Archive for Application Tips – Page 2

Applying to SIPA as a Veteran or Active Duty Service Member

The transition from military service to graduate school can be intimidating, and veterans may have many concerns including how to express their experience in the application, funding opportunities, and whether they will fit in at Columbia. As a veteran and current SIPA student, I can confidently say that Columbia University is an extremely welcoming community for veterans. Columbia University has a long history of supporting veterans (Dwight Eisenhower was President of Columbia from 1948-1953!), and Columbia currently has the largest student veteran population in the Ivy Leagues. Except for funding opportunities, all of this applies equally to both U.S. and international veterans.


Patrick Dees, MIA ’20, speaks to a student about the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association (CSVA).

Tell your story!

If you’re a veteran or active duty service member applying to SIPA, the most important thing is to tell your unique story in your essays. As a school of international affairs, SIPA values your experience in the military greatly. You have spent considerable time executing national security policy, and you’ve likely had a front row seat to interesting events that you may even find yourself studying in the classroom. Your military service also demonstrates a commitment to public service, and you’ve certainly had valuable leadership experience. All of these things strengthen your application, so make sure to include them in your essays in plain language.

I recommend asking a friend with no military experience to read your essay to ensure that you’ve removed or explained any military jargon. I used Service to School, a free service that pairs you with a mentor that has gained admission to a program similar to the ones you are considering, and I found it to be extremely helpful.

Apply for all funding opportunities

Columbia has numerous resources to help veterans fund their education. Columbia’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs has an extensive website full of detailed information on funding opportunities. I highly recommend you review it. Almost all of the veteran-related funding opportunities are unfortunately only available to U.S. veterans or active duty service members.

The first step is to ensure that you apply for all GI Bill benefits for which you are eligible. If you are eligible for 100% of benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, SIPA offers additional funding through the Yellow Ribbon program. You will receive an email when the Yellow Ribbon application opens, and SIPA makes every effort to fund every eligible candidate.

Second, you should apply for funding from Columbia University. If you submit your application by the fellowship deadline, SIPA will automatically consider you for scholarships. You will also have the opportunity to apply for assistantships at the end of your first year. Information on these and other internal funding opportunities can be found here.

Third, you should research outside funding opportunities. Columbia provides a list of the opportunities most applicable to veterans and service members here. One of the opportunities I applied for, and was honored to receive, is the Tillman Scholarship. Columbia University is a University Partner school, and there are several Tillman scholars currently at Columbia. The Tillman scholarship provides not only funding, but extensive professional development opportunities and access to an amazing community of veterans, spouses, and active duty service members.

Join veterans’ organizations at Columbia and SIPA

The most important thing at SIPA is to find your community. SIPA has a large and active veteran community led by the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association (CSVA). The CSVA is happy to assist prospective students, and they host several events to welcome new student veterans. Throughout the year, CSVA holds events and socials to build the veteran community. Last year, veterans had the opportunity to attend discussions with Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. CSVA also hosts one of SIPA’s most popular events, “Beer and War Stories,” in which student veterans and other guests share their experiences with fellow students and answer questions about the military in a casual, open discussion over beer and food.


Members of the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association meet with the Commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli

Opportunities after SIPA

While many assume that all veterans choose the International Security Policy concentration and pursue defense-related careers, veterans at SIPA have found their niches in a wide variety of fields. SIPA’s Office of Career Services can connect students with an alumni who volunteers as SIPA’s career coach for transitioning veterans. The U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University (Milvets) is the undergraduate student veteran group, but their events are open to all veterans. They host numerous career panels and networking opportunities throughout the year. Whatever your interests are, SIPA will provide you with avenues to explore potential careers and take advantage of your valuable military experience.

Why I applied ‘Early Action’

I applied Early Action to SIPA, where decisions are non-binding, in November 2017 to start in Fall 2018. I applied early because, quite simply, I wanted an early decision. More than that, I applied early action because my graduate school journey started way back in 2016. I started thinking about going to grad school in early 2016, and it took me a while to decide this is what I really wanted.

