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Harvard Kennedy School Application Essays Sample

2017 Application Long-Term Planning Series - Post #9

The application for 2017 Master’s admission consideration will not be available until early September, however in this entry we are happy to provide prospective applicants with the application essay prompts for the upcoming application cycle.

Advice on writing effective essay responses will be offered in the coming months on this blog. For example, in a series of entries I will revisit essays submitted last year and blog my reactions and thoughts. I thought I would also use this entry to address a few frequently asked questions regarding essays.

First, we are frequently asked if there is a place on the application to include information important for the Admissions Committee to consider that does not fit nicely into essay prompts. On the application we do offer applicants to all programs the opportunity to submit such information in an optional statement and the text for the statement is noted below.

Second, we are frequently asked if we will provide sample essays. We do not provide sample essays. I think sharing samples would likely do more harm than good. In my case, when I see a sample of something it is hard to get the sample out of my head. Following sample essays is not a good idea because you want your essays to be distinctly YOU, something that will leave a lasting image in the mind of the application readers.

Third, many applicants ask if the word limits are firm and the answer is a definitive “yes”. The Admissions Committee does not look favorably upon applicants who do not honor the word limits. 

Please also remember that application requirement information can be accessed on our web site. Without further ado, here is the text for the optional statement and required essays for the 2017 application cycle.

All Programs - Optional Statement

If you have any concerns about your prior academic, professional or personal background you would like to share with the Admissions Committee, please provide an explanation. (250 word limit)

MPP and Non-Degree Essay Prompts

Essay 1: 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. (600 word limit)

Essay 2: Describe a professional or academic episode that gave you a chance to use personal strengths, and/or revealed personal weaknesses.  Then explain specifically how the MPP curriculum (or overall curriculum for Non-Degree applicants) 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)

MPA2 Essay Prompts

Essay 1: 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. (600 word limit)

Essay 2: 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)

MPA/ID Essay Prompts

Essay 1: Discuss your decision to choose international development as your professional career. Also, explain how developing your analytic skills relates to your career in development. (750 word limit)

Essay 2: Describe an event or experience in which you exercised a significant decision-making, management, or leadership role. (750 word limit)

Essay 3: Describe a public policy or public management problem related to international development and analyze a range of solutions. (750 word limit)

Essay 4: At least one college level course in microeconomics, macroeconomics and multivariable calculus must be completed before enrollment. Statistics and linear algebra are desirable, but not required. Explain how you have met these requirements, or how you propose to meet them before enrolling in September. Please include descriptions of mathematics courses you have taken that covered calculus and multivariable calculus, as well as descriptions of any courses whose titles do not clearly indicate the content (e.g. Mathematics II or Advanced Mathematics). Official descriptions copied from your college’s course catalog or on-line course catalog are preferred.

MC/MPA and MC/MPA Mason Essay Prompts

Essay 1: Submit a statement that discusses your career goals, as well as the factors that led you to select the Mid-Career MPA program as a means of furthering your personal and professional goals. Be as specific as possible in describing how your expected course of study will enable you to build on your prior professional experience and achieve these goals. (750 word limit)

Essay 2: Describe your most substantial professional and/or public service contribution in which you exercised a significant leadership role in furthering the public good. (750 word limit)

Joint Degree with HBS or HLS Essay Prompt (for MPP and MPA/ID applicants only)

How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 word limit)

Concurrent Degree Essay Prompt - for applicants applying to an approved partner institution which allows the pursuit of a concurrent degree. For a full list of partner institutions, click here. No matter how many partner programs an applicant will be applying to, there is only one opportunity to respond to this prompt.

How do you expect the concurrent pursuit of another professional Master’s degree to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (250 word limit)

Final Note on Joint/Concurrent Essay Prompts

Please note the response to the Joint/Concurrent essay prompt is in no way a replacement or substitute for the program essay prompts - the response is in addition to the program essay prompts. If an applicant is applying to both a joint degree program partner school (HBS or HLS) and a concurrent degree partner school, the joint degree program essay prompt will take priority and will be displayed instead of the concurrent degree essay prompt.

