Quick Tips for the Harvard Kennedy School MPA/ID Application Essays

Post written by The Art of Applying consultant Nanako

This post begins with the essay prompts for the HKS MPA/ID application and then shares some quick tips on how to tackle each essay prompt.

Essay Prompts for
HKS MPA/ID 2016-2017 Application

Source: Harvard Kennedy School MPA/ID Website

The MPA/ID application includes several essays.

1. The Admissions Committee is interested in your academic, professional and personal development. A copy of your resume or CV is sufficient, including the following information: employment held including titles of jobs, start/end dates, responsibilities, salary (please include any gaps in employment history); academic degrees, achievements and honors; volunteer, public service, political work you have done; recent leadership experiences and awards; extracurricular activities and interests.

2. 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 (250 word limit, optional).

3. 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).

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

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

6. 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 catalogue or online course catalogue are preferred.

Joint HBS/HKS applicants are asked to complete an additional essay explaining how they expect the joint degree experience to benefit them on both a professional and a personal level (400 word limit).


The MPA/ID program is an incredible program that attracts brilliantly talented yet down-to-earth people who are all extraordinarily passionate about making the world a better place.


Quick Tips for Tackling the
MPA/ID Essay Prompts

The MPA/ID application requires quite a few essays. Here are some pointers, following the numbering above.

1. MPA/ID CV Tips

  • Highlight your experience working in and/or commitment to the field of international development (ID), whether it be in the nonprofit, public, or private sector.
  • Focus on the impact that you’ve made in your role and organization, and make sure you can quantify it. How many $, communities, or people did you influence through your work?
  • Remember to include all information the admissions committee asks for. I see too many CVs without salary figures.

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2. Optional essay on prior academic performance

  • Submit the optional essay if you have real areas of concern in your application that you want to address.
  • Don’t use this essay to introduce new information about yourself or try to sneak in an extra essay about your goals and accomplishments.

3. Personal statement on why international development and the importance of analytic skills in your career

  • This is the most important essay, so spend the most time on this one. There aren’t many policy programs out there that are focused solely on international development, particularly with a heavy econ/math focus. Therefore, it’s very easy for the admissions committee to know if you’re trying to use an essay you wrote for another policy school. Don’t do it!
  • Reflect upon and discuss what the impetus was for you to want to dedicate your career to international development. Was it a personal experience that you’ve had, or a policy issue that you’re really passionate about? Whatever it is, clearly articulate how that has influenced you and how the MPA/ID will add value to the impact you make in your career.

4. Leadership essay

  • It’s best if you can discuss an event or experience while working in development. However, if you don’t have an experience from working in international development that you can use for the essay, or you have a better example from working in a non-ID setting, it is better to write about the latter. (In fact, I was in this camp and wrote my leadership essay about a consulting experience working in New York City with a client in financial services).
  • It’s not necessary to have a positive outcome from this event or experience. What’s most important is the process you undertook to influence someone or an outcome. What was the issue you were trying to address, and what was your  strategy to resolve it? Looking back, was there anything you could have done differently, even if the outcome was a success?

5. Policy essay

  • The policy essay/policy memo can either be an issue with which you’ve had direct experience, or a topic that you’re passionate about that you want to explore further while in school. For example, back when the MPP application required that you write a policy memo (this is no longer a requirement at HKS), Kaneisha wrote her policy memo on street children in Accra, Ghana in anticipation of the year she was going to spend volunteering in Ghana as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.
  • Whatever issue you pick, make sure it’s narrow enough for you to assess specific solutions. In other words, don’t pick a broad topic that results in an ill-defined and nebulous solution. Your topic should be specific enough so that you could state in one sentence the exact policy you would implement if you were a policymaker.

6. Fulfillment of (or plan for) prerequisite courses

  • Remember that you don’t need to have taken all these courses at the time of application; you just need a detailed plan on how you will fulfill the requirements before you start school in September.
  • Again, make sure you cover everything they ask for (I have seen many instances where people don’t follow directions)

7. (If applying for the HBS Joint Degree) Joint degree essay

  • HBS requires a joint degree essay as well. You do not need to submit the exact same essay for both schools (though you can). If you feel that you can make a stronger argument by highlighting a different experience or telling a slightly different narrative for HKS, you should do so (although maintaining some consistency in your story and goals across the two schools is important).

This is a lot to cover in one application, but I promise you that it will all be worth it. The MPA/ID program is an incredible program that attracts brilliantly talented yet down-to-earth people who are all extraordinarily passionate about making the world a better place, so if you have the opportunity to become part of the MPA/ID family, I highly recommend it.

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