Strategies to Write a Powerful Statement of Purpose



It is important that you follow a specific strategy when it comes to drafting your statement of purpose. Though most students write whatever comes to their mind, or whatever they see on the internet, you are not most people. You would want your statement of purpose to sound brilliant, and original. And for that, you’ll need some strategies.

1. Write Stories.

Not Statements If given a choice, would you prefer reading a novel or a newspaper? A novel, without a doubt. Do you know why? Because while a newspaper gives you mere news and some eye-catching headlines, a novel tells you a story; a beautifully written piece of literature that you will be emotionally connected to. It brings those human feelings out of you and involves you in its storyline. You imagine yourself in place of the narrator/character, and understand why he/she has done that or taken such decisions. We remember stories much easier than statements. Because stories connect to us, statements don’t.

For example, most people say this:

“I used to work in a multinational software company in the development team, and I had to do the same job every day: code stuff. There was nothing new for me to learn at work, and there was nothing very exciting about going to the office. One day I decided that I had to get out of there, so I applied to college to study higher courses and get a better job.

” Doesn’t that sound like most stories? Albeit, a very normal story? Instead, how about saying this:

“Late in the night on Monday, I had found myself in the middle of a deserted office, and fifteen thousand lines of code. Full of caffeine in my bloodstream, and an empty life beyond the office, I realized that the computers started coding my brain, and controlling my life. No longer wanting to let the machines feed on me, I decided that college would be my salvation.” Both the stories come about four lines. But which narrative do you think will keep the admissions committee reading? Which story do you think will be remembered by them even after reading 5000 applications?

Think again. Do you want your statement of purpose to read like a novel or a newspaper? If the former is your answer, then you need to put in a lot of effort to tell your story. Think about ‘why’ you want to study what you want to study. Is there a strong reason behind it? Is the reason emotional, economical, or any other? Think hard, and you will find a connection. The reason might not seem obvious in plain sight, but when you think hard enough, you will understand that there is a strong reason why you want to study a particular course/degree.

Now, when you have found this strong reason, tell it as a story. Write a short, but great narrative about what made you make this choice. About why you have chosen to study this course at this university. Impress the committee with your creative storyline, and you will reap the benefits big time.

2. Quantify Your Stories

Even though we asked you to write a story, you will have to remember that your story should not read like a thesis. It should rather serve as the best source of information about you. And when it comes to information, numbers play a key role. Your story should be not only qualitative but also quantitative. Which means, your story must contain measurable quantities instead of just stories, so the reader can understand the depth of it.

For example, if you have worked for a local NGO teaching math to primary kids, you could say:

“During my engineering days, I helped a local NGO by joining as a math tutor, where I taught basic math concepts to school children.”

Now even though this sounds really good, it doesn’t give the reader the entire picture and they certainly do not know how much of an impact you made on those children. So, you could change that bit to something like this: “During my second year of engineering, I joined ‘Teach Math’, a local NGO, where I was a part of the Math tutoring team. For a period of 10 months, I taught basic math like algebra, geometry, and arithmetic to more than thirty 5th and 6th grade students. And every single student I taught to, secured an A in math that year. I’ve never been prouder in my life.”

Do you see the difference? These numbers suddenly give a whole new perspective to the readers, and their respect for you is suddenly multiplied. That’s the power of numbers; they add authenticity, and authority to your stories. If you can quantify your stories properly, and show the results instead of just actions, the committee will not forget your name. You can use the same strategy for the rest of your story, no matter what it is about. Whether it is a research project you did, or a college fest you organized, or a college sports team you led, whatever it is, add numbers to your stories, and make them sound more realistic and more beautiful.

3. Be Specific

You have to make sure that whatever you say in your statement of purpose, you need to be very specific with it. Don’t just say something because you think it will impress the admissions committee.

Whatever you say, you have to really dig into details. Be introspective. Don’t just say “I chose this degree because I love this field.” Explain clearly why you love this field, what made you decide that you want to work in this field for the rest of your life, what skills you are trying to amass, why it completes you as a person, etc.

Don’t beat around the bush like you normally would, when you talk to your friends. Don’t use ideal sentences like ‘I want to change the world’ or ‘I want to find my inner self’ or any of those cheesy lines. Just be straightforward and always to the point, but not so much as to come off as arrogant. Find your reasons and then find a nice, memorable way to say it.

Grad school admissions officers require the statement of purpose not just because they want to find about you and your dreams. More importantly, they want you to think for yourself, as to why you are taking such a life-changing step; why you think this is the best thing that can happen to you; and why you think you truly need it to succeed in life. The ‘why’ is always profoundly important, and also an extremely difficult question to answer, which is why, if you can find answers to all the whys, then you are almost in.

4. Customize Your Essay

One of the biggest mistakes students make is to prepare a basic template for their statement of purpose, and if they are applying to more than one university, they simply change the relevant names and details. But the rest of the statement is an exact copy.

This is never a good idea because though they might seem quite similar to each other, every university is vastly different from the others. Each of them has a diverse set of characteristics that define them, and their cultures, methodologies, visions, values, mottos, strengths, weaknesses, etc., vary greatly. These things are much more important than the departments, or university rankings, or a number of Ph.D.’s or other materialistic qualities. So, if you are applying to multiple universities, you need to factor in all these qualities of every university and customize your statement accordingly. Mere changes in names and details won’t suffice. You need to tailor your essay such that the admissions officers think you will fit in well into their community. Remember, every student community is like a family, and if you give hints that you cannot fit into a family or their culture, you may not be welcomed easily.

Speaking of cultures, different countries obviously have different cultures, but even a big country like the US has different cultures in different parts of the country. So, before you begin writing, try and research the general culture within the region in which your target university is, and learn something about it. It may also help in aiding your decision process; if a culture doesn’t attract you much, then there’s no point in wasting an application.

5. Use a Formal But Conversational Tone

Nearly all statements or essays come under two categories: The super formal, and the super friendly. The first category is when you write a statement of purpose that is so formal, it looks like you are writing to your lieutenant in the military. The second one, of course, looks like a casual email to a friend.

Now, when asked which one seems like a better choice, most students say the formal way is the way to go, and super friendliness is a big no. And still, a minor set of applicants think they can outsmart the admissions committee by sounding friendly, welcoming, and funny. But, on further reflection, you would understand that neither of the approaches is ideal. And you are right, neither of them is right. Like we talked about it already, your statement of purpose should read like a novel: slightly formal language, but still a tinge of fun and uniqueness.

That is what you need. A conversational tone is the best and the safest way to go. Write like you are talking to someone, but avoid using casual language. Imagine you are talking to your dean or the director of your college. What would your language be like? That’s how your statement of purpose should sound. Now, occasional humor is okay, but you shouldn’t try to sound too funny or too smart. No intentional jokes or funny lines should find their way into your statement. After all, it’s a statement of purpose, and the purpose is to pursue a graduate degree, not to impress people with your sense of humor. So, if what you write brings a smile on the readers face, then it’s perfectly alright. But it shouldn’t make them throw away your application because you didn’t seem serious enough to them.

