The essays discussed below are for the MPP and the two-year 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 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.
Harvard Kennedy School 2019-2020 MPP & MPA2 application essay questions
For both MPP and MPA applicants
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. (600 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.
For MPP applicants
Describe a professional or academic episode that gave you a chance to use your personal strengths, revealed your personal weaknesses, or both. Then explain specifically how the MPP curriculum at HKS would leverage your distinctive abilities and/or fill gaps in your skill set as you equip yourself for your career goals. (600 word limit)
This is a behavioral question (asking about past experience, what you did) blended with a why-HKS question. In addressing the latter element, be consistent with learning needs and other factors relating to your goals (discussed in the JFK essay).
In choosing an experience to present (the event or episode), be strategic: use a story that shows you in an interesting and relatively high stakes situation that is relevant to your goals and also reflects an aspect of your experience, character, skill sets, etc. not highlighted elsewhere in the application. Also, ideally it would be fairly recent.
I suggest a simple structure: tell the story without a “fanfare” introduction – just jump into the narrative. As you write it, include your thoughts, concerns, and decisions at pivotal points, not just I-did-this-I-did-that. Then identify the strength(s) and/or weakness(es) this experience revealed and discuss how the HKS program will either leverage the strength or fill gaps in skills in a way that will prepare you for the goals cited in the preceding essay. In this part, refer to specific elements and components of the program, and relate them to specific learning needs or strengths you want to develop further. Show your familiarity with the details and the mission of the program.
Do not shortchange the second part. I suggest somewhere between fifty-fifty story and why-HKS to two-third story and one-third why-HKS.
For 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? (600 word limit)
This is a pure why-HKS-MPA question. Your goals 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.
For insight into what HKS is looking for in applicants, check out this video clip from our recent podcast interview with Director of Admissions, Matt Clemons:
Harvard Kennedy School optional essay questions
Optional 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. (400 word limit)
Well, this doesn’t seem so optional to me…! Seriously, I can’t imagine not doing this essay, it is such a lovely opportunity to round out your profile, show unique and distinctive aspects of your life experience – approach this essay with pride and passion. It will give a shot of energy and 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.
Select your topics – anywhere from one to three, as more than that will be too many for meaningful discussion of each – and root each one in anecdote and example. Consider topics that will both expand and enhance your profile and align with and support your “case” for admission delivered in the required essays. Don’t shortchange the reflection about the contribution: after all, it’s not the fact that you have or bring a certain type of diversity; it’s the insight and perspective and perhaps growth you’ve gained from it that ultimately make it meaningful to the adcom and future classmates.
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).
For expert guidance with your Harvard Kennedy School application, check out Accepted’s Grad School Admissions Consulting services, which include comprehensive guidance from an experienced admissions consultant. We’ve helped hundreds of applicants get accepted to top programs and look forward to helping you too!
Harvard Kennedy School 2019-2020 MPP & MPA2 application deadline
Deadline for both programs: December 3, 2019 at 5 p.m. EST.
***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