The Secret to Nailing the Columbia SIPA Video Essay -

Philippe Barr, PhD
12 min readDec 10, 2023

Are you ready to take your application to the next level and stand out amongst the crowd? The Columbia SIPA video essay is just the opportunity for you to showcase your unique personality, communication skills, and commitment to making a positive impact on the world. Here at The Admit Lab, we have cracked the code to help you nail this pivotal part of the application process. In this blog post, we will reveal the secret strategies, tips, and expert insights that will not only help you ace the Columbia SIPA video essay but also increase your chances of securing a spot in this prestigious program. So, if you’re ready to take a deep dive into the world of video essays and learn how to impress the admissions committee, then keep reading. Your journey to SIPA starts here!

SIPA: A Global Hub for Public Affairs and International Studies

The School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York City is renowned as one of the premier institutions in the world for public administration and international affairs. It prides itself on offering a diverse and enriching academic environment that prepares students to tackle the complex challenges of the global stage.

SIPA is not just an ordinary school; it is a vibrant community of scholars, practitioners, and students who share a common passion for making a positive impact on the world. Through its cutting-edge research centers in Development Economics, Global Energy, Global Economic Governance, International Conflict Resolution, and War and Peace Studies, students have unparalleled opportunities to engage with issues of global significance and develop innovative solutions.

At this Ivy League School, students can expect a rigorous curriculum that combines theoretical knowledge with practical skills. They have access to renowned faculty who are experts in their respective fields, as well as a vast network of alumni who have achieved great success in various sectors around the world.

Whether you aspire to shape public policy, work for international organizations, or pursue a career in diplomacy, SIPA provides the platform and resources to help you achieve your goals. With its prime location in New York City, students are exposed to a vibrant cosmopolitan environment that serves as a hub for global affairs and offers unparalleled networking opportunities.

Video response overview

Unlike many other graduate government programs, the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University includes a unique and innovative component in its application process: a video interview essay, also known as Columbia SIPA video essay.

This special feature sets SIPA apart from other programs and offers applicants a chance to showcase their communication skills and personality. The Columbia SIPA video essay is exclusively available to applicants through the user-friendly application portal, but only after they have submitted their comprehensive application and paid the required application fee.

In this high-stakes opportunity, applicants are given a mere 90 seconds to provide a thoughtful and concise response to a random question that could cover any topic imaginable. This challenging task allows candidates to demonstrate their ability to think on their feet and articulate their ideas effectively. The Columbia SIPA video essay is an integral part of SIPA’s holistic evaluation process, providing the admissions committee with valuable insights into each applicant’s potential and suitability for the program.

What is the admissions committee looking for?

The Columbia SIPA video essay component of the application process is not your typical job interview. Unlike traditional interviews, it is not designed to address any gaps in your application or provide additional insights about SIPA. It’s important to note that the question you will answer is not specifically tailored by the admissions committee after reviewing your application. Instead, the questions asked during the video response cover a wide range, from simple ones like “how was your summer” to more thought-provoking ones like “Would you detain or kill a terrorist suspect without a trial?”

It is crucial to understand that the Columbia SIPA video essay should not be perceived as a controlled experiment to measure applicants’ knowledge or their ability to think on their feet. Rather, SIPA’s video response serves as a unique opportunity to put a literal face to your application. It allows the admissions committee to get a better sense of your personality, communication skills, and overall presence. Therefore, it is imperative to approach the video response with professionalism and poise, as it plays a significant role in shaping the overall impression SIPA forms of you as an applicant.

Rock the Video Intro — Make a Strong First Impression

Recording the Columbia SIPA video requires careful planning and strategic execution, especially when the aim is to create a lasting first impression. The opening seconds of your video are critical in capturing the committee’s attention and setting the tone for the rest of the video. Start with an engaging opening line that reflects your personality and aligns with your aspirations. A well-crafted opening line can intrigue the committee and encourage them to watch the rest of your video with keen interest. A brief but impactful introduction of yourself and your qualifications can work wonders in making a strong first impression. Include details that highlight your academic achievements, professional experiences, or unique skills that make you an ideal candidate for the SIPA program.

Show Your Passion and Enthusiasm for Public Policy

When recording the Columbia SIPA video, it’s crucial to effectively communicate your passion and enthusiasm for public policy. Share about issues that deeply resonate with you, whether it’s climate change, income inequality, educational reform, or any other crucial matter. Discuss why these issues resonate with you and how they have shaped your desire to contribute to public policy.

