Archive for personal statement

Tips for Writing Your Personal Essays; Time to Find Your ‘Cornerstone’

As fans of HBO may know, Westworld has been one of the channel’s breakout shows in recent years, a brilliant, if not at times frustrating, mix of sci-fi and Wild West melodrama. The show takes place in the not too distant future, where humans have created robots that are practically indistinguishable from their creators. These robots are housed in a series of enormous, historically themed amusement parks that function as places of leisure and adventure for human guests. One of the more interesting concepts presented in the show is the idea of a ‘cornerstone’; in order to create believable backstories and personalities for the robots, human programmers imparted each AI with individualized memories, memories in which their whole character, and being, are derived from.

How does this relate to the SIPA application? Well, bear with me now. When I first began applying to SIPA, I spent many hours thinking about what to write, and more importantly, which parts of my personal experiences were relevant and worth including. Sometimes I felt like it was best to start with my early childhood in rural New England, growing up traveling between small communities, an experience that first sparked my love for country and our nation’s natural beauty. Other times I felt like I should begin with my incredibly diverse high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I first realized I loved learning about other cultures and identities. When anxious about writing something too ambitious and personal, I decided to talk about my time working for refugee resettlement organizations in Chicago and Istanbul, and how these professional experiences informed my interest in diplomacy and human rights.

After many days of brainstorming and reflecting on what truly motivated me, I knew I had to get at the root of these experiences, and what binds them together. Personally, my thoughts always returned to my mother, who often raised me on her own. Similarly, all of my thoughts were colored with a deep sense of pride in my community and a belief that I must work to represent disadvantaged peoples in everything that I do. Using these two qualifiers, I was able to strip away the extraneous parts of my narrative that sounded good on paper, but weren’t essential to my own story. In doing so, I was able to clearly articulate why I wanted to attend SIPA, and what had driven me to become a U.S. diplomat; that is, a real desire to represent all Midwestern people, and to share our culture and story with communities abroad, through relationships predicated on mutual respect and understanding.

If you are interested in SIPA, you have already demonstrated a baseline desire to improve yourself and to accomplish whatever personal or professional goals you have set for yourself. Therefore, when thinking about how to write your personal essays, I suggest that you also engage in a similar exercise of self-reflection, in an attempt to find your own ‘cornerstone’. By boiling it all down, you will be able to more clearly state your interest in attending SIPA, and your motivations for applying. It will also allow you to parse through your experiences, and similarly decide which ones are essential for telling the story that will give admissions officers an idea of who you are.

Start by writing down the experiences that come to mind when you think about why you’ve chosen to apply to SIPA, or what inspired you to undertake the career path you are on now. Rely on your intuition, and include things that you feel are important, even if they may not make sense to someone else, or seem appropriate to write about on your application. Once you’ve given it enough thought, go back through what you’ve written and begin thinking about what underlying ideas, principles, or experiences connect these seemingly disparate thoughts. Hopefully, you will arrive at an understanding of what truly motivates you, while also narrowing down the experiences you want to draw on while demonstrating your preparedness for SIPA. While difficult, I suspect that the clarity gained from this exercise will make writing your essays much easier and may perhaps serve you well in your own day-to-day life!

What’s in an App: Personal Statement

Writing an amazing SIPA Personal Statement is probably far more straightforward than you might think. SIPA admissions officers aren’t looking for gimmicks. They’re looking for passionate, motivated, and prepared applicants who are ready to hit the ground running in their chosen program. Read on for more details in creating your best personal essay.

Personal, personal, personal

Did we mention personal? Your personal statement should be about your interests as an individual. Write about issues only if they relate specifically to your personal experiences. For example, ‘In Africa, a child dies every minute. This stark statistic prompted me to join an NGO aimed at providing nutrition and healthcare for children in Namibia.’ 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. You chose SIPA for a reason, so just elaborate on that reason in your essay.

Know your program and make connections

Securing acceptance is more about being the best match than about being the most highly qualified. Among applicants who meet the program’s minimum requirements, they’ll choose an enthusiastic and informed applicant over one with higher test scores and a better GPA who doesn’t seem to know much about their program.

