03 Nov 2015 17:08 IST

Acing that application essay

Essays are often part of application processes while applying abroad; they are a way to know the person behind the application

It is that time of the year when students fret and fume about that most-dreaded part of a post-graduate college application – the writing of an essay.

Modern essays represent the subjective side of a college applicant, the side that humanises the student beyond a set of numbers and certificates. Schools want to assess how well you can communicate. Remember that schools have a vested interest in selecting the best student: For today's student is tomorrow's successful alumnus, who can be a brand ambassador for the school.

Most Indian students have never experienced having to write creatively because we largely measure achievement through objective means such as marks on an exam. Creative or professional writing is not encouraged in high school or college. In India this problem permeates society at all levels.

Even English language textbooks written by Indian authors are fraught with errors including poor construction and grammar. The average Indian newspaper article is many times unreadable – context is absent, background is omitted, analysis is poor and opposing points of view are rarely provided.

It is no wonder that many students have lost interest in reading.

Likewise, the advent of social media - Twitter, Facebook and SMS – has diluted writing skills even more. This could also be because, like Sarita Rai of the New York Times says, Indians are polyglots, where to complete thought, many of us string sentences in English by inserting words from multiple Indian languages.

The essay requirements for elite Indian institutions are quite different from those of foreign institutions. Because admission to the likes of the IIMs and XLRI is so competitive, students are directed to write essays in a controlled test environment and are given a definite time to do so.This is also to make sure that the essay is written by the individuals who seek admission – and not by a third-party essay writer masquerading as the candidate.

The problem with this format is that people can rarely come up with deliberately thought-out pieces in 20 minutes. So, students practice generic canned words, paragraphs, opening and closing statements before hand. On the day of the essay writing test, they simply weave in relatively unremarkable responses to the question of the day into their practiced content in the hopes of impressing the admissions committee overall.

In a sense, this format defeats the very purpose of requiring an essay submission. This is why the College Board in the US made essay writing optional on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) beginning the 2016 admission year.

Plagiarism galore

Most US graduate schools require a Statement of Purpose (SOP) or personal essay as part of the application. The problem with this approach is that these colleges can never verify if the submitted essays are original work, or so students think. Some students, afraid that their writing skills are about to come exposed, resort to unethical means of blatantly copying someone else’s proven essay and in extreme cases, simply changing personal particulars on it and submitting the rest of the content largely intact. They are unaware that US colleges use automated checkers to verify originality and that plagiarised mission statements automatically result in applications being thrown out, no questions asked. US schools rate original work of lower quality far higher than borrowed or stolen work of higher quality.

How to go about writing an SOP

A good approach to acing the SOP is for students to try writing them on their own. It is important to recognise that personal statements are all about the future. Documenting a student’s past is done on a resume and not in an SOP.

First, the SOP has to describe something about you, the student, with a short personal story about what drew you to your current field. Second, what really interests you? What is your passion? Preferably, this should be a class of problems that you want to solve – nothing as generic as solving world hunger but nothing as specific as a particular problem for a particular client.

Third, what is the current state in this field? Which companies or organisations are doing outstanding work that inspires you? Why?

Once you have set up the parameters of your personal statement, the next three paragraphs should be about why you are particularly qualified to solve the specific problems you state. Give the reader what your accomplishments were in college (academics); practical work outside a pure class setting (project) and outside college (internship or work experience) - all should point to what you learned and how these prepare you for doing what you want to do.

Finally, you need to make closing arguments by “personalising” your personal statement.

One way would be by recognising specific work that your destination institution has completed – perhaps the contributions of an academic or researcher – and how well you could contribute to this person’s team if admitted.

For US Business Schools

Essays for US Business Schools take a slightly different path. These institutions want applicants to write essays about a particular topic. Tuck Business School, at the Ivy League Dartmouth College, requires applicants for the 2016 incoming class to answer these questions:

What are your short- and long-term goals?

Why do you need an MBA to achieve those goals?

Why are you interested in Tuck specifically?

Note that our SOP tips above can largely be tailored to take on this Tuck essay.

No matter what the topic of the essay is, it is best to personalise your response. In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, Dorothy Hale, Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley said it best when she said: “We are very interested in how students have grappled with challenges in their lives. Obviously, graduate work is very independent. We want to know people can come up against obstacles and figure out solutions to them. The thing to take away is, we do personalise it”.

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