After a long, hard day at school, as you return home knowing well that you have to get busy preparing for your board examinations that are just around the corner, you power up your laptop and the first reminder that pops up is ‘Personal Essay’. It’s the essay that you need to include with your university applications. It’s one you haven’t started working on as yet; putting it off for various reasons. Not knowing how to begin your essay, what to include in it, what to highlight and what to only touch upon are some reasons you have been procrastinating. Also, the fact that the personal essay could be an important factor in your application process has been stressing you out, and you are aware that you need to give it your best shot to improve your chances of making it to the university of your choice.
Viral Doshi is well aware about such anxieties many high school students experience. An educational consultant who has been mentoring and counselling students for more than two decades, he says students, particularly those of Indian origin, are apprehensive about the essay components of the application. Many struggle to find a common resource to read and understand how other Indian students, who had gained admission to top colleges, had crafted their essays, he says,
To help just such students, the consultant, who has offices in Mumbai, London, Dubai and New York, collaborated with Mridula Malusted, a writing and editorial consultant, to compile a book that is packed with 85 essays by Indian students who gained admission into the Ivy League and Stanford.
Titled Indian Roots, Ivy Admits (Amaryllis, 2021), the book also includes plenty of insights and comments by Viral and Mridula on each of the student statements- highlighting the pros and offering tips and hints to aspiring university students who are preparing their personal essays.
A main reason for writing and compiling this book "is to reach out to hopeful university applicants and ease some of their application anxieties," says Viral, who identifies key aspects of essays that make them compelling. "This collection is rooted in [an Indian student’s] contextual experiences."
The educational consultant makes it clear that the personal essay makes up only one component of the admission process. "While I must say it is important to write a good essay, it makes up around 10 per cent of the entire package. Eventually, it is academics, SAT scores and extracurricular activities that matter. If you identify the students who have gone to the top five universities, you will see that they made it only on the back of very strong academics." That said, given the sharp competition for seats in top universities, students know that every component of the admission process could be crucial.
Excerpts from an interview:
On what basis were the essays evaluated and what made the cut for them to be incorporated into the book?
There are indeed countless exceptional university essays. However, we decided to focus on some amongst the best that met the gold-standard of admission to the coveted halls of Ivy Leagues and Stanford. The essays we selected aim to emphasize the diversity of not only applicant profiles and stories but also distinctive writing styles. While some essays directly address an academic field of interest, most of them discuss and engage with narratives that have barely any relevance to the student’s eventual major.
Each essay is uniquely personal in its own right, containing in itself a congregation of characters and chronicles from the student’s life. Within the pages of Indian Roots, Ivy Admits, you might find a committed theatre artiste who loves chemistry, a sparrow conservator, a student who has been indelibly shaped by the forests she visited as a child, a writing enthusiast who – after seeing a lacuna, established a community writing centre, a maths aficionado whose passion for math evolved from her childhood love for paper craft and gift-making ...
Five pieces of advice you would give students before they start preparing to write their personal statements?
1. Honestly self-reflect. You are the specialist of your life so you need to self-reflect. Beyond you, your parents, siblings and friends can be honest (if sometimes unflattering mirrors), so do consult them.
2. Think of profound moments, watershed moments and events in your life after which everything changed for you, or which ushered a period of transformation, or put you on a new trajectory. It could be a conversation, a whisper in your ear, a new coffee flavour, a pat on your back after you aced a math set. It could be a sushi meal you artistically and painstakingly made. Think of objects in your home that may have significance. A painting, your father’s worn tennis racket, a statue, a photograph. A set of keys... Sometimes commonplace events and items can have profound significance, can trigger change, or be allegorical and have profound significance in your life.
3. With this in place, be inventive, brave, reflective, and above all authentic. This will make sure your reader stays enthralled, intrigued, and interested past the first sentence. You have to show-and-tell your experiences, so before starting the introduction its good practice to list events and situations in your life, surrounding a core idea, that you believe has had a huge impact on you. Extrapolate on each of these events and moments and assess which takes the most compelling trajectory. Keep a file, and maintain a notepad of all of these ideas, ruminations and thoughts. It will come in handy.
4. By 17, all students would have gone through setbacks. Reflect on them. What did you learn from them, how did they impact you? How did you bounce back?
5. Ensure the readers are walking alongside you as they read your common app essay; for this, you need to bring them into the moment. It is important that you think of and include the mood, setting and environment!
How should a student go about writing their personal statement?
The possibilities of how you can write are limitless.
• Making bullet points of your ideas will allow you to gauge whether or not you have a substantive, expansive story.
• Free writing: often writers who have allowed their thoughts to flow unencumbered say that encased in the vast tracts of writing are gems and illuminating autobiographical kernels and epiphanies, and indeed, sharp, writerly phrases and evocative sentences and paragraphs that can then weave into your final draft. So, you could also begin with a "stream of consciousness" essay (writing down everything in free-flowing thoughts) which you can draw on while scribing the CA.
• We encourage some students to build a mind map. This will show you how the pieces tie in with your main idea and with the thesis. It could help you think of more connections that you can piece together to create a jigsaw depiction of the situation.
• Whichever you do, it should follow from deep self-reflection, and a discussion with a person (like a parent or a sibling) you trust.
What details should be included to elevate a personal statement?
• Ambient details of the environment and setting to set the mood/tone of the essay.
• No successful person does things completely solo, so do bring in and give a nod to your collaborators in any project or endeavour if that is what you are describing. Collaboration is an important virtue
• Descriptive details, as you would read in a story, would definitely help elevate it.
• It is not enough to know that you are Head of the Chess Club, or Games and Basketball captain, or Head Boy. It is vital to know what changed in the course of leading. How did you transform?
• Humour that is self-deprecating and not directed at others, and is faith and gender agnostic is always well met.
What skills do students need to incorporate into their personal statements to make them stand out from other applicants?
• Having skills that bind (we would include music and thespian skills) are just as well received as academic and analytical skills.
• A trait that is highly valued is tenacity, the ability to rise from a fall
What are some of the biggest mistakes you have seen students make while writing their essays?
• Starting at the very beginning – "I was born in Haryana", this usually makes the reader go, oh oh, not again! This is going to be encyclopaedic! And it just might elicit a weary sigh.
• There are certain topics that could be considered trite, for instance, "I used to be shy, and now I am a public speaker." While valid, this is an all too common event in the life of many students!
• Being over chronological can lead to a monotonous, mechanical essay
• Not providing enough details and anecdotes and being over generic is another common mistake!
• Using slang, ‘bad words’, jive talkin’, street language like ‘bro’, derogatory terms for nationalities, genders, race or ethnicity- anything.
• Make sure your every sentence adds value. Flowery language does not camouflage empty content.
• Vagueness and generalities like "I have many accomplishments in music," should be avoided. Be specific yet concise like say for example, "I make the flute sing."
What is the most common word/sentence you have seen students use in their SOPs?
"When I was 7, I would play with Lego blocks." Then the student goes on to describe how this was fuel for his engineering dream. We have read this a lot!
The book is avaiable on manjulindia.com.