The Christmas holidays are this week, which means the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid will be closed December 24 and 25. I imagine many of you will have some time to work on your grad school applications, though I hope you are also able to spend some time with loved ones safely.

I wanted to address a new addition to the application this year: the Optional Diversity Essay. This is different from the (not new) Optional Essay, though the two are similar in that they are truly, absolutely optional — you will not be dinged if you choose not to write this.

The Optional Diversity Essay prompt is: We have all had unique experiences in life. Sometimes those experiences, whether positive or negative, help define our perspective. Please share an experience or personal history that has shaped your view on diversity. Diversity includes, but is not limited to: race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and physical abilities. And how that perspective would enrich the educational experience of your peers and the SIPA community. (250 words maximum)

My only advice based on what I’ve read so far is, if you have nothing to say on this essay, you would be better of skipping it. This is for your personal life experiences, within the examples the prompt provides, that you feel have shaped your perspective. Thinking about this in the context of the world of policy, public and international affairs, many of our graduates end up working in organizations and industries that have historically underrepresented certain populations. And the journey of getting to a place to even apply to SIPA is vastly different too.

If you have lived it, and you have done your research into your future career, you will know what part of your story to share it. If you do not have a story to share within this diversity context (which is perfectly fine), the worst thing you can do is to leverage another populations’ lived experiences to force a perspective. And, please be reminded that this is not space for another personal statement.

In case you will be working on other parts of your application, here’s a post round-up addressing other questions I’ve been getting lately:

  • The GRE/GMAT test can be waived this year. In light of disruptions caused by COVID-19 to the administration of these tests and the ability of many applicants to prepare for them, SIPA will accept applications for admission for January 2021 and September 2021 without GRE/GMAT scores. To get this waived, you just need to fill out the application; we do not require a specific reason in the waiver, just basically that you fill out the waiver. You will see instructions for that in the SIPA application.
  • Again, if you have an unusual circumstance that you feel the Admissions Committee should know, the Optional Essay is there for that. If you don’t feel a need to do it, don’t worry about it. It truly is optional.
  • If you would like to be considered for fellowships, the fellowship consideration deadline for the MIA, MPA, and MPA-DP programs is January 5, 2021 — soon! — I cannot stress this enough: If you want to be considered for fellowships, say so in the application. Mark “Yes” on that question, fill out your application completely, and submit it on time. It is that simple and straightforward, and it is what we prefer.
  • Have your recommenders submitted their letters for you yet? Give them a polite holiday noodge if needed.
  • What will the Video Essay ask? You’ll get one random question, which could be conversational, policy-related, opinion… these questions aren’t comprehension, and aren’t meant to trip you up. It can help to imagine it as an interview, where you won’t always get the interviewer’s list of questions upfront to prepare an exact answer for.

I personally cannot wait to celebrate the end of 2020, and I hope you all are taking some steps to set yourself up for a strong 2021. Wishing you all the happiest of holidays!