6. Decide How You Want To Portray Yourself.And Learn How to Portray Indirectly.

You must see that the statement of purpose serves as a medium to convey your attitude, your personality and your character. Alright, those are some heavy words, and it can actually be difficult to them on paper. So, what you can do is, learn what your statement of purpose should portray you as, in terms of a few criteria, which tell the admissions committee that you are: Very passionate about the field of study you have chosen. An Intelligent student who can withstand the academic workload of a graduate program. Well-prepared academically and personally, and eager to study new courses. Able to take on the challenges of studying at an international graduate school.

Able to build and maintain a good rapport with professors and fellow grad students. Able to finish the graduate degree within time, and graduate with a good percentage. A potential remarkable representative of that grad school in your future career. A successful alumni of the grad school who in the future can help in recruiting graduates. A responsible alumni who in the future will help raise funds for the grad school, to spend on research, infrastructure, facilities, student scholarships, etc. These are basically the parameters that grad school admissions officers look at, when they decide who is joining their class. Now, I know that the statement of purpose can only be as long as 1000 words, and that there’s quite a lot to cover in that little space.

This is where your writing skills should come in. You simply can’t just go ahead and write “I am very passionate about the field of study I have chosen.” That is the last thing you would want to write. What you should instead write is, a sentence that indirectly means the same. You will have to choose your words wisely so as to indirectly communicate your “passion”. You can use brief examples to show why you are so passionate about it. For example, you can say something like: “My grandfather was a car mechanic.

I remember when I was nine, he took me to his garage for the first time and showed me how he could repair my damaged bicycle so I could ride it again. When he passed away a few years later, he left me the entire garage. It was a turning point in my life. Some of my best days were spent inside the garage, where after coming back from school, I tried fixing various appliances in the house. That was what led me to choose to be a Mechanical Engineer.”

The above paragraph speaks volumes about you as a person and your passion for Mechanical Engineering without you actually saying it. Any admissions officer in the world wouldn’t reject an applicant with such a deep reason, and such a wonderful story behind him/her. Now, remember, you don’t have to lie. Try and remember stories from your life that have shaped your decisions. And connect them beautifully to your goals and dreams. Now similarly, your “intelligence” can be conveyed by how you write. The quality of the statement of purpose, the organization, expression, etc. of your statement tells how intelligent you are. Demonstrating knowledge of the field, and using related jargon shows that you are “well-prepared”.

Showing what you have done already describes your ability “to take on the challenges of grad school”. Your grades and your previous performance prove your ability “to finish the graduate program in time”. Being a “future remarkable alumni” can be implied by your being a commendable representative of your previous institutions, like your high school, or undergraduate school. Similarly, you will have to try and represent all the qualities mentioned above in an indirect, but powerful way.

7. Don’t Create Stories. Be Yourself

Because we asked you to write stories, there would naturally be an inclination to “create” stories out of thin air. Do not do this at all. Write great stories only if you have great stories. Some people might come from normal backgrounds, who had normal lives, and probably didn’t achieve anything spectacular. It’s completely okay. If you don’t have anything great to write, don’t write it. Be normal, and write normal stories. It is better to be normal than to pretend to be someone you are not.

The admissions officers are expert psychologists, and they can spot a true applicant from a false applicant with just one reading. So, you will badly hurt your chances of getting into your dream school if you try to be someone else. Just be yourself, and write only about the things that have happened to you, and the things that you are passionate about. Saying “I love research” just because you think they will like it, isn’t going to help you a lot. Whatever you say just for the sake of it, won’t appeal much to the committee, as they would look for relevant evidences in your stories and in your past. So, don’t even think about fooling the committee with a false storyline. Try and be yourself throughout the essay.

8. Address Your Problems

The Statement of Purpose is a great opportunity for you to address some of your problems. If you have had any problematic academic background, or a gap year in your career, or if you had any work-related problems, you can address them on the statement of purpose in order to reassure the admissions committee. You must try and be as honest as possible, and talk about your problems in a matured manner. Instead of trying to defend yourself, you can point out the actual reasons that led to the problems, but more importantly, you should highlight ‘how’ you overcame the situation, and ‘what’ you have learnt from the experience. For example, let’s say that you got all C’s or all D’s in one semester. This normally isn’t the kind of academic profile a good grad school would want from you, unless there is a strong reason behind it. So, take some time and dedicate a few lines to explain whatever happened.

If you had a health problem during your semester exams, or if you faced any emotional setback during that time, if you experience any personal loss, or if you had to take up additional family responsibilities other than studying, you can mention that in your statement. But, more importantly, you should not forget to demonstrate how your grades have been steadily improving since then, and that you now have a decent grade-point average in the discipline. If you can spin this story well enough for the committee to empathize with you, then your story will enhance the admissions committee’s image of you as a matured student, with the abilities to “take on additional challenges” and “to finish on time”, even when things are against you.

9. Do Your Homework

This is one very important point you should exercise while you are writing a statement of purpose. You should be thorough with the details of all the universities you are applying to, and list down all the things you like about each university, before you write the essays. Most students simply write generic sentences like “I am impressed by the importance your university gives to research” or “I would like to study here because you have 100 Ph.D.’s and 20 Nobel prize winners.” etc. No, that is not how you do it.

The admissions committee knows how great their college is; you don’t have to remind them again and again. But, you should let them know what exactly you like about them, that you so badly want to be there. The specifics are really important. For example, you could say something like this. (Excuse the random jargon, it is only to give you an idea.) “I would fully utilize the resources that the Wallenberg Hall provides, as I am particularly interested in the field of molecular chemistry. The special 24/7 laboratories provided for student research on molecular processing is exactly the kind of opportunity I am looking for, as I could totally see myself working in the labs day and night.” And something like: “I especially want to study under Dr. Mark Adams, Ph.D., as I have been an avid follower and admirer of his work in the field of quantum chemistry, which is not only the field I would choose for my research study, but also is a topic that I am zealous about, personally. I would be more than honoured if I can earn a spot in his research group.” Do you see how professional it sounds? Such things show how well prepared you are, and how eager you are to study at that university. Now, to write something like this, you obviously need to do lots of research both online and offline, and be very thorough about the college, its facilities, courses, and professors. Yes, it is very difficult, but believe me, it is completely worth all the hard work.

10. Proofread, Edit, and Re-edit.

Ask Friends and Family To Grade Your Essay Another mistake students make is, they try and keep their essays to themselves. Maybe they are shy, or maybe they think their friends and family aren’t necessarily experts on the subject. So they think there’s no point in asking friends and family to critique on their essays. Wrong. Your statement of purpose speaks about you as a student, as an individual. Yes, there is technical slang involved, and yes your family members may not be experts on that. But, they sure are experts on ‘you’. Which is exactly why you should approach them. They can not only give you additional points to add, but they can give you valuable stories about your childhood or schooling days, which you probably won’t remember. Plus, it’s very easy to say something about others, but at the same time, it’s painfully difficult to describe yourself to someone.

