To all future applicants, I hope this is as helpful to you as previous GradCafe posts were to me!
Program Applied To: (MPA, MPP, IR, etc.) MPP, MPA, MEM (Masters of Environmental Management) Schools Applied To: HKS, SIPA (MPA-ESP), Yale FES, UC Berkeley GSPP, UW Evans, Georgetown McCourt Schools Admitted To: All – HKS (full funding), SIPA ($30k), Yale FES ($12k/yr), UC Berkeley GSPP (no funding), UW Evans (~$15k stipend + in-state tuition rate), Georgetown McCourt ($20k/year) Schools Rejected From: None (I’m still in shock but really happy!) Still Waiting: N/A Undergraduate institution: Top 30 University Undergraduate GPA: 3.54 Last 60 hours of Undergraduate GPA (if applicable): 3.76 (worth calculating if you have not—schools like to see an upward trend. I had some rough intro science classes freshman year) Undergraduate Major: Biology, Environmental Studies, & Political Science GRE Quantitative Score: 161 GRE Verbal Score: 166 GRE AW Score: 5.5 Years Out of Undergrad (if applicable): 4 (3 at the time of applying) Years of Work Experience: 4 (3 at the time of applying) – this is full time, not including a bunch of part-time relevant internships I held in college Describe Relevant Work Experience: analyst in the environmental policy and economics branch of a consulting firm working with federal/state/local government agencies
Strength of SOP (be honest, describe the process, etc): Strong—I have had one policy area of interest since before high school (environmental policy), and almost everything I did throughout college and after was related to the environment. In my SOPs, I told the story of why I needed this degree to take the next step in my environmental career. I stated my goals very explicitly (within the first paragraph, I made sure to include a sentence saying “My goal is to X”). I then gave a brief explanation of what I’ve been up to at work, and then specific examples of career goals (the exact agencies I want to work for the roles I want to hold and WHY). Then I wrapped up each essay with a paragraph or two about the specific offerings at each school (professors, names of courses, final projects, etc.) and named names so that they knew I’d done my research.
I realize this is a fairly unique situation and most people have changing interests or less defined interests—my advice is to still just pick one specific policy area to focus your SOP on, even if you know that you’ll explore other interests in the program. Being as specific as possible will help you tell a convincing story, and will show that you have thought about how this degree is part of your overall story. For example, within the broad category of environmental policy, I focused my essays on how I want to work within state government on emissions trading programs that meet the goals of the Paris Accord.
I think the toughest but most important part of the SOP process is picking this specific problem that you want to solve. Also, I kept a notepad on my phone of ideas for my SOP that popped into my head on the bus, in the grocery store, wherever. That way I had them all in one place when I sat down to write! ?
I highly HIGHLY recommend reading the book Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher. I made sure to already have a draft before I read any of the sample essays so that I wasn’t intimidated by or influenced by other people’s work. That said, the intro sections gave me the extra push I needed to get my essay into shape! I found the book super comforting when I felt stuck or lost.
Also, whether or not you are applying to HKS, you should check out the HKS Admissions Blog. I found a ton of helpful tips there for not only my HKS application, but all of my applications. Go through the posts where they discuss old applications—I read through those after I wrote my first draft and made sure I hit all the “good” points that HKS discussed, and reworked anything they’d said they don’t like to see in an essay.
Strength of LOR's (be honest, describe the process, etc): Strong, I had my primary manager at work who has been close with me for ~4 years, my former boss from an undergraduate position who I kept in touch with (also relevant to MPP work), and a professor. After I got accepted, two of my letter writers voluntarily shared their letters with me, and I was so honored at what they had written and the time and effort they spent.
I decided who to ask around the end of June. I invited them each out for coffee once in July to let them know more about my plans. I did not ask at that time, because I wanted to gauge their level of interest and support of my grad school aspirations. I asked them around early-August to give them more than enough time to plan. Once they said yes, I gave them a packet of information that they could use to write the letter. The packet contained a basic cover letter (essentially an early draft of my SOP) explaining why I wanted to go to grad school; my resume/CV; samples of work (from the professor’s class), and a sheet listing my specific goals for each school as well as what each school is looking for. For example, I want to go to HKS because I am looking to work with Professor X and take Course Y and I want to do this specific extracurricular. All of them really loved the sheet because it allowed them to easily personalize each letter for each school.
Even though I took stats and econ in college, I decided to brush up on both subjects by taking online classes at my local community college. Because these classes counted for credit/had transcripts, I think it helped show the schools that I was still serious about classroom learning and willing to dive into quant work on day one. It was an expense though—if you can’t afford to take a credit class, maybe take a free online course and mention it in your resume.
Some schools (SIPA, HKS) asked for a quantitative resume and I spent a lot of time making sure that I hit most of the skillsets they are looking for. I gave specific examples of projects I’ve done at work.
I got in touch with professors at my top choice schools and asked them about certain classes, etc., and where possible I sat in on their classes. I also tried to visit as many campuses as I could before applying. This was tricky for those that were super far away, but by planning ahead I was able to visit my top choices. I found it helpful to talk with admissions officers and current students, and referenced what I learned from those conversations in my SOP.
You can do this!!! ? It takes a lot of planning and time management, and everyone has a slightly different approach. Do what feels right to you, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else if you can help it. Seriously consider if you would be happy at each school. Consider things like curriculum and job placement and professors’ interests, but also consider city/location and the vibe of the student body and proximity to family/friends if that is important to you. It’s important that you can see yourself being happy everywhere you apply!