Cognitive Biases and You

6 minutes

Youโ€™re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resourcesโ€”including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

Confirmation bias is one of the cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are unavoidable blind spots that lead you to quick, but faulty, decisions.

In the millions of years that our brain developed to become the powerful machine it is today, we fell prey to a lot of cognitive biases that helped us survive a particular period of time. The negativity bias, for example, helped our ancestors be vigilant to the dangers they faced during the hunter-gatherer era.* Although some of them are not needed anymore, they still persist and are hard to escape.

Wikipedia lists over 175 cognitive biases* that plague us, ranging from confirmation bias to lesser known ones such as hyperbolic discounting effect,* a tendency to have stronger preference for immediate payoffs over future payoffs.

While we can get better at noticing these biases as we experience them, there is no escape.

Not for us, you, or the admissions committee.

While going through hundreds of applications, it is highly likely for the committee to experience a few biases.*

One example is conservatism bias,* also known as belief revision bias. It states that when we are presented with new information on a topic weโ€™re already familiar with, we tend to associate less weight to this new information compared to the original information. Generally, admissions committees tend to screen applicants first based on quantitative data such as CGPA and GRE scores. By the time the committee reaches the statement of purpose, their thinking is biased by the grades of the applicant.

However, biases are not always bad.

The same committee that suffers from conservatism bias, also suffers from salience bias,* a tendency to focus more on things that are emotionally striking. Or the bizarreness effect,* a tendency to remember bizarre events more than common occurrences. You could use that to your leverage and include an interesting and vivid story from your past that is sure to be remembered. Whether good or bad, we mention these so you understand that it is not a straightforward, objective process.

Understanding othersโ€™ cognitive biases is useful; however, it is critical to know that itโ€™s not under your control.

What is under your control is writing a stellar essay that conveys your motivation to study abroad.

As mentioned in the prologue, you spend the greater part of your childhood swimming in a metaphorical river, constrained by the rules set in place by the government, society, and your parents. You get some breathing room to dabble in your interests when you enter college. Now, as you enter graduate school, you will have even more space to craft the path of your career and contribute to the broader community.

With more space, comes more uncertainties.

The committee needs to know that you have a focused purpose that will shield you through all the uncertainties. The statement of purpose is your chance to convey that purpose. It is a statement of your purpose.

We will be honest: we donโ€™t know. We approached Ross Gortner, Associate Director of Engineering Management, at Dartmouth College.* This is what he had to say:

In the statement of purpose, Iโ€™m looking for the answers to two basic questions: who is this person and what is their story. The essay should talk about where you want to go from where you are presently and how this particular program will act as a bridge for you.

Another important factor that I look at is whether you talk specifically about the universityโ€™s capabilities and whether you have done your research to understand why you are applying to this program. I expect an applicant to provide a customized essay over a generalized one for the universities they apply to.

I first scan through the SOPs and check if most of the aspects are covered, and then spend more time on the selected ones. I read through all of them, but would give more importance to the ones that are concisely written after distilling oneโ€™s thoughts. Overall, I want to perceive how interested the student is in this program.

In general, there is a lot of content on the web around this topic.* Some ask you to include interesting anecdotes, while others suggest using this space to offer explanations on another part of your application (such as a low CGPA). We distilled all the information out there to present the five questions we feel you definitely need to answer in this essay. To make it more actionable, we have given examples from well-written essays at the end of each question.

Before we jump into all that good stuff, hereโ€™s a mantra to keep telling yourself as you write this essay: the statement of purpose is a place to talk about topics that are not evident from other parts of the application.

Why This Major and University?

Answering this question takes a non-trivial amount of effort.

โ€‹dangerโ€‹ Here are two things to avoid while answering this question: First, donโ€™t assume it is obvious to the admissions committee that you are pursuing a graduate degree in computer science because your undergraduate degree was in computer science. Second, donโ€™t search for the most recently published paper on the departmentโ€™s website and include that as the reason you wish to pick the university.

Making the above errors indicate that you are lethargic and put little thought into this.

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