Ask for help

Most students at SIPA will tell you that they’ve had close friends or mentors offer a second set of eyes on their personal statement. While we are all independent adults forging our own paths, 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.

Take a step back

Sometimes just stepping away from your essay for a little while may help, if you have the time. Sitting down and focusing on it for hours may cause you to miss the goal altogether. So step away, reward yourself for your work thus far, and return to it at a better time.

Now that you’re armed with these personal essay pointers, put them into practice and wow some admission officers. Happy writing!

Applying Students: A Refresher On Some Common Questions

At this time of the year, we have been getting emails from prospective students on all things related to their applications. We thought we would take a moment to address some of the most frequently asked questions and direct you to older blog posts where some of them have been addressed:

Obviously, prospective students always want information about how they can fund their SIPA education. Here is the blog post on relevant financial aid information. It is important to note that first-year applicants are considered for fellowships and scholarships through the university regardless of nationality.

Here is the blog post about things that you should avoid doing when applying to SIPA.

Tps that may touch on some of the specific application areas:

Applying to multiple programs: 

The system allow applicants to easily apply to multiple programs under the same log-in. As per SIPA’s Admissions policy, you may apply to more than one program but you must submit full applications (with all required materials, application fee, etc.) to each program to be considered.

What restrictions are there?

Applicants may apply to any combination of programs EXCEPT you may NOT apply to the (two year full time) Master of International Affairs (MIA) and the (two year full time) Master of Public Administration (MPA) simultaneously (in the same term).

How do I create a new application?

Many people have written or called asking how to create a new application. You may do so by logging in to the application system and in the “application management” page you will see “start new application” below the list of open applications. Select and add the program and term.  You may see a screenshot of my test application below:

Résumés:  Check out guidelines for the résumés: Ready to Talk about Résumés?

Personal Statement:  Each program has specific question prompts that are required to be answered for review by the Committee. Some of these questions may be the same as the prompts for other programs but don’t think that you can submit the same responses if you are applying to more than one program, it will be obvious. You can get a refresher on the personal statements here.

Recommendation letters:  We have received a LOT of calls and emails about recommendation letters so a few refresher posts, such as Can’t Say it Enough, Recommendation requests, with a little time and the Ins and Outs of Recommendation Letters may be useful for you to review.

However, the sheer number of emails and phone calls from panicked applicants indicates that there are some outstanding issues.

  1. Recommenders have not received the recommendation request submission notification and are confused as to how to proceed. The most common reason for this issue is that the email message was delivered to the referee’s spam inbox and so we advise that recommenders check their email folders first.  If the notification has not been received, it may be due to security protocol, particularly if the email addresses has an “irregular” domain name or uses abbreviations (typically addresses from various countries, organizations or even universities/institutions), that prevents the message from being received.

  2. As an alternative, applicants may use a different email address for the recommender but this requires the recommender entry to be deleted and then re-entered to include the updated email address.

  3. As a last resort, recommenders can send the letter (as an attachment) to sipa_admission@columbia.edu directly and then our staff can upload the letter to the application manually.  Due to high volume of activity, we request your patience as we process received materials.

GRE/GMAT:  The GRE/GMAT is an important component of the application, and all of your questions about these tests can be found here.

Another item on test scores, WE DO NOT REQUIRE AN OFFICIAL TEST SCORE REPORT TO BE RECEIVED BY THE DEADLINE. The Committee ONLY requires applicants to self-report your scores on the application. I have thought quite a bit about why this is confusing so I have provided a screenshot of “add test” below:

This example is of a GRE score but you only need to type the SCORES and the PERCENTILES in the boxes to report the GRE (or GMAT) and/or TOEFL or IELTS scores in order for your application to be reviewed. It is true that the self-reported scores are considered “unofficial” or a “copy” as you may have seen on your application status page, but this is EXACTLY what the Admissions Committee is looking for.  Once you have submitted your application, you will see something similar to the screenshot below on your application status page:

If your official test score has been received and matched with your application, it will show as “verified” or “original” on the application status page.

Deadlines!

Another area of confusion has been the deadlines for each program so you may find the dates below helpful.  If you click the link to each program, you will be taken to the appropriate program checklist page.

