The HKS application serves applicants to the MPP and the various MPA programs (PhD applicants use the Harvard GSAS application). The essays discussed below are for the MPP and the two-year MPA applications (essay questions are different for the MPA/ID and mid-career 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. Perhaps more important, use the essays to weave together these elements into a coherent story/presentation.
My tips are in blue below.
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 leadership and service. (500 word limit)
This is in essence a goals question. I suggest a professional focus, though it could also include non-work plans. Three keys to making this essay work: (1) In describing your plans/goals, clarify what “positive change” looks like to you – it’s easy to forget that it looks different to different people. (2) Discuss practical aspects – how you’ll execute those plans, focusing on your anticipated leadership and sense of service. (3) Root the plans in your experience, to lend credibility to what you say you will do in the future (easy to say, after all, but much more believable if you have a relevant track record).
There are many pathways one can pursue in order to make a difference in the world. Why is the MPP/MPA Program at HKS an appropriate pathway to achieving your goals? (500 word limit)
The adcom is clearly looking for applicants who will use this degree productively to make a difference. In a nutshell, in this essay, explain how you’ll do that. Go with the concept inferred by the word “pathway” – a way to get where you want to go. Resist the common (and understandable) impulse to list everything wonderful about the program. Rather, discuss a few or several elements that are most important to you and will, in practical terms, help you to pursue your goals.
(Optional) If you have any concerns about your prior academic background, or if you believe the Admissions Committee may have concerns, please give a brief explanation of your performance in college, or your standardized test scores. (750 word limit)
This optional essay question specifically instructs you to write the optional essay only if there are potential concerns about your prior academic or test performance. If you do need to use it for that purpose, write a succinct, straightforward explanation – although they give you 750 words, a paragraph will often suffice. Don’t be defensive or evasive, just tell it straight. If you have evidence that the under-performance does not reflect your true ability, add a sentence or two stating that point with the evidence (e.g., maybe you did poorly overall in college, but in your last semester earned straight A’s in advanced courses).
Deadline: December 2, 2014
By Cindy Tokumitsu, author and co-author of numerous ebooks, articles, and special reports, including Why MBA and Best MBA Programs: A Guide to Selecting the Right One. Cindy has advised hundreds of successful applicants in her fifteen years with Accepted.com.
• Leadership in Admissions
• 4 Ways to Show How You’ll Contribute in the Future
• How to Prove Character Traits in Essays
Accepted.com's experienced admissions consultants can help you create the most impressive application possible with comprehensive packages,or provide targeted assistance from picking perfect programs to designing a dazzling resume, constructing engaging essays, or preparing for intense interviews…and more! Accepted.com has guided thousands of applicants to acceptances at top MBA programs since 1994 – we know what works and what doesn't, so contact us to get started now!
This article originally appeared on the Accepted Admissions Consulting Blog, the official blog of Accepted.com.
Liked this post?
Harvard Kennedy School is one of the most popular policy schools that I work on with my coaching clients. As a 2010 Harvard Kennedy School graduate and an admissions consultant who has helped numerous applicants get into HKS (with scholarship money!), I want to provide my top tips for submitting an outstanding application to HKS:
Submit your application on time. You can’t get into a school if you miss the deadline! Make sure that you are 100% clear on when the application for your degree program and any fellowships you are applying to are due. The HKS deadline is usually in early December, but it can vary slightly depending on your degree program.
Get the HKS deadline here.
Know what HKS is looking for in applicants. I’m not talking about years of work experience or prerequisite coursework. (That will be covered later.) I’m talking about the qualities that HKS looks for in applicants. Here are some of the qualities valued by the Adcom:
- demonstrated leadership abilities (at work, school, and in community service)
- experience working on and leading teams
- experience living and/or working abroad
- a demonstrated commitment to public service (in your full-time job and/or extracurricular/out-of-work activities)
- openness to providing and receiving feedback
- ability to handle challenging coursework
- the ability to analyze a problem or situation and draw conclusions and make decisions
- a high degree of ethics and integrity
Know which degree program you are applying to. It can be a little confusing keeping all of HKS’ degree programs straight. There’s the MPP, MPA, MC/MPA, MC/MPA Mason Fellows, MPA-ID, and PhDs. Whew! So what’s the difference? First of all, I’m only going to focus on discussing the Master programs, because that’s who I primarily work with. The MPP, the most popular degree, is the Master in Public Policy. It is a 2-year program with one full year of core classes (one elective each semester) and then all electives the second year. The MPA (the degree that I have) is the Master in Public Administration. It is also a 2-year program, but is all electives, and primarily for non-Harvard joint-degree students and/or established professionals. The Mid-Career MPA is an all-elective one-year program for professionals with extensive work experience. The Mid-Career MPA Mason Fellows program is for established professionals from developing and transitional economies. The MPA-ID is intense and highly focused on (you guessed it) international development and economics. I had friends in every program, and while we are all students at the same school with access to almost all of the same courses, you can have very different academic experiences depending on your degree program.
Some helpful hints on figuring out if you should apply to the MPP or MPA progam at HKS:
- If you have 0-7 years of work experience, you’re probably looking at the MPP.
- If you have 0-7 years of work experience and you’re applying to a joint degree at Harvard, you’re probably an MPP applicant.
- If you have 0-7 years of work experience and you’re applying to a joint degree at another school, you might be an MPA applicant.