Applying Early Action was the best decision for me because…

It gave me a deadline and…

SIPA’s Early Action deadline is in early November (for Fall 2020, it is November 1, 2019!), which was the earliest of all the schools I applied to. I used this deadline as an ‘early EARLY action’ in my planning and figured if I worked towards SIPA’s deadline, I would be prepared for all other schools’ deadlines. It was helpful for me because I worked backwards from the deadline to fulfill the application checklist. The checklist is also quite similar for the other schools I applied to, with the difference being the essays. This helped me gather everything I needed pretty early on, which was a huge burden off because you’re working through that checklist. Working on the essays for SIPA’s deadline also helped me articulate clearly why I wanted to go back to school and what I hoped to accomplish. This made it a lot easier to write the other essays too.

I heard back super early…

Applying early action means you get a non-binding early decision! I heard back from SIPA right after Christmas, which was a nice way to usher in the New Year. The admission e-letter plays Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” (turn that volume up!) and has falling confetti. It was basically just perfect. (That added touch made me so happy like you can’t even imagine.) (Sad story but the SIPA decision email actually went to my spam so I actually saw it two days after it was sent, but that doesn’t matter. So worth it.) And it adds to the holiday festivity. Given that you hear back around 8 weeks after you apply, and because it’s around the holiday season, I was definitely preoccupied so I didn’t have any anxiety or stress while waiting to hear back. So apply early action because no stress, no mess!

Which means I could plan the next 8 months…

Hearing back by the New Year also gave me time to plan the next 8 months leading up to SIPA. It gave me space to plan time for family, holidays, boring admin like banks and visas, and more crucially, when to leave my job. I didn’t feel stressed that I had a hundred things to do before moving, and I had time to troubleshoot problems. SIPA requires that you provide official documents once you are accepted. While some institutions have this all figured out and you only need to click a button, others have a more complicated process that requires many emails, calls and mailing paper transcripts (and things can get lost in the mail – trust me on this), for you to complete this and get the verified documents check. Lastly, I received a conditional offer for SIPA, which meant that I needed to spend some time improving on my quantitative skills (read: I had to take economics classes). Again, the 8 months gave me time to plan ahead on how to meet this requirement. But conversely, if I had not been accepted, I would have had time to apply to other/more schools, reapply or figure out an alternative.

And gave me a sense of security. 

Once I heard back from SIPA, I felt relieved. I felt strangely secure that at least someone wanted me. This gave me the confidence to apply to my remaining schools because maybe they would want me to? Probably not but maybe. This security also meant that yes, I was going to graduate school and got me very excited!

Was Early Action the right choice?

Applying to grad school made me very nervous, anxious and scared because I felt all my hopes and dreams were on the line. Applying Early Action was absolutely the best decision for me. I felt hugely relieved once I applied because it was out of my control by then. Because I’m a planner and I liked having the extra time to figure out a game plan, the early decision helped. That said, there are people who applied at the very last minute, so I think it boils down to personality and your comfort with uncertainty.

So, what you are waiting for? Apply Early Action!

The Fall 2020 Early Action Deadline is November 1, 2019.

Application Advice – Asking for Recommendations

You’re filling out your application and then DREAD fills you…….RECOMMENDATIONS.

You have to ask other people to tell SIPA why they think you should be accepted into SIPA. Now….. you know you’re awesome but now someone else has to talk about how and why you’re awesome. UGHHHHHH.

We here at SIPA have you covered. Simple actions can make this process go smoother.

The first thing you are going to need is TIME. PLEASE START EARLY. The minute you start thinking about applying, think about recommendations. More time will help everyone involved. More time will mean less anxiety. More time also allows for your recommender to write a great letter for you.

This is definitely advice I should have taken because I became waaaaay too stressed about asking my managers/former professors for recommendations. It took me three weeks to work up the courage to tell them I’m looking at grad school and need them to recommend me. Luckily they were very cool and still did wrote me recommendations, but moral of the story is don’t be like me and wait!

Second, DEFINITELY ask academic/professional contacts that know you the best, or at least ones you have some connection with. They should know you on a personal level and be able to speak about who you are as a person and how SIPA will assist you in getting to the next step in your career. If you don’t have a strong connection with any academic/professional contacts, you can ask professors of classes you performed well in, though having them write a recommendation may require more work. To assist them, it would be beneficial to write a mini-personal statement (similar to what you’d write for the application) on why you want to go to SIPA and how SIPA fits into your plans. A mini-personal statement is useful to have regardless if you know the person well or not. It will show them why you want to attend SIPA, as well as help you write the statement for your application. This mini-personal statement will help guide them in their recommendation of you and help them focus their writing. The mini give the person reading the recommendation a sense of who you are.

Third, if they seem to be taking too long, just kindly remind them that you need it before the deadline.