Program

With fellowship

Admission only

MPA/MIA

January 6, 2014

February 5, 2014 (11:59pm EST)

MPA-DP

January 15, 2014

February 5, 2014 (11:59pm EST)

PEPM

January 6, 2014

February 5, 2014 (11:59pm EST)

EMPA

March 1, 2014

June 1, 2014 (11:59pm EST)

MPA-ESP

January 15, 2014

February 15, 2014 (11:59pm EST)

Can’t say it enough

[As the saying goes] To put your best foot forward, below are some helpful tips to be aware of as you prepare your SIPA application.

  • Graduate School is expensive so finding money to fund your education is important.  Begin your search for scholarship early – Don’t wait until you have been admitted into a program before beginning that process – It may be too late by then to even be considered for some of the funding opportunities.  Many times scholarship application deadlines occur around the same time as an application deadline for the program you seek entrance.
  • Along the lines of scholarships, SIPA considers all admitted applicants for all applicable first-year fellowships. The only requirement for most awards is to complete and submit the admissions application and all supporting materials by the appropriate deadline.  SIPA also offers first-year students an opportunity to compete for additional named fellowships that require a separate application*; there may be specific eligibility requirements for each of these scholarships.    You will be able to access the scholarship application once you have submitted your fall admissions application, which will appear once you click “submit”.  This opportunity will offer applicants an additional chance to secure funding for their education at SIPA.  Awards vary with each scholarship.  *Available SIPA scholarships for first year students outside of the first year Merit Scholarship process: Dasturdaza Doctor Jal Pavry Award, Financial Women’s Association (FWA) Scholarship, Harriman Institute Fellowship, International Fellows Program, Ipeknur and Shwan Taha Fellowship, Julie Rasmussen Fellowship, Karen Klitzman Memorial Fellowship, Magzhan Auezov Fellowship, Ranjit Jayanti Fellowship, Rachel Spear Fellowship, Robert Kopech Fellowship, Romita Shetty and Nasser Ahmad Fellowship, Sainsbury Fellowship, Sara Jacobs Fellowship, the Most Honorable Bapsy Marchioness of Winchester Award, Robert Legvold Fellowship
  • Please make sure you proofread and edit your personal statement/essays before submitting them.  Tailor your essays to the school, even if it means writing different essays for each school you apply — Make sure you use the right school name if you are submitting similar essays to multiple schools.  And make sure you address the questions asked.
  • Recommendation letters – If the recommender cannot submit it online, they can email it to the SIPA Admissions Office.  Make sure you send them a reminder if they have not submitted the recommendation letter by the end of December — Give them enough time to write and submit it before the application deadline if they haven’t done so already.  And remember you do not need to wait for your recommendations to be received to submit your application.
  • While we do not have a minimum score for the GRE/GMAT, we do have one for the test that measures your English language proficiency (TOEFL/IELTS).  There is a minimum score needed for your application to be considered for admission.  So be mindful of it when you submit your application.  SIPA’s TOEFL/IELTS minimum scores are: TOEFL ibt: 100, TOEFL (computer): 250, TOEFL (paper): 600, and the IELTS is 7.0.

Tips for SIPA’s 2014 Application- The Personal Statement

Ah, the personal statement. Perhaps there is no part of the application more anguished over, more edited and re-edited, more emphasized than this.

First off, as the applicant you should embrace the personal statement! An applicant doesn’t always have control over how his or her final microeconomics grade turned out, or his or her GRE verbal score may be a little lower than desired. But the personal statement is a place where the applicant has full control. So feel empowered!

It is important to note that the admissions office sees the personal statement as the most important part of the application. It helps us to learn about your passions, your goals, and your desire to impact the world and make it a little brighter. Due to the volume of applications we receive, we cannot conduct interviews with our applicants, but we do think of the personal statement as a type of interview.

With this in mind, if you could only spend 10 or 15 minutes in front of the Admissions Committee, what would you say? What’s your best sales pitch? We want to hear it.

Our personal statement section is broken down into three distinct parts, with an optional fourth essay. Before we dive into those questions, here are some common questions that we receive at the admissions office regarding the essays.

