Personal Background

4 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.

The previous two categories focused more on your actions during situations. This category focuses more on your reactions to situations.

The university is trying to gauge how you react to both negative and positive situations your life, like stress, success, pressure, inspiration, failure, and uncertainty.

A common player in this field is: list your strengths and weaknesses.

danger Many people interpret that the question is asking them to list one of their strengths and one of their strengths masquerading as a weakness. Don’t be one of those people.

Admitting your weakness shows humility, but you should also follow it with the measures you’ve taken or are taking to combat the same. Sometimes, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.

Your Strength

This is not a wish list of the qualities you wish to possess. For that reason, whatever strength(s) you end up writing down, run it by your supervisor and/or friend who can attest to it. If you picked empathy, wrap a story around it that portrays this quality. Generally, talking about strengths comes easier to people. Below is a fictional example:

A strength of mine that always comes to my mind is my ability to empathize. I grew up listening to stories that my mother read in the magazines and heard on the radio. Many of these were stories of people who overcame great struggles in life. I have an imaginative mind, so every time I heard these stories, I would put myself in the shoes of the protagonist and play out scenarios. This helped me tremendously when I had to lead a diverse team in my undergrad. I was able to tap into their thinking and help them when they faced an issue. In a way, my ability to empathize made me a better leader.

If you were applying for medical school, empathy to the extreme is not a good quality. However, if your dream is to become a human rights lawyer, then this would be one of the top qualities they would expect from you.

While picking strengths can be an easy job, pick the ones that have a direct correlation with your degree.

Your Weakness

Working too hard is not a weakness. Being a perfectionist is also not one. This question is probing you to be self-aware and accept things objectively (to the extent possible). Like before, you can begin with stating your weakness and following up with a story or state multiple instances when you’ve observed it. We also recommend stating your mitigation plan in the end:

A few months ago, I noticed that I struggled with asking questions in front of an audience. In hindsight, I noticed that throughout my high school I asked questions only when I met with my professors in-person in their office. Even then, I would hesitate greatly. This affected my performance on a group project that clearly required open communication and asking questions to each other. I ended up having to assume a lot and did not meet my team’s (or my) expectations. Lately, I’m overcoming this by pushing myself to work in group projects and asking questions openly. I’m also learning from a friend of mine who exudes confidence whenever she speaks in the class.

Lacking confidence in asking questions is a serious weakness for a researcher. However, by being honest about it and detailing the actions you’re taking to overcome it, you will put their mind at ease. As a final tip, if you are asked for both a strength and a weakness, start with your weakness, so you can end with a positive note on your strength.

Rule of Three

Finally, for all of the questions, follow the rule of three if you can. What is the rule of three?

The rule of three is “a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers.”* This applies to both written and verbal communication.

Try to begin noticing the occurrence of this (in this book and elsewhere). You will be surprised at how prevalent it can be. During the interview, use this rule to give your response in three parts wherever possible.

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