat responsive stamp
    • An embossed school stamp
    • Official stickers or ink stamps placed on the transcripts by a university or authorized official
    • A signature of an authorized official across the sealed flap of the envelope

    Transcripts do not need to be sent directly to our office but if transcripts are sent to you, please do not open them prior to sending them to our office.  There are two circumstances where we can allow for you to open the transcripts and both involve third party translation or authorization.

    Some schools will only provide one official transcript to a graduate.  In this case we recommend that you hold on to the official copy since we do not return documents submitted to our office.  If your school will only release one copy, take the official copy to a notary public and have them copy the transcripts, authenticate the copy, and seal the copy in an envelope for delivery to our office.  Contact information for the official who copied the transcripts should be included in the envelope.

    The same would apply for transcripts that need to be translated into English.  If your transcripts are not in English, deliver them to an authorized official for translation and have the translated copy certified and sealed for delivery to our office.  A common organization we recommend for transcript translation is World Education Services.

    If you participated in an official exchange program and this is noted on the transcripts of your home school, we do not need official transcripts from the exchange school.  However, if there is no official relationship between the home school and exchange school, we need copies from both schools.  The reason for this is that each school may use different codes and grading systems.  These codes and grading systems are typically explained on the reverse side of the transcripts.

    Finally, if your school does not use a 4.0 grading scale and you are wondering what to put on your admission application, you may input a GPA of 0.0.  The GPA listed on the application is self reported and does not influence your evaluation.  Indicating a score of 0.0 will alert the Committee to pay attention to the scale used by the schools you have attended.

    "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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