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August 22, 2008


This is the second of two posts on MPA/MPP Programs by Steve Green. To learn more about Steve's graduate admission counseling services, please click here.

To get the most out of this post, please read my previous post on applying to MPA/MPA programs, with particular attention to the section on getting started. You will make the best decisions about school selection only after you have a clear understanding of your specific strengths and needs (a process greatly facilitated by producing your resume or CV as I explain here.)

There really are no great shortcuts to the time-consuming process of selecting a graduate school that fits your needs. You are going to have to do extensive Internet searches as well as probably contact faculty and/or admissions offices at the programs that interest you, and, to the extent possible, talk to people in the field. With that in mind, here is how I suggest you determine where to apply:

  1. Where can you best acquire the skills you seek?

The field of public affairs has become highly specialized. The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration lists 9 types of public sector-related master degrees as well as 17 areas of specialization. Such specialization is to your advantage as you can probably find a program to develop fully your particular interests, but it also means you will need to do a lot of pre-application research for programs.

While all accredited MPA/MPP programs train students in the same core competencies of the field, there are important differences across programs, beginning with the degree name itself! The Maxwell School at Syracuse University offers a Master of Public Affairs, but not degrees in public administration or public policy, per se. The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard awards an MPA to those already in the public sector and to dual-degree candidates, and an MPP for everyone else. Start with collecting information about the differences in degrees at different schools. Information you should collect includes:

  • Specializations and/or dual degrees offered

  • Core curriculum and possible electives

    • What level of proficiency is expected in economics, math and/or statistics? See my previous post for more about this.

  • Is a Master’s thesis required?

  • Do students have to pass a comprehensive exam/s?

  • Time to completion of degree

  • Opportunities for internships or field work

  • Program affiliations with government offices, NPOs, NGOs, IOs

  • Required aptitude and skills tests (e.g. GRE or GMAT, TOEFL)

    • Minimum accepted test scores

  • Tuition

  • Costs of living

  • Scholarship and other funding opportunities for grad students

You should add or subtract any items to this list according to your needs.

With these topics to guide you, here are 3 good places to start your search (I suggest you read my notes next to each of them before you proceed to one of them):

  • NASPAA Searchable School Database: You can guide your search by selecting a degree type and area of specialization, as well as a US state if being in a particular region is a top priority for you. In fact, I recommend you break your search into more manageable parts by selecting a state. If you select ALL STATES you will get a very long list of schools.

When you visit a program’s website you will be able to learn details of the curricula, etc. You can also find links to information from the students themselves. For example, you can listen to a student at the Kennedy School of Government MPP program here.

Note that after you click on a school name you will be taken to a USN&WR page with contact information about the school. If you click on “Apply,” you will be taken to the program’s main page.

I saved the USN&WR ranking site for last because I want to say something about ranking and school selection. First, it is worth noting that 8 of the top 10 programs are NOT at Ivy League schools, though Harvard is second. I believe this outcome reflects a couple of facts, which you can read about at the end of this post if you are interested. Anyway, if you believe that whether or not an Ivy League school has a MPA/MPP program to be the most important factor, you may wish to examine the basis for that belief because, clearly, other schools have developed great MPA/MPP programs.

Program ranking is important: The USN&WR rankings are based on “responses of deans, directors, and department chairs representing 269 master's of public affairs and administration programs, two per school." In other words, the assessments of 538 professionals in the field probably mean something!

However, this does not mean that you should “chase” ratings, i.e. you should not base your decision entirely upon ranking such as deciding to apply only to the top five programs. Why not?

Why are 8 of the top 10 MPA programs at public universities? I believe the root of this answer is historically path dependent. Public universities were among the first to develop public affairs programs as the schools themselves were originally founded with more “practical” educational goals in mind (training students to become experts in various non-academic professions) than the classical education at the Ivy League schools through to end of World War Two. Furthermore, due to the high degree of specialization within the field of public affairs, particular departments at public universities have been able to develop niche expertise within a subfield of the discipline.


Fit is the most important criterion for selecting a graduate school – and for an admissions committee when selecting candidates. The pool of rejected applicants at the top MPA/MPP programs does not include only those with weak test scores, low undergraduate GPAs and/or poorly written essays. It also includes otherwise excellent candidates whose interests simply do not fit that particular program. Fit is the degree to which your strengths, interests and goals match a particular graduate program.

HOW DO I FIND MY FIT WITH A SCHOOL? First, go to the "GETTING STARTED" section in my previous post on the topic of applying for MPA/MPP programs and begin to assess your strengths and goals and start making your resume or CV.

