Archive for Admissions

Applying in Quarantine: What does a productive application schedule look like in a pandemic?

Although every country is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in its own way, we all have one thing in common: we’re all seeing less of each other than we used to. So what does that mean for the grad school application process? For one, it means that the SIPA video essay won’t be as daunting if you’ve been on Zoom all summer!

But where you might have been able to settle down in a coffee shop before and benefit from that secondhand productivity before COVID-19, being stuck at home, staring at screens all day, and potentially needing to pay more attention to your family members might make it harder to concentrate on how to build a narrative around your goals and sell your past professional and academic experiences to grad programs.

When I applied to SIPA in the fall/winter of 2018-2019, I lived abroad in Tunisia, was in between a couple jobs, deciding whether to stay or go, but chose to stay for at least a month to take my GRE (you will be able to waive it this year) and write my application essays in a relatively nicer climate than the suburbs of Michigan. I wasn’t seeing too many people at the time and had to set my own schedule between a consulting gig, some freelance work, and GRE/application prep. This time prepared me in a way for quarantine, so here are some tips to create a productive environment to meet your application deadlines!

  1. Find study buddies: Depending on your ability to see people during COVID, set up check-ins and accountability measures with your friends. I was lucky that another friend of mine was applying to grad school on the same timeline as me, so we arranged our GRE dates around the same time and set goals and personal deadlines for sending our personal statements and essays to friends for editing as well as reaching out to recommenders. We called each other every week to check in and talk about our potential futures! If you don’t have other friends applying to grad school, get your friends to have work or study sessions with you over Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms. You don’t have to talk the whole time, but it’s great to have company on the other end of the line.
  2. Manage your time: With quarantine and social distancing, our perception of time right now is fairly warped. Sometimes days can feel like a full year and a leap day, and other times, you hit 6pm and can’t recall anything you’ve done that day. Whatever time management method works for you, create dedicated blocks of time in your schedule to work on your application. The earlier you start, the easier it is to manage at the end, but you don’t need to sit down for 16 hours and finish it all (I say this as a chronic procrastinator). Some people swear by the Pomodoro method, which is great if you can get motivated for short bursts of time. Before you know it, looming tasks become much smaller. You can also try productivity apps like Forest, which helps you limit your phone screen time while you focus on other tasks.
  3. Don’t waste your time trying to read minds: There are a lot of global events happening this year and the admissions committee is likely going to be hearing many different perspectives on the same events. Figure out what you want to say, not what you think admissions wants to hear. This isn’t really a productivity tip, but it might make the writing and rewriting process of your personal statements and other essays more fulfilling. I never thought I’d enjoy the process of having to sell myself as a candidate to graduate programs, but once I dug deep into why these programs mattered to me and the future I envisioned for myself, writing them became fun and helped me share my goals with my friends and family. One potential upside of the increased alone time might be the chance to reflect and introspect more deeply into your path (don’t be fooled, no one’s is linear) and what could lie ahead. The world is changing so rapidly, you can even be more creative than before about where SIPA might lead you!

The SIPA admissions blog will continue to be updated with advice from current students and the Admissions staff, so check back here for new insights about the process and don’t pressure yourself into being productive in the same ways you used to be!

Applications are just one part of the process, so keep taking care of yourself and maintaining your wellbeing throughout this cycle!

Program Assistant Introduction: Tenzin Dawa Thargay MIA ’21

Today you’ll meet the last of our new program assistants for this semester. If you missed the others, here are Zawadia, Sevita, and Monica.

Tenzin Dawa Thargay is a first-generation Tibetan American from Boston, Massachusetts and second-year student in the Master of International Affairs program. He is concentrating in Energy and Environment with double specialization in East Asia & U.S. and a Weatherhead East Asian Institute Certificate in Chinese Studies.

Before SIPA, Tenzin researched intersections of protest and energy as a Fulbright Scholar in Seoul, South Korea. He is a University of Massachusetts Amherst ‘18 graduate, earning dual degrees in political science and Chinese; he was also the undergraduate commencement student speaker. As a U.S. Department of State Rangel Fellow, Tenzin will enter the U.S. Foreign Service to serve as a Foreign Service Officer after graduation.