In other words, applicants applying for a joint degree with HBS or HLS will only see the joint degree program prompt, even if also applying to a concurrent degree partner school, and should specifically write on the benefit(s) of the joint program(s) only.

If an applicant is applying to varied joint/concurrent professional programs (e.g. law and business) the prompt will only be displayed once and it is up to the applicant to determine how best to respond. For those applying to different programs, for example law and business, it is wise to address both types of programs, but it would not be necessary to address each individual school.

Series Links

Post #1 - Series Introduction
Post #2 - Pause Points
Post #3 - Letters of Recommendation Advice - Planning
Post #4 - Choosing Letter of Recommendation Writers
Post #5 - Email Address Advice
Post #6 - Academic Transcripts
Post #7 - Official Test Score Reporting
Post #8 - Letter of Recommendation Instructions
Post #9 - Essay Prompts
Post #10 - Resume/CV Advice
Post #11 - Quantitative Resume/Statement
Post #12 - Application Flow Chart
Post #13 - Financial Aid Application and Deadline
Post #14 - Piecing Together an Application

This post originally appeared on the Accepted blog.


Today’s guest is Matt Clemons, Director of Admissions at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s joining us to discuss the programs HKS offers and what it takes to get accepted. Welcome, Matt!

Can you give us an overview of the MPP program? [1:25]

The MPP is the largest master’s program at HKS. It’s a 2-year, full-time, early career program. There’s a strong focus on giving people a set of skills to address real world problems. Students complete a professional project (rather than an academic thesis).

Students have an average of 3 years of work experience before starting the program. Work experience is important – it helps students make informed decisions and also prepares them to contribute to the program (there’s a lot of group work).

How do the MPA and the MPA/ID differ? [2:50]

The programs are similar in structure: core curriculum in the first year, professional development in the summer, and a professional project in the second year. For the MPA/ID program, the professional development is in a developing country or with a development organization. The coursework for the MPA/ID is very quantitative: similar to what a first year PhD student in economics would do – with an emphasis on practical applications to challenges that are faced in the developing world. They touch on theories, but the focus is on solutions in a developing world context.

What’s the difference between the MPP and MPA? [4:18]

The acronyms shouldn’t confuse people. The programs provide similar skillsets.

Broadly, a public administration program focuses on a macro-level overview, and MPP programs are more technical. But students can structure and tailor their programs to address the problems that they see.

What is the mid-career program? [5:45]

The mid-career program is a 1-year MPA. It draws some people who’ve been public servants, and some who are making the move from the private sector to the public sector. We require 7 years of work experience, and the average is 13.

You have joint programs with HBS and HLS. Is HKS also a case-based school? [6:35]

It’s a mix. The faculty teach to their strengths. You’ll encounter cases in the classroom, but it’s not the predominant teaching method.

What distinguishes the MPP from an MBA? [7:52]

Policy degrees teach candidates tools to manage strategies and policies that impact people and populations. Similar to what one would learn in b-school, MPA students learn economics, policy analysis, and quantitative analysis.

In b-school, students learn similar analytical skills, but they’re focused on the bottom line. In policy programs, your bottom line is society’s bottom line.

HKS offers lots of joint degree opportunities (law, med, business). Why might an MBA want both degrees? [11:50]

The intersection of business and government is increasingly important. Also, people are interested in being social entrepreneurs – outside the traditional channels of non-profits – they want to create their own opportunities to make a difference in society.

We have a new social innovation fellowship to help students start their own companies.

In general, policy professionals should be able to speak with people across fields.

HKS offers joint degree programs within Harvard (HBS, HLS) and concurrent degree programs with few schools at Harvard and with several outside of Harvard (MIT Sloan, Stanford, etc). How do concurrent programs work? [13:30]

All concurrent programs require two separate applications – there are no shared committees or shared evaluations (even for programs within Harvard). We don’t look at applications together with the other programs.

