The two essays I had the most trouble with was the "Why should we admit you to Carnegie Mellon?" and "What will you do for the school?" types. I'm going to tackle the first one here, and I'll follow up in the next coming days with the other types and what I did.
There is a fair amount of general advice out there for admissions essays, and I guess they seem to work. Have a solid, achievable goal, personalise the essay for the school, etc, etc. Not being someone in admissions I can't say what works or doesn't work, but I can provide insight on my own experiences.
CMU knows that people will, in a large percentage of time, choose a higher-ranked program if an applicant was admitted to CMU and to another school. This, from what I understand, is derived from a survey where they ask people why they declined to enroll. There is a lot of chatter and whatnot out there about how a program should be assessed for its strengths and that you should select carefully your school, etc, etc - but the fact of the matter is, applicants shotgun top schools because they're top ranking and hope for an admittance. (shotgun means that the applicant is sending applications out to multiple (i.e. more than 5) schools and hopes that one will "hit" - like a shotgun cartridge). CMU knows this also.
The piece of advice here is to really show how much you like CMU and have done your research and selected the school based on its merits - and therefore showing that you are not doing the shotgun approach for a top tier school. One of the criteria that I'm sure they use is "will the applicant actually enroll in the school if we admit them?"
What did I do? I focused on the analytical strengths of the program and compared that to both my background and to my future career goals. CMU has built a brand around analytics, so it's a point of pride. Tying it into both background and future, I think, solidified this statement - I wasn't saying "oh yeah, I love your xxxxx" but showing why I thought it was important.
I think I also I mentioned a couple of other items that appealed to me about the program, but nothing too much - the essay was split into background, short-term and long-term goals, and why CMU.
Other topics that could be mentioned that has a great chance of showcasing your research and differentiating yourself:
- The faculty. Gerard Cornejols taught me Probability and Statistics in Mini 1 and he just won the Nobel-Prize-equivalent for Operations Research, for example. Being taught the results of research done by faculty is an amazing experience.
- The specialised programs. CMU is very highly rated for it's entrepreneurship program and does a lot of work regarding this area, especially around technology products. The opportunity to collaborate across campus is also advantageous.
- The class size. I didn't recognize this as a benefit until I actually started the program, but having a very small class size is probably one of the best things of the program. Studies in networking have shown that the greatest benefits/leads on jobs are usually done by people whom you have small contact with - maybe once or twice a year. By being in a small class you get to know a large amount of the class, if not everyone, and everyone tends to friend each other on FB or LinkedIn, so those networking connections are built. It also creates a family atmosphere, almost, where everyone is willing to help each other out rather than being in constant competition. There are drawbacks to this setup also, but I'll get into that in another post one day and they aren't necessary for applications.