Disclaimer: My advice cannot guarantee your entrance into Heller. I’m only an MPP student who has seen the values of The Heller School up close. I’ll show you what I think made my essay a success, now knowing Heller a bit better. This essay reflects my own views as a student and is no way the official guidance of The Heller School.
So, you’re applying to graduate schools and have to convince each school why you’re the ideal applicant. Easy, right? Who doesn’t love talking about themselves?
Me. I don’t. (Which is ironic considering I’m always blogging…)
Luckily, grad school apps are less about “What makes you special?” and more about “What makes what you want to do special?” And if you’re applying to a graduate program, you probably have a good reason for it. So here’s my advice on how to make that reason shine:
- Ground Yourself: What brought you here?
What inspired you to go for this degree? Did a professional experience show you the cracks in the system and make you realize that a graduate degree could help you mend those cracks? Or were you so inspired by your undergraduate studies that you want to continue your learning and fine-tune your expertise in order to make a greater impact? Or maybe it was a personal interaction that opened your eyes to all that could be accomplished with a graduate degree? Either way, help the reviewers understand why you want this degree.
For example: I spoke about the two communities that molded me: East Timor (where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer) and the Black community in West Virginia (my home). I expounded on some of the lessons I learned living and working in both of these communities and tied it a sector of policy that I hoped to research. I even included some policy research questions such as: “How does the use of excessive force by the police, and the policies that license it, inhibit the socioeconomic progress of Black Americans?”
- Be Honest: What do you know and what don’t you know?
We all come to graduate school with our own expertise. Even if you don’t think you’re an expert in anything, trust me, you know more about certain subjects than most of your peers! Believe that and use it. Show the review committee what you know by stating some facts (or, even better, stats). But no one knows everything about everything. And the review committee will certainly call your bluff if you claim that. So save yourself the trouble and admit to the concepts that you still want to learn more about. You could highlight a particular skill or subject, or you could post a research question to which you’d like to find the answer.
For example: I compared the poverty and disparities facing East Timor and West Virginia: 41% of Timorese live below the country’s poverty line, while 19% of all West Virginians and 31% of Black West Virginians live below the US poverty line. West Virginia only has a Black population of 3.6% yet we’re living in a poverty rate that is comparable to a country that is still trying to rebuild after decades of occupation. How is this so? Could it be a result of power dynamics in both regions?
- Say My Name, Say My Name: Who do you want to work with?
Graduate school is not just about the degree or the research you’ve completed; it’s about the connections you make and the things you learn from those around you outside of class. Apply for a program with a list of faculty in mind from whom you want to learn. Research professors from within and outside of your program in order to find the people with expertise most relevant to your interests. Naming faculty within your statement will show the reviewers that you’ve done your homework and that you’re ready to be in this program.
Pro Tip: Reach out to those faculty members before school starts. Heck, you could even reach out to them before you apply; chances are, they’ll answer! Faculty members aren’t usually the ones making admissions decisions, but if you’re interested in their research or you think they brought up a salient point in a recent interview, ask them about it! Being able to throw that conversation into an application shows great initiative. It worked for me, it can work for you too.
Good luck with your application! And remember, if you truly believe that you’re right for Heller (and I’m sure you are), make that shine through your whole statement!