For instance, you might share an anecdote about how witnessing income disparity in your community sparked your interest in advocating for economic equity. Such personal stories can make your passion palpable and relatable to the committee. Moreover, don’t just communicate your enthusiasm through words, let it reflect in your body language and tone of voice as well. Stand tall, use expressive hand gestures, and let your excitement shine through your voice. This not only makes your video more enjoyable to watch but also conveys your genuine engagement with the subject matter. Remember, your ultimate goal is to show the committee that your interest in public policy isn’t merely theoretical, but rather a deeply ingrained part of who you are, backed by genuine concern and a commitment to making a difference.

Highlight Relevant Skills and Experiences

In creating your Columbia SIPA video, it is also essential to detail your relevant skills and experiences that make you an excellent fit for the program. Discuss the competencies you have developed in previous roles that would be of value in the policy arena. This could include analytical skills honed during a stint as a research assistant, or communication and advocacy skills developed while volunteering for a non-profit. It’s crucial to not just list these skills but to substantiate them with specific examples.

Perhaps there was a time you took the initiative to start a new project at work, or when you assumed a leadership role to guide a team towards a common goal. Such instances demonstrate your proactive attitude and leadership potential, qualities that are highly valued in public policy. Moreover, don’t shy away from discussing transferable skills from other experiences. Maybe you’ve worked in a completely different field, like technology or healthcare, but the problem-solving or project management skills you gained there are still applicable. Or perhaps you’ve had unique, non-traditional experiences that have nonetheless equipped you with a nuanced perspective and a diverse skill set. Emphasize these experiences, highlighting how they contribute to your unique candidacy and how they will enable you to bring a fresh, insightful perspective to the SIPA program. Always remember, every experience is valuable if you can effectively illustrate its relevance and the skills it has allowed you to cultivate.

Leave them wanting more

As you move towards the conclusion of your Columbia SIPA video, it’s important to leave the admissions team with a lasting impression, leaving them wanting more. Articulate your future goals and vision in a clear and compelling manner.

For example, you might say, “I have a vision for a future where public policy is attuned to the needs of all members of society, and it’s my aim to contribute to making this vision a reality.” Paint a vivid picture of how you envisage using the skills and knowledge you acquire at SIPA to make a significant impact in your field. Express your eagerness to learn from, and contribute to, the SIPA community. You may say, “I am excited about the unique opportunity to learn from the diverse and dynamic SIPA community, and I look forward to contributing my experiences and perspectives in enriching class discussions and collaborative projects.” Make sure to thank the admissions team for considering your application. You might do so by saying, “I appreciate your time and consideration in reviewing my application.”

Finally, close confidently, expressing your belief in your suitability for the program. You could say, “I am confident that my experiences, coupled with my passion for public policy, make me a strong fit for the SIPA program, and I am eager to contribute to and learn from this fantastic institution.” This will ensure you conclude on a confident and positive note, leaving the admissions team with a strong impression of your motivation and potential.

Smile! Your Personality Will Shine Through

When recording your Columbia SIPA video, remember the adage, “Smile! Your Personality Will Shine Through.” This is not merely about showcasing a pleasant facial expression but rather a holistic approach to presenting yourself with authenticity and enthusiasm. Maintain a comfortable yet sophisticated demeanor, projecting a sense of assurance and readiness for the academic rigors of the program.

Your body language and expressions are powerful tools in conveying your ideas and convictions. Let them mirror your words, adding emphasis and passion to your narrative. Most importantly, let your genuine self shine through. Let the admissions team see the real person behind the application, the individual who is passionate about public policy, eager to learn, and ready to make an impact. This authenticity can make your video stand out, leaving a lasting impression on the admissions team.

