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.
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One of the most underused tools for standing out in the application process is using the optional essay. It’s hard to write a great optional essay and very easy to write an ineffective one that annoys the admissions committee.
Who should write the optional essay?
Although it’s called the “optional essay,” about 70% of my clients end up writing the optional essay if their schools include an optional essay.
Anyone who has any kind of blemish or red flag in their application should write the optional essay.
Here are some occasions when you should consider writing the optional essay:
- you have a GPA below 3.6
- you have a GMAT / GRE score below the 75th percentile
- you took time off of work or school
- you are noticeably older or younger than most applicants to your target schools
- you don’t have a letter of recommendation from your direct supervisor and you think it will look suspect
- you don’t have much quantitative work experience and you’re applying to a top MBA or MPA / MPP program
- you were put on probation or received some other kind of disciplinary sanction in college
Why should I write the optional essay?
While business schools have interviews, most policy schools do not include an interview in the selection process. Therefore, your written application is all they have to go off of in deciding whether or not to give you a spot in the incoming class.
I think of the optional essay as your seat at the table when your application gets put in the “maybe” pile and comes up for further discussion by the committee.
A skeptic on the committee says, “Look at how low her college GPA is,” but your optional essay pipes up and says, “True, I have a low GPA in college, but I was an award-winning athlete, an officer of my student government, and I was working to support myself through college. I’ve financially planned well for graduate school, so now I’ll be able to fully focus on my studies rather than juggling too many commitments.”
Without the optional essay, AdCom members are left to draw their own conclusions about why certain red flags in your application popped up—and whether or not those red flags are bad enough to sink your application.
How long should the optional essay be?
This is stating the obvious, but the optional essay should definitely be within the word limit. Additionally, you should try to get your key message across in as few words as possible. Since this is an additional essay, you don’t want to create more work for the AdCom than necessary.
When should I write the optional essay?
I recommend that my clients write the optional essay first. It allows them to get every worry, doubt, and fear out and on paper so that they can move forward with their other essays with a renewed confidence and clarity about why they do have a shot at getting into their dream school.
What should I write in the optional essay?
Since Harvard Kennedy School is the #1 school my clients apply to, let’s use the 2014-2015 Harvard Kennedy School Optional Essay as a case study of how to write an optional essay.
You can apply this same essay structure for any graduate school optional essay—whether it’s MBA, MPH, MSW, M. Ed, or something else.
The Prompt: (applicable to all HKS degree programs)
(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).
- Directly state the areas of your application you believe may be of concern to the admissions committee.
Then, for each trouble area of your candidacy, follow this structure:
- Restate the trouble area. e.g. My undergraduate GPA is 3.1.
- Tell them why this problem occurred. Don’t point fingers or try to put blame on others. Dispassionately explain what happened and take personal responsibility. Be sure to be diplomatic and tactful in your response. For example, don’t write “I was partying too much my freshman year of college,” because that’s troubling to AdComs and no one wants to hear that. Instead, you can get the same point across by saying something like, “I was still maturing and adjusting to the multiple demands of college.”
- Tell them what you learned from this experience. What did you learn about yourself as a leader, student, and/or member of a community?
- Tell them what you have done since then to remedy this problem. This is where you show that you are a proactive problem-solver.
- Tell them what you will do if this problem seems to be a threat during your time at Harvard. What resources on- and off-campus will you use to make sure you continue to excel academically, personally, and professionally during your time at Harvard?
Lastly, end your optional essay with an optimistic and confident statement of your enthusiasm for the program and your gratitude for their consideration.
Voila! You have an optional essay worth reading. Now you can move on to writing the essays that are required for you to get into your dream school.
We’d love to edit your optional essay for your dream grad school. Visit our Essay & Resume Editing page to learn more about our editing services.