Becoming an Outstanding Candidate


How do you beat the odds when the average acceptance rate to top 10 business schools in the US is ~15% and top 5 public policy schools is ~25%. You need to be outstanding! In general, school admissions be it graduate or undergraduate studies are looking at two main sources in evaluating their candidates: standardized test (i.e. GMAT, GRE, SAT) and essays. It is less likely that candidates are being outstanding on their standardized score. Standardized test is a hygiene factor; candidates only apply if they know their score are within the acceptance range, also there are ample resources on how to outsmart the standardized test. You will need to have a score that is high enough; however, what makes you outstanding will be your life story on your essay.

A great essay needs to have a compelling story and the story needs to be written well. The technicalities of writing a good essays is not the subject of this article, there are many resources available on the topic and you can always seek help from expert to improve your essay. The most challenging part and the part that will make you outstanding is the content of your essay, that is your life story.

Through your essay, the evaluation committee will try to gauge your leadership potential, your achievement, your potential contribution to the students group, and your fit to what the school has to over. Here are two set of essay questions for Stanford Business School and Harvard Kennedy School Master in Public Policy.



What matters to you and why?

What do you want to do and why Stanford?

Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.



“…Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”– John F. Kennedy, Presidential Inaugural Speech, 20 January 1961.

In the spirit of President Kennedy’s famous exhortation, please tell the HKS Admissions Committee what you have accomplished, and what you plan to do in the future, to improve the world through your leadership and commitment to public service.


Becoming an Outstanding Candidate
Harvard Kennedy School, where the author studied.

Think about having to write your essay in two weeks. Do you have your answers for those questions? Do you have personal achievements that you are proud of that you believe can set you apart from other candidates? If you do, you are among the special ones, consciously and unconsciously you have been thinking about your purpose in life, and you have gotten a chance to have an outstanding achievement in professional or personal setting. Most people don’t, and these kinds of questions and life stories can’t be artificially made up overnight.

If you are really keen get in to graduate schools in the US, what does it means for you? It means you need to start thinking about these questions early and live a life that is worth writing for. Firstly is to reflect and understand your self better. Ask yourself basic questions such as: what do you want to achieve in life?; What have you done in the process of achieving your goal?;  What is important for you?; What are your achievements in the past?; What motivates you?

Secondly, lead a live that will make you outstanding. Some outstanding examples from my personal friends:

  • An analyst from a global management consulting firm left his profession to join an Indonesian Government agency in the effort of rebuilding Aceh
  • An analyst from a global management consulting firm started up a micro finance institution that helps less affluent people to set up business in selling telephone credits
  • An non-profit professionals from Guinea left the country to the US without speaking any English, work part time at a Havard’s undergraduates cafeteria to get free admission to English classes and Economic Classes required to enroll to an HKS graduate program

Although, the examples here have a biased towards the social sector, however it does not have to be so. Candidates can also have an outstanding achievement within your private sector live. I am also not encouraging potential candidates to get involved in social activities in order to get into top schools. What I encourage is for potential candidates to start early in asking fundamental questions to understand themselves better, start early in reflecting their past achievements and how does it fits to your life story, start early in leading a live that is meaningful and worth writing for. Once you have your own outstanding story, getting high score or writing an excellent essay is only about putting your time into it.

All the best!

Image credit: KAKM on Wikimedia Commons and Microsoft.



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