Archive for Application Tips

Roundup: Final reminders before the January 5th deadline

For those of you applying for the January 5th Fellowship Consideration deadline, you’re almost at the finish line! If you’re anxious about submitting, you may instead see the finish line coming at you. I’m here with a few final pieces of advice to help you along:

  • If you cannot submit your application by the January 5th deadline, there is also a February 5th deadline for the MIA, MPA and MPA-DP applications. Just know that January 5th includes consideration for SIPA fellowships, while February 5th is just consideration for admission to SIPA.
  • Don’t forget to make sure your letters of recommendation are submitted! You can submit your application before your letters are in, but we cannot review your application for admission if those recommendation letters are missing. Remember that we require two letters, and a third optional letter is allowed.
  • I love this student breakdown of the Video Essay, showing how four people prepared in different (but not wrong!) ways for the final part of the application. Here is a breakdown of the video essay from the Admissions perspective. Remember that the video essay is available after you submit your application and pay the application fee. I encourage you to not wait until the last minute for this, just in case you run into any technical issues.
  • Many of you have told us about being torn between policy and law school. Many SIPA students have been where you are. Read about how they thought about this big decision here.
  • Noticing that some of our SIPA students were absolutely going to Washington, D.C., after graduate school, I asked them – Why choose SIPA in New York if you want a career in D.C.? They had a lot of reasons.
  • I will never stop reminding people to make sure you wrote the correct school name in your essays, and double-check if you wrote “Colombia” or “Columbia”!

Finally, I’m going to throw it all the way back to September 2019 with advice on managing stress during the application process.

You are capable. You are smart. You got this. We look forward to reading your applications.

The Personal Statement: What We Look For

The personal statement is a common source of anxiety for applicants. We understand it can be difficult to articulate your past experiences, policy-related passions, professional goals, and how SIPA can help you achieve them in just 400 words. In this blog post, we’ll be anonymously reviewing two essays to give you some insight into how we think and hopefully help relieve some of that anxiety.

Prompt: Please elaborate on why you have chosen to apply to the MIA/MPA program. How will this program enable you to achieve your career goals? Describe your academic and research interests and career objectives.

Applicant 1:

This essay starts out with a personal anecdote about international travel. The first paragraph definitely grabs my attention, but the applicant loses me in the next paragraph by turning this into a creative writing exercise. It would have been far more effective to grab my attention with the first paragraph, and then immediately start telling me about their background, goals, and how SIPA fits into that beginning with the second paragraph. There is very limited space, so spending so much time telling a story is not the most effective.

The next two paragraphs continue to tell stories about international experiences with little substantive detail and a lot of platitudes.

Now in the fifth paragraph we finally seem to be getting somewhere. The applicant describes a professional experience, but this time they are more specific about their goals and what they accomplished.

The applicant concludes with only 3 sentences about Columbia and graduate school. This is the first time in the essay where I’m reading about how graduate school fits into their career, and it is very vague. This essay could be used for any school, and there is no detail about why this applicant wants to attend SIPA specifically.

There is also no detail about the applicant’s professional goals. The applicant simply tells us that they want to work in the foreign service. SIPA is a professional program and we want our applicants to have a clear, detailed understanding of how SIPA will benefit them in their potential career. It’s vital that applicants demonstrate that they’ve thought this through. Tell us very specifically what you want to do and what you hope to accomplish. The foreign service is very broad; the applicant does not even specify if they mean the U.S. foreign service. Tell us what region of the world or functional issue you hope to focus on and why you are passionate about it. If there are specific offices, embassies, or departments you’d want to work in, tell us that. The more detail you provide the more confident we are that you’ve thought through your path following SIPA.

Overall, this essay was not very effective because it told me almost nothing about the applicant and was not at all tailored to SIPA or even Columbia. Most importantly, the applicant does not answer the questions in the prompt.

Applicant 2:

This applicant begins their essay by stating their policy-related passion and how a degree from SIPA fits into that. This is a strong and direct opening.

In the next paragraph, the applicant explains the origin of this passion by describing the influence of their past experiences. They even briefly summarize the impacts of certain policies on this issue. They end the paragraph by stating their specific goals as it relates to this policy issue. I can sense the applicant’s passion.

By the third paragraph, the applicant is specifically articulating why SIPA is the right fit for them. The applicant mentions specific concentrations, specializations, and other aspects of the program that are unique.  This statement was clearly written for SIPA. The applicant even manages to slip in a mention of a specific professional accomplishment that is applicable to the program without simply repeating the information on their resume.

The applicant concludes with one sentence summarizing their interests and professional experience.

