Course-selection advice for incoming students

The Office of Admissions has received several inquiries from incoming Fall 2015 students about orientation, course registration and assistantships. Luckily, one of our Admissions Ambassadors decided to share with all of you some “insider’s knowledge” on how to approach academics and financial aid at SIPA. Here’s what Sriram Gutta, MPA ’15, had to say:

One of the challenges students meet during the registration week is the confusion around course selection. Many of us come to SIPA with specific goals: these include learning a new language, improving our quantitative skills, and enhancing our ability to write effectively, among others. There are a few things that further complicate course selection. Some of these include fellowships that are offered at the end of first year, prerequisites for some courses, and cross registration with other schools. I will address each of these issues separately.

Breaking down the academic rigor for each course
One of the ways to understand the potential workload in each class is too check the syllabus for total number of exams (versus papers), frequency of assignments (some courses like economics have weekly submissions), and other requirements including group work. I personally decided against doing microeconomics, quantitative techniques, and Politics of Policymaking in the same semester.

Meeting those course prerequisites
This is one area I personally didn’t closely monitor in the first semester. I wanted to take Corporate Finance in my second semester and an impact investing course. But Corporate Finance had Accounting for International & Public Affairs as a prerequisite and the impact investing course had Corporate Finance as a prerequisite. You can avoid such a situation by listing prerequisites against courses in your Excel file (if you haven’t done so yet, I do recommend creating an Excel spreadsheet for your courses).

Insider tip: Some of the prerequisites can be waived if you have prior coursework/relevant work experience. It is always good to talk to the professor about this.

Cross registration
One of the best parts about SIPA and Columbia University is the access to some tremendous schools and faculty. I personally enrolled in three courses at Columbia Business School and have friends who took courses at three different schools in the same semester.

Enrolling in courses at other schools allows you to increase your network beyond that at SIPA. So if you’re interested in cross-registering for a course, it is important to follow the deadlines for online submission and ensure that you send the request within minutes of the application opening.

Insider tip: I have seen people enrolling in courses by emailing professors in advance and sharing their background and iterating their interest in the course. While this may not work always and with all professors, it is worth trying.

A screenshot from Sriram Gutta's Excel spreadsheet, which he used to organize his course requirements.
A screenshot from Sriram Gutta’s Excel spreadsheet, which he used to organize his course requirements.

Getting the leg up on assistantships
I have seen many of my peers (including myself) struggle to balance the courses they want to do with those that they think they can excel in to improve their chances get an assistantship, which include teaching assistantships (TA), program assistantships (PA), department research assistantships (DRA), research associate positions (RA), and reader positions. My approach early on was to take a few core courses in the first semester and take at least two other courses where I have experience in and excel in those. My core courses include Microeconomics and Politics of Policymaking. I complemented these with two courses where I was reasonably sure I’d do well in. These courses helped me both increase my GPA and put me in a good position to be considered for a fellowship. The last course was at Columbia Business School in an area I was curious about. In the end, I was the TA for Nonprofit Financial Management in the fall of 2014.

What also helped me immensely throughout my four semesters at SIPA was an Excel file that I created for managing my courses. This included all my requirements given my degree, concentration, and specialization. I then listed all these courses and created separate tabs for each semester. This helped me plan which courses to take in which semester and ensured that I was always on top of what requirements I needed to fulfill toward graduation.

Insider tip: If you know that you are doing well in a specific course, make it clear to the professor that you are interested in TA or DRA position and seek advice on how you can improve of your chances. Remember that many students satisfy both conditions for fellowships and often times it comes down to your likeability and rapport with the professor.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of time in the second and fourth semesters is spent internship/job hunting. Make sure you take courses accordingly, leaving enough time for career planning.

I will end this blog by reiterating that planning is critical in managing the courses and meeting the goals you set for yourself.