Which is why someone very close to you, like friends and family, can describe you accurately. You will get new perspectives on your stories, which sometimes are better than your own versions, and including them in your statement of purpose will do you a lot of good. Also, remember to proofread your statement time and again, and keep on re-editing content until you, your family and friends think you have the best statement in the world. Remember that your statement of purpose is a literary picture of ‘you’ as a person, and it is representing on your behalf. So, make it a top priority to avoid typos, misplaced commas and semicolons, overused quotes, being too wordy, using too many complex words and sentences, and being too straightforward. Be careful. Be a perfectionist when it comes to writing. It shows how much you care about going to a particular college. And, once you are done with everything, do not forget to ask your friends and family to grade your statement of purpose, and ask them to criticize it accurately, so you can avoid submitting a less than perfect copy of your statement.

11. Take Advice From Professors.

If you know a professor at your undergrad institution, don’t hesitate to approach him/her for advice regarding your statement of purpose. They are of course very experienced prospects, and they might have seen thousands of statement of purposes and students in their careers. So, it wouldn’t hurt to ask for their opinion. Plus, since unlike your family, they are technically sound, they can also provide you valuable insights on how to project your technical expertise and project works in the statement. After all, a professor knows what another professor looks for in a prospective student, so it would only help if you approach your college professors. And, if they are really close to you, you can also ask them for a really good letter of recommendation. So whichever way you look at it, there are only benefits for you.

SOP / Essay Made Easy: How Your SOP Could Save Your Application from the Trash Can



Is the SOP really important?

Students often neglect their Statements Of Purpose (SOPs as they are commonly called), because they often believe that the person in charge of the application process would not have time to go through all the SOPs that are submitted to them.

This is far from the truth.

Admission committee members have said time and time again that at least two people go through a single SOP, and that it is often the SOP that is the deciding factor while considering whether a student should be accepted by the university.

What are they looking for?

As SOPs are the only part of your application that you can fully control, taking your time to write an excellent one can only help your cause.

When committee members read your SOP, they are trying to put a face to your application.

This is where you tell them your story, tell them about the person that you are, while explaining why the program at their university is crucial for your career and future goals.

Most committee members agree that when they read a statement of purpose, they are trying to assess whether the candidate is competent and gauge his/her personality. They also pay attention to whether there is a disconnect or connect between the SOP and the letters of recommendation. An important theme of any SOP is the candidate’s enthusiasm to learn.

According to Harvard University, the SOP is an integral part of any application and is evaluated with great care by the admissions committee. They want a student’s SOP to include a background, which includes education details, work experience, volunteer work and relevant personal experiences, if any. They also want to know how this background has prepared the student for further education at their university.

It is, of course, important to keep in mind that most universities specify what they are looking for in a Statement of Purpose. Reading these guidelines is essential.

When students write general SOPs that can be used for different universities, this often puts off committee members, who often reject the student.

First impressions count!

As universities receive a large number of applications, it is important to make a strong first impression, so that the faculty member reading your SOP will pay attention to what is said throughout, thereby giving you a higher chance of consideration and acceptance.

What not to do

According to Amit P. Sheth, who has over 20 years of experience serving on an admissions committee and is presently the Director of Kno.e.sis at Wright State University, he always tries to assess whether the candidate’s SOP is original.

After years of reading SOPs, he says most committee members know whether a Statement of Purpose has been written by a student. He does this because it gives him a good indication of the candidate’s communications skills, which he believes is all the more important for MS/MA/MBA students. He then looks at whether the candidate has done his/her research on the university, the course and the faculty. Very often students write a generic essay that can be used for many universities, which makes him lose interest.

Filling in the blanks

Another purpose of a Statement of Purpose is to help the faculty fill in the blanks of your profile. For example, if you have scored badly in a subject and you have a good reason for it, you can mention it in your SOP.

Committee members have often said that personal details can sometimes make a world of difference when they arrive at a decision. A candidate with a troubled past, poorer financial background, etc., will be weighed differently from a candidate without any of these problems.

SOPs can also be used to explain incidents that played a pivotal role in your life and made you become the person that you are today.

While achievements and extracurricular activities would be mentioned in your CV, a Statement of Purpose can be used to discuss interesting experiences further.


To summarize, students who write original, honest essays, which intelligently connect their own research interests with those of the university, have a better chance of being accepted or taken seriously by the admissions committee.

If you liked this article, please share it with your friends.

Lastly, you can use Google to type your question and add Admission Table in front of it. You’ll likely find an answer to any study overseas questions that you have.

In case you don’t find an answer to your question, simply chat with us. We would love to answer your questions and help you get into the best school for you.

By: Vinamra S

Masters SOP: What should your Statement of Purpose include



Masters SOP: Applications for study abroad are a complete package of documents (Resume, Statement of Purpose and Letters of Recommendation) which showcase the applicant’s qualities, marks, interest as well as future plans to the admission committee.

Masters SOP or statement of purpose is one of the most important application documents. While the resume and transcripts showcase the current knowledge status of the student, a statement of purpose shows the intent. It is an essay application for students vying for Masters or PhD program in foreign universities. It clearly outlines the academics, interest, future plans as well as the basic information about the university of the student. A well written SOP helps applicants highlight their strengths which would not be possible by the transcripts and resume alone.

MS SOP: What’s your story?

Personalising your Masters SOP is a way to connect with the Admission Committee member and begin your statement of purpose. Your story should be interesting and short. Why have you chosen to do a Masters in this course? What was the point in life when you thought, “this is what I want to learn.” What has inspired you to be in this field? Was it a book, a movie, a person or situation? What have you done to this effect?

MS SOP Sample story for Materials Engineering

sample for materials engineering

MS SOP Sample story for Mass communication

Sample for masscommunication

MS SOP: Academics and you

Academic background in a statement of purpose should be quite exhaustive, highlighting your related academic achievements. It shows your preparedness for a program. While your transcripts merely mention the marks you have scored, a brief write-up on your background will showcase your main field of interest. This section helps you narrow down your course of interest as the subjects become more specialized as you go higher up the academic ladder. Add all academic information you have gained. Do mention the important internships and the workshops that you have attended during you course.

MS SOP Sample Academic Background 1

Academics and you 1

MS SOP Sample for Academic Background 2

Academics and you 2

MS SOP: Why Program

This section showcases the purpose of the SOP. Why do you want to do UG/Masters/PhD? There has to be clarity in this section. Admission Committee looks into this section to understand if the applicant knows what s/he is getting into. What are their plans? Why does the applicant think Masters/ PhD is the next logical step? Another important aspect to be covered in this section is, ‘What do you plan to achieve with this course?’