What has been the best part of your SIPA experience?
The best part of my SIPA experience has been meeting amazing students from all across the world. SIPA’s student body is at least half international. As a policy school of international and public affairs, interacting with classmates from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds has really expanded my understanding of what life will be like working in international affairs and the importance of learning from others. Similarly, domestic students such as myself also have an opportunity to serve as cultural liaisons to our international colleagues about the diversity of the American experience.

Do you feel like you have gotten to know some of the faculty members?
Yes I have! While SIPA is a large policy school, it’s certainly possible to know professors well. You just have to make the effort to reach out and schedule office hours. While it may seem scary or not the norm from where you come from, reaching out to professors is highly encouraged. Concentration programs will often host events for students to meet their faculty. Through reaching out to faculty inside and outside Columbia, I’ve been able to get a research position with the Center for Global Energy Policy.

Have you taken classes at other Columbia Schools?

Yes! As of this fall, I’ll have taken 7 classes outside of SIPA. I’ve enjoyed taking classes in the Law School, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and School of Professional Studies to satisfy requirements for my EE concentration and Weatherhead East Asia Institute Chinese Studies Certificate.

One of the biggest draws to attending Columbia was pursuing an interdisciplinary education by cross-registering with other programs to fulfil my degree requirements. It’s been a great way to meet students from other programs, challenge myself intellectually, and explore other parts of the university. Most of my courses outside of SIPA have been Mandarin language and East Asian area studies courses. Just make sure to watch out for cross enrollment dates so you can get into the classes.

Can you comment specifically on some exciting things about your concentration?
Energy and Environment (commonly referred to as “EE” in SIPA; we love acronyms!) has over 90 advanced EE courses to take within SIPA and the University. One of the most special opportunities is the EE Practicum. The EE Practicum is essentially a research-based team capstone project that allows EE students to design a research project on an EE issue, find a client, assemble a team, a find faculty mentors.

My team of 3 first-year MPA students and one Sustainability Management Master’s student partnered with Mercy Corps to look at scalability of solar panels for refugees in Uganda’s Bidibidi Settlement. This was a rewarding professional and personal experience as it gave me management skills, a taste of what consulting is like, and how to think like a policy maker to craft solutions to pressing EE issues. The Practicum also provides up to $5000 in funding (varies per year) and we got an additional $2000 from the Earth Institute to travel to Bidibdi for a site visit over spring break. However, that was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19. The Practicum also counted as an EE elective course so I was able to get course credit. My Practicum experience was a great preparation for the second-year capstones and I feel like I will have had two capstone experiences thanks to the Practicum.

What are your goals for the second year?
I’m spending my fall at home taking courses remotely. Though this isn’t the way I would have imagined things, some of my personal goals are: to stay on top of all my online courses, stay in touch with my friends and faculty as much as possible, exercise to take care of my mental and physical health, and enjoy time with my family. Academically, I’m really excited to build on my first year knowledge base. I’m taking excited electives inside and outside of SIPA to deepen my understanding of energy, the environment, and China.

What advice do you have for current applicants?
My best advice to current applicants would be to map out your life experiences. Applicants haven’t often had to write reflective personal statements in a long time, so doing this introspective exercise could be helpful when planning your essay. Putting everything down on paper lets you clearly see your experiences and understand your path/ story. This will help plan why you want to come to SIPA, how you are a good fit for SIPA and why SIPA is a good fit for you, and where a SIPA education will take you next.

I’d also suggest applicants stay very organized through the process and stay on top of deadlines. Making a folder on your computer for all parts of your application will make the process more manageable. Finally, make sure you have a supportive team to help you stay on track. Life is busy. But if you have a friend, mentor, family member, etc, help you meet your personal deadlines, you can make it to the finish line.

Good luck!

