General Background

7 minutes


Updated June 8, 2022

You’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 resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

Let’s start with the one that will follow you for a long time: tell me about yourself. This is a pithily worded monster of a question, as the answer can range from talking about your childhood dream to recounting what you learned from your worst failure. Because there is no boundary to the degree of variability, students wreck their mind trying to come up with a response that is interesting, memorable, and concise. The paradox of choice* can be crippling, so use the following framework by an academic consulting firm that we found to be useful.*

Do not use this as an opportunity to regurgitate your resume or history.

Remember, they have already seen it. They are looking to understand what made you, well, you. What made you spend that summer volunteering abroad? Why did you choose to become a class representative? Why did you choose to focus on optimization of traffic in metropolitan areas for your final year project? Every decision we take has meaning behind it, which might not always be obvious. Let’s find out now.

Take a pen and paper (or post-its) and create three columns.

actionFirst, if you only had one day left to live, what are the top three activities that you would spend the day working on (assuming you already said goodbye to your loved ones)?

Really think about it. Let me help you out. If it were me, I would write, sing and play the guitar, and host a mini-conference on a topic that I’m passionate about. Think about the activities that make you feel exhilarated, either mentally or physically (or both). Write down each of them in the first column.

actionSecondly, write down why you picked the activity you picked in the second column.

Assuming you wrote down reading books, playing video games, and playing football, the reasons could be the following.

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  • Reading books: learning something new and having time to introspect

  • Playing video games: being in a community and solving critical problems

  • Playing football: working towards a common goal and pushing physical limits

actionFinally, once you’re done with figuring out the why, try connecting the reasons mentioned in the second column to how they can help you in the major you’re hoping to pursue.

If you were to pursue a research-oriented master’s, all the skills mentioned above become useful. You just need to explain exactly how. At the end of this exercise, you should have something similar to the following in front of you for all the activities listed.

Reading BooksLearning something new and having time to introspectCore trait of a researcher
Playing GamesBeing in a community and solving critical problemsNeeded to work on team projects
Playing FootballWorking towards a common goal and pushing physical limitsAlso applies to cognitive limits

Begin weaving a chronological story that connects some of these elements (it doesn’t have to use them all). The result should be a story that would be refreshing for the admission committee to hear. The following is a (fictional) example:

I grew up in the suburbs of Eastern India spending most of my evenings at my father’s car mechanic shop, watching him interact masterfully with the customers, and always getting their vehicle fixed. Since I used to finish my homework early, I would help my father in handling the finances. Occasionally, I would also tinker with the cars and motorcycles parked there by disassembling them. The accounting work I did there helped me develop a love and skill for math that boosted me academically.

Eventually, my ninth grade teacher asked me to teach mathematics at a nearby non-profit that was designed to help kids with intellectual and physical disabilities. It was hard at first, as I had no experience teaching. However, I learned how to teach from my mother, who held dance classes every evening. As I worked with these kids for years, I could clearly see the potential they had and how the limiting factor was something beyond their control.

Before I left my home to pursue my undergrad, I knew I wanted to work at the intersection of neuroscience and robotics, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I spent the past four years taking as many courses as I could in these disciplines and gaining experience working at companies and universities. I’m the type of person who loves spending days stuck with one problem until that liberating moment of eureka arrives. What defines me is a sense of focus and perseverance, which has gotten me this far. I hope this will get me to your university.

You can see from the example above that this fictional human being is good at math, teaching, and observing others (and learning from them). All of this is in addition to hopefully a shining resume filled with experiences. As the interviewer hears such a story, they can begin to connect the words they read on paper to the person in front of them, and see if this fits within their archetype of a student at their university.

Know that sometimes, even if you’re a brilliant candidate, you might not be a good fit for that particular program. And that’s OK.

Not everywhere you fit is where you belong.

For the other general questions on why you’re looking to join a particular university and major, simply pick out a few unique selling points that you noted from the chapter on choosing your major and three that prompted you to choose them in the first place.

danger We humbly request you to not mention the rank of a university as a reason to join it. Mentioning it would prompt them into thinking that you didn’t care to scratch beyond the surface and learn more about their department.

Academic Background

The questions under general background focus on what you hope to reap out of the time you spend at the university. In return, the university will also get a lot out of you, monetarily and otherwise. Academic background focuses on what you can bring to the table and how you will collectively help advance the position of the university by working on new areas of research, publishing papers, obtaining funding, and attracting more students.

A commonly asked question here is: how has your previous experience prepared you for this degree at our university?

The question is asking you to talk about your relevant past experiences as well your plan to utilize them for future research at the university.

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