Next, start looking for those programs that offer the most in terms of what you seek. “The most” may include any or all of the following; comprehensive core coursework, specialized programs (such as in environmental policy, urban planning, or international development, to name but three popular specializations among people with whom I’ve worked as an admissions consultant), internship opportunities, links to government, NGO, NPO or IO offices, or even particular scholars in your field.


While fit is important, the bottom line is that the bottom line is also important! In my previous post I provided links to information about public sector salaries and I noted that these are generally lower than in the private sector.

You are interested in working in the public sector so salary probably is not your primary professional motivator. Nonetheless, as I’ll explain, I think it is worth thinking about even for, nay, especially for people like you. Considering that someone with comparable training can earn more in the private sector, shouldn’t you seek to maximize your income after spending so much on your graduate educations?

One way to think about graduate school and salary is to think of the former as your investment and the latter as the return on that, i.e. the ROI. My colleague Adam has excellent information about ROI and the MBA degree that provides detailed information about average salaries of newly minted MBAs according to their institution.

I have not yet found information about average salaries for graduates based on program, but I think you should assume that, in general, grads from higher-ranked programs earn more, if for no other reason than that these programs tend to feed people into larger, higher profile public sector organizations. The best way to find out this information is to politely ask a faculty member or dean of a school to which you are interested in applying.

3. Where are the experts with whom I wish to work?

If you have been drawn into the field of public administration/policy by particular academic work, then you may wish to find out where the author(s) teaches. One important factor of fit includes the chance to work closely with an expert in your specialized interest. So, while searching programs, pay close attention to who is teaching in each program.

If you find someone you wish to work with, then you should:

  • Email that person, taking care to:

    • Write as concisely as possible

    • Include your resume or CV

    • Express your interest in the program in terms of:

      • A specific interest in something particular in the discipline (e.g. a database of environmental impact studies in the Willamette Valley in the state of Oregon)

      • The ability to work with this person, i.e. your wish to develop your expertise in the above interest under this person’s supervision)

    • Ask politely if he/she will be working with new students next year (i.e. the year you would start the program)

If there is not one person in particular whose work motivates you to the point that it is the main reason to apply that is fine. Master programs typically have high rates of turnover compared to PhD programs so there is little expectation that applicants seek an apprenticeship of sorts.

4. What can current students tell me about the program?

To the extent possible, once you have narrowed down your search to schools most likely to fit you, you should try contacting current graduate students. Many programs contain testimonials from students (such as the one at Harvard I’ve listed above) but it is safe to say you should not base your decision upon these.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Email current grad students: Many programs provide a link to a graduate student representative at their websites. If you contact these people with specific questions (i.e. do not ask, How do you like your program? Or, Is your program difficult?), then they will probably answer honestly, because they understand the position you are in now and because they have nothing to gain by presenting a falsely positive view of their program. If you cannot find a link to a graduate student address, then email or call the program’s office and ask if there is a graduate student representative you can contact.

  • Visit the school: Keeping in mind the costs, in terms of both time and money, that school visits consume, I strongly recommend visiting the programs that you are most interested in attending. Programs tend to be very accommodating to prospective applicants who visit them and will usually offer some or all of the following:

    • Time with a current graduate student, who will often provide a short tour of the campus

    • Time to talk to a faculty member and/or dean

    • The opportunity to visit a class

Some graduate programs will even invite those applicants they most want to attend their program.

If you visit a school prior to submitting your application, then you can mention specific things you learned from the visit that confirm your interest in the program. Visiting a program signals your seriousness as an applicant and is a great way for someone on the admissions committee to put a face and personality behind the information included in an application portfolio.

5. Choose your target schools

Applying to more schools than realistically fit you is a bad idea. Just how many programs should you apply to? That depends really on how many programs fit you. I suggest a three-level ranking for schools to which you apply:

  • Schools you are pretty sure will accept you

  • Schools you are less certain will accept you

  • Schools that will really difficult for you to enter

In one of these groups will be your “dream school,” the program you most want to enter. This list assumes that school is the most difficult to enter.

Only you know how well you can budget your time, but it is probably unrealistic to think you can submit applications, including essays, to more than 6-10 schools.

CONCLUSION: It’s about time!

It should be obvious from points 1-4 that selecting the best program will take time. Be sure to start your search NOW so that you can narrow your choice of programs as soon as possible in order to begin working on your statement of purpose (SOP), and soliciting letters of recommendation.

The SOP is the heart of your application. In my next two posts I will provide detailed advice for writing a SOP for MPA/MPP programs.

For questions regarding this post, please contact me at h.steven.green@gmail.com. To learn more about my graduate admissions consulting services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green, グリーン・ハロルド・スティーブン

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