Lastly, remember to say “Thank you!”

Demystified: The Quantitative and Language Resume

One of the most challenging parts of the application process at SIPA is the Quantitative and Language Resume (judged by the amount of questions we get about how to craft it). Although there is a helpful template on our website, it won’t help you know exactly what do put in it, which is what this post is for.

What is the Quantitative and Language Resume for?

The Quantitative and Language Resume is basically a tally of, in your own words, the quantitative experience (both academic and professional) and linguistic exposure you posses. Your content should show you can keep up with the required courses for the degree program you are applying to.

For example, if you are applying to the Economic and Political Development concentration at SIPA as an MIA/MPA candidate, you might want to show proficiency in a second language. While it’s not needed to apply, you will need proficiency to graduate. Depending on your specialization, you might need to take upper-level quantitative analysis and economics courses at SIPA. Therefore, your Quantitative and Language Resume should include the relevant courses taken during prior study and details like the grade you received, textbooks and other materials used, and a brief summary of what was covered in the class.

If it’s been a few years, the Admissions Committee understands! If you want to be exact, information like what the course covered could be found in your university’s course catalog if you struggle with providing these details from memory. You can supplement your course experience, or lack thereof, with any quantitative experience you may have accrued at work such as visualizing data for presentations or doing preliminary analysis for a report.

What should I submit if I’m changing careers or don’t have a background in economics?

If time at SIPA is a vehicle for switching career direction from the more qualitative to quantitative, some applicants take a few courses in economics or statistics at a community college or university, or request more quantitative projects at work to beef up quantitative skills and application. Planning ahead will increase your probability of being able to show to the Admissions Committee that you will be able to keep up with the economics and quantitative core at SIPA. If you have plentiful quantitative coursework or experience, parse out what is useful. Courses in Chemical Engineering are applicable, but if you have statistics and programming experience in STATA and Python under your belt, prioritize that.

I don’t need a language to apply, so what do I put in this resume?

The language portion of the Quantitative Language Resume can strike fear in those of us who haven’t taken a Spanish class since High School. If you know that you are going to apply to a program without a language requirement ( e.g. an MPA in the Urban and Social Policy concentration), the language section can just be a elucidating footnote on your cultural competency. Even if you are applying for a course where language is a core component of the core, such as the MIA program or the Economic and Political Development concentration (regardless of degree), fluency is not a prerequisite.

What this section of the Quantitative and Language Resume is trying to suss out is how exposure and commitment to the language or culture you’d like to commit time to at SIPA. For programs that require it, in your two years at SIPA you should be able to test out or achieve a B or higher in the upper-intermediate language of your choice. You can come to SIPA with little or know background in a language and learn it here — it will just take time. In fact, Amanda Schmitt ’19 gave some tips on how to maneuver that in a blog post earlier this year.

If you have a rich background in foreign languages, either through self-study, life experience, or taking up to 300-level courses during your undergraduate study, please elaborate on it to show off your international experience or outlook. Remember, fluency doesn’t come from just listening to a few foreign language songs or watching movies, but from a concerted effort to learn or develop structured exposure. Put only what will show what foundation you have to build on through coursework.

The Quantitative and Language Resume is one of the ways in which SIPA practices holistic admissions and how all of your experiences make you into a competent candidate with the potential to thrive here. Use it as an opportunity to show the steps you’ve taken to ready yourself for graduate school, your ability to follow our curriculum, and, most importantly, your potential as a Seeple.

Struggling to plan for applications? Here’s my timeline.

Applying to graduate school can be daunting especially if you have work and personal commitments that make it hard to keep track of the what feels like an endless list of documents. Speaking from personal experience, it’s very normal to feel overwhelmed, especially when stress and anxiety start creeping in. To help you plan ahead, I wanted to share with you my personal timeline that helped keep me on track throughout the application process.

As an international applicant, I don’t think the process is too different from domestic applicants. For me, the biggest challenges were finding a GRE testing centre, managing the time differences for application/Q&As, and translating and notarizing documents where needed. For more tips on international applicants, check out Yiting’s post here.

My biggest challenge in meeting the deadline was for things beyond my control.  For example, recommenders must submit their Letters of Recommendation directly, so plan ahead to avoid added stress, especially if you have other commitments at the same time.