Question:  Do I have to follow the format of the personal statement?

Answer: Yes.  Please follow these instructions, for your sake and ours. Stay within the stated word limits. And know that you will be judged harshly if you try to substitute a statement written according to another school’s requirements. Following the directions (on all parts of the application) is a critical part of applying to SIPA.

The majority of this entry addresses the first part of the personal statement.  We generally do not provide instructions regarding the second and third parts because we want each applicant to answer in his or her own way.  For the second and third parts, we are interested in how applicants choose to respond to the question and thus have no specific advice on what constitutes a “good” part 2 answer and part 3 answer.

The fourth part of the personal statement is wide open. We provide space where you can include information you wish for the Committee to be aware of that might not be highlighted in other parts of your application or that you feel will shed light on some aspect of your past or future goals.  Part four can focus on things you are proud of, or perhaps not so proud of.  You may also use this part to address any concerns in your application.  The Admissions Committee would prefer to see something in section four, so please try not to leave it blank!

Question:  Do you have any general advice regarding the personal statement?

Answer: Yes, and the rest of this entry will focus on advice for you to consider.

For one, it’s probably not a good idea to quote someone  in your personal statement.  For example, it would not be wise to say something along the lines of the following –

I want to join SIPA because like Gandhi said, “I wish to be the change I wish to see in the world.”

While this is a nice quote and Gandhi was an incredible person, the Admissions Committee is not making a decision to admit Gandhi to SIPA – we are considering admitting you to our program.  Thus we are not so interested in what Gandhi has to say. Rather, we are  interested in what you have to say! Also, when you quote someone else it in essence says, “I could not think of anything on my own to say, so let me let someone else do it for me.”

At SIPA we are looking for creative, passionate, smart, driven, and competent people.  The best personal statements are just that – personal.  We want to hear from you.  The best applicants each year become quotable.  When an Admissions Committee member is impressed with what an applicant has written, they will often call attention to this when discussing the application.  So your goal should be to become quotable, not to quote someone else.

Another note is that your answer to section one should not simply be your résumé in paragraph format.  In order to get your point across in your personal statement it might be necessary to restate information already included in your résumé, however do not restate information without a specific reason or goal.

One thing not to do for example is to tell us in your personal statement where you went to school.  Many applicants will mention the name of their school in the personal statement.  What is wrong with this? Well, you sent us your transcript and you state where you went to school in your résumé, why would we need to be told a third time where you went to school?  Use your personal statement to get across new information that might not be contained in other parts of your application. Tell us things we don’t know. Give us great reasons why you absolutely have to be in our new entering class.

Your answer to part one of the personal statement should particularly be about what you hope to accomplish in the future.  What are you passionate about?  What are your goals?  What impact do you hope to make on the world?  Most of the contents of your application are about your past, we want a glimpse into your future.

One thing we are trying to determine is if SIPA is the right program for you.  We are also trying to determine the type of contribution you will make as a student and alumnus of our program.  We do understand that you might not know exactly what you wish to do, however you should try to be as specific as you can.  For example, if you are interested in development, is there a region or particular group of people you wish to focus on? If you are interested in international security policy, what do you hope to do with the skills you attain while at SIPA?

Strong responses to part one are focused and clear. An example of not being focused is to say that you wish to work for the United Nations. Saying this alone is too vague. The United Nations is comprised of a multitude of organizations, doing a multitude of different things, in a multitude of different places. Listing a broad policy objective without context is also a common mistake. Whatever you hope to do, you should integrate the who, what, where, how, and why elements into your statement.

Address questions such as: Who do you wish to impact? Is there a specific region, city, country, locality you are passionate about? What population do you hope to serve? What concerns you about the future and how do you hope to address policy questions to make a difference? What skills will SIPA help you to develop? Is there a sector that is most appealing to you? (Non-profit, multilateral, for profit, public). Do you hope to go in a new direction and why? Specificity is important.

The most outstanding personal statements each year become a part of discussions amongst members of the Admissions Committee.  Each person is different and has a different history and goals.  Make sure to pour yourself into your personal statement and it will likely stand out because no two people are the same.

"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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