Program Assistant Introduction: Monica Vega Herrera MIA ’21

The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is excited to introduce our new program assistants, including Zawadia, Sevita, and today, Monica.

My name is Monica Vega Herrera, and I am a second year student in the Master of International Affairs program concentrating in Economic Policy and specializing in Latin America. I graduated in 2018 from the University of Georgia with majors in Economics and International Affairs. Before SIPA, I was working as a legislative fellow in the office of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke. I have also done internships with US Embassy London and in the Department of State’s Office of Bilateral Trade Affairs.

What attracted you to SIPA and Columbia University?

I wanted to find a program that would allow me to zero in on my specific interests. I found that at SIPA! At SIPA, you have the ability to craft your degree to your interests. I am interested in economic policy in Latin America so that’s what I’ve tailored my degree towards. I also found that SIPA offered a lot of flexibility if I wanted to explore other interests. I am taking a class on gender this semester (a subject I have never formally studied) and am actually considering adding the Gender and Public Policy specialization. 

SIPA’s reputation as the most international global policy school was another main attraction. SIPA attracts a diverse set of students from around the world. I wanted to learn alongside students from other countries to experience different perspectives. As someone who wants to work with people from different cultures, this was very important.

Lastly, for me it was all about location, location, location! Beyond finding the perfect graduate program, I also wanted to love the city I would be living in for two years (I did not expect a global pandemic to ruin this plan). New York is dynamic, full of different cultures, and offers opportunities for students interested in any sector.

What kind of work do you hope to do when you graduate?

As a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs fellow, I will be joining the foreign service after graduation. I applied to this fellowship because I have always wanted to work on substantive foreign affairs issues and I wanted a job that would allow me to travel all over the world. As a foreign service officer, I will have the chance to do this while also representing US interests abroad. I am entering the foreign service as an economic officer. I hope to focus on issues related to trade, investment, and economic development. My intention is to work mostly in Latin America. Specifically, I want to focus on Central America, the Caribbean, and Brazil. But, as a foreign service officer you must have worldwide availability so I am open to any region of the world!

Can you comment on the quantitative rigor in the curriculum?

Some background before I answer this question: I majored in economics in undergrad so I had taken several quantitative courses before coming to SIPA. Also, as an International Finance and Economic Policy concentrator, I had to take the “upper level” micro and macro courses (SIPA U6400 and SIPA U6401). I also had to take both quant courses (SIPA U6500 and SIPA U6501). 

I won’t sugar coat it and say these courses were a walk in the park, but they were definitely doable. Compared to my undergraduate courses, SIPA’s courses are more fast-paced and in-depth. However, I did well in all courses because I put in a lot of effort and time into them. SIPA provides many resources for students to do well in these foundational courses. The week-long Math Camp during orientation was a great refresher and set me up for what to expect. I also regularly attended office hours with the TAs when working on problem sets or when I just needed extra help. On top of that, I relied a lot on my fellow classmates since we are allowed to work in groups for the problem sets. The collaborative environment in these classes is critical to being successful. Lastly, during midterms and finals, the TAs offer several review sessions which are extremely helpful.

If you do not have a quantitative background and are nervous about these requirements, don’t be! The resources to do well in these courses exist. You just have to take advantage of them. If you go to class and recitations and put in effort into the problem sets, you will be successful. 

What advice do you have for current applicants?

My biggest piece of advice would be: effectively articulate why you want to come to SIPA and what you hope to get from this experience. This will help guide the rest of your application. I think it is important to have clear and concise reasons why SIPA is the right program for you. 

Also, I would say craft an application that captures who you are as a whole, not just your grades. Test scores and grades are important but the admissions committee also wants to get to know who you are. Mentioning a personal anecdote about why you are passionate about the program you are applying for can help you stand out. 

 What’s something interesting or unexpected that you shared on your application?

I used the optional essay to talk about my experience as an immigrant to the U.S. I thought that my experience as an immigrant from Mexico gave me a unique perspective as a policy student so I wanted to highlight it. Also, I mentioned that being an immigrant has guided my decision to study international affairs as I am passionate about understanding other cultures and challenges that are unique to certain countries. I think tying my unique, personal experience to why I wanted to study international affairs helped my application stand out. 

