Tips to Strengthen your Application

Oct 06 2021
By Graduate Admissions Office

Each year, we are asked for tips on how to strengthen an application to SPIA and for feedback on applications from those who have previously applied. This blog highlights some of the main areas to think through in order to put forth a strong application to SPIA.



1. Public Service

We fund 100% of tuition, required fees, and health insurance for all SPIA students. We also offer a generous living stipend. SPIA leans heavily into our public service mission; indeed, it’s the ethos around which we revolve. Demonstrating a commitment to public service is the single most important thing an applicant can do. We think about public service broadly, but generally you can think about it as containing an aspect of helping others. We recognize service takes many forms, including across full-time professional work experience, internships, and volunteer efforts.

2. Appetite for Quantitative Coursework (especially for the MPA and PhD) 

We look for applicants that are willing and able to learn what we teach. Our curriculum is rigorous, but so too is our application review process. Not everyone will begin our program with the same background, but we believe everyone admitted to SPIA is capable of doing the work. We constantly look for applicants, especially to our MPA and PhD programs, that have demonstrated quantitative capacity—this may come in the form of a strong GRE score (for the MPA) or prior coursework at the undergraduate or post-graduate level. This may also come through demonstrated impact in the public sector.  

For those who may not have taken quantitative courses during their undergraduate experience, you may wish to explore a statistics, algebra, or microeconomics course at an accredited institution to help build a baseline foundation in these core quant skills. You can then add this information to your application.

For the MPA and PhD, we strongly recommend showcasing your quantitative skills in your application. We do not say this to deter you, but to prepare you for what to expect through the admissions process and in your first year as an MPA or PhD student.

We do not look at this as rigorously for the MPP (mid-career program) because other than the required quantitative coursework over the MPP Summer Program, there are no additional quantitative course requirements for the one-year program. MPP students are free to pursue these courses, but they are not a required part of the degree. MPP students are current and rising leaders in their respective fields and must have a minimum of 7 years full-time work experience to be admitted (most have more).  

3. Full-Time Work Experience 

We value full-time professional work experience because it helps to refine focus. We have seen how these value-added skills and experiences make students stronger classmates to their cohort; likewise, we have observed how students get more out of individual courses and overall from our programs. Please refer to our Viewbook to see an average number of years for work experience for each degree program. Some students do earn their admission with limited work experience, but most often these students are affiliated with a program that mandates enrollment in the year the award was given, like the Pickering or Rangel fellowships, to highlight two. 

Building on the theme of public service and how much we value it, we are also looking to learn what you intend to do after SPIA. In any given year, well over 85% of our graduating MPA and MPP students return to the public and non-profit sectors. The remaining individuals opt for additional schooling or work in the private sector, which SPIA defines to include work in the legal field, impact investing, social entrepreneurship and consulting of any kind, including in the public sector. 

4. Leadership 

We look for leadership. We look for impact. The more you can quantify and demonstrate each, the better.

5. Letters of Recommendation 

Pick your strongest three advocates. We want to read letters of recommendation from people who know you and your work in great detail. We don’t care about a household name or fancy title; we want your recommenders to be able to speak to your strengths and abilities with great authority and familiarity.  

6. Tell us your story

Tell us your story in an authentic way. Tell us your story in a way that only you can! Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear. We have small cohorts and there are far more deserving people than spots available. We look for individuals that will add to the composition of our community. To do that, we read each file individually and holistically. Reapplication is fine, even encouraged for those that believe the School is the right place for them.  

Ultimately, we know that most who apply will continue to make an impact and do well in their respective communities, regardless of whether they earn their graduate degrees at SPIA. We thank you for your interest in our community and look forward to reading the applications of those who choose to apply!

If you would like more information, please continue to watch this space, read our Viewbook, or sign up to attend one of our Virtual Information Sessions or Open House this fall. Keep up the great work!