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Prospective applicant looking for MPP advice

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Hey guys, hoping I can get some advice on here for my applications to MPP programs. I'm literally just starting the process and am simply looking for some advice/direction.

My application background is as follows:

Undergrad school: University of Chicago (degree in economics)

GPA: 3.1

Work Experience: currently two years in the private sector (both are fairly notable jobs). I'm currently a senior manager overseeing a $50M yearly advertising budget and two employees at a startup.

GRE: 168Q/162V w/ 5.0 writing

Volunteer/Public Service experience: none since graduating college. I was much more involved in volunteering in college (tutored for all 4 years) but once I started working, I didn't really have time nor was I planning on applying to MPP programs. 


I've come to realize that working in the for-profit space is not for me and will not satisfy me in the long-term. I'd like to transition to non-profit/policy/government roles, specifically in the econ development space. After graduating, I had always thought I would pursue an MBA or a business related masters (eg Masters in Financial Engineering) which is why I took the GRE and which is why I have very little volunteering/public service experience since graduating. I have a few questions that would be really helpful if answered:

(1) I believe the biggest holes in my applications are my GPA and my volunteering / public service experience. There is nothing I can do about my GPA now (hopefully my GRE scores can help offset) but in regards to volunteering / public service, I plan to get involved asap. However, if I am applying to graduate programs this fall, would 3-4 months of volunteering truly be enough to display my interest in transitioning from for-profit to non-profit work? If not, should I instead apply to programs in 2019?

(2) How should I approach letters of recommendations? What do admissions counselors look for? For my letters of recommendation, I never really developed genuine relationships with my professors from undergrad. However, I can absolutely get letters from my former supervisors. Although they can't speak to my ability to succeed in public service, they can speak to ability to succeed within an organization (quantitative, leadership, soft skills, etc). Is this enough?

(3) This might sound like a really stupid question but is it possible / normal to reach out to schools and ask to speak with their admissions counselors for advice? I live in SF and would love to reach out to admissions counselors at Berkeley but I'm not sure if this is a common practice. 

(4) I'd like to go to a program in or near NYC (my fiance lives there). Do you guys have any idea on what types of schools I should be focusing in on? Is Columbia SIPA a stretch for my profile?





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There's a sticky thread for these questions, dude. 

I don't think your application hinges on the volunteering. In fact, it (and the general lack of extracurriculars) would probably matter more if you were applying for MBAs. For MPAs, it's a little out of left field - volunteering isn't really relevant to professional civil service, especially in econdev. Volunteer if it's something you want to do for yourself or your community, but if you're just doing it to get into grad school, I'd advise you to invest your energy into better strategies. 

You're actually not as special a case as you believe. Lots of people get MPAs after working in the private sector (and go right back to the private sector afterwards). Lots of people come from a consulting or a government contractor background, which you could tie into public service somewhat, but people come from straight-up private enterprise as well. More importantly, a lot of people come from low-level admin or research assistant work. This is so you know the level of competition (it's not that high). I suspect you're also suffering a small misunderstanding of the purpose/scope of the MPA: it teaches you to be a bureaucrat. It has nothing to do with volunteering. 

If you want to work in econdev doing actual econ (and not legislative reform or development consulting), you need to be careful about what programs you choose. Firstly, it's difficult to get hired (these days) without a PhD, and even if you do, there's no telling whether you'll get to do actual economics (which is to say you won't, even if you have superior data analysis skills and know something about the theory - the field is dominated by economists, and we're cliquey). Most MPAs (with rare exceptions like HKS-ID) don't remotely prepare you for a PhD in econ. In this field, getting the masters is the first and the smallest hurdle.

The GPA is low, but if you asked me to choose one program where it's okay to have a 3.1, I'd say UChicago econ. You should probably have at least one academic letter, but it's a professional program, so supervisors are fine. Write a great personal statement about how the public sector would satisfy you or whatever and you should be in the running for SIPA or anywhere else.


is it possible / normal to reach out to schools and ask to speak with their admissions counselors for advice? 

duh. that's why they exist.

Edited by ExponentialDecay
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As for letters of rec, I didn't have any academic either as I've been out of school for over a decade.  I had strong recs from supervisors/colleagues and got in everywhere with good offers.

When applying you might want to think about cost.  If it's a factor then there's not many places more expensive than SIPA (cost of living included), especially since your profile won't scream scholarship for them.  If it's not a factor, lucky you.  Schools I got significant money from with a less-than-elite profile: UChicago, American U., Duke and Maryland.  No money from SIPA, Berkeley, GW or Texas-LBJ (though that last one was still cheaper than almost anywhere else).

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Your GPA is solid as Chicago Econ is considered as rigorous and grading is tough. Your GPA is mitigated by an excellent GRE, so adcoms know you can handle course work. Don't worry too much about volunteering, your private sector job was time consuming. There are other folks with private sector profiles.

Normally at least one academic LoR plus another from work supervisor

Yes, reach out to adcom and some schools have dedicated student ambassadors. I found them helpful and discussed about course work, grading, campus student jobs and career office's support for internship. It helped me to find the right fit with some schools and drop others.

Your choice depends on your academic interests and goals. There are more options than SIPA.

Good luck

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Hey, just went through the process in 2016-2017, and as someone who was also concerned with my lack of "traditional" policy/public service work, here's what I found: 

  • Certain programs will not ring true to you. You're a relatively unique candidate, which means you won't gel with every program. Contacting the admissions director is fine, I did it for two schools, Georgetown and Berkeley. Ended up only applying to the former, but was accepted with some funding, so I can't think the visit hurt. That said, in-person visits at the universities are infinitely more helpful than the simple phone call. 
  • On a related note, don't feel the need to apply to 8 schools. Certain schools provide funding, others do not. If funding is a concern, make sure you apply to at least 2-3 within the funding pot, but remember: these programs aren't law schools. They aren't nearly that competitive. Find a place you feel a good fit. 
  • When you find that fit, write the hell out of your Statement of Purpose. I spent close to three months drafting and redrafting, which was helpful because it 1) Gave me a much clearer idea of what I wanted to achieve in/after graduate school 2) Allowed me to create completely different essays tailored to the few schools to which I applied. This will also give you the chance to address your career shift. 

At the end of the day, you're going to be fine. If you're really worried about your GPA, apply to one or two extra schools to increase variance, but I would feel confident in the position you're in. 

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 6/4/2017 at 3:46 AM, xrubicon said:

(3) This might sound like a really stupid question but is it possible / normal to reach out to schools and ask to speak with their admissions counselors for advice? I live in SF and would love to reach out to admissions counselors at Berkeley but I'm not sure if this is a common practice. 

Totally not a stupid question. Having just graduated from an MPA program, I can say that people underestimate how "political" admissions to these programs can often be. Sometimes, students really do get in simply because they made the right connections at the right time. Obviously a certain bare minimum amount of qualification is still required -- but you have much more than just a bare minimum (that GRE score is really good for MPP/MPA programs). There were so many students in my program who had been around the area for a while, gotten to know an admissions committee person, and seemed to have gotten in (with funding!) through a route like that. Some others, too, had spouses/partners already enrolled in a program somewhere on campus, and the spouse/partner put them in touch with people to aid in admissions.

Really, admissions isn't quite as meritocratic as we all think. That's not to say that just ANYONE can get in, but it's a simple fact that if an admissions committee member has met you and thinks you meet the requirements, they're probably gonna choose you over someone else with similar qualifications.

So, go for it!

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