I would encourage current applicants to take advantage of the optional essay to let the committee know what you can bring to your chosen program. Don’t be afraid to get personal but remember to always link that back to why you are a qualified candidate!

What do you think makes a good SIPA student or what qualities do stellar SIPA students typically possess?

From my experience, SIPA students are: 

  1. Problem solvers: We are at SIPA to learn how to identify and address problems to hopefully make the world a better place.
  2. Curious: SIPA students ask a lot questions! In order to solve problems, we need to ask questions. SIPA students are good at figuring out what the pertinent questions are. 
  3. Good communicators: SIPA students know how to write a good memo and argue their points of view. Class discussions are lively because we all have something to say. 
  4. Open minded: SIPA students listen carefully to other points of view in order to better understand issues. In a campus where almost 60% of the students are international students, we need to be open to what others have to say. This will better inform how we perceive the world.

Program Assistant Introduction: Sevita Rama MPA-DP ’21

We’re introducing our new group of program assistants with the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. We started with Zawadia; now please meet Sevita.

Sevita Rama is a Troy, Michigan, native who is currently in her second year of the MPA in Development Practice (MPA-DP) at SIPA, specializing in Technology, Media and Communications (TMaC). After graduating from Rice University with a BA in Cognitive Sciences and Policy Studies, she worked in North Africa on economic development projects with various NGOs and local implementing organizations for four years, and developed a passion for supporting rural communities through food systems. She also believes greatly in the power of community-based storytelling and is continuing to build on this interest at SIPA. In 2019-2020, Sevita was a Foreign Language and Area Studies scholar for Arabic and the Middle East/North Africa at Columbia.

What were you doing before you came to SIPA?

Right before SIPA, I had started with Oxfam’s Egypt Country Office, which is based in Tunis, Tunisia, due to the organization’s previous work critical of human rights under the current regime. Little did I know this experience in remote project management would serve me well when everything shifted online with COVID. I worked on a project that aimed to strengthen the social enterprise ecosystem across North Africa and create linkages across the region that would improve inclusive economic growth. Prior to this, I worked with other implementing organizations and consultancies that also focused on economic development in both Egypt and Tunisia.

What attracted you to SIPA and Columbia University?

When I lived in Cairo in 2017, a friend was leaving to start his degree at SIPA. I had never been eager to get a master’s degree, but I realized that I would need one to advance in development and that I needed a break from ‘doing’ and meeting deadlines by the skin of my teeth to actually sit down and delve deeply into the structures that shape work in international development. I also wanted to move away from economic development as a broad focus and look more closely at rural development work around food systems and agriculture, which was some of my most rewarding professional experience in Egypt. When I finally decided to take the leap and prepare my application, I spoke at length with the friend I met in Cairo who was just wrapping up his degree at SIPA. His confirmation about the practical nature of the DP program and the tight-knit cohort made me excited to join SIPA’s class of 2021 and start a degree that combined rigorous academic coursework with tangible outcomes.

Did you choose to attend SIPA to change careers, or to gain experience in a career path you already had experience in?

A bit of both – I wanted to keep working in development and project implementation/management, but I also wanted to build up some expertise and work in agriculture and food systems that would allow me to work with multilateral (UN) organizations that focus on these issues. I wanted to try working at a new scale of programs by looking at the funding mechanisms and geopolitics of these decisions. Something new I wanted to try was developing a portfolio of storytelling work through photography and video, which is now why I am in the TMaC specialization. I have taken some great courses that have allowed me to produce podcasts, videos, and journalistic writing pieces that I can share and publicize far beyond the university’s walls while I am here and after I graduate.

What most surprised you about SIPA after you arrived?

As a DP we have a week of “pre-orientation” before the rest of SIPA gets orientation, called “Getting Started Week.” I was surprised to be able to bond so strongly with my cohort through the beginning stages of our program and during our retreat. It was also incredible to be around people who all had such different experiences with the development sector and were excited to discuss, analyze and “nerd out” about the field.

