Interview with Matt Clemons, Director of Admissions for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government [Show Summary]
Matt Clemons is the Director of Admissions for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and he shares what the school is looking for in its applicants, what to expect while in the program, and some of the exciting things current students and alumni are doing to make an impact on society. If you are driven to solve the problems of public policy and society, take a closer look at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
The Harvard Kennedy School of Government: Everything You Need to Know [Show Notes]
It’s been almost three years since we last had on Admissions Straight Talk, Matt Clemons, Director of Admission, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Matt entered the admissions field at Manhattan School of Music and subsequently served for five years as Director of Admission and Financial Aid at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. He joined HKS in 2011 as Director of Admissions and has been there for the last roughly eight years.
Can you please give an overview of the HKS MPP program for those listeners who may not be so familiar with it? [2:10]
The MPP can be framed against MBA and JD programs, in that they all are teaching you to engage in professional issues. The MPP is teaching a skillset to help people solve problems, and is not traditionally academic (being concerned with theory and research), rather learning those skills to solve problems. In many ways the program is similar to business school – you learn negotiations, management, quant analysis, leadership, persuasion, communications, etc. – but the case studies, internships, and work people engage in will focus on how public policy impacts peoples’ lives, in the private, non for profit or government sectors.
How do the MPP, the Master’s of Public Administration, and the MPAID (MPA Int’l Dev) differ? [3:31]
One of the things policy schools didn’t do is come up with one acronym used across the industry like business schools did with the MBA. I don’t want people to get confused across acronyms, but the MPAID program takes quant analysis to a deeper level, specifically to help figure out how developing economies can be managed in a way to integrate them into the global economy. Graduates tend to work for multilateral organizations like the IFC, World Bank, or IMF. 75% of the students are outside of the US, and the program is constructed with that in mind. It has uniquely rigorous quant – the first year is similar to what a first year PhD in economics would be studying.
The MPA is typically for people who have either already been to graduate school or been admitted to a partner school. Since students are pursuing a concurrent or dual business degree, many go on to careers in the private sector to figure out how businesses can have a positive influence on society.
What is the Mason Program or cohort in the Mid-Career MPA? [6:30]
The Mid-Career MPA is a one-year program for individuals in developed economies. The Mason Program has essentially the same curriculum, but is for people from developing economies. The Mason Program students spend an extra two weeks on campus at the beginning in sort of a boot camp, as many may not have studied in an environment like HKS before, but the only real difference in programs is citizenship.
What is the difference between joint, concurrent, and dual degree options? HKS offers all 3. [7:30]
The joint degree programs are only within Harvard (with the business school and law school), and the faculty from both schools have gotten together and decided on what they want students to engage in – a particular set of courses/requirements/schedule.
There is no difference between the concurrent and dual degrees, but they are flexible, less-organized and the other program is outside of Harvard – for example, MIT Sloan is just down the street. There is no particular set of courses that faculty have come up with in advance. Essentially faculty from the two schools will work together to put together course requirements.
All three degree programs require one less year of enrollment than if the programs were done separately, so going from 5 to 4 years for the JD program, and 4 to 3 for business school.
There is no joint or concurrent admissions process. Students will have to apply to each school separately. If they are not admitted to the other school but are admitted to Kennedy they are welcome to start in our program and then reapply to the other school that next year, but everything is handled separately.
What percentage of students take advantage of these 2-degree options? [12:51]
It’s about 20% of our two-year students, so a healthy percentage.
What’s changed at HKS in the last 3 years? [13:04]
There is a very strong emphasis on social innovation, and we started a social innovation lab which now has a fellowship program to fund students who want to start an enterprise, so not offering traditional financial aid but really funding to start the enterprise going. They also receive assistance from faculty and alumni. Digital HKS is our foray into ensuring policy makers are up to date with what’s going on with technology. Business is out to disrupt and government is typically playing catch up. We are hiring faculty and trying to attract students with backgrounds in technology, engineering, and computer science to figure out what technology means for public policy. For example, one big issue is autonomous vehicle policy – we need people with an understanding of that technology to figure out implications for society.
What is something really cool that a recent HKS grad is doing? [14:52]
Some alums started Turbo Vote, which is trying to solve the problem of when people are separated from their locale (from Los Angeles but going to school in Boston, for example) and finding it difficult to sign up to vote. Another example is one a current student is involved in. George Clemment started Just Fix NYC before coming to HKS. It is an app people can use to report issues with landlords and neglected living conditions. He is now looking to take the program to other cities. He entered into the President’s Innovation Competition (each year the president of Harvard gives $500,000 to students who want to solve sticky public problems) and he got a check for $75K.