If an applicant is accepted to both programs, they let us know they want to pursue both programs, and we give them a contract.

If you’re not admitted to the second program, you can reapply during your first year at HKS (except for HBS).

Where do HKS grads get jobs? [17:25]

There’s no such thing as a typical grad. But about a third of our grads work in the public sector, a third in the non-profit sector, and a third in the private sector.

One recent grad of the MIT Sloan-HKS program is working for Deloitte – technically in the private sector – but she’s working on a public sector project. So many of our grads cross sectors like that.

Do a lot of grads spend some time in various sectors? [18:45]

One example: A mid-career grad who had a career in government (White House, Pentagon, etc.) is now the CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he has a reputation for building strong ties between the franchise and the local community.

Is there a recent grad whose experience typifies the opportunities HKS opened up? [20:35]

We had a student who worked in marketing and consulting before coming to HKS, and was interested in government. She got a job in the Boston mayor’s office, working on a task force related to citizens’ relationship to government. She helped create “City Hall To Go”—a mobile government office. (Now there are two mobile units.) She’s still working in the mayor’s office – now working on pay equity initiatives.

What is HKS looking for in its applicants? [23:15]

Four things:

1.Public service: A track record of service and contribution.
2.Leadership: People who are established as leaders. (Not measured by your title, but by your impact.)
3.Quantitative aptitude: We want to know you can do the work.
4.Work experience:  we want people to be making decisions based on experience in the real world.

What about grades and test scores? [25:20]

The real issue is: can you learn what we teach? And do you fit what the Kennedy School is about?

We don’t have cut-offs, and we don’t publish average GPAs or test scores.

It doesn’t mean a lot if you have great test scores and a 4.0 without a track record of public service and leadership.

We do look at ranges: approximately the top third on the GRE or GMAT. But it’s not the critical component in admissions.

What are the top “pause points” when you review an application? [29:40]

Since 50% of our applicants are international students, for those candidates, we pay particular attention to their English abilities to make sure they can keep up the pace.

For all applicants, we want to make sure they have the quantitative skills to succeed. HKS is a very extracurricular-oriented experience, and you won’t be able to take advantage if you fall behind. Each program asks for a quantitative resume or quantitative statement (we provide examples on our blog).

Finally, we’re looking for a real commitment to public service. If somebody’s compass isn’t pointed in that direction, that makes us pause.

When is the application available, and when is it due? [31:50]

It will be live in early September, and the deadline is December 1. The decision date will be in March. We provide regular updates and information on the blog.

Is there an advantage to applying early? [33:00]

We don’t start reviewing applications until after the deadline. But don’t submit at the last minute.

What are some common mistakes applicants make? [34:35]

The biggest mistake is not following instructions.

My pet peeve is people asking questions that are already clearly answered on the application or the website. We provide a lot of advice on the blog.

Another pet peeve: quoting Gandhi in your essay! I’m not trying to admit Gandhi to the Kennedy School – I’m trying to admit you.

What else should we know? [37:25]

My first job was as a fry cook at a Dairy Queen. I went to a public high school and saved money for college by working at a fast food restaurant. I borrowed money to go to a liberal arts college. I never had it in my mind that I would be working for an institution like Harvard.

I also share the story of being rejected from the Peace Corps – ultimately, the best thing that ever happened to me, because I ended up teaching English in Korea, where I met my wife.

Don’t let the name of the institution intimidate you. If you’re worried about cost, we offer nearly $25 million in financial aid. You miss 100% of the chances you don’t take. And if we say no, it doesn’t mean that other wonderful doors won’t open.


About Linda Abraham:

Accepted.com has guided thousands of applicants to acceptances at top universities since 1994 – they know what works and what doesn’t, so follow Linda Abraham on Google+ and contact Accepted to get started or visit Accepted.com for all your admissions consulting needs today!


Photo at top courtesy of Shutterstock.com / Marcio Jose Bastos Silva


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