Harvard Kennedy School MPP & MPA2 Application Essay Tips
The essays discussed below are for the MPP and the two-year MPA applications.
HKS seeks well-rounded master’s students – people with proven academic success, strong leadership and career potential, and “commitment to advancing the public interest” (quoting the dean). The school also wants the student body to be diverse. Your application overall will address these factors; the essays provide a valuable opportunity to underscore through specific detail how you meet these criteria and will be a unique contributor. Most important, use the essays to weave together these elements into a coherent story and presentation – one that clarifies your path to your public interest goals.
Question 1 for both programs: The Harvard Kennedy School motto, echoing the President for whom the School is named, is “Ask what you can do.” Please share with the Admissions Committee your plans to create positive change through your public leadership and service. (600 word limit)
This is essentially a future-focused goals question. I suggest a professional focus, though in some cases it could also include non-work plans. Three keys to making this essay work:
1. In describing your plans/goals, clarify what “positive change” means to you – it’s easy to forget that it means different things to different people. (I see a lot of drafts of these and other essays talking about making change without any specific idea of what that means to that person.) And cite specific changes (impacts) you intend to deliver through your service. Make it concrete. These changes need not be comprehensive, “save the world” level changes – it’s more realistic, more credible, and probably more interesting to the reader to discuss changes to a given corner of the world, or segment of population, or focused concern. Show your engagement with and knowledge of the region or issue by employing anecdote and detail.
2. Discuss practical aspects – how you envision executing those plans in real terms, focusing on your anticipated leadership and sense of service. Of course, you needn’t have all the answers – that’s part of what the program will help you with.
3. Since the question asks you to portray how you’ll do the above “through your public leadership and service,” root the plans in your experience to lend credibility to what you say you will do in the future. Weave in brief examples of public leadership and/or service as a basis for your future efforts.
Question 2 for the MPP program: Describe an event or episode that either gave you a chance to use personal strengths, and/or revealed personal weaknesses. Then explain specifically how the MPP curriculum at HKS would leverage your distinctive abilities and/or fill gaps in your skill set as you equip yourself for your career goals. (600 word limit)
This is a behavioral question (asking about past experience/behavior) blended with a why-HKS question. In addressing the latter element, be consistent with learning needs and other factors relating to your goals (discussed in essay 1).
In choosing an experience to present (the event or episode), be strategic: use a story that shows you in an interesting and relatively high stakes situation that is relevant to your goals and also reflects an aspect of your experience, character, skill sets, etc. not highlighted elsewhere in the application. Also, ideally it would be fairly recent.
I suggest a simple structure: tell the story without a “fanfare” introduction – just jump into the narrative. As you write it, include your thoughts, concerns, and decisions at pivotal points, not just I-did-this-I-did-that. Then identify the strength(s) and/or weakness(es) this experience revealed and discuss how the HKS program will either leverage this strength or fill gaps in skills in a way that will prepare you for the goals cited above in essay 1. In this part, refer to specific elements and components of the program, and relate them to specific learning needs or strengths you want to develop further. Show your familiarity with the details and the mission of the program.
Do not shortchange the second part. I suggest somewhere between fifty-fifty story and why-HKS to two-third story and one-third why-HKS.
Question 2 for MPA2 program: There are many pathways one can pursue in order to make a difference in the world. Why is the MPA Program at HKS an appropriate pathway to achieving your goals? (600 word limit)
This is a pure why-HKS-MPA question. Your goals will be the starting point: they create the need to learn certain things and the conditions to benefit from certain opportunities. So, first, identify the gaps in learning that you must fill to realize your goals and also the opportunities that would be helpful in realizing your goals (such as access to certain types of people or challenge to move past reflexive thinking). Then detail how the HKS program meets these needs and offers these opportunities. This “how” can include all manner of things about the program, depending on your needs: curriculum structure and/or content, professors, special programs, classmates, extracurricular clubs/programs, partner groups/programs, etc. The key is to be specific and to link the things you cite to your goals, learning needs, and/or broader professional growth and development.
Optional (for both programs): If you have any concerns about your prior academic, professional or personal background you would like to share with the Admissions Committee, please provide an explanation. (250 word limit)
This optional essay question specifically instructs you to write the optional essay only if there are concerns about your background. If you do need to use it, write a succinct, straightforward explanation. If you have evidence that academic under-performance does not reflect your true ability, add a sentence stating that point with the evidence (e.g., maybe you did poorly overall in college, but in your last semester earned straight A’s).
Personal History Essay (optional for both programs): Diversity of all kinds (geographic, ideological, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and many others) is important to enriching the educational experience at the Kennedy School. Please share with us anything in your background or life experiences that has shaped your perspectives and how that would contribute to the classroom and community at HKS. (400 word limit)
It’s almost impossible to imagine how someone wouldn’t have something interesting and relevant to discuss in this essay, considering how broadly the question describes diversity. It’s a wonderful opportunity to enliven the lens onto your candidacy. I suggest identifying one or at most two aspects of diversity you’ll bring, and discuss them through anecdote and example. Ground them in experience. Add a brief reflection; it’s not the fact that you have or bring a certain type of diversity; it’s the insight and perspective and perhaps growth you’ve gained from it that ultimately make it meaningful to the adcom and future classmates.
DEADLINE: December 4, 2017
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