Going the Extra Mile

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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.

I always tell aspiring product managers that being a good product manager is not the same as being a good product manager interviewee. To ace your interview, you need to prepare on five different verticals (product design, product strategy, guesstimation, technical, and behavioral). I remember solving a dozen questions found on Leetcode, figuring out ways to improve all the products I use, and testing myself on a plethora of how many coffee shops are present in San Francisco type questions when I was preparing for my interviews.

As a product manager, you don’t need to code or know the statistics of your city’s coffee shops. Rather, you need to be good at collecting requirements and feedback from your customers, building relationships with the various teams you work with, and balancing priorities across engineering, business, and design. Yet, you have to learn things which you don’t particularly need for your interview process. Why?

To make you think and be prepared.

Optional: To Do or to Not

We’ve noticed that some universities also include optional sections in the application, which generally manifest in two formats:

  • making a video introduction

  • writing an essay on diversity.

Every component of your graduate school application is an opportunity for you to reflect on your past and ponder upon your future. Your resume, recommendation letters, and transcripts reflect what you’ve accomplished so far. Your test scores signify how hard you have been working for the past few months. Your statement of purpose is an opportunity to answer critical questions related to your future.

Last but not least, the optional parts of your application test whether you go the extra mile or not.

In this chapter, we will briefly talk about the best practices you can follow to make a video and write essays on topics related to diversity.

Making a Video

Your video is a condensed, visual depiction of your story.

The admissions committee can gauge a lot from a few minutes of hearing you talk: your proficiency in English, presentation skills, and intent in pursuing the degree.

danger You don’t need to put yourself in front of the camera if it feels too unnatural or if you feel you won’t be able to put your best foot forward by doing it. It’s OK to skip this part of the application, since it’s optional.

We just hope you will at least give it a shot!

Hopefully, by the end of this, you will be able to shoot something better than good enough. Let’s enter the world of cinema for the next few minutes.

Pre-Production: Being a Director

The journey begins. It’s now time for you to choose the story that you want to tell your audience, i.e., the admissions committee.

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking. You can choose and go ahead with the storyline that best fits your experiences and aspirations:

Connecting the Dots Approach

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

You may recognize these powerful words as spoken by Steve Jobs in his famous Stanford Commencement Address in 2005.* Steve Jobs dropped out of college, got fired from a company he created, and escaped cancer very narrowly. None of these events made sense to him when they were happening, yet they all connected perfectly in hindsight to build the life of one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time.

What kept him going was the love he had for what he did.

thinkSit for thirty minutes alone and write down all the disparate events that have happened in your life so far.

Do some of those events connect in hindsight to build a clear picture?

Can you pick some of them to give a justification for the major you’ve chosen now?

What has been a common thread?

As you begin to fill your paper, use the example below as inspiration, written by Sai based on his life’s story:

When I was in high school, I gave equal importance to sports, culturals, and academics. I wanted to be an all-rounder. After graduating with a Best All-rounder Award, I began to pursue my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. While giving due importance to my major, I joined and excelled in my university’s public speaking club. Adding to that, I worked in a string of marketing positions at technical and cultural festivals. In hindsight, I realize that engineering management is a field that combines my passion for engineering with my interests in public speaking and marketing. Looking back over the past three years and connecting the dots, I can see why a degree in engineering management is the next best step for me.

Big Idea Approach

If there is one person who comes to mind when we think of audacious entrepreneurs, it is Elon Musk.

Everything Elon Musk does is tied to a big idea.

He founded SpaceX to solve the existential crisis of humankind and help us become a multi-planetary species. Tesla grew out of his goal to save the planet by pushing everyone to use renewable energy. Of all his ventures, my favorite is Neuralink, a recent startup he co-founded to help humans reach symbiosis with artificial intelligence.*

In a riveting post on Quora, Dolly Singh, the ex-Head of Talent Acquisition at SpaceX, describes what it was like to work with him after recounting a pivotal moment in the company’s history.* It was the year 2008. After pouring in millions of dollars, working 70-hour weeks for months on end, and making a wide-spread promise in the press that the Falcon 1 would have a successful launch, Elon Musk and 350 of his employees from SpaceX watched the engine fail during stage separation.

