When I began to think about the graduate programs I wanted to apply to, I wanted to pursue my studies both in business studies, and in a field that will allow me to get exposed to concepts of economic development. I chose to apply to a few top business schools (like Harvard and Stanford) for an MBA, and also to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for an MPA/ID (Master in Public Administration in International Development). Once I decided on the schools, the next step was to understand the distinctive features of the schools and whether or not my experiences and interests resonate with them. This was the most difficult step in the entire application process, and I think it was the most important. Let me elaborate on how I went about doing this.

Every school is unique, and early on in the application process, it is important to understand what distinguishes each school, be it in terms of academics, culture, career services, geography etc. This is important not only to decide which school(s) you want to apply to, and ultimately attend, but also to help you introspect and flesh out elements in your personality that gel with what a particular school is looking for. I thoroughly studied the websites of my top schools and made detailed notes on what are the characteristics of the schools on various dimensions. Some such dimensions included how important academics are to the school, how much risk-taking is encouraged, what are the most important academic areas, how much flexibility if offered, what the profile of the jobs of the graduating students looks like etc. Once I had this analysis done, it was very easy for me to shortlist and rank my favorite schools, and I found that Harvard and Stanford were by far my favorite schools. I focus my efforts primarily on the application of these schools.

Next came the difficult part of self-discovery. I think a vast majority of people, including me, tend to give less than its due importance to this process. Initially, I had budgeted about 15 days to a month for finishing my essays from start to the final version. I had a disastrous start – at the end of three weeks, I had a pretty bad version of my essays. The first reviewer tore my essays apart, and it was clear I had to completely rethink my strategy and start afresh. Luckily, I had started early and still had a few months to go. I talked to several people and it was clear that I had to take care of three important things:

¶     Invest time in getting to know yourself: This was the fundamental mistake in my first effort, so I made sure I put in enough effort in self-discovery this time around. I literally made a list of all the important events in my life, right from childhood, and what each of those events had taught me. I also recorded my thinking and rationale behind each decision I had made. Once I did this, I was able to identify themes in my profile, such as my true strengths, weaknesses, passions, and aspirations. Once I had this well-organized list of various elements from my dissected life, it was easy to pick the right ones to plug into, and answer the questions that the essays posed. I would then weave them together into a coherent story.

¶     Have people give you feedback and advice: Most good applications have a significant difference in quality between the final version and the initial draft. The bulk of this difference comes from incorporating feedback from other people who are well-positioned to review your essays. I had two sets of people review mine – those who knew me well, and could give me very personal suggestions on whether or not the essays convey my personality as I want, and those who don’t know you well, but have gone through the experience and know what makes a good essay. Both were equally important, and I did approximately five thorough reviews before I felt my essays were finally getting into shape.

¶     Be a good story-teller: It is very important to be able to view your application through the admissions committee’s eyes, and present a cohesive picture. This requires careful, and sometimes painful drafting, and often taking hard decisions. Three things come to my mind in particular, from my experience. One, I realized it is important to present that side of every experience, that adds value to the overall quality of application, and not go into too much detail or lose sight of the big picture. Second, it is a good thing to have various parts of your application reinforce and triangulate the points made in other parts, not through repetition, but by complementing what has been said elsewhere. Third, and perhaps most important, before putting any word in the application, it is essential to weigh whether removing that word will lower the quality of your application – if not, it should not be there.

Of course, a successful application results from a mixture of many other important things, and not just the ones I talked about here. However, I think these were the areas where I thought I was the least informed when I started, so I thought sharing this would be helpful. Good luck applying!


© 2011, Prateek Singhal | Harvard Business School. All rights reserved.

Prateek Singhal | Harvard Business School

Prateek Singhal is a first year student at MPA/ID Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He shall then join the Stanford MBA program. Prateek did his B. Tech from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and had scored a rank of 6 in IIT JEE. Prateek’s application effort is distinguished by his unique work experience across strategy consulting and working under a Minister of State. Despite having a stellar profile, he too struggled through the same conundrum of his motivations for an MBA program, defining elements of his story, his strengths and his weaknesses. Before Harvard, Prateek was a project consultant on special projects with a young union minister. Earlier, he worked as Business Analyst with McKinsey’s Delhi office and worked on engagements across health care, agriculture and travel and logistics sectors. Prateek is an avid wildlife enthusiast (has visited several reserves in Africa & India) and traveler (has traveled about 20 countries). Prateek's TEDx lecture on "The Non Business of Businesses' can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP6M3bOoB0c