How You Got Here: SAIS Admissions

Last year, SAIS hosted the annual Open House for Admitted Students. (Erin Skelly Cameron)
Last year, SAIS hosted the annual Open House for Admitted Students. (Erin Skelly Cameron)


With approximately 1600 M.A. applications for SAIS Washington and Europe alone, the SAIS Admissions Office is used to handling a range of applicants from more than 70 countries across the world. In a multi-campus school offering a variety of degrees, the admissions process is a collective effort.

“A lot of people pitch in; current students, alumni, faculty and admissions officers…try to get the word out about what SAIS is. We do not put a hard sell on people, but we do try to answer the questions they have, and put our best foot forward,” said SAIS Europe Director of Admissions and Student Recruitment Nelson Graves.

While each campus in Nanjing, Washington and Bologna have their independent admissions offices, the cross-campus degree options result in a high degree of coordination. The M.A. candidates can opt for their first year in Bologna and the second in Washington, as can the five-semester candidates who study both at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) and SAIS Washington.

Faculty and senior staff members participate in the admissions committees across campuses to consider an array of variables such as work experience, leadership ability, recommendations, personal statement, test scores, GPA, quantitative aptitude, language experience and international exposure.

“All of those things go into our review process, and once we come to the admissions committee we rank them accordingly based upon their scores. We have a reader rating score from a staff member and a rating score from a faculty member and we come with a recommended list, and then we talk about this at [the] admissions committee,” said Director of Admissions Sidney Jackson. “We are all in concert in terms of what we expect in quality… its is important for us to bring the right kind of balance and diversity to the class.”

While admissions procedures across campuses are similar, differences do exist due to different courses and applicant pools. All US citizens, irrespective of the campus they apply for, are handled by the Washington office, and require standardized test results. All non-US candidates applying to SAIS Europe are interviewed, but are not compulsorily required to submit standardised test results.

“[This] is in line with the procedures of the European competitors of SAIS Europe who do not require test scores,” said Jackson.

The volume of applicants handled by the Washington office also makes interviewing each candidate difficult, but according to Jackson, the option to be interviewed has been introduced for US candidates since last year.

“It is important for us to collect as much information as possible. In addition, many of our students do not have English as a native language, so I think it is important to use the interview to confirm that their English is up to snuff, and we think it is a great opportunity for candidates to ask questions about SAIS,” said Graves.

The HNC, which specializes in US-China studies, is a joint venture with Nanjing University where half the students are Chinese and take classes in English, and the other half are ‘international’ non-Chinese students handled by SAIS admissions and take classes in Chinese. Proficiency in the language, therefore, is an essential requirement.

“Something that is special about our program is the target language curriculum, in that graduate-level coursework is offered in Chinese,” said HNC Assistant Director and Admissions Officer Katie Brooks.

Part of the diversity at SAIS also stems from a range of professional experience, according to Jackson and Graves. M.A. candidates have an average of two to three years of work experience with an average of 26 years of age.

“It is true that we find that candidates who have worked before applying to SAIS tend to understand the value of the investment,” said Graves.

“They have mostly been in entry-level positions so far, so we are actually looking at their potential to do well… there is always that dimension of persistence, and other areas which say to us that… this person is a good fit, so our professional judgement does come in,” said Jackson.

“In Nanjing the applicants are younger on average and the reason is that this is when their Chinese is at its best,” said Brooks.

Brooks added that the international experience of HNC students is an important consideration, and most successful candidates have lived in China.

“[Successful candidates have] a real appetite for the global experience; for the global intellectual experience and the global professional experience,” said Graves.

The international exposure of candidates is also a commonality on the other campuses, with as many as three quarters of current students at SAIS Washington having studied or worked abroad, according to Jackson.

“One interesting thing is that we get many dual nationals who apply to SAIS. Many of those dual nationals have been exposed at an extremely early age to the comparative advantages of the international environment,” said Graves.

“Typically about 10 to 15% of the international students [in Nanjing] come from non-US countries…[the HNC] is a very international community, even though it is the Center for Chinese and American Studies. It is a bilingual but very multicultural community,” said Brooks.

SAIS Europe shows a high yield of close to 60% of admitted candidates who enroll in the program. According to Jackson, a high self-selecting group of individuals apply to SAIS Europe, which is a very unique program.

“We also find that the people who want to start in Bologna are very well-informed and understand what is special about a first year in Bologna and a second year in DC, and this to a certain extent explains the very high yield we enjoy here…they do not equate us with a whole range of other options, because frankly, there is nothing else like it!” said Graves.

Despite the extremely diverse student body at SAIS, admissions officers at HNC, SAIS Europe and SAIS Washington have found common threads across the pool of successful SAIS candidates.

“Most students here are passionate about changing the world. I know it is a cliché, but it really comes through in the applications. It is clear that SAIS has what they need to get to where they want to go,” said Jackson.

“[HNC students] want to be a bridge between China and their home country, and they want to better the relations between the countries,” added Brooks.

“Another common characteristic would be intellectual curiosity. This is fundamentally an academic challenge…it is very important that a person be well-prepared to face that challenge, as it is a rigorous curriculum,” said Graves.

Graves, Jackson and Brooks agree they enjoy interacting with young applicants, and discussing the unique advantages SAIS has to offer. Be it the chance to prove their mettle in Chinese; to study the blend of economics; to immerse oneself in language and functional and regional studies in the SAIS curriculum; or to absorb the strong sense of community and travel opportunities at SAIS Europe, the admissions officers were convinced of the uniqueness of the “One SAIS” experience.

“I do not think there is another school with the unique blend of advantages we have to offer. I know there are good competitors out there, good programs, but there is no one out there quite like us,” said Jackson.



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