It was a devastating moment in the company’s history.

Yet, Dolly says that Elon walked out of his trailer to give a speech that changed the course of the company’s future.

I think most of us would have followed him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil after that [speech]. It was the most impressive display of leadership that I have ever witnessed. Within moments the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination as people began to focus on moving forward instead of looking back. This shift happened collectively, across all 300+ people in a matter of not more than five seconds.

I wish I had video footage as I would love to analyze the shifts in body language that occurred over those five seconds.

Less than eight weeks from that day, SpaceX executed a successful launch of Falcon 1, which became the world’s first privately built rocket to achieve earth orbit.

Undeterred in the face of all odds, Elon did it.

What keeps him going through it all are his big ideas.

Similarly, if you have always had one big idea of starting a food-tech company, writing a science-fiction novel, or curing cancer, then choose this approach. Below is an example template:

I grew up in a suburban setting with my family owning a 10-acre paddy farm. From a young age, I was exposed to the struggle that my family faced while employing manual farming methods. No matter how hard we worked, the yield was never enough. I decided then that I wanted to spend my career building low-cost technology to aid farmers with their yield. When I was in school, I never missed an opportunity to participate in science exhibitions and showcase my prototypes. After high school, I decided to pursue a degree in Production Engineering to continue on this path. I chose my internships carefully to be geared towards giving me a rounded education. I designed and built machinery, worked on optimizing the supply chain, and even spent a summer working with VTOL drone technology surveying farms. Moving ahead, I have a strong conviction that a graduate degree in agricultural technology and innovation is the next step in fulfilling my dream of developing low-cost automated agricultural systems.

If you’re propelled by one big idea, don’t be shy to center your entire video around it.

Universities love students who can’t shut up about something.

Linear Line Approach

There was once a young boy named Abdul, who was interested in aerospace engineering right from his school days. He displayed aptitude at a very young age by performing well in mathematics and continuously learning about rockets. He then went on to pursue many degrees in physics and aerospace engineering. Not surprisingly, he joined the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), where he slowly climbed the career ladder to eventually head the project that launched a series of satellites in near-earth orbit.

The young boy was Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, also known as the Missile Man of India.*

His life is a quintessential example of someone who followed a linear route to succeed.

Note that this approach might sound similar to the big idea one, but in fact, they are quite opposite. If you had a big idea from childhood, you center everything you do around it. You do everything with the end in mind. On the other hand, someone with a linear career does not start off wanting to be where they are today. Every experience they’ve had has made their conviction of an idea stronger with time, and slowly nudged them forward to eventually reach a big idea.

Below is an example template:

I focused on being an all-rounder in school. I took part in science exhibitions, volleyball tournaments, as well as debate competitions. I wanted to experience it all. When I had to choose a major in college, I picked Computer Science since I’ve always liked coding and I knew the major would give me the opportunity to work on projects in many verticals. Fortunately, before the end of my sophomore year, I had developed an affinity towards deep learning after working on a few data science projects and witnessing the power of a machine augmenting a human’s cognition. So I spent the next two years piling on courses related to big data and AI, participating in Kaggle competitions, and eventually earning a Master title. My proudest achievement was building an AI solution capable of human-like abstraction and reasoning with a very limited dataset. I want to continue on this path and eventually build a powerful model capable of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), freeing our time to focus on more creative pursuits.

These are the three widely used approaches. Use them as the backbone, but add your own idiosyncrasies on top of it to truly convey your story.

Production Stage: Being an Actor

First, you became a director by choosing the story and developing the content. Now, it’s time to become an actor (and possibly, a videographer).

Here are two ideas you can adopt while shooting the video:

  • Involve props that display your creativity and/or skill.

  • Shoot in a location that has some relevance to the content of your video. If your one big idea is centered around building low-cost technology to improve agricultural yield, then shoot it in a farm or a field if that’s feasible.

Sai followed the connecting the dots approach and split his life into three segments. As he spoke about each segment, he solved one layer of a 3×3 Rubik’s Cube on camera. Once it was fully solved, he picked up another, more complex, cube to metaphorically show that he’s entering the next phase in life. And ended it with how the university can help him do that.