Overall, this essay effectively articulates the applicant’s passion for international affairs and public policy. It also answers the prompt and clearly demonstrates that the applicant has considered how SIPA fits into their goals. However, the essay is not specific about the mechanisms through which the applicant will achieve those goals. They do not describe their ideal career path with any specificity. The admissions committee does not expect that every applicant will have a perfect idea of what they want to do after SIPA, but they do want to see that you’ve thought about it and can articulate a specific potential career path. We want to ensure that you have enough of an idea to be able to spend your limited time at SIPA in the most beneficial way possible.

In short, ensure your personal statement clearly answers every question in the prompt, is specific to SIPA, and relates your personal story in a way that is relevant. Hopefully this will help you as you write (and revise!) your personal statement prior to our Fall 2020 deadlines. For more tips, we encourage you to read our other blog posts on What’s in an App: Personal Statement and How NOT to write your personal statement.

Surviving (and thriving) the Video Essay

Photo Credit

Remember: The video essay is available after you submit your application and pay the application fee.

The Video Essay component of the application process can seem terrifying, but fear not because we are here to help! At this point, you might feel both relieved at having submitted your application and tired that there’s the final final step to complete the application. We’ve been there and totally get it. It’s 100% normal!

In writing this post, we found that each of us prepared for the video essay differently, which means there is no one ‘right’ way to prepare as everyone has their own process when it comes to it. We brainstormed on what we felt worked and also what we wish we had known when we were preparing.

Here are the main steps we took to prepare for the Video Essay:

Prepare like it’s an interview…or a first date – George-Ann MIA ’20

The video essay is a conversation between yourself and the Admissions team. There’s no judgement or pressure to be uber gregarious. Instead, prepare to chat about anything from pressing current affairs issues to your favorite flavor of ice cream. Read some news articles about current affairs, write and practise some talking points about yourself, relax, and, most importantly, be yourself.

Unlike an interview, there’s no expectation for you to be fully kitted out in a suit and tie — dressing comfortably is fine. Just remember that this is an externally facing video so wear something that you’d be comfortable wearing meeting new people.

Give yourself time – Stuart MIA ’20

Remember, you can only start the video essay after completing the rest of the application, so it’s important to give yourself plenty of time prior to the application deadline. As with anything, technical issues are certainly a possibility, and you don’t want you to be stressed about missing the deadline.

One thing that all of us did early in the process was test our microphone and camera. I personally used Skype to test everything prior to even accessing the video essay, but you will also do this in Testing Mode within the video essay application. I also made sure the lighting was good and the microphone could clearly capture my voice (try to complete the essay in an area with limited background noise or use a headset). Looking and sounding my best helped improve my confidence, and I’d certainly recommend starting early as one of the best ways to make your video essay experience go smoothly.

If you do encounter technical issues, don’t panic, you’re not the only one. First, follow the steps outlined here to try to troubleshoot the issue. If that doesn’t resolve your issue, contact the admissions office immediately and they can provide further assistance.

Take It Easy – Steven MIA ’20

So, I did the exact opposite of what George-Ann said and got decked out in a suit and tie (oops) and it was completely unnecessary (still looked good, though). I got way too amped for my question and almost stumbled out the gate. If I were to do it over again I would:

  • Breathe and take a couple of seconds to read the question.
  • If it is a policy question you know well, don’t try to jam all your knowledge into the video. Just answer the question and tag on anything extra after if there’s time.
  • If it is a policy question you don’t know much about, focus more on what you have heard and what you think about it, or possible future developments of the topic.
  • If it’s question about yourself, don’t overthink it, just speak calmly and slowly. Don’t be too concerned about providing the “right” answer.

Make those 60 seconds count – Nabila MPA ’20

Yay, you’re ready to do that Video Essay! Once you’re done with Testing Mode, click the green READY button. This will give you your official prompt question. You will have 60 seconds to prepare for your answer so use those 60 seconds wisely! But, no pressure. Really. No Pressure.

When I was preparing for the video essay, the general consensus on graduate school forums is that there is no one type of question. So I figured I should think about how I can best tackle any answer that comes my way, since the questions can really range from Brexit to the ideal SIPA student. My solution was to focus on structure, structure, structure. The general framework I used is a high-level essay structure. Effectively, a clear and concise 30-second elevator pitch that answers the question.

When answering my question (Sadly, I forgot the question the moment I was done with the video essay because, adrenaline), I listed 3 points/ideas as a starting point and built it up by including examples to support those points. While I was tempted to go into a lot of details, I felt that the more ideas I had, the less clear my answers would be since 60 seconds goes by so quickly. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in 60 seconds when you need to! After that I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, and to remind myself to speak slowly, as I watched the seconds countdown to deliver the answer.

Lastly, remember there’s more to the application than your Video Essay. The video essay is just one component of the application and it provides the Admissions Committee a sense of who you are given there is no opportunity for interviews. So just remember this is not the do-or-die factor for your application.

