I had the pleasure of meeting many prospective students while attending Idealist graduate fairs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle recently. A question I kept getting over and over was, essentially, “Should I Apply?”

I’m still not sure how to answer because:

    1. You are the only person who knows if this is the best time for you. I can’t decide for you, nor can your family, mentors, or academic advisors. It’s a personal decision to make.
    2. If you are afraid of rejection, I promise you that I cannot “chance” you with the few pieces of information you provide when we chat. The SIPA website goes over what we look for here. We value a diverse class who can learn from and support each other, drawing from their various personal experiences, different areas of study, and career trajectories. This is the benefits of an interdisciplinary program like SIPA’s.

But if you want a short answer to “Should I apply?” — here’s my best shot at answering.

“I’m not sure if I’m the right type of student for SIPA. Should I apply?

I linked this post from 2012 that still rings true:

You should not apply if you don’t know what you want to do when you graduate. SIPA’s MIA, MPA and MPA-DP programs are only two years, which is not a lot of time. Knowing what direction you want to take your future in is important for moving your career forward, and using SIPA to get you there. Decision paralysis is real when you get to Columbia – each one class you take might mean 10 you cannot take. The Admissions Committee looks for your direction in your personal statement and application. Graduate school is challenging and a big investment, and we want to make sure this is the best path for you and your needs.

You should not apply if you’re interested in a straight theoretical/academia experience. There’s a reason we look for professional experience in the application is because SIPA’s programs are meant to prepare students as practitioners in their field, who can apply the theory as well as learn it.

You should not apply if you can’t interact with people with different perspectives. Even for a policy and international affairs school, SIPA is on the more diverse side (and working towards improving this), with almost 60 percent of our incoming class this year made up of international students. These different experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives all add to the learning experience of the classroom, but if you cannot engage these differences without going on an angry rant, for example, you should not apply.

I know SIPA looks for relevant professional work experience, but I think I’m ready. I’m coming straight out of undergrad. Should I apply?

Some people said “No, don’t apply yet” because you more out of the SIPA program when you come in already having enriching experiences.

Another student coming straight from undergrad said a strong yes. “SIPA’s rigorous education forced me to think about these issues in ways I previously never had.”

I highly recommend reading the linked blog post for perspectives from actual SIPA students who applied straight from undergrad. “Know that you are the only person who can decide when the time is right for you; and that the Admissions Committee does see applicants that would be fantastic candidates after a year or two of working. Graduate school is a huge commitment in time, resources, and opportunity cost, and every candidate should make sure they can get the most out of their time in school.”

“There is a part of my application that isn’t so great. Should I apply?

My short answer is, if you truly believe this is the right step for you, “Yes” — and use the optional essay to explain any unusual situations that you weren’t able to address anywhere else in the application.

I think there’s a misconception that successful people, like those who get into Columbia University SIPA, never fail. That they are flawless people who succeed in everything. But for anyone who has work experience, mistakes happen, and successful people learn from failure. Failures can help you grow.

We also understand that sometimes, life happens, often unpredictably. Adjusting to college as an 18-year-old can be difficult. Some people have employment gaps because they overworked themselves, or had a chance to travel the world and grabbed it. Sometimes you have personal issues that affect you, and you don’t realize it until much later.

That being said, we want to ensure students who attend SIPA can handle the rigorous curriculum here, which includes a foundation in policy and quantitative coursework at a graduate level. We want to ensure that you are certain SIPA is the right decision for you, and that you are able to articulate that.

Use the optional essay as an opportunity to address this. And if you have nothing to address, that is totally fine too. That’s why it’s optional.