Archive for preparation

Seven things you should do before moving to NYC

If you are preparing to embark on the SIPA adventure this fall to spend the next two years of your life in New York City, here is some advice on what you should definitely try and do before boarding that plane.

Pack Light

I know, you are permanently moving to New York for at least the next two years, and might feel tempted to bring along those pants that you may someday want to wear, or that old lamp you love. But New York is crowded, and space is not precisely a surplus commodity. Whether you live in Columbia housing or on your own, most likely you will have a small room, and an even smaller closet.

Read a novel

For those of you who like reading novels; this will probably be one of the first pleasures cruelly swiped away from your life by grad school. There is so much to read for every class, that reading a novel simply becomes a luxury that a SIPA student cannot afford. So use this summer to indulge in those fictitious adventures, as they will be deeply missed.


New York is an amazing city, but it can also be amazingly expensive. If you want to have an occasional dinner at a nice restaurant, go to a concert, or take a taxi to avoid a 2-hour ride back from Brooklyn on a Saturday night, you should try and save some money to help you enjoy the city more.

Go see nature

You’ve heard the song. New York is indeed a unique concrete jungle where dreams are made of. But as fascinating as skyscrapers can be, they can also be overwhelming.  So make sure you get a good dose of wild mountains and blue oceans before you head this way.

Get some rest

SIPA will be lots of fun, but also lots of work. You will have endless nights in our basement library, for which you will need plenty of energy to help you cope. So get some serious sleep and rest before going back to school.

Let go of your prejudices

If you are coming to SIPA, you are probably already on track, but it doesn’t hurt to think about this once in a while. New York is a truly diverse place, and that is a central part of its magic. So open your mind and be ready to learn from other worldviews, cultures, careers and human beings. The more prepared you are to learning new things, the better your experience will be.

Be ready to be merry

Grad school, for most of us, happens once. Chances are this will be the last time in your life to be a student at a formal academic institution. Be consciously grateful for the endless opportunities, experiences and freedom the next two years will give you.



How to prep your recommenders

We get recommendation letters from all sorts of interesting people, from elected officials to corporate vice presidents to professors at the top of their field. But just because someone has a fancy title doesn’t mean they’re an expert at writing graduate school recommendations.  Do not assume your references don’t need a little a coaching just because they’ve written a letter of recommendation before.  Even professors, who are used to being asked to write on their students’ behalf may be unfamiliar with the practical and professional nature of our program.  Your recommendations are a valuable way for the admissions committee to get to know you on a deeper level, so it’s important that you help your references put your best foot forward.  Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your recommendations.

Choose recommenders who know you and what you’re like in a professional or academic setting.  Having a relationship with the President of the World Bank is nice, but unless you worked with him on a day-to-day basis he’s probably not the best person to speak to your work ethic and professional abilities. The admissions committee is less impressed by recommenders with fancy titles and more interested in hearing from someone who can give them a sense of who you are and how you work. For this reason recent or long time immediate supervisors usually work best. We suggest two professional and one academic references. However, since the vast majority of our incoming students have been out of undergrad for several years you may choose three professional references if you feel that’s more appropriate.  We are not interested in references from personal friends or family members.

Give your recommenders plenty of time.  The earlier in the process you notify your recommenders, the more time they’ll have to give a thoughtful and thorough recommendation. Remember we are not just interested in whether your references believe you would be an asset to our program, but why.  Three sentence long recommendations don’t add much to an application, no matter how well-intended they are.  So make sure your recommenders are willing and able sit down and put in the time needed to make the case for why you belong at SIPA.

Help your recommenders stay on message.  Communicate clearly with your recommenders about why you want to go to graduate school and what you’re hoping to get out of the experience.  If possible, share a copy of your personal statement with your recommenders. Talk to them about what you think your strengths are going in and ask them to highlight these characteristics with specific examples from your time working together.  If you can think of a time in your academic or professional experience that you believe highlights these attributes, remind your recommenders of that experience.  The strongest applications highlight personal and professional values that are consistent throughout the CV, personal statements, and letters of recommendation.

Use your letters to address your weaknesses. In the same way that your recommenders can help highlight your assets, they can also help address any areas of concern.  For example, if you are worried about your quantitative background going into the application process ask your recommenders to comment and talk about a time you took the lead on a particularly numbers-heavy project or about your ability to synthesize and analyze data.  Your recommenders want to help you and are usually more than happy to oblige.

