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Harvard Kennedy School Application Essays Mba

HKS Alumnus Wins Gold

Dan Cnossen, a 2016 HKS MC/MPA graduate, won a gold medal in the 7.5 km Paralympic biathlon cross country skiing sitting competition in the PyeongChang Games. Dan is the only double-amputee Navy SEAL in history, according to TeamUSA.org. The following comes from the NBC web site announcing the news:

Cnossen did not know he won the race when he crossed the finish line due to the staggered start. Biathletes went off at 30-second intervals and raced against the clock.

“A guy who was taking the transponder off was saying, ‘I think an American is in at first,’ and I was like, ‘Maybe that’s me,‘” said Cnossen, who finished 14th in this event in Sochi.

“I love being part of a team in the military, and when I became injured I was looking to seek that out again,” Cnossen said Saturday. “The Paralympic team has been the most perfect fit for me.”

                                  Picture Credit to Getty Images

Dan was previously featured in a Harvard Gazette article, the content of the article is below.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * *  *

Until that moment, just about everything in Daniel Cnossen’s life had been going as planned.

Born on a 250-acre farm just outside Topeka, Kan., Cnossen, 35, was passionate about athletics and the outdoors during his carefree boyhood, traipsing through the fields and woods surrounding the family’s fifth-generation homestead.

He had long set his sights on attending the U.S. Naval Academy, perhaps becoming a Marine. But after getting in, he felt a special affinity for the elite Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) teams, whose special-operations fighters undergo some of the toughest military training in the world. SEALs must maintain superlative fitness and master a host of advanced combat, survival, and escape skills, like swimming while both hands and feet are bound, rappelling out of helicopters, and deep-sea diving under grueling physical and psychological conditions.

After graduating from the academy in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, Cnossen entered SEALs officer training, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. On SEAL Team One, he led a platoon of 20 men and completed deployments in Iraq, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Afghanistan.

“That was just an amazing job. I can’t think of a better job with better people. I would do that job in perpetuity,” said Cnossen, now a degree candidate for a mid-career master’s of public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

But in September 2009, during a nighttime SEALs operation in Afghanistan, Cnossen stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). The ensuing explosion destroyed his legs and caused severe damage to his lower body, including a fractured pelvis.

Unconscious for eight days, he woke up to find himself back in the United States at the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. In unrelenting pain, he learned that his legs had been amputated above the knees.

In all, he spent six months in the Veterans Administration hospital. So far, he has undergone 40 surgeries to repair injuries and internal damage and to stave off infection. The first months after the injury were all about survival and trying to relearn the most basic human skills.

“First, I’m going to drink. Then, I want to eat. Then, I’d like to get out of this bed. Then, I’d like to get in my wheelchair,” said Cnossen of his earliest goals. “At one point, it was so liberating to be in a wheelchair. And then I got my prosthetics, and I wanted to get out of the wheelchair and just wear my prosthetics,” custom-made aids that required 18 months of physical therapy to adapt to and master.

“And then I wanted to walk all the time and not have a wheelchair. Then, I wanted to run.”

True to the SEALs’ ethos of humility and quiet professionalism, Cnossen doesn’t like to talk about himself or his ordeal. He didn’t volunteer that he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor for his combat service, that he was recognized by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House, or that he was the only double amputee on active duty in Navy SEAL history before his medical retirement last year.

Cnossen had always loved running and wanted to get back to it after his injury, but found it took a long time to master the wide-swinging gait he must use because of his amputations. It’s a movement that’s quite different from the one employed by “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius and other below-the-knee amputees, who often can do far more challenging activities, such as hiking and running uphill, than bilaterals. That confusion can lead to frustrating assumptions and misguided expectations.

“People, sometimes in an optimistic way, to try to be cheerful, can say things that are very misleading,” said Cnossen. “There’s differences, so sometimes the more able-functioned people get a little more credit or you assume that’s the role model, when in reality, you may be more impaired than that, and that’s just not an option.”

Still, within a year, Cnossen ran a mile on his prosthetic legs without stopping. He went on to run a 5K in less than 18 minutes and in 2011 finished the New York City Marathon in a remarkable 2:38, using a combination of running and hand cycling.

Unsatisfied with those benchmarks, Cnossen then learned cross-country skiing, using a sit ski. Taking up a competitive sport again after his injuries was a natural progression, he said. “My identity was wrapped up around training, physical ability, perseverance, and mental fortitude, so these were the things that I fell back upon after my injury. I would credit being an athlete to living through what I went through.”

Cnossen moved to Colorado, where he trained for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Ski Team and competed in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.

“I really wanted to do the Paralympics — to train as a team, to compete representing the U.S., which is an honor. The sport of cross-country skiing requires a lot of mental discipline, mental toughness. It’s a tough sport to train day after day after day for a whole season, and that’s why I gravitated to that,” said Cnossen, who graduates soon.