MS SOP Sample for Why Program

MS SOP WHY sample

MS SOP: Goals

Goals are one of the most important sections of an SOP. If you do not have definite defined goals, do not bother applying. Goals show your future planning. They show your awareness regarding the programme and its scope.  Goals are divided into two parts, short term and long term goals. Short term goals as the name suggests are short term as in, the next plan after the programme or course usually within a time span of three to five years after the completion of the course. Long term goals would be something you plan to achieve within the next 15 years.

 For starters, if you plan to work after the course, look for the organizations, positions and job profile require the course you plan to do. For academically bent applicants, do mention what would be the next academic achievement you would like to prefer to add to your curriculum vitae.

MS SOP Sample for MS SOP: Goals

MS SOP Goals

MS SOP: The University

University paragraph on the SOP shows how much you know about the place you plan to join. This paragraph should show that your interests can be completely fulfilled at this university. Search online for the researches being carried out in the area of your choice. Check out the faculty and their research. What kind of internships and workshops do they have? Also, update yourself regarding the alumni. Some questions that ought to be answered in this section of an SOP should be: Why would you like to join this university? How is this university different from another? What particular courses of this university are you interested in? Are you aware of the research being carried out at the department? Who are the faculty with whom you would like to work? Is the location of the university anyways important for you?

MS SOP Sample for University Details

MS SOP University

MS SOP: Extracurricular

Universities need a rounded personality on their campus. While academic qualifications show that the applicant is suited for the particular program, extracurricular activities outline the uniqueness. Your extracurricular activities show your character, they show how you spend your time after the classes, they show that you have the capabilities to keep yourself occupied and meet people in an unknown place. Academic courses are stressful with classes, assignments and exams, students need activities to occupy themselves. Extracurricular activities show that the university fulfils the applicant’s academic as well as extracurricular goals.

MS SOP Sample for Extracurricular Activities

MS SOP Extracurricular

MS SOP: Conclusion

Like a good beginning, every article or document should have a crisp conclusion which sums up the application.

MS SOP Sample for Conclusion

MS SOP Conclusion

By: Shivani Bhatt

MBA Essay on Failure – How to write about my biggest failure


failure-essay Most universities ask failure essays as part of the MBA essay on failure

Along with diversity, goals and ethical dilemma, MBA essays on failure are asked with an intention to learn about the maturity levels of the applicants. The intention of asking the failure question by B-schools has been summed up well below.

“No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.”

– Chris Hardwick


Business schools routinely ask on essay questions on failure in life:

  • NUS MBA prompt: My biggest failure was …
  • Judge Business School, University of Cambridge: What did you learn from your most spectacular failure? (200 words)
  • INSEAD France: Describe the achievement of which you are most proud and explain why. In addition, describe a situation where you failed. How did these experiences impact your relationships with others? Comment on what you learned (approximately 400 words).

MBA essays on failure are usually the toughest to write for a number of reasons. The difficulty starts with primarily, the self-acknowledgement part, then, the second is telling it or penning it down for someone else to read. People do not acknowledge failure that easily. It takes a lot of strength to acknowledge the fact that we have failed. Writing the essay is also a way of acknowledging that we can fail. It is a learning process in itself. It is from a failure that we learn our true strengths and our capabilities of bouncing back. The MBA essay on failure question usually does not limit to the incidence itself. It usually asks about your reaction and what you have learnt from that failure. The ways people handle their failure tell a lot about them.

When Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, asks you to mention your learning from the most spectacular failure, it means we fail more than we would tend to agree. Listing down all our failures and the learning of the failure and then selecting the most spectacular one out of them is a huge introspection process for the applicant. Spectacular here means the failure which gave you the opportunity to learn the most from.

MBA Essay on Failure can be asked in a number of ways. Recount your failure, mention your reaction and what did you learn. The question can be any one or all three of the above.

1. NUS MBA prompt: My biggest failure was?

When you are asked to mention your biggest failure.

The admission committee wants you to mention the facts. They do not want to you to list your sob story. Mention the story in simple words with the least amount of emotions or in a matter of fact way with adequate detailing so that there is no confusion in the statements. Simply, what, where, when. Conclude it with why you think this is your biggest failure.

2. The second part of the MBA essay on failure or adversity questions deals with the ‘impact’. How did you respond?  Did you suffer any setback? Were you hurt? What did you feel? Did it change something? Were there any changes in your personal and professional relationships? Had you anticipated the failure or was it a shock? Mention your reaction to the incident, ashamed, shocked, hurt, etc.

INSEAD France asks: How did these experiences impact your relationships with others?

3. Learning

This is the final crux in which the readers are interested. What did you learn? Learn about yourself, learn about someone, or about the project, situation etc. Finally, mention an incident where you have applied the lesson learnt in the previous incident.

Failing to write the MBA essay on failure! Is it one of these?

1. Untruthfulness.

Honesty happens to be the key rule in writing the failure essay. First, be honest with yourself about the failure. The questions are direct and need a direct straight simple answer.

2. Scared of being judged.

Failure should be considered as learning experiences. The main misconception is that writing about an actual failure will result in being seen as a failure. On the contrary, writing about made up failures or fake failures or immaterial failures will cost heavily to the applicant.

3. Monetizing the failure.

Every failure is not about monetary loss. Monetary loss may be the result of the failure but not a lesson here. Failure in judging people and failure in pre-planning are more important to elaborate than mentioning the monetary loss. 4. Using too much floral language. While having good control over language is considered good, refrain from using words which would require opening the dictionary. State the incident as simply as possible. 5. Missing out on the lesson. The crux of an essay is the learning at the end. The learning should be substantial.

Examples of failure essays

Example 1: Losing the plot.

Parents never stop dreaming about their children, not ready to give up, always believing that their child is special and meant for greatness. Maybe my parents too were the victim of this folly, because despite my early brushes with failure they never lost hope. But when I fared poorly in my graduate exams, it was the last straw as it broke their heart. I can still feel the pain my result caused them, the agony they went through. I am still hoping one day I will prove them right, but till that day the pain will keep burning in their hearts and mine too.

Example 2: Realising and acknowledging

My biggest failure in life has to be my losing the plot completely during my higher secondary years and messing my exams. The failure haunts because it caused real damage to my future. The poor result meant I ended up in a second-rung college, with a gang of guys who despite their best intentions weren’t fully academically inclined. The failure also haunts because the tell-tale signs of an impending disaster were always there but I refused to acknowledge it and pushed things under the carpet like I was in pretty bad shape in Physics but I didn’t do enough about it. Looking back, a little more effort and a little more discipline could have solved matters. It is a life lesson that will always remain with me.

By: Shivani Bhatt

Top 10 qualities of MBA aspirants: Elements to highlight in your application



Top qualities of MBA aspirants - MBA is currently the most sought-after graduate programme. However, with the increase in number of applicants, getting through an MBA programme is a rigorous and difficult exercise. To secure an admit in a prestigious Master in Business Administration programme, a candidate ought to have sound characteristics.