Let them know what to expect.  As with everything, knowledge is power.  You can download a copy of the application way of ahead of time to show your references what the recommendation form looks like. Once you’ve put their information in the system, explain that they will get an email prompting them to fill out the letter and follow up to make sure they don’t have any questions.  The easier the process is for them, the more effort they’ll be willing to put into it.

Best of luck with your applications! We look forward to reading your recommendations soon!

preparation for grad school app

If you’re starting to apply to public policy programs, I remember being in your shoes.  It can be nerve wracking and frustrating especially when you have  years of professional experience, but in a non-traditional field. Coming from a background of working on political campaigns, I knew what skills I had developed and how they could help me be successful at SIPA, but I wasn’t sure how my resume would translate to an admissions committee that might not be familiar with the intense work environment, time management, and quantitative  skills that one builds on the campaign trail. Luckily for me I was able to make that argument because, here I am! I want to share some advice I wish someone had given me early in the application process. These tips can be useful to everyone, but especially those coming from a non-traditional working environment.

Here is some advice I wish someone had given me in preparation for the grad school application process.

1) Take some classes. 
Even though SIPA does not require any specific courses as a prerequisite to admission, you need to be able to show you have strong quantitative skills on your application.  I  knew where these skills came into play on a campaign,  but I knew it would be less obvious to others and scoring well in a math or econ class can help solve that as well as give you a leg up in your first year econ courses. In addition, if your grades weren’t great in college, as mine were not,  taking classes gives you an opportunity to prove that you’ve matured. Finally if you’ve been out of school for a while, it’s an opportunity to cultivate an academic reference, and one who is more experienced in writing letters of recommendation than your professional colleagues are likely to be, which brings me to number 2…

2) Give your references plenty of warning, and coaching. You should probably do this anyway, but it goes double if your references are from a field where they are not usually called on to give a recommendation.  In my case asking my former bosses to write a reference in October of an election year would have been far from ideal. You don’t want to miss out on a reference who knows you well because they don’t have time and you don’t want them to do a rushed job. In addition, your friends and colleagues may be unfamiliar with the application process so it useful to give them plenty of coaching about writing a good recommendation.  Send them a copy of your personal statement so they have a sense of your professional goals and can relate that back to your prior experience. Talk to admissions officers  (or read on our website) about what we are looking for in an application and then use your recommendations to highlight your strengths with specific examples and to help address any holes.

3) Start your applications early, not just the essay. I made this mistake with my early applications. I spent weeks writing answers to the long essay questions, but had not considered what I would include in my resume, what if anything, I would write about having been sick in college in the portion where they ask if there is any additional information the admissions committee should know, and how long it would take to track down and upload my transcripts in the proper format. Ideally I would fill all of these out ahead of time, and have uploading my final essays as the last step.

4) Visit the campus. Trying to distinguish between schools from their websites and viewbooks is kind of like online dating- you won’t get a real feel for them until you meet them in person. Undergraduate institutions have distinct personalities and so do their graduate counterparts. Not only will pre-application visits save you time and money on applying to places you wouldn’t actually want to go, they will help you get a feel for the culture of the school and thus what to include in your application. SIPA offers info sessions on most Mondays and Fridays as well as the opportunity to sit in on classes and interact with current students. Send us an email! I’d be happy to help you set this up.

5) Be able to make an argument for why you need your degree. I like to joke that I have a PhD in Campaign Management from the school of hard knocks, and yet here I am pursuing a Masters of Public Administration.  Think long and hard about what you want out of a graduate degree and which programs fit your career goals before you begin to apply. If you can’t explain to yourself why you need a degree from that institution to achieve your goals, then how can you explain it to the school? There is no shame in researching a program and deciding it isn’t the right fit for you. The more specifically you  can articulate how your program of choice will help you reach your goals,  the better your chance of admission and the better for you personally.

I’m looking forward to helping you through the process!

Best of Luck,

Nancy Leeds is a Democratic Campaign Operative and blogger pursuing her MPA in Social Policy and Management at SIPA.  She is specifically interested in voting rights and electoral systems.



"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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