Sell Yourself: What Grad Applicants Should Learn From Silicon Valley Startups

It’s not difficult to describe the problem that most grad applicants have: they don’t know how to sell themselves. Few even realize this is part of the application process at all.

Yet, selling yourself is arguably the most important part of the application, whether you realize it or not. When you submit your SOP, when you sit down for an interview, when you’re checking for typos in your CV, you’re carrying out the elaborate process of making yourself look as good as possible.

This is sales.

Every applicant intuitively understands the need to make themselves look good. You wouldn’t show up to a Zoom interview in a League of Legends T-shirt. (I’ve seen it happen.) You wouldn’t submit an SOP with the name of the university misspelled. (I’ve seen it too many times.) This would make you look foolish.

But a smart applicant doesn’t just avoid looking foolish. A smart applicant realizes that every single word they write, the clothes they wear in an interview, the way they shake hands, how early they contact potential PIs, the skills and interests they list on their CV, all of these subtly influence their perception in the eyes of the admissions committee.

And these subtle influences can have a huge effect.

This is sales. This is how you close the deal.

Luckily, sales, or the art of persuasion, is a universally learnable skill. Mastering this skill does take time and effort. But success in graduate admissions doesn’t require that you become a sales master. It only requires that you quickly and effectively describe yourself in a compelling, intriguing way.

Even more luckily, this is something you can learn to do in a single brainstorming session. All you have to do is follow the example of the greatest salespeople in the world.

Silicon Valley Isn’t All About Tech

If you’re in Computer Science or Finance, or have entrepreneurial dreams, then you’re probably familiar with pitch-deck events. At these competitions, startup founders have a few minutes to pitch their products or services to potential investors.

And the stakes are high. If they succeed, they walk off stage with $5 million in funding and a fast track to building a legendary company. If they fail, well…

Troy Brad Pitt GIF - Troy BradPitt ThatsWhy GIFs

The dynamics are simple. Sell yourself and your product in two minutes. Persuade the investors that your humongous dreams, and your ability to achieve them, are going to make them even richer.

It’s not any different from grad school applications. You’re trying to achieve the same thing. You’re trying to convince a jaded gatekeeper that you and your dreams are worth investing in.

Your pitch is different. Where an AI Biotech entrepreneur uses PowerPoint, the cut of her suit, sheer confidence, and artful speaking skills, you use your transcripts, a CV laden with research experiences, a charming interview, and a carefully worded statement of purpose.

But the goal is the same.

The art, however, the secret to it all, lies in condensing your “pitch” to two minutes or less.

What’s Your Elevator Pitch?

The concept of the elevator pitch became popular in the 1990s, but it’s been around as long as folks in suits have been trying to convince richer folks to give them a chance.

Wikipedia describes it thus:

An elevator pitch is a short description of an idea, product, or company that explains the concept in a way such that any listener can understand it in a short period of time. This description typically explains who the thing is for, what it does, why it is needed, and how it will get done. Finally, when explaining an individual person, the description generally explains one’s skills and goals, and why they would be a productive and beneficial person to have on a team or within a company or project.

The name—elevator pitch—reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride, or approximately thirty seconds to two minutes.

In graduate admissions, your elevator pitch should be the driving force behind your applications. In fact, the statement of purpose is just a textual version of your elevator pitch.

  1. Who are you and what do you intend to accomplish?
  2. How will you accomplish it in this university?
  3. What skills and credentials prove that you’re the right candidate for the task?

In Silicon Valley, the pitch could be the difference between declaring bankruptcy and becoming the next TikTok or Uber. In admissions, it could be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

A good applicant clarifies their pitch with deadly purpose. They hone it to a razor-sharp edge, so that anyone who reads their SOP, or speaks with them in an interview, walks away feeling like they’ve met someone who’s guaranteed to achieve their dreams. Someone who’s worth investing in.

How Do I Create My Elevator Pitch?

Luckily, I’ve already given you an exact, step-by-step method. In my previous article, The One Thing You Should Do Right Now To Improve Your Grad School SOP, I explained how to clarify your goals and render them in a punchy, 1-2 sentence declaration. This is an academic elevator pitch.

I explain this further in my free SOP Starter Kits, which explain how to build an essay outline around that academic goal. If you do this – taking the time to clarify your goal and outline your SOP – you’ll see immediately how powerful it can be. You’ll see how every part of your application, each part of your intellectual history, weaves together into a single, cohesive, compelling pitch.

Even if you don’t want to outline your SOP right now, you should spend some time thinking about how to articulate your candidacy in one brief, powerful flurry of words. Start by answering each of the following questions in no more than 1-2 sentences:

  1. What’s your goal? What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?
  2. How will you learn to solve those problems at Dream University?
  3. Why should anyone believe that you can actually learn how to solve these problems?
  4. What reward will Dream University receive for accepting and educating you?

That last question is a tough one, no? (Hint: think about your career goals and what the department wants for its graduates in the future.)

Example

Let me show you how this works, based on my own academic history.

What’s your goal? What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I want to figure out why Ezra Pound’s interpretations of classical Chinese poetry are masterpieces, even though he could neither read nor speak Chinese. What is the artistic element that gets preserved when poetry is translated or interpreted into foreign languages?

How will you learn to solve those problems at Dream University?

By working under Dr. Charles Xavier, whose primary teaching and research interests include classical Chinese poetry and commentary, literary theory, the comparative study of oral traditions, and the problems of translation. His course, The Task of the Self Translator, addresses this exact issue for poets from a different era.

Why should anyone believe that you can actually learn how to solve these problems?

I’m fluent in Chinese, have substantial research experience in European poetry over a 400-year period, and earned my MFA in Hong Kong where I worked extensively with bilingual poets. In undergrad I earned a 3.9 major GPA while taking 4 more literature/writing courses than necessary for graduation, and presented papers at multiple conferences including the National English Honor Society Convention.

What reward will Dream University receive for accepting and educating you?

I hope to pursue a teaching career in academia. Also, by studying computational linguistics, and employing data mining in comparative poetry, I hope to contribute to an entirely new niche of data-driven literary research, an accomplishment I’ll owe entirely to Dream University.

Boom.

There you go. An 8-sentence SOP. Is Dream University buying or selling?

Either way, if you can answer each of these questions confidently and clearly, in two sentences or less, well friend, the rest is cream cheese. Write them out and read them out loud. I bet reading your answers won’t take any longer than 45 seconds. Then you’ll have a mighty pitch, and the rest of your applications will seem significantly easier. You’ll have focus and direction as you write your SOP. You’ll feel calm and confident as you sit down for interviews.

And best of all, you’ll have all the ammunition you need to persuade those ivory tower gatekeepers to invest their precious time and resources in you.

This is how you sell yourself. It’s not about bragging. It’s not about blowing smoke up anyone’s butt. It’s certainly not about lying or making promises you can’t keep. Selling yourself means logically presenting yourself…the way you see yourself! It means being honest, but thorough, and knowing what you can contribute.

Yes, it takes a little more effort than changing out of your League of Legends T-shirt. But it will pay off.

Don’t flounder around hoping that some benevolent admissions committee will take a chance on you. Make it happen. Engineer your success. It might be only thirty seconds away.

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