What are you looking for in applicants across all your degree programs? [16:50]
There are two questions the adcom wants to have answered:
- Can you learn what we teach? So you need to have fluency in numbers, there is lots of reading, and you need writing skills.
- Do you fit the DNA of what The Kennedy School is about, which overall is leadership and service. Have you engaged in things that have developed your leadership skills, have you engaged in something larger than yourself – being involved in an election, spending some time in a nonprofit, for example.
What advice would you give someone who is looking to make a career switch? [18:30]
You can be very successful in your career and have a transferrable skill set. For example there was an investment banker who said, “I have been spending my career helping people who have money make more money, and want to transfer that to helping people without money.” There was another with a career in consulting and marketing who wanted to transition to the public sector. She ended up with an internship with the mayor’s office here in Boston and started “City Hall to Go” – she transitioned a police van into a mobile government office. We are looking for people who are creative, and looking to apply their skills in new ways, to say it and back it up with involvement we can see through their resume and letters of recommendation.
What are you looking for in terms of academic experience, work experience, and other kinds of experience? [20:34]
The work experience doesn’t really make a determination one way or the other, it is more the story of the work experience. For the academic portion we look at the transcript, test performance, and professional development. Again, it’s can they learn what we teach – they don’t have to be a brilliant academic. It is really the story – all elements are puzzle pieces.
What gets you excited about an applicant? [23:29]
I’d say leadership development makes one stand out. Someone who has taken initiative, risks, is creative, and has put themselves in a place that challenges them to develop those skills. We are also looking for what they will be able to contribute, as there is lots of group work. We also want them to be good consumers while here, so the more work experience, the more exposure, the more quickly they identify courses, extracurriculars, etc., that will align with their long term career ambitions. One complaint from alumni is that the program goes by so fast. They hit the ground running while here, and being already engaged is good.
What is a turn off? [24:59]
I would say the word contrived – if something in an essay could have been taken from our website, that’s a big turn off. The admissions committee is very familiar with The Kennedy School. What we are looking for is info about the applicant and how their passion, previous background, and other things relates to them wanting to be here. Being trite, or listing things we are familiar with is worthless. Another pet peeve is people who quote people in their essays – we want to hear from the applicant!
Any plans to change the essays this year? [27:16]
We have no plans to change them. We will be adding a biographical prompt for the MPP. We experimented with this last year with the MPA program. With people coming in sometimes with decades of experience across so many different industries/background, it can be jarring reading resumes from an admissions perspective when people are so different, and there is acronym soup. We added something essentially to summarize their professional development. Nothing deeply psychological, just an opportunity to address their professional trajectory before we see the resume to give some context.
HKS required 3 recommendations. That’s a one more than most masters programs. Why? [28:44]
We are looking for a 360 degree view with the LOR. So what is recommender A going to say that is different from B and C? There will be overlapping themes for sure, but we encourage people to think about what each recommender is going to say and how that will differ. The two categories people think of typically with recommendations are academic and professional, but recs don’t have to come exclusively from someone who has graded you or does your performance review. I inherited the three letters when I started here, and the adcom has not advocated for any change. It is useful from that perspective.
Your brochure says that interviews at HKS are not required, but that the admission committee may “contact applicants on a case-by-case basis.” When would you contact an applicant? Would that contact become an interview or would it be more like to ask for clarification about something in the app? [30:28]
It could be for clarification, but the most common reason we contact applicants is to verify English language ability. Maybe they took a lot of English classes in college but the TOEFL score is low. Sometimes there are complaints about the microphone or something like that, but obviously we need to make sure students can operate successfully in an English language environment.
If someone is planning to apply this cycle, what advice would you have at this point in time? [32:19]
Following the admissions blog is a good piece of advice – we have student stories, alum stories, and application advice. Visiting campus would also be great. Virtual information sessions are available as well. There is no mystical thing that will make them a better applicant other than to take advantage of all the resources. We also lead information sessions across the US and around the world.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [33:47]
Money! We do have a pretty sizable financial aid budget, so don’t be scared by the sticker price. Over half the students attending are receiving some form of aid. Another healthy percentage are receiving sponsorship. There are two months to apply for financial aid after submitting the application, there are fellowships and so forth, so don’t let cost scare you away from considering the school.