Did you have a lot of quantitative experience when you applied to SIPA? How did you perform in those classes?

I would consider myself as having less quantitative experience than many of my peers. Although my Bachelor’s was in a STEM field, my quantitative experiences in undergraduate coursework was limited to biology-related subjects, and it had also been quite some time since I had done any intense problem sets. Studying for the GRE helped me brush up on my quantitative skills to feel prepared for Macroeconomics and Quantitative Analysis. I was worried about making it through these courses, but ultimately a combination of strong teaching teams, good group work, and being patient with myself helped me get through. I still don’t feel very inclined to take many additional quantitative courses beyond the requirements because my focus is still in project/program implementation and management, but I am excited about my Budgeting and Financial Management for Government class this semester and apply some of that knowledge to program budgeting in the future.

Program Assistant Introduction: Zawadia LeFang MPA ’21

Note from Admissions: The 2020-2021 academic year is officially in swing, and as usual we have a new group of program assistants (PAs) working in the SIPA Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. They’ll specifically be helping you through the application and decision process over the next few months. We’ll be featuring our new PAs over the next couple of weeks, starting today with Zawadia LeFang.

Zawadia LeFang is a second-year MPA student with a concentration in Urban and Social Policy and a specialization in Technology, Media and Communications. She earned a Bachelor of Arts with honors in Economics from Occidental College. Prior to SIPA, she performed economic research on public health matters, mobilized around issues of diversity and equity through job and volunteer opportunities, and worked in economic consulting on antitrust and litigation matters. In 2017, she participated in PPIA JSI (the Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute) at Princeton University. After graduating in May 2021, she plans to explore opportunities in policy analysis, social enterprise, and corporate social responsibility. 

What experiences do you think prepared you to apply to and attend SIPA?

Attending a liberal arts college allowed me to approach the range of policy topics that we discuss at SIPA with nuance. Additionally, performing quantitative research in both classroom and workplace settings prior to applying helped prepare me for the rigorous studies that occur at SIPA. Participating in PPIA JSI during undergrad, an intensive 7-week microcosm of graduate policy education, was also a major key in helping me understand what to expect at SIPA academically and socially. 

What was the most challenging aspect of the application process?

Overall, pulling together all of the materials for the application by the deadline was the toughest part. I underestimated how much time certain materials would take to prepare. For example, I thought the personal statement would be a moderately quick ‘about me’ exercise but it actually required deeper reflection on my motivations for pursuing an MPA at SIPA as well as a succinct evaluation of my short and long term career goals. Setting a realistic application timeline for preparing materials would have eased this challenge. 

What advice do you have for current applicants?

Use your personal statement to paint a clear picture of your goals for the future and how SIPA can help you achieve them. You know exactly why the degree program you are pursuing suits you, you know why SIPA is a great place for you and how you can contribute to the ecosystem, now the tougher part is making sure that you can effectively express all of that to the Admissions Committee. Keep in mind that preparing a cohesive and competitive application takes time. Give yourself enough leeway before the submission deadline.

Did you have a lot of quantitative experience when you applied to SIPA? Why or why not? How did you perform in those classes?

I had a good amount of quantitative experience at the time of application. I studied economics in undergrad and took several courses in the mathematics department. At SIPA, I opted to take advanced economics. Even with prior experience the quantitative core curriculum courses were challenging, however the Professors and TAs (teaching assistants) were very engaging, approachable and helpful. This made it easier to ask for help on any topics that I found difficult and ultimately I performed well in the classes. 

What do you think makes a good SIPA student or what qualities do stellar SIPA students typically possess?

I think stellar SIPA students are able to translate their ideas into action, whether through activism, startup pitches, careers or other avenues. The peers I admire here at SIPA are inquisitive, open-minded, and ambitious. SIPA students are well-informed and open to discuss the policy topics they care about. We continuously teach each other and learn from each other. 

"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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