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Harvard Kennedy School Essay #1

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.  

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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.”

2017 Application Long-Term Planning Series - Post #9

The application for 2017 Master’s admission consideration will not be available until early September, however in this entry we are happy to provide prospective applicants with the application essay prompts for the upcoming application cycle.

Advice on writing effective essay responses will be offered in the coming months on this blog. For example, in a series of entries I will revisit essays submitted last year and blog my reactions and thoughts. I thought I would also use this entry to address a few frequently asked questions regarding essays.

First, we are frequently asked if there is a place on the application to include information important for the Admissions Committee to consider that does not fit nicely into essay prompts. On the application we do offer applicants to all programs the opportunity to submit such information in an optional statement and the text for the statement is noted below.

Second, we are frequently asked if we will provide sample essays. We do not provide sample essays. I think sharing samples would likely do more harm than good. In my case, when I see a sample of something it is hard to get the sample out of my head. Following sample essays is not a good idea because you want your essays to be distinctly YOU, something that will leave a lasting image in the mind of the application readers.

Third, many applicants ask if the word limits are firm and the answer is a definitive “yes”. The Admissions Committee does not look favorably upon applicants who do not honor the word limits. 

Please also remember that application requirement information can be accessed on our web site. Without further ado, here is the text for the optional statement and required essays for the 2017 application cycle.

All Programs - Optional Statement

If you have any concerns about your prior academic, professional or personal background you would like to share with the Admissions Committee, please provide an explanation. (250 word limit)

MPP and Non-Degree Essay Prompts

Essay 1: The Harvard Kennedy School motto, echoing the President for whom the School is named, is “Ask what you can do.” Please share with the Admissions Committee your plans to create positive change through your leadership and service. (600 word limit)

Essay 2: Describe a professional or academic episode that gave you a chance to use personal strengths, and/or revealed personal weaknesses.  Then explain specifically how the MPP curriculum (or overall curriculum for Non-Degree applicants) at HKS would leverage your distinctive abilities and/or fill gaps in your skill set as you equip yourself for your career goals. (600 word limit)

MPA2 Essay Prompts

Essay 1: The Harvard Kennedy School motto, echoing the President for whom the School is named, is “Ask what you can do.” Please share with the Admissions Committee your plans to create positive change through your leadership and service. (600 word limit)

Essay 2: There are many pathways one can pursue in order to make a difference in the world. Why is the MPA Program at HKS an appropriate pathway to achieving your goals? (600 word limit)

MPA/ID Essay Prompts

Essay 1: Discuss your decision to choose international development as your professional career. Also, explain how developing your analytic skills relates to your career in development. (750 word limit)

Essay 2: Describe an event or experience in which you exercised a significant decision-making, management, or leadership role. (750 word limit)

Essay 3: Describe a public policy or public management problem related to international development and analyze a range of solutions. (750 word limit)

Essay 4: At least one college level course in microeconomics, macroeconomics and multivariable calculus must be completed before enrollment. Statistics and linear algebra are desirable, but not required. Explain how you have met these requirements, or how you propose to meet them before enrolling in September. Please include descriptions of mathematics courses you have taken that covered calculus and multivariable calculus, as well as descriptions of any courses whose titles do not clearly indicate the content (e.g. Mathematics II or Advanced Mathematics). Official descriptions copied from your college’s course catalog or on-line course catalog are preferred.

MC/MPA and MC/MPA Mason Essay Prompts

Essay 1: Submit a statement that discusses your career goals, as well as the factors that led you to select the Mid-Career MPA program as a means of furthering your personal and professional goals. Be as specific as possible in describing how your expected course of study will enable you to build on your prior professional experience and achieve these goals. (750 word limit)

Essay 2: Describe your most substantial professional and/or public service contribution in which you exercised a significant leadership role in furthering the public good. (750 word limit)

Joint Degree with HBS or HLS Essay Prompt (for MPP and MPA/ID applicants only)

How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 word limit)

Concurrent Degree Essay Prompt - for applicants applying to an approved partner institution which allows the pursuit of a concurrent degree. For a full list of partner institutions, click here. No matter how many partner programs an applicant will be applying to, there is only one opportunity to respond to this prompt.

How do you expect the concurrent pursuit of another professional Master’s degree to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (250 word limit)

Final Note on Joint/Concurrent Essay Prompts

Please note the response to the Joint/Concurrent essay prompt is in no way a replacement or substitute for the program essay prompts - the response is in addition to the program essay prompts. If an applicant is applying to both a joint degree program partner school (HBS or HLS) and a concurrent degree partner school, the joint degree program essay prompt will take priority and will be displayed instead of the concurrent degree essay prompt.

In other words, applicants applying for a joint degree with HBS or HLS will only see the joint degree program prompt, even if also applying to a concurrent degree partner school, and should specifically write on the benefit(s) of the joint program(s) only.

If an applicant is applying to varied joint/concurrent professional programs (e.g. law and business) the prompt will only be displayed once and it is up to the applicant to determine how best to respond. For those applying to different programs, for example law and business, it is wise to address both types of programs, but it would not be necessary to address each individual school.

Series Links

Post #1 - Series Introduction
Post #2 - Pause Points
Post #3 - Letters of Recommendation Advice - Planning
Post #4 - Choosing Letter of Recommendation Writers
Post #5 - Email Address Advice
Post #6 - Academic Transcripts
Post #7 - Official Test Score Reporting
Post #8 - Letter of Recommendation Instructions
Post #9 - Essay Prompts
Post #10 - Resume/CV Advice
Post #11 - Quantitative Resume/Statement
Post #12 - Application Flow Chart
Post #13 - Financial Aid Application and Deadline
Post #14 - Piecing Together an Application