Essay questions asked by business schools are framed so as to judge the MBA aspirant qualities. The prime intention of the questions is whether the aspirant is the right choice for the programme. A candidate with the right aptitude and skill will succeed while someone not suited for the field will not be able to cope with the pressure.

Top 10 qualities of MBA Students:

Sl. No


Application element


Analytical and Presentation Skills



Communication Skills

Video essays and Interview


Ambition and motivation

Essay, Resume





Creativity and Innovation




Essays, Resume


Problem solving and decision making skills

Essays, LOR


Integrity and Ethics

Essays, LOR


Team ownership



Passion for Development

Essay, Resume

Top 10 qualities of MBA Students with Examples

The important qualities to be showcased in the application documents are explained in detail with examples below.

1. Analytical and Presentation Skills

Getting data will not suffice if one cannot present the desired analysis of the data in a very clear, crisp way with attention-grabbing approach. Therefore, an MBA aspirant has to develop analytical and presentation skills, one of the top qualities of MBA aspirants. These skills are showcased through Letters of Recommendation and goals essay. Referees mention the analytical skills with adequate examples.

2. Communication Skills

Any effective top executive needs to be able to communicate well. Though these skills get perfected in a B-school, it actually helps getting through the programme if the skills are honed before starting B-school. With video essays and interviews increasingly becoming common as part of the application process, good communication skills provide a positive aspect in the admission process.

3. Ambition and motivation

An MBA programme is useless if an aspirant does not have clear ambition as well as motivation to achieve the ambition. The MBA career path is not for the fainthearted. It is for people who can get hands-on and seize opportunities and challenges. The committee seeks individuals with career dreams and deep resources of motivation and autonomy to realise them. Work experience featured in the resume often becomes a method of judging the ambition and motivation of a candidate to do an MBA. The kind of projects undertaken, the kind of roles played in the projects done, show ambition and motivation for MBA programme. Emphasize your work done to your benefit.

4. Discipline

Discipline is one characteristic which is mandatory in any field one chooses to continue his/her life in, an MBA aspirant included. An MBA aspirant ought to be terribly self-disciplined. Not only will the MBA programme involve intensive work, the number of assignments and classes along with projects make it more difficult to keep track. To have a decent grasp of the material and to see that the work is being completed timely, you will need to own nice time management skills. Discipline will come handy after the programme as well. One of the top qualities of MBA aspirants, discipline is primarily highlighted in a Letter of Recommendation.

5. Creativity and Innovation

As technology moves forward and societies and markets modify, the abilities of savvy adaptation become an integral part of management. Creativity and innovation will not only help you in furthering your aims and ambitions, it will also help you grow in an and with the organisation you plan to work with. Part of the leadership essays, creativity and innovation is usually asked along with team ownership and integrity and ethics.

6. Leadership

Leadership is one of the top qualities of MBA aspirants. An MBA degree is designed for those who have or want to have leadership roles in their organizations. The leadership skills are exhibited in four basic skills: Problem solving and decision making skills, integrity and ethics, team ownership and passion for development. For example: Where in your background would we find evidence of your leadership and or potential?

7. Problem-solving and decision-making skills

Managers need to have all the information to take crucial decisions to help the company. They are also required to be unbiased regarding the decisions to be taken. The problem-solving skills develop from interaction with time and regular interaction with different area experts. It is also not restricted to any particular area or division but keeping in view the entire process or organization. Questions on problem-solving abilities can be direct, e.g. the Boston University School of Management prepares innovative and ethical leaders who understand the impact of business on society and who seek to create value for the world. Please describe a situation in which you created value for an organization or group. What was the outcome? We encourage you to consider your contributions in both professional and community settings. (up to 250 words).

8. Integrity and Ethics

Another key skill of a leader. Integrity and ethics go a long way in developing the personality of a manager. Integrity helps in building trust with both employees and colleagues (both senior and junior). It also establishes a manager as authority in organizations. Also, ethics play a big role in the development and establishment of an organization. Leadership and ethics are inevitably intertwined in the business world. Describe a situation in which you have dealt with these issues and how they have influenced you.

9. Team ownership

One of the most important aspects of leaders. Leaders work with teams. While leaders credit the team for its success, failures are always a responsibility of the leaders. This is one skill which cannot be learned, people are born with this skill. Ownership also includes praising in public and admonishing/criticizing in private. Questions on team spirit usually ask about the experience and the learning. For example: Describe a situation where you had to work jointly with others to achieve a common goal. What did you learn from the experience?

10. Passion for development

Leadership does not end at problem solving, integrity and ethics and problem-solving skills. A big part of leadership skills involves innovating and learning and looking for opportunities for personal as well as personnel skill development. This aspect of your personality can be showcased in optional essay questions which ask for what more do you have to tell us? Some part of the candidate’s personality which was not able to be showcased anywhere else. For e.g., the question asked by Harvard, ‘You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your referees have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?’

Business schools develop leaders who can contribute to society and organisation. Candidates ought to show that they can lead others even before setting foot on the field. This does not mean developing with grand and sweeping examples that forever modify the course of history. The examples may be small and meaningful as well as noteworthy.

By: Shivani Bhatt

MBA Essays: Tackling Ethics and Challenge Essay questions



MBA essay questions include questions on ethics and challenges as well as diversity, goals, failure, team spirit and leadership. The MBA essay questions intend to understand the non-academic aspect of the applicant. Ethical dilemma questions aim to gauge the candidate’s maturity in handling issues.

Examples of ethical dilemma questions

  • Describe the most difficult decision you have made and its effect on you.
  • Describe a situation in which your ability to perform ethically was challenged. What was the issue, how did you handle it, and what did you learn from it?
  • Describe an ethical dilemma that you faced and how it was resolved.
  • When have your values, ethics or morals were challenged? How has this shaped who you are today?

For an incident to be an ethical dilemma, it should follow three conditions. First, there should be a decision-making authority, second, there should be at least two equally difficult choices which do not provide a complete solution and third, irrespective of the solution or course of action taken, some ethics were compromised.

Ethical Dilemma MBA Essay: The decision maker

MBA Essays are an attempt to know the social side of an applicant. The essay is about experiences of the applicant. The decision maker is the first and foremost condition for the MBA essay on ethical dilemma. If you were not the decision maker, this is not your essay. Please do not write it. You do not have to be embroiled in a big ethics issue to be able to write down an essay. The focus is on your decision-making skills and not the complexity of the case.

Ethical Dilemma MBA Essay: The ethical dilemma

Answers to questions on ethical dilemma are difficult to write because while it should not show you as an ethical person, being portrayed as an extremely honest person is also not recommended. Ethical dilemma questions are aimed to test the applicant’s maturity and judgement skills and not integrity. While answering questions on ethical dilemma, avoid quoting incidences which are illegal and question your integrity.

Uncomfortable situations lacking a choice do not qualify for ethical dilemmas. Worked under a tough boss who has made you work hard does not qualify to be an ethical dilemma.

Briefly, describe the incident. Also, mention what led to the situation along with your position on the issue.

