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.