Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Chicago Essays

[file under: Thoughts for Applicants]

A week or so before the Chicago deadline, 3app had this suggestion for me:
Yog, here's how not to answer Chicago's question:

If you could step into any celebrities shoes for a day, who would it be and why?

I would step into Tom Cruise's shoes because our feet are the same size and he has better shoes than me.

Amn't I glad I decided to heed his word !

I have received a few emails recently asking about application strategies, how I differentiated myself from the 'yeti' pack to make it to Chicago etcetera. The honest answer is that I don't know. I mean, it's not like I spent months drafting, editing, versioning, and rewriting my essays to convey a well-crafted message. Far from it ;-)

Take the answer to this essay question, for instance. It took me all of three hours to write. On the night before the deadline. An extended deadline, I may add. True story. However, it wasn't like I thought it up at the time. Not at all. The idea had been germinating for a while, but it's one of my foibles that I can't help but wait until the very last minute to do things - I guess I have a subliminal craving for that adrenaline rush. Anyways, for this essay I knew who I was going to write about, and a bit of what I was going to write about, but didn't really know how I was going to do it, as in the format of the essay. Also, I didn't have an opening.

A few days before the deadline, I went to watch a movie with a good friend. While we were waiting for the show to start, I brought up the subject of the whacko Chicago essay questions. Now, this guy is one of the smartest people I know and he said that they reminded him of mathematical equations. What? My thoughts exactly. But, he had a brilliant point, which I don't exactly remember but I'll try. In math, there are problems that have solutions. And then, there are the problems that seemingly don't. The way you tackle the latter is by reducing them to a known form that can in fact be solved.

Applying this logic to the question at hand brought a certain clarity. It wasn't really about the celebrity or a day-in-the-life-of. It was about me and how I saw myself ! It was a chance to talk about the things I *want* to do. It was, in some sense, about dreams dreamt.

I shall digress here for a moment. A topic that is oft-discussed is that of over-represented applicant categories. And, the question that is most often asked in that regard is: how does one distinguish oneself from the pack?

The answer, I believe, lies in the asking of the question. If standing out is the main issue, then it must mean everyone by and large looks the same. As in: Has a similar educational background. Has a similar GMAT score. Has similar work experience. Has similar goals.

I shall add another crucial element: Talks about similar things.

I have read and re-read my essays from last year, and some of fellow applicants who asked for feedback, and certain similarities in the way the essays were approached became obvious. Hindsight, I know, but it's got to be good for something, right. My suggestion, especially to the Indian-IT demographic, is: Do not forget that you submit a resume. I will assert that everything that makes one similar to the pool should be restricted to that document. If you have done, say, x projects for y clients, restating that in the career progress essay is not just repeating information, it is reinforcing the stereotype. Forget talking about 'what' you did. Talk about the 'why' and the 'how'.

You and I and a thousand others slaving in code factories do somewhat similar work. I don't fault the Adcoms for making certain generalized assumptions about that aspect of the application. But, can one make a case that we are all motivated by the same things? Work the same way? Dream the same dreams? Absolutely not. The reality, of course, is that unless you show them what drives, motivates, scares you, you will remain another face in the crowd. A 770 GMAT notwithstanding.

I'll take another detour as I meander back to my orignal topic. I have come to believe that the questions the schools ask matter. Duh? Not exactly. What I mean is that, to a large extent, answers are framed by the questions asked. If you are asked to talk about an ethical issue, a failure, a significant achievement, and career goals as your four essays, there is limited wiggle room for going 'off the wall'. On the other hand - a mascot, celebrity, hero and career goals - now that's either a recipe for disaster or something spectacular.

If I were a betting man, I'd venture the reason I am in Chicago is because of their questions. The free form nature meant that I wrote about:
1. what drove me to start a company when i was in grad school, how its failure shaped my career choices, and how everything i've learnt on my job has been building up towards an entrepreneurial career; that MUST go through Chicago,

2. a school that is built on the primacy of ideas and a spirit of constant questioning , and whose mascot i envision representing a school that is grounded in this spirit yet leading the charge to the future,

3. one in which i see myself, much like a celebrity I admire, leading a successful, socially-responsible company built from the ground up by the dint of hard work and rooted in values,

4. which I've imbibed from my father, my hero, to whose efforts I owe dreaming big dreams and realizing them.

It was HIGHLY coincidental that all of these came together this way, because I hadn't thought of them this involved-ly during the all of two days I took to put together my app :-) But you, dear applicant, should.

Question: What about those four essays screams 'yeti'?

I did not talk about any projects I worked on, or even what company I worked for in my essays ! This is the entirety of my reference to my past four years of work experience:
I have spent the past four years gaining the technical expertise to transform ideas into products in addition to accumulating leadership experience to manage teams and projects. I have also pursued a varied range of roles - recruiting employees, mentoring engineers, and interfacing with cross-functional organizations – to prepare me to eventually realize my larger goals

I do realize that this is probably not a 'strategy' that is recommended by the pundits. But, this is the one school where I took the risk of telling them, not about what I had achieved, but what I *want* to achieve. The above quoted text was the third paragraph of my first essay. It was also the last reference to anything about my past. Everything else was about la-la-land.

Being that this approach did get me my only admit, I do think it is worth thinking about.
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very informative article, which offers a great strategy!!

11 November, 2007 13:12  

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