The essays discussed below are for the MPP and the two-year MPA applications. (The MPA/ID and the MC/MPA and Mason’s program have different prompts.)
HKS seeks well-rounded master’s students – people with proven academic success, strong leadership and career potential, and “commitment to advancing the public interest.” 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 significant contributor during the program and later in your career. 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.
Further, HKS seeks students who embrace change. The website notes, “Our programs will change you. They are changing the world through the outstanding leaders and dynamic ideas that come out of HKS.” This “change” theme is echoed in the mandatory essay questions. Keep this emphasis on change on your radar as you work through your essays. Showing you can change and grow strengthens your credibility for goals that involve driving change externally – i.e., you are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.
Harvard Kennedy School 2020-2021 MPP & MPA application essay questions
MPP and MPA mandatory personal history essay
Diversity of all kinds (race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, physical abilities, political philosophy, intellectual focus, socioeconomic status, geographic and many others) is important to enriching the educational experience at the Kennedy School. Please share with us anything in your background or life experience that has shaped your perspectives and how that would contribute to the classroom and community at HKS. (250 word limit)
This essay is a lovely opportunity to round out your profile and to show unique and distinctive aspects of your life experience – approach this essay with pride and passion. It has potential to give deeper color to the whole application.
I’ll start with some don’ts: Don’t write a mini autobiography. Don’t talk about your love of travel. Don’t fear to present topics that are often considered no-no’s, like religion and politics (there is of course a right way and a wrong way to discuss such things). Don’t drench the discussion in buzz words and abstractions (the topic of “diversity” has a tendency to bring these out).
Select your topics – anywhere from one to three, as more than that will be too many for meaningful discussion – and root each one in anecdote and example. Consider topics that will both expand and enhance your profile and support (directly or indirectly) your “case” for admission delivered in the other essays. Add a brief reflection about the contribution, as it’s not the fact that you have a certain type of diversity; it’s the insight and perspective you’ve gained from it that ultimately make it meaningful to the adcom and future classmates.
MPP and MPA expectations essay
Describe a time when you did not meet expectations and elaborate on how the experience changed you. (250 word limit)
The adcom is clearly seeking out people who are able to grow and change – in this case, in response to a failure of some sort. That requires understanding one’s shortcomings related to not meeting expectations. Choose a specific example/story (if well in the past, make sure it’s weighty to justify the distance) and tell the story. And, whose expectations? It could be someone from any realm: a friend, a colleague or work superior, a professor, etc. – or you. “How it changed you” can be part of the story – ideally include some action taken as a result of the change, not just “realized” or “understood” or “broadened perspective.”
MPP and MPA perspectives essay
Describe a time when interactions with others and/or an experience caused you to change your mind or expanded your point of view. (250 Word limit)
There’s that word again – change. This time, it’s about a time you changed in response to an experience or interactions (expanding your point of view is also a form of change). And, again, approach the essay straightforwardly, as a story, narrating what happened and your growth as a result of it. If possible, include some action taken as a result of the change, beyond “merely” increasing your understanding in some way.
MPP and MPA JFK essay
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. (500 word limit)
This is essentially a vision-and-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:
- 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 clear idea of what constructive change means to that person.) And cite specific impacts you intend to deliver through your service. Make it concrete. These results 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 issue. Show your engagement with and knowledge of the region or issue by employing anecdote and detail.
- 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.
- 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.
Essay for MPP applicants
The MPP curriculum is designed to broaden students’ perspective and sharpen skills necessary for a successful career in public service through a rigorous set of courses that draw on the social sciences but are adapted for action. Please describe how the MPP curriculum at HKS would leverage your distinctive abilities and/or fill gaps in your skill set as you equip yourself to achieve your career goals. (500 word limit)
You’ve delineated your career vision and plant in the JFK essay. Based on these goals, what are your relevant distinctive abilities and your skills gaps? Don’t just cite these facts; provide brief examples or anecdotes of at least some and make specific how they relate to your goals. It’s an opportunity to strategically showcase some of your experience. Finally, describe how the MPP program will enhance your existing abilities and fill in the gaps – always in the context of your goals, keeping in mind the practical nature of the program: how it will help you leverage your strengths and gain requisite skills/knowledge to effect desired change.
Essay for two-year MPA applicants
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? (500 word limit)
Here too, your goals cited in the JFK essay 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 elements you cite to your goals, learning needs, and/or broader professional growth and development.
Optional essay question (MPP & MPA)
If you have any concerns about your prior academic, professional, or personal background that 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 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).
Harvard Kennedy School 2020-2021 MPP & MPA2 application deadline
|Application deadline for both programs||December 8, 2020|
|Financial aid deadline||February 4, 2021|
Source: Harvard Kennedy School website
***Disclaimer: Information is subject to change. Please check with individual programs to verify the essay questions, instructions and deadlines.***After a successful career in business publishing, Cindy Tokumitsu has worked for the past 15+ years with Accepted, every year helping clients get accepted to top MBA, law, and med programs. She is a pioneer in the niche of EMBA application consulting. Want Cindy to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch with Cindy Tokumitsu.
- 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Grad School Statement of Purpose, a free guide
- Harvard Kennedy School: An Interview with Admissions Director Matt Clemons, a podcast episode
- Different Dimensions of Diversity, a podcast episode