Apart from your own voice, there could be other noises around the room such as the white noise from a fan, the hum of an air-conditioner, or the ping from your phone, not counting human intervention. Alleviate some of these problems by shooting the video in an empty room devoid of distracting noises. If you choose a specific location like we mentioned above, then keep a mic next to you to record the audio clearly.

Let’s move to the final phase of making a video.

Post-Production: Being an Editor

Ideally, you should aspire to shoot the video in one sitting and preferably in the same location. But, if that isn’t possible and you end up shooting bits and pieces, no problem! There is enough technology out there that will do the job of stitching these together.

There are three stages in the editing process:

  • Stitching it together: Use some of the freely available apps, such as Quik, Blender, or Lightworks, to stitch the videos together (assuming it’s not a single shot). Sai used the Quik mobile app and managed to edit his entire video in less than an hour. These apps also let you add images and text in between as needed.

  • Removing noise: Even after controlling the external factors, there could still be noise that crept into your video. In such cases, we recommend using software such as Audacity, which is intuitive, user-friendly, and quick.*

  • Adding music: A silent background can be considered eerie. So, we recommend you add a mellow background music that does not overpower your voice and keeps the video pleasant.

At the end of it all, you should have a few minutes of video that you’re very proud of.

Although this is optional, we sincerely hope you give it a shot. Best case scenario? The university loves it and awards you with an admit. Worst case scenario? You don’t get admitted, but have a memorable video that will bring a smile to your face after a few years.

Great, let’s now switch our focus to the other optional component: diversity essay.

Writing an Essay on Diversity

Most universities don’t ask you to write essays aside from your statement of purpose. However, we’ve noticed from experience that some, like Dartmouth,* and Purdue* do ask you to write a diversity essay.

In fact, this essay is a key requirement for you to be considered for certain fellowships at Purdue University, namely The Purdue University Doctoral Fellowship, David M. Knox Fellowship, and George Washington Carver Fellowship.

These are fun additions to your application, as they make you think about questions you wouldn’t normally think about.

thinkWho are you and what has contributed to your identity?

How have you shown leadership in the past?

What will you do to improve the diversity at the university?

Universities consider diversity in the classroom a way to enhance the educational experiences for all students.*

Imagine this scenario: It is the fifth day of your orientation. The professor in your class begins the lecture with the question, “How can we solve the energy needs of our future?”

A brave student raises her hand and shares how in her home country, Barbados, a lot of citizens have begun using electric vehicles that are charged through solar power stations, always present in a five-kilometer radius.* Motivated by her response, a student from Australia raises his hand and shares a recent article he read stating that his country is building a large-scale plant to convert natural gas feedback into renewable hydrogen.* Now, hearing such diverse and novel ideas, you are tempted to speak up and mention how in your home state, Tamil Nadu, more than 25% of the energy consumption comes from wind power thanks to the monsoon seasons.*

That’s the power of sitting in a diverse classroom.

The power of diversity can also be witnessed in international conferences.

The Harvard College Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR)* is an independent, non-profit, student-run organization at Harvard College founded in 1991 to foster discussions on Asian international relations. Presently, it holds two conferences every year, one in an Asian city and the other inside the Harvard campus. These conferences are attended by hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students from across the world, all of whom bring a unique perspective to debate on pertinent topics such as public health and foreign policy. Adding more flair, some of the past notable speakers include the President of Singapore, Crown Prince of Perak, and the Finance Minister of the Philippines.*

When you attend such a conference and take part in intense discussions, your world view will be dramatically expanded. I can attest to this first-hand.

In 2016, I was fortunate to be one among ten students from India to receive the Cargill Global Scholarship, awarded for academic and leadership excellence. The best part of the scholarship was not the scholarship itself, despite being a sizable amount. Rather, it was the opportunity to attend a week-long leadership conference that happened in Minneapolis, USA. In that week, I met 59 other scholars coming from six countries. We sat through seminars on key topics related to diversity and inclusion, were put in groups to brainstorm, and asked to make presentations.

It was exhausting and wonderful.