Good luck!

Want more resources?
Click here for a walkthrough of how to access the app and what it looks like, see this post.
Click here for a post on what to expect in the Video Essay.

Studying Cybersecurity at SIPA: A Course Guide

Photo: SIPA students and recent graduates traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with senior industry professionals and SIPA alumni working in the field of cybersecurity and threat intelligence.

Threats emanating from cyberspace impact governments, the private sector, non-profits, and individuals. The borderless nature of (most of) the internet as well as the fact that the private sector owns much of the infrastructure creates difficult policy challenges that governments and companies continue to confront. Thankfully, SIPA is helping train students to tackle these challenges through innovative coursework that allows students to explore the technical, legal, and policy aspects of cybersecurity.

As a current student, I’ve taken several courses focused on this area, and I’ve found SIPA to be a great place to study cybersecurity policy. While I concentrate in International Security Policy, there are courses applicable to students in all concentrations. An International Finance and Economic Policy student might explore cyber risk to financial stability, for example, while an International Security Policy student may be more interested in cyber conflict. As you apply to SIPA and prepare your personal statement, use this guide to assist in your research and allow you to explore the potential paths you can take in this exciting field.

Basic Technical Background (a great place to start!)

  • Computing in Context – This course teaches the Python programming language through a series of lectures and labs taught by a computer science professor. Then, a SIPA professor explores how these skills can be applied to solving public policy problems. This is an extremely popular class at SIPA that provides a very marketable skill set. While I haven’t personally taken the course, I’ve spoken to several fellow students who found the course challenging but highly practical.
  • Programming for Entrepreneurs – This hands-on short course, which requires no technical background, takes place over an intensive four days and covers the fundamentals of computer science, data structures, web development with HTML/CSS, as well as some basic SQL. While I had some basic web development experience from my undergraduate studies, this course still provided me with valuable skills and was a great first course to gain some additional technical background prior to taking other courses on this list.
  • Basics of Cybersecurity – This course equips students with the basic technical knowledge needed to succeed in other cybersecurity courses at SIPA. Students learn the basics of how computers and the internet work, networking concepts, and network defense and security. When I took this course, it was taught by an active-duty U.S. Army cyber officer, and it was fascinating to learn these concepts directly from an experienced practitioner.
  • Cyber Risks and Vulnerabilities – This course complements the Basics of Cybersecurity course by focusing on the risks and vulnerabilities of various devices and protocols. The course includes demonstrations of common hacking techniques or tools to illustrate how these vulnerabilities are exploited and the potential impact. You should aim to take this course after taking Basics of Cybersecurity.

General Problems in Cyber Policy and Cyber Conflict

  • Cybersecurity: Technology, Policy, and Law – This innovative seminar course brings together professors and students from SIPA, the Computer Science department, and the Law School to explore cybersecurity issues from the lenses of all three disciplines. The course culminates in an interdisciplinary research project. Students interested in any aspect of cybersecurity or the impact of technology on policy and law will benefit greatly from this course. Tip: if you’re interested in this course, demonstrate your interest in cybersecurity by taking other related courses and joining the student Digital and Cyber Group. The course always has a wait list and this will differentiate you.
  • Dynamics of Cyber Conflict – This course focuses on the national security aspects of cybersecurity, specifically how cyber conflict has developed and how it differs from other types of conflict. Through an interactive exercise, students will learn how to formulate practical policy recommendations to respond to a cyber incident. Taught by Professor Jason Healey, the editor of the first history of cyber conflict, this course is always popular and comes highly recommended.

Skills-Based Courses

  • Introduction to Cyber Threat Intelligence – This course introduces students to the skills required to work as a cyber threat intelligence analyst in government or in the private sector. While not required, students will benefit from having some prior technical knowledge, either from another SIPA course or from work experience. Taught by Professor JD Work, who has extensive government and private sector experience, the course has numerous hands-on intelligence analysis exercises that provide valuable experience (and are fun!).
  • Cybersecurity and Business Risk – This course examines cybersecurity from the perspective of the private sector. It explores the risks of conducting business connected to the Internet and how businesses understand and manage these risks. This course is especially beneficial to International Finance and Economic Policy students interested in cybersecurity. Taught by Professor Neal Pollard, the CISO of UBS, the course will help prepare you for cyber risk related roles in a wide variety of industries.

SIPA is a leader in training the next generation of leaders in cybersecurity policy. I encourage you to explore these courses as you craft your personal statement. A personal statement that clearly demonstrates how SIPA will advance your career goals is a great way to stand out in the application process, and cybersecurity courses from SIPA are a great way to stand out in your future job hunt.