5 Essential Tips for Mastering the SIPA Video Essay

  1. Be Authentic: Allow your genuine self to shine through in your responses, revealing the unique aspects of your personality that make you who you are. By embracing authenticity, you can establish a sincere connection with the admissions committee, enabling them to gain a deeper understanding of your character, values, and experiences. This genuine portrayal will not only resonate with the committee but also demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively and with integrity. So, seize this opportunity to express yourself fully and let your true self shine in your application.
  2. Practice Makes Perfect: While you won’t have the luxury of knowing the questions in advance, it is crucial to dedicate time to practice your speaking skills and develop the ability to formulate coherent and well-structured thoughts under pressure. This preparation will undoubtedly prove to be invaluable, as it will equip you with the confidence and adaptability necessary to excel in any situation that requires effective communication. Remember, the more you invest in honing your speaking abilities, the more prepared you will be to confidently tackle any challenge that comes your way.
  3. Concise and Clear Responses: In this format, it is important to prioritize brevity while still providing clear and concise responses that directly address the question. By keeping your response concise, you can ensure that the information is easily understood and effectively communicated. It is crucial to strike a balance between providing enough detail to answer the question thoroughly while avoiding unnecessary lengthiness that may detract from the message’s impact.
  4. Professional Attire and Setting: To make a positive impression during a virtual interview, it is crucial to dress professionally, just as you would for an in-person interview. Choose attire that reflects the level of professionalism expected in your field. Additionally, create a quiet and distraction-free environment by selecting a well-lit and organized space. This will help you maintain focus and allow the interviewer to concentrate on your qualifications and skills without any interruptions. Remember, attention to these details can greatly enhance your chances of success in a virtual interview setting.

Sample questions

Personal Background

  • What are your most significant childhood memories?
  • What leadership experience at work are you most proud of?
  • What valuable feedback have you received?

Why SIPA?

  • How has your academic and professional experience prepared you for SIPA?
  • What are your aspirations at SIPA?
  • How will being in New York City contribute to your short-term goals?

Behavioral Questions

  • How do you effectively handle multitasking?
  • What are your exceptional skills or talents?
  • Who do you seek for advice and guidance?

Areas of Interest

  • Which undergraduate course did you find most enjoyable?
  • What sources do you rely on for news?
  • Which policy issue has undergone the most significant changes during your lifetime?

Head Scratchers/ Current Events

  • Should government policies prioritize equity or opportunity?
  • What responsibilities do companies have in integrating environmental sustainability into their business practices?
  • How should Western countries balance immigration policies with the economic needs of their social safety nets?

The Daunting Challenge of SIPA’s Selection Process

The video essay holds immense importance in the evaluation process as it allows admissions committees to witness firsthand how candidates showcase their communication skills and articulate their aspirations and suitability for the program. However, it’s important to remember that the video essay is only one piece of the admissions puzzle.

The SIPA admissions committee conducts a holistic review of each application, considering each element in relation to the others. This means that while the video essay is important, other aspects of your application such as your essays, academic performance, professional experience, and leadership activities are also critical. Each component of your application should be meticulously crafted to ensure it reflects your qualifications and potential contributions to the SIPA community. Thus, it’s crucial to present a well-rounded profile, where each piece comes together to present a compelling narrative of who you are, what you have achieved, and what you aspire to accomplish through your studies at SIPA.

Remember: the selection process for the prestigious Columbia SIPA is indeed a daunting one, with hundreds of talented individuals globally vying for a limited number of spots each year. The competition is intense, and rejection is a harsh reality faced by many.

Each application is meticulously scrutinized, reflecting the high standards of this esteemed institution. From assessing your leadership skills to evaluating your ability to handle complex policy issues, every aspect of the process is designed to challenge and test your capabilities. It is, therefore, crucial to give your best shot, leaving no room for error.

That being said, the pressure can be overwhelming, and the fear of rejection can be crippling. It’s in these moments that seeking help can be a game-changer. Professional guidance not only helps you navigate this rigorous process but also provides you with the necessary tools to present a compelling application, increasing your chances of standing out among the sea of applicants. It’s a vital step to avoid the disappointment of rejection and join the ranks of successful Columbia SIPA students.

Conclusion

Armed with the secret strategies and expert insights revealed in this blog post, you’re now ready to tackle the Columbia SIPA video essay with confidence! Keep in mind that your video essay needs to reflect who you are beyond your GPA or test scores; it’s an opportunity for you to connect with the committee and demonstrate why you fit perfectly in their program. With a little bit of preparation and practice, you can find yourself soaring ahead of the competition. At The Admit Lab, we understand the efforts required in crafting a competitive application for a top-tier business school, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any help along the way and sign up for a free 15-minute consultation. We also offer interview prep and master’s application service s for a wide variety of budgets. There is no better time than now to get started on the path toward success — take that chance and be sure to let us know how it goes! The journey to SIPA awaits. Good luck!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Dr. Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Dr. Barr spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Dr. Barr has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

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Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on December 10, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/