Ethical Dilemma MBA Essay: The options

When penning down MBA essays on ethical dilemma, always use an incident which has two or more solutions. Along with ‘ethics’ which is about right or wrong, the anecdote should focus on ‘dilemma’ this is about choosing one of two or more solutions. The situation should have two or more solutions which are equally difficult and unsatisfactory as well as unable to provide a complete solution. Therefore, the choice should not be between a right and wrong solution, but between two or more equally unsatisfactory solutions.

Ethical Dilemma MBA Essay: The conflict and resolution

There should be a clear conflict in the options towards resolutions. Discuss the circumstances which have caused the situation to arise as well as your personal values that have conflicted in the decision-making process. Along with the incidence, mention the pros and cons of each option and the affected parties. Analyse the consequences of the actions in all the options.

Elaborate on how you tackled the situation. Defend your decision. You should also be able to defend or explain why you chose one over the other. Was the decision favoured by all the decision making as well as affected parties? Discuss your decision and how you have reached the decision. Also, the merits it had over the other option? This will demonstrate your ethical decision-making skills.

Ethical Dilemma MBA Essay: The impact

Measuring the impact of the decision is as important as the decision taken. Was the impact as expected? If no, what went wrong? What was the result of your decision? How did the decision impact you?

Ethical Dilemma MBA Essay: The experience

Analyse your learning. What were the lessons from this experience? What did you learn from the experience? Would you do it again if similar circumstances arise? Will you handle it any differently? Will you take some precautions?

Apart from the ethical dilemma, B-schools ask questions on diversity, goals, team spirit, leadership, passion etc.

By: Shivani Bhatt

MBA Essays: Tackling questions related to Diversity



MBA Application Essays: Diversity essays are an important aspect of application essays for business schools. They are intended to know the candidate’s surroundings, values, beliefs which are not possible through other essays. The common questions in this group are:

1. How will you contribute to the diversity of the University/School?

2. Why you?

3. If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why?

4. What is unique about your background and experience that you would bring to your classmates at MBS?

5. How will you contribute to your classes and to the AGSM community?

Popularly known as diversity essays, these questions are an attempt to look into the applicant’s non-academic or social background. Diversity here does not only mean cultural, national, or racial diversity. Through the question, the Admission Committee (ADCOM) wants to understand how unique you are. What is the trait about you that is different from others in the course? How will you as a person contribute to the course? Is there something worth learning from you? MBA Application essay on Diversity is not just about race; here it is about geographic, socio-economic, cultural, religious, people with various disabilities. Read on to know how to write MBA application essays on diversity.

Stuck with your essays? Download MBA Application Essays Samples.

Apt Title

Every MBA Application essay should have an apt title, to make the ADCOM or anyone for that matter to read on. While titles are glimpses of what’s to come, they should never be a gimmick. The reader should get more information when they read the whole essay and not feel tricked.

Being Unique

As the information about other applicants is not known, deciding why one is unique is a difficult task. Physical achievements know no bounds, it can be a big feat for someone to go down the Grand Canyon but then there might be someone else there who has visited the Challenger deep.

The uniqueness has to be about the person and their thoughts and the actions they have taken or the lessons they have learnt. It can be something as basic as philately, pottery, and origami or as big as participating in a Desert car rally. What is notable here is take-away of these activities. Teaching origami or chess to kids, or may be organising pottery workshops for old age home residents as a part of therapy and entertainment, counts towards diversity.

For that matter, a sports person, or someone who has learned a different language and experience the culture, or someone who plays in a band, anyone who has shown initiative in his life in however small a way matters.

Leadership, Focus, and Team spirit

Before writing an MBA application essay, it is important to remember that business schools aim to create future leaders and are, therefore, looking for people with team skills and leadership traits. You do not need to have performed exceptional feats to be able to write about your possible contribution to the school/university. So, in case, you have climbed Mount Everest, which would be very good but if you have led your school group on a treasure hunt successfully or unsuccessfully also works. The aspect to focus on here is to be able to showcase how and to what degree the situations or challenges you have been in have affected or changed you, the changes can be positive or negative, or both.

Politically Correct

While being honest is good, we should be politically correct at the same time. In the present scenario, racial diversity is not as important as diversity of experience. In case, you decide to write about racial diversity, instead write about cultures, people, family, travel, social discomfort, maturation and introspection without the racial characteristics. The MBA application essay write-up should be more about the diversity observed and changes incorporated within the self. More than prejudices, the diversity essay should be showcasing your response to the situation you were in, what have you learnt from your experiences and more importantly how has it moulded your world view.

Similarly, views on LGBTQIA issues should be best avoided.


The diversity essay is about YOU, so instead of trying to impress the ADCOM with some great unachievable feat you have been planning, explain who you are, what are your life experiences, perspectives and background. Mention a story or episode from your life which has affected you.


There is a fine line between humour and offence. Keep the humour to a line or two. If you have doubts on the humour, remove it. Culturally, what is humour for one person might be offensive to someone else.

ADCOM members read through numerous MBA application essays and can smell a fake or doctored essay from a mile. They have already read about all the great feats done and planned. Rather than explaining why you are unique, concentrate on who you are, your upbringing, your culture, your environment etc. to naturally set you apart from the other applicants.

By: Shivani Bhatt

Perfect ACT, SAT scores don’t mean admission to top universities

Vishruth Iyer, right, 15, and his twin brother Pratyush, work on their history homework in the study room of their home in Cupertino, Calif., on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Vishruth Iyer, right, 15, and his twin brother Pratyush, work on their history homework in the study room of their home in Cupertino, Calif., on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Vishruth Iyer, left, 15, and his twin brother Pratyush, pose for a photograph in their study room in their home in Cupertino, Calif., on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
 Vishruth Iyer, left, 15, and his twin brother Pratyush, pose for a photograph in their study room in their home in Cupertino, Calif., on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

CUPERTINO — Vishruth Iyer’s parents gathered close as their 15-year-old son opened an email with the thrilling news: The Monta Vista High sophomore earned the rare distinction of scoring a perfect 36 on his ACT college entrance exam.

“I almost fell out of my chair,” his father, Anand, said. “It was a big congratulations. I didn’t even know what to say to him.”

But as much as he and his wife, Sucharita, hope that Vishruth’s success could catapult him into the college of his choice by the time he’s a senior, they can’t help but be skeptical. As they are learning — along with many high school seniors now receiving their final acceptance and rejection letters from some of the top-ranked schools in the country — perfection doesn’t guarantee a spot at Stanford, Princeton or even Berkeley.

“Not now, no,” said Margaret Routhe, an independent college counselor in famously-competitive Palo Alto. “If you have a 36 on your ACT and think you’re going to walk into Harvard, it’s not the case.”