Aside from the experience inside the classroom, universities care about diversity because employers care about diversity.

statsEmployers are no more silent on their diversity goals. To date, Salesforce has spent $10.3 million to fix the pay disparity due to gender, race, and ethnicity.* Google’s 100,000 employee workforce is made up of 32% women, 41.9% Asians, and the company has more than quadrupled the number of black employees in the past six years.* Since 2012, the number of Fortune 500 companies with greater than 40% diversity has more than doubled, from 69 to 145.*

Given all the above, universities want to encourage diversity on campus and hence admit students who contribute to that.

Let’s look at a real example question. Below is the question prompt given by Purdue University:*

Describe your leadership, work experience, service experience, or other significant involvement with racial, ethnic, socio-economic, or educational communities that have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education, and how these experiences would promote a diversity of views, experiences, and ideas in the pursuit of research, scholarship, and creative excellence.

That is a very verbose question. Once you deconstruct it, you will realize that it’s asking you to:

  • Identify an instance from your past when you worked with a community that is underrepresented in the higher education domain.

  • Describe your involvement and outcome.

  • Connect your past experience to future endeavors.

thinkThink hard and identify an instance you can talk about. Did you ever volunteer at an NGO?

Are you part of clubs or groups that have people who are underrepresented? Have you asked them about their experiences?

Were any of your projects or internships aimed at educating more people?

The Four-Step Framework

We’ll walk through a four-step framework to help you construct your essay, and at the same time, write a sample one ourselves.

First, begin the story with your first encounter with the underrepresented community. Try to be as specific as you can with the details.

I was not expecting to walk out with a heavy heart when I stepped inside the Mahatma Gandhi Orphan Home in Trichy, India on July 22, 2018. I had gone there to assist my friend in conducting a class on chemistry for 20 ninth-graders. During a break, I was having a conversation with a teacher there when I heard the bad news. She told me that the students had thus far attended private schools thanks to numerous generous donations. However, the money had run out and they had no means to fund their high school and pursue education further. They were now reliant on a few part-time faculty and students from nearby universities to take one-off classes in lieu of proper education.

It’s very important to set the stage for a story. Be specific on the when, why, and how. Now that your reader knows the problem statement, you can move forward and talk about what you did about that.

I don’t know why that deeply disturbed me. I had always taken education for granted and never had to worry about not having enough teachers. Ironically, a lot of my schoolmates tried to skip valuable classes. And here I was, witnessing the opposite. It didn’t seem right. So I met my friend after a few days and asked if he would be willing to work with me to recruit more teachers. He eagerly agreed.

Within the next two weeks, we had found six others who were interested and passionate about this problem. The eight of us formed a voluntary teaching group named GnanDhaan (meaning to impart knowledge in Sanskrit). After a couple of meetings, we had enrolled all the students in the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) curriculum, which enabled them to directly write school-graduating exams without attending regular school.

For the next two years, we took turns to visit the students every Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.. Ten hours a week of our teaching was all they required to grasp the concepts and solve problems on their own during the course of the week. Aside from learning from us, they learned from, and helped, each other. We witnessed this when two copies of the mathematics textbook by R. D. Sharma was enough for twenty students. As weeks and months went by, the orphanage became our second-home.

The above (fictional) story is a powerful one. Finding a problem to solve is only the beginning. What you do about it matters so much more. So pick an instance from your past where you prioritized execution along with ideation. Don’t be modest in going into detail on the effort you expended to solve the problem.

Now comes the most important part: the impact you created.

Along with GnanDhaan, I was also part of the marketing team for our university’s annual festival. I used my marketing skills at GnanDhaan by reaching out to potential sponsors for my students. This involved coming up with innovative campaigns on social media, cold-calling potential leads, and even hosting a few fundraisers.

Now, it’s been more than 24 months since my first visit. I’m thrilled to say that all twenty of our students passed their tenth grade examination and have enough sponsorship to get them through to graduation. We just had a celebratory event a few weeks ago where the students thanked us by putting up a series of sessions where they taught us a new topic. It was a memorable day.

Finally, end the essay by connecting your experience to what the university can expect from you in the future.

I can tell you one thing with certainty after my experience leading GnanDhaan: I will never take education for granted. And, I will continue to help underserved communities get the same quality of education that I do, to the best of my ability.