“What makes an ideal SIPA student?”

One question we get asked a lot as students and as program assistants in admissions is “What is the PERFECT SIPA student?” This is normally levied by applicants who are ready to mold themselves into whatever they need to go to guarantee admission.

Although we appreciate the passion, it is a hard question to answer! SIPA’s students come with such a wide variety of experiences — from theatre to investment banking — that there is no one way to characterize what the perfect Seeple is. Below are student stories that give some contact as to how wide the gamut spreads in backgrounds, career goals, and approach. 


What skills did you come to SIPA with/aim to improve here?

I came to SIPA with some experience and knowledge in Economics and Economic research but not much of a policy background. In a lot of ways I was a jack of multiple small trades but truly a Master of none.  So, SIPA is where I came to add skill sets like policy expertise and formalized,non-academic writing to my repertoire and truly become a well-rounded individual. 

How do you think you signaled your unique worth as a potential Seeple?

Was it the fact that I, being extremely international, spelled colour with a “u” and said “learnt” rather than “learned”? Was it my quantitative experience? Who really knows. For me, a large part of my application was communicating both my worth as a student, a potential member of the student and student leader community, and a valuable alumna. 

What would you tell yourself if you were applying now?

The application reviewers are people too. Explain anything you think may be a weakness in your application and they’d be more than willing to take that into account. There’s no such thing as the “perfect” SIPA student but there is such a thing as a student for whom SIPA is the perfect school for. Communicate why you think SIPA is the one for you. 


What skills did you come to SIPA with/aim to improve here?

I came to SIPA with the aim of improving my economic analysis and quantitative skills. During my undergraduate years, I took a couple of economics classes and liked them but was always scared to do more difficult economic courses. I came to SIPA to stop dodging economics and dive head-first into it. I also came to SIPA to learn about urban/housing policy a bit.

How do you think you signaled your unique worth as a potential Seeple?

Truth be told, I’m not sure. I just told SIPA who I was and the experiences I have had. Of course, I thought they were unique because I’m the person that is living them, but I wasn’t sure since SIPA gets loads of applications and there could have been someone with a similar background/story. I also spoke on how SIPA fit into my long-term plans.

What would you tell yourself if you were applying now?

Probably the same thing I told myself back then: Just be yourself. There were times I felt that I was unsure of myself, that I didn’t fit the SIPA profile. I ignored that idea and just applied. The backgrounds of people at SIPA vary so much that you will stand out and not even realize it.


What skills did you come to SIPA with/aim to improve here?

I came to SIPA to build some subject matter expertise in cyber policy as well as to generally improve my quantitative analysis skills. My undergraduate and professional experiences provided a strong background in international relations and national security, as well as strong writing skills. I didn’t, however, have a strong grounding in economics and quantitative analysis, nor did I have much experience in how technology and cybersecurity impacts the private sector.

How do you think you signaled your unique worth as a potential Seeple?

As everyone else has noted, you just never know. The community is so diverse here that there can be so many ways to stand out. The key thing I focused on was ensuring that my personal statement clearly explained my professional goals and how SIPA fit into that, as well as how I could contribute not only to academic life but to the community as well. I also carefully selected recommenders that could speak to different strengths (academic and professional) to provide the admissions committee with a holistic view.

What would you tell yourself if you were applying now?

I would tell myself to find mentors and friends to review my materials and point out my strengths and weaknesses. I did this when I applied, and it was so helpful to have a sounding board. You may be inclined to be too humble, or you may forget to mention an impressive part of your background, and a friend or mentor can point that out and help you articulate the things that may not be apparent on your resume or transcript.


What skills did you come to SIPA with/aim to improve here?

Like Steven, I came to SIPA to build my quantitative and economic analysis skills. I came to SIPA with stronger skills in writing and communications and wanted to complement that by building out my quant skills (even though it terrifies me!), as I felt that it put me at a disadvantage in the workplace. I also wanted to learn more about policy analysis and the intersection between technology and policy. 

How do you think you signaled your unique worth as a potential Seeple?

I have no idea! Maybe it was my work experience? Maybe my letters of recommendation? Maybe what I hope to accomplish post SIPA? In reality, it’s probably a combination of those things but to be honest, I have no idea but I’m grateful to be here! I hope it was the passion that they could sense from my personal essay but again, no clue…

What would you tell yourself if you were applying now?

Be you, be yourself and be honest about what you hope to accomplish. Those were the things I told myself when I was doing the application and that hasn’t changed because graduate school is an investment of both time and money so you want to be you! I’m not sure I have the “right” SIPA profile, but looking around at my classmates, we have such diverse backgrounds and experiences that I don’t think there is such as thing as the “right” or “ideal” SIPA student. 

"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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