As recently as five years ago, Stanford was rejecting about 69 percent of applicants with perfect SAT scores. And those scores don’t come easily. Only a fraction of 1 percent of students who take the SAT scored a perfect 1600 or, on the ACT, a composite 36 on the four subject areas. The College Board that runs the SAT didn’t provide specific numbers on perfect scores but reported that only 5 percent of test takers score above 1400.

ACT-perfect test scores-040218-01For the ACT, only one-tenth of one percent of test takers across the country scored a 36 this year, and California is home to 421 of them. The fact that Vishruth is only a sophomore makes his achievement all the more rare. Four Bay Area high schools can claim at least a dozen top-scoring students on the ACT this year: Gunn in Palo Alto with 18, Lynbrook in San Jose with 13 and, with 12 each, Mission San Jose in Fremont and Harker School in San Jose.

Although top scores on either test are certainly special, admissions officers at elite universities are looking for something, ahem, more special. Stanford calls its admissions screening “holistic” and is searching  for “intellectual vitality” and extraordinary achievements among the piles of applicantsOn Friday, the university announced it accepted 4.3 percent of its undergraduate applicants this year.

There are at least a couple thousand kids with perfect ACTs or SATs all competing for slots in the same top 10 schools listed on U.S. News and World Report, said Irena Smith, who also runs an independent college counseling business in Palo Alto. “They’re getting eclipsed with someone who is an Olympic hopeful, someone with multiple patents, published authors,” she said, “and even a lot of those kids aren’t getting in.”

Just ask David Hogg, who survived the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High to become one of the most recognizable leaders of the student-led gun control movement.

Despite a 4.2 GPA, the Florida student was rejected by UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and UC Irvine. Perhaps TMZ put it best with this headline: “Parkland leader David Hogg — I’m Changing the World … BUT UC SCHOOLS STILL REJECTED ME.”

Vishruth Iyer, left, 15, and his twin brother Pratyush, do homework in their study room of their home in Cupertino, Calif., on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Vishruth Iyer, left, and his brother, Pratyush, both notched impressive scores on the ACT as sophomores, but they know it’s no guarantee for admission to the school of their dreams. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

College Confidential, the website dedicated to students making college plans, has become a forum for the forlorn in the past week. Ben Shumaker, an 18-year-old senior from Holland, Mich., who was denied from every Ivy League school he applied to as well as USC and Case Western, started a discussion group this week titled, “I’m Baffled At Rejection From Some Great Schools.”

He earned a 4.43 weighted GPA, he said, a 1550 out of 1600 on his SAT and 34 on his ACT. He took 22 semesters of Advanced Placement coursework and was ranked No. 1 in his class of 536 students. He even had what he thought was an unusual, extraordinary achievement: being the youngest player, by far, on a pro tour of the strategic trading card game “Magic the Gathering.” He was admitted to the University of Michigan, but it’s not his top choice. As he’s coming to terms with his rejections, he’s come up with his own explanation, one shared by many college admissions experts for the top schools.

“I sort of felt like in academics, the courses you take and the grades you earn, there is a level where it stops mattering,” Shumaker said. “If you get perfect grades and near-perfect scores, it just puts you in the pool.”

Divining the “secret sauce” of top-tier schools is what sends many parents to hire outside college counselors, who repeatedly stress to deaf ears that there are hundreds of great universities to choose from, not just the Top 10 — a list created in the 1980s by U.S. News and World Report that is considered by many as largely responsible for the crush of applications to Ivy Leagues and the towering hopes of students and parents.

As an antidote to those expectations, required reading at some high schools has become Frank Bruni’s “Where You Go is not Who You‘ll Be,” filled with success stories of people who didn’t go to name-brand universities.

Vishruth Iyer, second from left, 15, and his twin brother Pratyush, far left, talk to the Mercury News with their parents Anand, second from right, and Sucharita, far right, in Vishruth and Pratyush's room in their home in Cupertino, Calif., on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
The Iyers moved to Cupertino for the top-ranked schools so their twin boys, Pratyush, left, and Vishruth could get the best education. Their parents Anand, second from right, and Sucharita, far right, are trying to keep things in perspective but gently push the boys to intensify their extra-curricular activities so they stand out on college applications. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

For Vishruth Iyer’s immigrant parents, who are now U.S. citizens and earned advanced degrees at California universities, it’s difficult to lower their expectations for Vishruth and his twin brother, Pratyush, who is a straight-A student and competitive swimmer. They moved from San Jose to Cupertino for the quality schools. They sent the boys to prep classes at $90 a session, and they’re both focusing next on the SAT.

But the first thing the counselor told them was that their sons have three strikes against them, especially at private universities: They are Indian, they are male and they want to pursue computer science or engineering.

“It’s a common profile,” Anand Iyer said. “How do you differentiate yourself when my kids are naturally inclined to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)? I am totally frustrated with the whole system, basically.”

A trial is expected this summer in a federal civil rights case against Harvard, alleging it discriminated against Asian Americans by unfairly capping the number it admits, despite their qualifications. The nonprofit filing the lawsuit cites a 2009 Princeton study showing that Asian Americans need to score 140 points higher than whites on the SAT to have the same chances to land a spot at elite colleges.

The Iyer boys will likely have better luck at a UC school — which banned affirmative action in admissions in the 1990s — than a private Ivy League school, said Barbara Austin, who counsels Bay Area high school students. She also encourages students to widen their choices.

“There aren’t just 25 schools, there are 400 schools that are marvelous,” said Austin, who is based in Oakland.

Even with two years to go before applications are due, Vishruth’s parents are anxious — and exploring options for the sophomore to build his college portfolio by possibly doing research with a university professor this summer. At the same time, Vishruth is taking a mellower approach — something teachers and counselors have tried to impose.

“I don’t think it will change my future that much whether I go to a top-tier school or just under that,” he said. “I’m confident I’ll be fine for the future. But my parents are always saying, ‘Don’t play video games, study for the subject SAT test for math.’ I kind of tell my parents to relax and mind their own business. I’ve got it covered, you know?”

Confronting The College Application’s Scariest Word


You’ve been invited to a Halloween party. You know there’ll be plenty of interesting people there and the food and drink will be top notch. The invitation is appropriately spooky; it’s even been sent through the mail, with a fall-themed stamp and envelope – the McPhersons really know how to do things! It’ll be from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. – a good time for a party, just after the young trick-or-treaters are finished and before the older kids really get down to TP-ing the high school principal’s house.

You’re all ready to RSVP when you see the words that send a chill through you, like a stake through a vampire’s heart: “Costumes optional.” Suddenly, you feel clammy and nervous. Maybe you have something to do that night after all. The upholstery needs shampooing. You need to have your wisdom teeth out. It’ll probably be hailing.

Your anxiety comes not so much from the idea of wearing a costume, which, truth be told, you’d rather not, but from the fact that it’s up to you whether or not to wear one. If you go all in and show up as Cap’n Jack Sparrow or Cruella DeVille, will you be laughing it up with Leatherface and the Bride of Frankenstein or will you be batting your heavily made-up eyes at Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan from down the street? If you decide adults dressing up in masks is too juvenile, will you end up being cold-shouldered by the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Wicked Witch of the West?
Imagine, then, the fear inspired in every high school senior by the word “optional” on a college application. You don’t need an interview–it’s “optional.” You may submit your Subject Test scores, but they’re “optional.” There’s one more short essay, but it’s…”optional.”

