Captain's Log

En route USA #03 – Essays.

Click here for Part 2 - Exams.

One of the really cool things about applying abroad is that you get to make your case. As far as I know it’s all about numbers in India. You have a defined entrance exam and a set cut-off you clear. Reservation quotas might come into play then. Sometimes there’s an interview and even then it’s too technical. Nobody asks you about your story or what purpose you think you will serve by getting this degree. Foreign universities make space for this in the form of personal and academic statements, usually put together as one – the statement of purpose.

Many ‘experts’ cite the SoP as the most important aspect of your admission process. There are a thousand guides online on how to craft the perfect statement of purpose. They are countless agencies which would write them for you for a fee. But in reality, the only guideline you need is in the name. It is a statement of purpose. All you need to do is explain why you want this particular program in that particular university and how do you think you’re qualified enough to get it. That’s all they need to know. Read that sentence again and you’ll see that this means you need to write a brand new SoP for each university and program that you’re applying to.

Which is sort of true. It is one of the first mistakes that most do. They write one draft and send it to multiple universities just by changing the name of the university in the final paragraph. Those on the admissions panel who’ve been reading hundreds of SoPs year after year can easily weed out these generic SoPs that have no amount of personalized effort put into them. Same goes for rewriting SoPs from the internet or using one of your senior’s who got an admit in the same college the previous year. Common sense man, don’t do it. 

Almost every university has its own rules for what should go in a sop, how long it must be and what format to upload it in. Out of the 8 colleges I applied to, two asked for independent academic and personal statements while the others asked for one document. Mostly uploaded as PDFs or .doc but some may ask you to type it directly inside text boxes in their admissions portal. Almost all have their own word limits. Few colleges also give you a list of questions that you must answer in your statement. I’ve observed that universities in UK generally don’t allow for more than one page for your SoP and are more interested in your qualifications while USA allow for usually 2 pages and sometimes don’t even have a limit, and insist that you explain your personal motivations for the course as well as how you choose to use the degree once you’ve earned it.

As a rule of thumb, don’t start off saying it’s your childhood dream to study this. Even if that’s true. It’s way too common and cliché. I generally started off with a quote. But then I’ve started off essays and speeches with quotes all my life and it was a quote that I generally knew and was inspired by, not one I dug up from the internet for the sole purpose of making my sop sound cool. The key here is honesty. You could throw in a short “hook” to make up for a nice intro, not more than 2 lines. Then immediately list your high school and undergrad grades and get it out of the way. Those are just numbers and you don’t need to waste precious word limit here. You can even throw in your GRE and TOEFL scores here if you want to. That was my paragraph one. I wrote a cool quote about stars by Van Gogh, stated that quote had the entire essence of my sop in a single line. Then dived right into “I’ve been interested in the sciences since high school scoring xyz in so and so subjects and then it extended to my undergrad which I did at so and so college scoring ### cgpa out of a total so much.”  You can brag here. Mention if you’re a department rank holder, if your undergrad uni has some national ranking or if you scored too good on a particular section in GRE even though your total is a bit average. This is by no means a standard format but this is the one that made most sense to me.

I began my second para explaining all the projects I did in undergrad. I left no stone unturned, throwing in names of every tiny mini-project and term paper that I worked on even if they weren’t very original or resulted in failure. Go as technical as you can. Do a little research on the college and if any of your projects aligned with something someone in the college is working on, highlight that the most. You don’t necessarily have to explain things in chronological order or get more in-depth on your thesis rather than a term paper. Relevance matters and not how much time you spent on it. Try and find an angle that makes at least some of the work you did relevant to the field you’re applying to and to the university. These are areas where sending one copy of the SoP to every university fails. These things need to get personal and show that you’ve put in effort and researched your program well.

If the word limit permits, you can add in a small paragraph here to talk about some of your skills outside the classroom. Events you’ve managed, clubs you were a member of, sports titles. But you can completely omit it if you’re exceeding the word limit. Unless it’s some super serious national title or a hackathon conducted by Google or Facebook or something, you can safely cut it all out. Make a judgement call.

My next paragraph had a little about what I aspire to be after getting the degree and why I felt this university would help me. To be completely honest, I didn’t really know what to write here and went for some very generic stuff. But I did namedrop a couple of professors and labs in the unis and made it sound all official. You want to make it sound like their university is this amazing place but then not go overboard as well.Don’t say things like “you’re one of the best universities in the country” if it’s an obvious mid-tier university. Instead you could say things like, “the work your -insert lab name here- has done on -insert project name- is unparalleled and I would love to learn more and be a part of -insert professor’s name- team and work on it myself”. Boom. That’s how that’s done. 

You can always choose a super common conclusion. “I conclude my statement hoping that my application is duly considered and I get an admit with a suitable assistantship or aid.” is pretty much close to what I wrote in all my SoPs. My logic was that if you didn’t manage to sell it so far, then a cool conclusion isn’t suddenly going to change their minds. So no need to sweat is here.