- If you have 7 or more years of work experience, look into the Mid-Career MPA program.
- If you are an economics genius, look into the MPA-ID (I kid, I kid, but know that it is hard).
Obviously, you should read up on each of the degree programs yourself and decide which one is right for you.
Know and meet the prerequisites. Each degree program has its own list of prerequisites for admission. For example, for the MPP the pre-requisites are a Bachelor’s degree and some knowledge of college-level economics, statistics, and calculus is preferred. They also prefer 2-3 years of full-time professional work experience, but there’s no hard line saying that you absolutely must have full-time professional work experience. If you are currently in college and think you want to pursue an MPP in the future, I suggest you take the aforementioned classes. If you have already finished college, you can take supplemental courses online or at your local community college before applying. The prerequisites for the other degree programs are more detailed, so be sure to know what they are and give yourself enough time to meet them.
Click here for a list of prerequisites for Harvard Kennedy School degrees.
Submit all required materials. Having missing materials is not only annoying to the Adcom, it could mean the kiss of death. Get organized and make sure you have all the necessary parts of the application. The requirements for all applicants to HKS are:
- a submitted online application,
- payment of the $100 application fee,
- three letters of recommendation,
- official academic transcripts, and
- standardized tests: GRE, GMAT, TOEFL (requirements vary; see online application instructions for details).
Pitch yourself to the Admissions Committee. In your essays and resume, make it very easy for the Adcom to understand why HKS is a great fit for you academically, personally, and professionally. Connect your academic background to the coursework you’ll take at HKS. Explain the preparation you’ve had thus far that will help you be successful at HKS, the gaps in your education that you plan to fill at HKS, and cite specific courses at HKS that you plan on taking to gain the knowledge you need to move forward in your career. HKS has a collegial and tight-knit culture. Research the extracurricular activities of the school, and learn about some of the activities you plan to engage in (especially if you plan to be a leader in one of the clubs), and discuss how those will be an important part of your experience if admitted. Most importantly, discuss your professional experiences thus far and how they have prepared you for making the most of your time at HKS.
Have a clear and compelling vision for your career. HKS is a professional school. This means that its primary purpose is to prepare people to be leaders in their respective professional fields. The goal is not to pump out a bunch of academics (besides the PhD candidates). Therefore, you need to be able to articulate clearly why you need to attend HKS at this time to achieve your professional goals. You need to have a clear vision for your career and a map for how HKS can help you achieve that vision. If the Adcom can’t figure out what you want to be after leaving HKS, it’s hard for them to give you one of the spots in the class.
Show that you have done your research on the school. Read about the research centers, classes, extracurricular activities, leadership programs, and fellowship programs. SO FEW PEOPLE DO A GOOD JOB OF THIS. If you take the time to read about and understand the various research centers, career resources, courses, and extracurricular activities available at HKS, and then identify the ones that are good fits for you in your application, connecting them all together with your career vision, and your past experiences, you will present a compelling and cohesive case for why you should be admitted. For example, below is a little information about my specific experience at HKS. Each HKS-specific resource is highlighted in bold. (Note: This is NOT a sample essay or anything like that. I am just showing how many resources there are at HKS to motivate you to do some research.)
While at HKS, I was involved with a number of extracurricular activities and really loved my classes. Some of my favorite classes were Arts of Communication, Agribusiness, Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector, Public Narrative, and Followership. While I was not required to do a thesis to graduate, I did complete a Reading and Research project about Black women and digital entrepreneurship which also tied in nicely with my course Leadership for a Networked World. I was a Women in the Oval Office program participant, which was offered by the Women and Public Policy Program. I also learned a tremendous amount and really enjoyed being a George Leadership Fellow, which is a part of the Center for Public Leadership. I was active in the African and African Diaspora Collaborative (AADC), and attended many of the speeches held in The Forum by the Institute of Politics.
That’s just a taste of the many, many resources at HKS. Show the Adcom that you really intend to go to HKS if admitted, and let them know about the kinds of things you’ll be involved in.
Here is a list of HKS courses.
Here is a link to the many centers and programs at HKS.
Choose your recommenders wisely and make sure they are prepared to write you great recommendations. Make sure your three recommenders are well-equipped to write you a stellar recommendation. For MPP applicants, I recommend you having 1-2 professional recommendations, an academic recommendation, and perhaps a recommendation from someone who has supervised you in a public service / volunteer / nonprofit capacity. Make sure your recommenders know what your degree program is, what qualities HKS is looking for in a candidate, and that they are able to cite specific examples and stories to back up their recommendations of you.
Attend an admissions event. Throughout the year, HKS admissions officers will travel around the country providing information about the school and the application process. Check to see when they are coming to your area and be sure to attend. The Adcom members do remember people, and it’s an opportunity to make an impression, get some great information, and meet other people in your area who are applying.
Here is the calendar for the admissions events.
Research and apply for financial aid and fellowships. Graduate school is expensive! HKS has lots of fellowship money available, but lots of people get admitted with only loans as their financial aid. Make sure you keep your student debt as low as possible by applying for as many fellowships as possible that you are a good fit for.
Here is the website for Harvard Kennedy School financial aid for incoming students.
Whether you’re working through the process alone, with a friend, or with a consultant, you want to be well prepared in putting together your application to Harvard Kennedy School.
If you liked this article, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter so you don’t miss any of my free tips!