Paranoia mixes with anxiety as you try to parse the meaning of the word. What’s behind it? What does the school mean by “optional”? It’s OK not to do it, but will I somehow be punished for not doing it? If I do it, will I look foolish, even though I’m being honest and doing my best to complete the application? If I don’t do it, will that count against me, even subliminally? Will the admission people think I’m not really going to be a good student because I only did the required pieces? Will they think I’m a brown-noser because I did the optional stuff?

And what about all my competitors? If I’m the only one who doesn’t do the “optional” piece, I’ll really look terrible. But maybe a lot of them won’t do it; then I should be OK. But what if no one does the “optional” piece and it’s just me? And anyway, how much effort do I need to put into an “optional” part of the application? The “prisoner’s dilemma” at work here can drive applicants, parents and college counselors mad.

The easy answer is to assume everything that’s “optional” is really “required.” If an interview is “optional,” then practice your handshake and eye contact. If an essay is “optional,” get cracking. There’s nothing wrong with doing the extra work and you don’t have too much to lose. For example, many if not most, “optional” interviews are non-evaluative and therefore don’t really count. They’re provided as much to keep alumni connected to the institution as they are to get a look at you. Even so, why not have the conversation? You don’t really have much to lose. Same for the test scores and essay(s), although I’d say keep the bad scores to yourself and report only the good ones if you can.

But as hosts of this party, colleges should consider taking “optional” out of the equation. It just causes a lot of unnecessary panic. Are admission officers going to pay attention or not? If so, then there’s an advantage to those who do the optional work. If not, then why ask for it? Right now, applicants just worry themselves into a lather trying to decide what to do. And if you declare an essay topic to be “optional,” perhaps it should be less substantial than this example:

Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better-perhaps related to a community you belong to or your family or cultural background-we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.

If I don’t address this topic, am I less likely to be understood and appreciated? (To add insult to possible injury, applicants are limited to describing their perspective in 250 words or less.)

To be fair, Duke also has an optional topic that can rightly be treated as such:

Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes gender identity and sexual orientation. If you would like to share with us more about either, and have not done so elsewhere in the application, we invite you to do so here. (Also 250 words.)

Admission officers say they truly don’t favor the doer over the avoider, but it’s only human nature to give an advantage to the doers, however subtle or even unconscious that may be. If my invitation says “costumes required,” at least I know I won’t be embarrassed if I show up in full gear and I can choose not to go at all if I don’t like to dress up. And the stakes aren’t that high. But for college applicants, the pressure is already high enough. Eliminating “optional” where possible from applications’ vocabulary would make them at least slightly less gloomy.

Don’t Overlook These Three Important Sections of Your Common Application


Will it require more effort from students to enhance these sections of their applications?

When students sit down to begin working on their college applications, most are intensely focused on just a single aspect of the process: the college essay. After all, top grades and test scores alone are never enough to gain admission into the nation’s more selective colleges and universities. It’s the essay that helps students distinguish themselves, right? While it’s true that stellar essays are critically important to colleges that evaluate their applicants holistically, there are three additional components of the Common Application that provide exceptional opportunities for students to stand out. Will it require more effort from students to enhance these sections of their applications? You betcha. But when thousands upon thousands of students are vying for a limited number of seats, it’s worth it.

1. Activities Page: Club Descriptions

For every club listed on the Activities page of the Common App, students are required to write an overall description of their involvement. This commonly includes leadership positions/titles, one’s role within the organization, and/or a brief overview of the club’s purpose. But here’s the catch. You only have 150 characters (approximately 20 words) to accomplish this task. Given these constraints, most students end up providing middling, nonspecific descriptions of their clubs—perhaps believing that (a) activity descriptions are an unimportant piece of the Common App, and/or (b) 150 characters isn’t enough room to creatively capture one’s commitment to a club. Think again! When reading applications for Bennington, Barnard, and Connecticut College, I always appreciated the student who took the time to write pithy, detailed, or entertaining descriptions. Tell me—which summary for “Hospital Volunteer” below impresses you more?

  • I perform community service at Mass General, including paper deliveries and children’s crafts.
  • It’s never a dull moment at Mass General. From delivering morning papers to creating crafts with the children, I love serving as a teen volunteer.

2. College Supplements: Optional Essays

Let me be direct about this: “optional essays” should not be considered optional. Do students technically have the ability to leave these essays blank and still submit their applications? Sure they do! Is this a wise decision? Absolutely not. Curious to see some examples of optional essays? Take a look at the questions below.

  • Why do YOU want to go to college? We know it is an excellent path to a career, but we want to hear more specifically about what you are hoping to gain from your time in college. Tell us about yourself and your experiences that have led to this decision. (George Mason University)
  • What do you do? Why do you do it? (Lafayette College)
  • In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here. (Northwestern University)

Students who elect not to complete these optional questions are essentially telling colleges: I’m really not that into you. Admissions officers often reason that students with a genuine desire to attend their college will want show their sincerity and excitement for that school by taking the time to draft a thoughtful essay. While this rationale seems logical, I admit it’s a tad unfair that some colleges call these essays “optional” if they actually place a significant amount of weight on those responses. But from the college perspective, it would be unfortunate if a terrific student chose not to apply simply because they didn’t have the desire/time/energy to complete the optional essay. Colleges don’t want to discourage students from applying, but they can (and do) value those who take the extra step to answer those additional prompts.

3. College Supplements: Required Essays

As an admissions officer who has evaluated thousands of applications, I can’t tell you the number of times I felt wildly impressed after reading a main Common Application essay, only to be let down after reviewing a bland and generic supplemental response. Students often place so much emphasis on the main personal statement, they can lose steam when it’s time to tackle supplemental essay questions.

When Georgia Tech asks “beyond rankings, location, and athletics, why are you interested in attending Georgia Tech,” how will you respond if you are primarily attracted to their strong reputation, vibrant urban setting, and infectious school spirit? The single most important step students can take to prepare for school-specific questions is to research!

Go online; read up on the school’s philosophy and mission; check out details pertaining to your prospective major; find specific class titles that interest you; locate a study abroad program that excites you; identify academic opportunities that are unique to that school; determine which clubs on campus you’d most like to join; take a virtual tour (if one’s available); scan the student newspaper online for hot issues on campus; and talk to current students (or alumni) if possible. Then, after you’ve conducted your research, take the next step and show an authentic connection between the school and you. How do those facts fit with the sort of person you are and the type of college experience you desire?

Much of the Common Application is common. Every student who applies must submit biographical information, a family background, and an educational history. It’s the personal aspects of the application—including the Activities page and the supplemental essays — that will allow you to shine. Best of luck!