He’s still exploring career possibilities, but he knows they will involve human rights work done in tandem with religious organizations around the world.

In the fall, he will enter Harvard Divinity School to pursue a master’s of theological study degree while juggling a return to training and international competition in order to qualify for the 2018 Winter Paralympics in South Korea. It’s a demanding agenda that Cnossen is eager to embrace.

“How could I really stress about this place when six years ago I was dealing with ‘Am I ever going to walk; am I going to eat again?’ It changes perspective. It did make me probably appreciate life more, so it was a good lesson for me,” said Cnossen, who refuses to submit to the mostly self-induced pressures of graduate school and skimp on exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep.

“If I can be an example for anything, sometimes people take this environment, in my estimation, a little too seriously. It’s just school,” he said. “The real world has much more serious consequences.”

One of the most underused tools for standing out in the application process is using the optional essay. It’s hard to write a great optional essay and very easy to write an ineffective one that annoys the admissions committee.

Who should write the optional essay?

Although it’s called the “optional essay,” about 70% of my clients end up writing the optional essay if their schools include an optional essay.

Anyone who has any kind of blemish or red flag in their application should write the optional essay.

Here are some occasions when you should consider writing the optional essay:

  • you have a GPA below 3.6
  • you have a GMAT / GRE score below the 75th percentile
  • you took time off of work or school
  • you are noticeably older or younger than most applicants to your target schools
  • you don’t have a letter of recommendation from your direct supervisor and you think it will look suspect
  • you don’t have much quantitative work experience and you’re applying to a top MBA or MPA / MPP program
  • you were put on probation or received some other kind of disciplinary sanction in college

Why should I write the optional essay?

While business schools have interviews, most policy schools do not include an interview in the selection process. Therefore, your written application is all they have to go off of in deciding whether or not to give you a spot in the incoming class.

I think of the optional essay as your seat at the table when your application gets put in the “maybe” pile and comes up for further discussion by the committee.

A skeptic on the committee says, “Look at how low her college GPA is,” but your optional essay pipes up and says, “True, I have a low GPA in college, but I was an award-winning athlete, an officer of my student government, and I was working to support myself through college. I’ve financially planned well for graduate school, so now I’ll be able to fully focus on my studies rather than juggling too many commitments.”

Without the optional essay, AdCom members are left to draw their own conclusions about why certain red flags in your application popped up—and whether or not those red flags are bad enough to sink your application.

How long should the optional essay be?

This is stating the obvious, but the optional essay should definitely be within the word limit. Additionally, you should try to get your key message across in as few words as possible. Since this is an additional essay, you don’t want to create more work for the AdCom than necessary.

When should I write the optional essay?

I recommend that my clients write the optional essay first. It allows them to get every worry, doubt, and fear out and on paper so that they can move forward with their other essays with a renewed confidence and clarity about why they do have a shot at getting into their dream school.

What should I write in the optional essay?

Since Harvard Kennedy School is the #1 school my clients apply to, let’s use the 2014-2015 Harvard Kennedy School Optional Essay as a case study of how to write an optional essay.

You can apply this same essay structure for any graduate school optional essay—whether it’s MBA, MPH, MSW, M. Ed, or something else.

The Prompt: (applicable to all HKS degree programs)

(Optional) If you have any concerns about your prior academic background, or if you believe the Admissions Committee may have concerns, please give a brief explanation of your performance in college, or your standardized test scores (750 word limit).

  • Directly state the areas of your application you believe may be of concern to the admissions committee.

Then, for each trouble area of your candidacy, follow this structure:

  • Restate the trouble area. e.g. My undergraduate GPA is 3.1.
  • Tell them why this problem occurred. Don’t point fingers or try to put blame on others. Dispassionately explain what happened and take personal responsibility. Be sure to be diplomatic and tactful in your response. For example, don’t write “I was partying too much my freshman year of college,” because that’s troubling to AdComs and no one wants to hear that. Instead, you can get the same point across by saying something like, “I was still maturing and adjusting to the multiple demands of college.”
  • Tell them what you learned from this experience. What did you learn about yourself as a leader, student, and/or member of a community?
  • Tell them what you have done since then to remedy this problem. This is where you show that you are a proactive problem-solver.
  • Tell them what you will do if this problem seems to be a threat during your time at Harvard. What resources on- and off-campus will you use to make sure you continue to excel academically, personally, and professionally during your time at Harvard?

Lastly, end your optional essay with an optimistic and confident statement of your enthusiasm for the program and your gratitude for their consideration.

Voila! You have an optional essay worth reading. Now you can move on to writing the essays that are required for you to get into your dream school.

We’d love to edit your optional essay for your dream grad school. Visit our Essay & Resume Editing page to learn more about our editing services.


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