Didn’t Get Into Your Public Policy Program and Thinking About Re-Applying? Here’s How to Re-Tool

Over the past few weeks, Masters in Public Policy Program(s) have released their admissions decisions. Not everyone got the news they were hoping for, of course, but if you’re considering applying again, then you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we talk through some of the most important steps you can take to boost your chances of success this coming year.

Harvard Kennedy School Says Consider Reapplying

To do so, we’ll draw on an extraordinary post that just appeared on the Harvard Kennedy School Admissions blog. The post was designed to help rejected applicants understand the rationale behind HKS’ decisions, but it also offers future applicants a rare window into the school’s process. Here’s some of what they have to say:

“Although we have different degree programs, the typical profile of an admitted applicant is very similar. The profile includes significant and/or unique work experience, a strong commitment to public service, a strong academic record, strong test performance, demonstrated leadership abilities, and potential for future impact.”

There are some important points to note here.

Do meaningful work, unique work

First, HKS is looking for people who’ve either done meaningful work, unique work, or both. There’s nothing wrong with being a year out of college and getting your feet wet with a big corporate internship or a Hill job, but those experiences aren’t the same as substantive, impactful years on the job. If you didn’t get the “Yes” you were hoping for this year, dig in deeper professionally, reflect on precisely how you hope to grow, and then consider re-applying.

Show your their dedication to public service

Second, HKS is looking for folks who’ve shown their dedication to public service. It isn’t enough to express interest, or to philosophize, or even to write a powerful analytical essay about what’s wrong with the system. HKS isn’t looking for folks who’ve been on the sidelines. They’re looking for folks who’ve been in the game for a while – and who want to get better.

This means expressing more than fuzzy service-oriented idealism. It means naming the precise challenges you face, and thinking clearly and strategically about how HKS can help you learn to address them in ways the working world can’t.

There’s a corollary here: the goals you express to HKS should be meaningfully related to the work you’ve already done. That’s not to say that if you’ve spent your career in health care, you’re stuck with it forever. But if you hope to shift into a substantially different policy area – criminal justice reform, say – HKS is going to need to see a throughline. How did your first set of experiences lead to this shift? Can HKS trust that you’ll follow through? How can you?

As you can probably tell, these kinds of ‘pivot’ candidacies are harder to pull off, but they’re still doable. You’ll just need a powerful story about the road that’s brought you here – and where you hope to go next.

Demonstrate leadership abilities

Third, HKS is seeking candidates with “demonstrated leadership abilities.” Now, this can mean serving in a prestigious organization like the White House or the World Bank. It can even mean getting elected to public office of some kind. But it doesn’t have to mean either of these things. There are lots of ways to show leadership, and HKS is interested in all of them – not just the visible kinds. (Two of the most interesting courses at HKS – taught by Marshall Ganz and Ronald Heifetz – are about what leadership really means. Another HKS professor – Barbara Kellerman – wrote a world-famous book on “followership.”)

When you write about leading, then, ask yourself what kind of leader you are. Do you lead out loud, through speeches and public debates? Or do you lead from behind the scenes, exercising influence in quieter, more intimate ways?

By now, you may have noticed a theme. Yes, there’s a generic HKS profile. A smart, dedicated, experienced, sharp CV. But that’s just a sketch. There are a million ways to color it in, and they all depend on examining how your life has led you to apply, and what it might mean for you and the communities you care about. And, of course, on expressing those insights in the richest, most compelling ways you can.

So if you didn’t get in this year, don’t fret. You’ve got nearly eight months to refine your application materials and present a more persuasive case. And we can help.

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