I noticed that one of the clubs at Purdue is catered towards helping international students acclimate to the new environment by teaching them English. While I’m an international student myself, I have a pretty good command over English and would love to eventually be part of that organization. I’m positive that my experience with GnanDhaan will bring a new perspective to the table to help incoming students.

Writing an essay on diversity is all about expressing your personality and ideas.

Pick an experience that brings out those qualities.

We hope the framework laid out helps you take yours to completion.

Student Testimonials

I always knew I wanted to make the video. Many applicants ignore it since it’s optional in most applications. However, to me it was an opportunity to lend a face and voice to my statement of purpose and display confidence.

Content is not just the king; it’s the whole kingdom. What differentiates your video from a hundred others is NOT the visual effects; it’s what you say. Please do NOT say in plain words that you are a hard-worker. Narrate a story that convinces the viewer that you are a hard-worker. I also made use of props—Roti (flatbread) and Rubik’s Cube—because I was sure very few would do it. Do things that other people don’t usually think of doing. There is a moment mid-way in my video, where I turn to look at my degree hung on the wall and the camera moves with me. The point is: the camera is your friend. Instead of making the camera sit there passively, try innovative things and showcase your creativity.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a video worth?”

A video is worth an admit.

—Aniruddh Menon, Dartmouth College

I had written several SOPs for the various universities that I had applied for in the U.S. and in Europe. None required a more unconventional and out-of-the-box thinking approach than the Diversity Essay and the Personal Statement Essay that I wrote for Purdue University and Michigan Ann Arbor, respectively. Initially, I thought that these essays would require little effort in comparison to the SOP that I had drafted so many times earlier. However, in order to stand out from the plethora of other applicants, I quickly realized that I need to put in a lot more effort.

Armed with the powerful tool of introspection, I carefully handpicked the encounters that I had with less privileged people in my college days and blended them with my own set of childhood experiences with people from different cultures. After writing and re-writing it a few times, I got help from a few of my seniors who proof-read it to ensure the message was coming across well. Was it a perfect recipe for success? Not quite, but it instilled in me a work ethic powerful enough to provide an impetus for my career over the next few years.

—Ravi Ramesh, TU Delft

Final Thoughts on Going Above and Beyond

Once you begin looking for jobs in the new country, you will realize that a lot of the things you learn for the interview won’t be of use in your day-to-day life on the job. Yet, it’s important to still learn them because they make you think and be prepared. Your application process to get admitted follows a similar analogy. Every component of your application says something about you. The optional components, asking you to make a video or write an essay on diversity, show that you’re someone who goes above and beyond. You’re someone who goes that extra mile. We hope you do.

A video is a condensed version of your story. You only get about five minutes to say it, so choose one of the three approaches that we mentioned in the chapter. Connecting the dots approach is best if you can see a common thread between disparate events from your past. Big idea approach is best if you grew up with a strong conviction of what you wanted to do. Linear line approach is best if your career has so far had a vertical path, with every experience leading seamlessly to the next one. While shooting it, think of ways you can infuse your creativity or skill. Sai used props; can you do something similar? Can you shoot in a unique location? All these will grab real estate in the minds of the admissions committee and make you memorable.

Most universities only ask you to write a statement of purpose. But, if yours wants you to also go the extra mile and write an essay on diversity (or another topic), that’s great! It gives you one more opportunity to ponder interesting questions. Diversity and inclusion has become a very hot topic right now, and for good reason. You will realize how powerful it is as soon as you sit through a lecture where you hear opinions from students coming from different countries. We gave you a four-part framework you can follow to write this essay: begin with your encounter with those who were underrepresented or underprivileged, mention what you did to help them, talk about the impact you created (don’t be modest here!), and finally end it with your plans for the future.

With that, you’ve hopefully reached the end of your application process.

A Little Reflection on the Extra Mile

thinkWhat prop do you think best brings out your creativity and/or a unique skill?

Have you ever felt that you were underrepresented due to your gender, race, or ethnicity?

Is there a social organization at the university you’re applying to that you would like to join?

Hitting That Button5 minutes

And with that, you have reached the end of submitting your applications.

It doesn’t feel that way, though, does it?

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