Should the college be super generous with their word limits, you can always include little experiences or anecdotes from your life ( just don’t make it too much cringe or obviously fake) but make sure you’re aware of how it would sound to them. In my sop to MIT, a university that I so obviously knew I wouldn’t get in at all, I went full experimental. I completely ignored this format because the only way I could stand out is “shock factor”. So I straight up wrote a story, still including all aforementioned details. I think that was my most honest SoP ever. At least in my other ones I had to put a positive spin on how in spite of doing engineering, it would still make sense for me to pursue physics. But in MIT, I straight up admitted that me switching to physics is risky and applying to MIT is more greed rather than ambition and went,”yet here’s why I think this could work out” and listed out a whole paragraph of what I thought at the moment was just blunt passion. But alas, didn’t amount to much.

Some universities might require for you to write a separate “scholarship essay” but the ones I applied to didn’t. Most of them come with very clear instructions as to what they want you to address in the essay, so shouldn’t be a problem. Also feel free to use underlines, bold and italics throughout your essays. Most admissions panel tend to skim through these and it’s important to catch their attention. However, I wouldn’t recommend overdoing it or going crazy with colors.

So the key is honesty, common sense, relevance and moderation. Try to do as much of it as you can on your own. Proofread and spell check a bunch of times. There’s nothing more embarrassing than applying for a masters in engineering and spelling it enginearing.  Once you’re done with these, your admissions process is pretty much over. That is, assuming you’re done with uploading all the required transcripts and degree/provisional certificates. One thing left is to send recommendation letters.

This can happen two ways. Either you’ll be asked to self report, when you get a professor or a manager to write a letter, sign it, scan it and upload it in the admissions portal on your own. Or you’ll be asked to enter the recommender’s email ID in the portal and that’s that. They will be sent an email from the college with an upload link to attach your letter. Don’t get too smart and give your own ID’s because most portals accept only official email IDs with edu.com or other industry domains. The case is entirely opposite in UK and USA. Most colleges in UK expect you to self-upload the LoRs with few asking for just the email IDs whereas in USA barely any universities allow you to self upload anymore. So your job here is to talk to your professors and managers asking permission if you can give their emails and then remind them now and then to make sure they do it. Most universities understand the difficulty of getting your professors to type out a letter of recommendation for you between their busy schedules and hence have open deadlines for this alone. Which means you can send the LoRs to them well after your admissions deadline is over, but still it is always better to get it all done together. They usually need a minimum of 3 letters. Most universities tend to have an additional page where they ask your profs to rate your abilities on a scale of 1 to 10 and such, so it is not a matter of just hitting upload. It takes time. So if you’re like me and applying to 8 or 10 universities, don’t pick just 3 people and expect them to do it 10 times. It gets frustrating for them. My HOD directly told me that he’ll do a maximum of five universities only. So I talked to about 7 professors and did a little mix-n-match to make sure none of them had to send it to more than 3 universities. There is no upper limit on the number of recommendations, so I made all seven send to MIT. Should a professor ask you to write a letter on your own and send them (which some do. They ask for a draft from you and make their own changes to it. Feels weird to write about yourself, but you gotta do what you gotta do), do not copy one from the internet or use your friend’s draft. I had a professor who asks the students to list out what they think are their qualities worth recommending and then writes his own draft based on it. He told me that he often gets the exact same list from multiple students with just the qualities jumbled in order. His exact words were,”Just how stupid do these students think professors are? This is for their future, so why should I put effort into typing a brand new letter of recommendation if they won’t put in the effort to make a list of 5 words?” Can’t argue with that. 

So provided you’re done with all of that, the only thing you can do is wait for the admissions committee to go through your profile and respond. If you’re applying in the priority deadlines in December, you should start hearing back anywhere from February to April. I got rejection from MIT in first week of February. Then silence for a month. Then the rejections started pouring in during March. Wherein I panicked, decided it was stupid to try to shift to physics and applied to the top 5 universities in UK for engineering. Glasgow university responded the very next day with an admit. Leeds, Queen Mary and Bath took about 2 weeks. End of March and Imperial was yet to respond even after the 5th week and 7 out of the 8 US universities had rejected me either citing “too much competition” or “transcript doesn’t match the requirements of our physics program”. University of Iowa alone stated that they would’ve accepted had my physics GRE score was better. Felt like shit ’cause that was a frickin’ PhD program and they had really great work going on in observational astronomy. Oh yes, I had applied to PhD programs everywhere with MS as the second preference because most universities stated that for the pure sciences, terminal MS degrees aren’t greatly considered. In hindsight, that was a very bad move. Rochester Institute of Technology had rejected my PhD application but stated that they would begin processing my MS application next.

April brought good news. And with it a huge fear of the looming debt that I’d be in if I were to go through with it. More on finances and the visa process in the next couple of posts.

Click here for Part 4 - Finances.

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