If you've been following this blog, you already know that I applied to four schools and was accepted into one of them. I think my essays were the deciding factor. The essay package that got me in contained a lot of the same content as the ones that didn't - but then it went a step further and articulated why that school in particular was a good fit for me, and how I planned to contribute to the school.
The difference had a lot to do with how I picked my target schools. I picked three of them based on very little other than their reputation and ranking. I hadn't done much research about them and I really hadn't invested enough effort in understanding how the schools viewed themselves as being different from the others. This was due in large part to the time crunch I was in (I wrote all of my essays in three weeks), but it was also due to the fact that I was interested in those schools for the wrong reasons. I would have been better off sending in fewer, stronger applications to better-chosen schools.
I chose the fourth school differently. I first noticed it because of its top ranking, but I was drawn to it for a much wider range of reasons. I spent a lot of time researching the curriculum, the city it is located in, and its extracurricular offerings. I was genuinely excited about getting involved with the school, and this caused me to think in specific terms about how I'd like to participate. All told, I probably spent twice as much time researching and thinking about the school I ultimately got accepted into as I did on the other three combined.
This came through in my essays. For example, I described some work experiences that I'd had in France and India that had raised my interest in those cultures, and explained that I wanted to pursue that interest by getting involved with related extracurricular activities. I also wrote about how I wanted to apply my technology background and my interest in writing by blogging for the business school. I wove these details into my essays and tied them to specific activities offered at the school.
Of course it is impossible to know why I got in to the school I did, or why I didn't get into the others. But as I review my essays, these details - which only appear in one of my application packages - jump out at me. They probably had the same effect on the admissions committee.