Phase 1: Plan ahead and map out a game plan

  • Essay questions: Spend some time thinking about these essays and draft a skeleton of key points. It’s a helpful tool for you to understand why you want to go to graduate school and what you hope to get it out of it
  • Professional Resume/CV: Pull out that old, dusty resume! Reach out to friends and colleagues for samples if you want some inspiration
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: Think about what skills and experiences you have that can go into this. Identify if you have gaps and think about how to plug those gaps.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Identify 2 (or 3 if you prefer) professional contacts who can help create the right narrative for you
  • Academic Transcripts: Unofficial transcripts are fine when applying, but you may still need to reach out to academic institutions and send those transcripts. This is a quick and easy win!
  • GRE/GMAT: Get those GRE/GMAT books and start studying! I personally ‘started’ (by started, I mean I bought the books…) 8 months before the deadline but only geared up 5 months before (I took the exam 3 months before the deadline). This is because I wanted to focus the last stretch on essays without the added stress of exams. As an international student, my home country had limited places and seats where I could take the test, so booking a spot early helped me plan my studying schedule accordingly. Need more tips? Check out Niara’s advice on preparing for the GRE here.
  • For TOEFL/IELTS/PTE: Even though I’m an international student, I didn’t have to fulfill this criteria as my undergraduate degree was taught in English. Based on other Seeples experiences, the timeline with TOEFL/IELTS/PTE, is similar to the GRE/GMAT. As I don’t have personal experience, I have omitted this from the timeline.

Phase 2: Execution and keeping yourself on track

  • Essay questions: Draft out those essay questions! I recommend getting feedback from 2/3 other people to help you fine tune your messaging (and to keep to the word limit!) but wouldn’t go more than that as it can get very  daunting. It took me many drafts before I was comfortable enough to get feedback. I also ended up re-writing one essay so that I could better capture my thoughts. Keep in mind this could be a long process of reiteration. It’s different for everyone!
  • Professional Resume/CV: Clean up your resume/CV, get feedback from trusted friends or colleagues, and submit! That’s two ticks down, which is a great way to keep you motivated.
  • Quantitative & Language Resume/CV: I personally struggled with this and spent a lot of time thinking about what I should include. I ended up including everything I did at school and work that had a quantitative element (even if it was minor). A sample of the resume can be found here. Write that resume and submit. (Three things done!)
  • Letters of Recommendation: Reach out to recommenders and prep them! Once recommenders accept, share this useful outline to help them plan their letters. I also shared some key points and achievements that they may want to include. This approach does differ as every recommender has their own style. But don’t assume that they don’t need a little coaching to tailor their narrative for you, prepping your recommenders is key!
  • GRE/GMAT: Book your test date and study, study, study! I took the test during this ‘phase’ and it was a huge weight off my shoulders. And don’t forget, when you complete the exam, you have five schools you can send your scores to for free! If you’re set on SIPA, send it to 2161. It costs $27 to send it later.

Phase 3: The last mile and submission! 

via GIPHY

  • Essay questions: Final round of edits and click that submit button! By this point, you might be so tired of those essays, you’re just making unnecessary (and possibly detrimental!) edits.
  • Video essay: While this may seem terrifying, it’s only 120 seconds of your life! The video essay is available only after you submit your application and pay the app fee. More details on accessing it can be found here. The questions really range and I prepped for it by thinking about how I would best structure my answers to sound more confident and coherent. My only advice is breathe, be yourself and use those 60 seconds wisely!
  • Letters of Recommendation: Help recommenders by reminding them of the deadline and offering to help them with key points or messages. When they’re ready to submit, they should check their inbox and spam folders so that they don’t miss the link SIPA sends them. They will use this link to log in to the application system and submit their letter on your behalf. If they have issues with the online submission, they can contact sipa_admission@columbia.edu. Please remember that all letters should be on letterhead, signed and in English (or accompanied by certified translations). An applicant does not need to wait for recommenders to submit their information prior to submitting the application. There is no problem with an application being submitted before all of the recommendations have been submitted. The opposite is true as well – there is no problem with a recommender submitting a letter before the application is submitted
  • GRE/GMAT: If you’re still crunching for the GRE, that’s okay! You only need to submit self-reported test scores with the application by the deadline, so that helps ease the burden. Scores must be verified after admission to the program, but before your scores expire.

Phew… that was a lot to digest but hopefully this helps. Everyone has their own journey and process when it comes to applying for graduate school so don’t be terrified if yours is different! Find your sweet spot but most importantly, plan ahead so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Good luck!

"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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