By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, Nov 17 | With the essay commanding up to a hefty 25 per cent weightage for admission to a tony US college, aspirants must learn to master the craft, say two prominent educational consultants who have curated a book of 85 essays by students they have mentored that got them into an Ivy League University and Stanford — with a recurring theme being “the mission to actualize knowledge and learning for a better world”.
“Scholarship, innovative thinking, risk taking, following their own North Star, and unafraid of being different are the traits that Ivy League aspirants must possess but overall, it is the mastery of the essay, Mumbai-based Viral Doshi and Mridula Maluste told IANS in a joint interview of their book “Indian Roots, Ivy Admits” (Amaryllis).
“We have worked with students in Canada, the US, Sri Lanka, UK, South and South East Asia, Peru, Beijing, Greece as well as India. The essays in this book are drawn from across India, from Patna to Mumbai, Kolkata, Jalandhar, and the Indian diaspora — Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore, UK and Dubai,” they said.
“The selection emphasizes the diversity of not only applicant profiles and stories but also distinctive writing styles. While some essays directly address an academic field of interest, most of them discuss and engage with narratives that have barely any relevance to the student’s eventual major.
“Each essay is uniquely personal in its own right, containing chronicles from the student’s life,” the authors explained.
Thus, within the pages of the book, you will find a committed theatre artiste who loves chemistry, a sparrow conservator, a student who has been indelibly shaped by the forests she visited as a child, a writing enthusiast who established a community writing centre in Ahmedabad, a maths aficionado whose love for math evolved from her childhood love for paper craft and gift making, a boy from Jalandhar who reshaped the work and future of tour-guides in his city, a boy from Patna who saved snakes, a bird watcher who attempted to innovate packaging material out of banana peel, a student from Gorakhpur who started chai pe charcha, and other epiphanic tales and heartfelt stories of rising from tragedy, self-transformation.
“We looked for common threads when it was time to thematically group them into chapters — there are many essays that centre around Family, so ‘The Family Crucible’ came into being and these included quite funny parts. There are those incredible students who are working towards the planet’s future, and it was a no-brainer that they would be clubbed together in a chapter we decided to call ‘The Heavy Lifters’. The music and dance artistes and maestros would naturally be in the chapter ‘The Virtuosos’, and those who innovatively used a striking metaphor to tell their story, we congregated in ‘The Analogists’. And so on.
“So, there may be commonalities in theme, but not in approach and detail,” the authors said.
“Each essay is startlingly unique and a stand-out story. However, if one were to identify the one common thread across all chapters, it would be the ability to recognize and show a transformation of self, of heart and mind. And another recurring theme in each essay is the mission to actualize knowledge and learning for a better world,” Doshi and Maluste added.
How did the book come about?
“It’s an idea whose time had come. Students of Indian origin throng the world’s greatest colleges. Yet, there were no books contextual to Indian experiences and dreams.
“Our motivation behind this book was to reach out to all hopeful university applicants and ease some of their application anxieties. After years of assisting countless bright, young people of Indian origin from across the world, we have developed keen instincts for what makes admission essays compelling,” the authors said.
“We have found that most applicants, particularly those of Indian origin, in spite of stellar academic and other achievements, are apprehensive about the essay components of a college application,” they added.
“How had others written their essays” was a question that was often asked; how do their peers, those who applied before them think; how did they showcase their experiences when they applied? Students were seeking inspiration.
“Our stock of successful essays whose authors allowed sharing proved illuminating and inspiring,” the authors said.
So that’s how the book germinated.
“We especially hope to reach out to students world-wide, students we cannot mentor personally, and throughout India, including in tier 2 and tier 3 cities where applicants are on the rise,” Doshi and Maluste explained.
How were the 85 essays featured in the book selected?
“Our students have written countless exceptional essays that have got them into the colleges of their dreams. This collection focuses on Common Application essays that gained them admission into America’s most demanding undergraduate programmes at Ivy League universities and Stanford. We wanted essays that were inventive, brave, reflective, differentiated and above all, authentic.
“We brainstormed, made lists, went into archives – we never really selected, the students featured here had already been selected! So, their experiences were transformative, and the exposition of their essays was stellar. We remembered exceptional stories and wanted to showcase them in the book,” the authors said.
They wrote to 100 students thinking, ah well, 50 would agree to be in the book. Eighty-five wrote back enthusiastically, in the affirmative — and the book took shape
“We used the first year of the pandemic and lockdown for the rewarding process of analysing and critiquing the essays. What made them work? How could they be inspirational?”
Are there any personal favourites among the 85?
They loved each essay in the book, but chose five that are “hugely memorable”. Some of these employ humour, others are quietly reflective, some use one moment to amplify a life goal:
Shiven Dewan wrote on reimagining education for the Millennials and Gen Z. He went to UPenn.
Ninya Hinduja wrote a heartfelt essay on her work with autistic children – which consolidated her mission. She went to Columbia.
Anonymous wrote on Superheroes and how they moulded him. He is at Princeton.
Avantika Shah’s essay was on the impact of jungle safaris on her life and her values. She is at Stanford.
Riyaan Bakhda’s hilarious essay, ‘This Bombay Birder’s Banana Republic’ is about his serendipitous invention of eco-friendly banana peel packaging. He is going to Columbia.
What next? What’s their next project?
“This is our second book together. Our first joint book was ‘An Undefiled Heritage’ a beautifully produced history of (Mumbai’s) Cathedral and John Connon School (their alma mater). The school has since seen dynamic development and expansion. So, the book, too, needs to update,” the authors concluded.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at email@example.com)