Critical and Lateral Thinking: Keys to Success in Writing for Overseas University Admissions

Critical and Lateral Thinking: Keys to Success in Writing for Overseas University Admissions

Keys to Success in Writing for Overseas University Admissions

Today, I got a mail from a teacher asking for advice on how to coach students for ideas to achieve success in competitive exams in the essay section, for admissions to overseas universities. As an educator and academic consultant, I believe in sharing my insights with all teachers so that a large number of students benefit.
Do read and send me your comments at

First of all, to achieve success in any examination we need to analyse the nature of the assignment, and more pertinently, the success criteria given by examiners, to do well. If possible, read their expert comments on excellent student performances.

In this particular test to acquire high grades the essays needed to demonstrate:
a) Originality
b) Unique perspectives
c) Critical thinking

How is the teacher actively going to promote these requirements? Just instructing students to be unique, original, and think critically would not make it happen. Students need to see such skills demonstrated by a model text, analyse techniques, and have clear strategies on how to achieve them.
The students’ essays need to stand out among tens of thousands of essays to be selected for courses abroad. So here, I am demonstrating a process for teachers with examples of critical thinking and methods that the students can adopt using authentic assignment topics given to them.

Topic 1.
Describe a time you were a leader and give examples.

What students normally do:
Take heroic stances.
Give three common examples.
These will not demonstrate critical thinking, uniqueness, or originality.


  • Ask questions on the key words in the topic.
  • Challenge established conventions. State new definitions.
  • Do reflections.
  • Use appropriate target vocabulary.
  • Extrapolate to world leaders

Way forward:
The key word in this topic is ‘leader’.
Leadership can only be defined when we ask: who is a leader?
Challenge common perceptions of power and hubris, and the egoistic thrills of ordering around followers.
A leader must think, collaborate, act, reflect, learn, own responsibility, share credit.
Mental stamina, courage, resilience, and empathy are important qualities of a leader.
Your examples must clearly show:
a) how hard it was to lead
b) courage to lead from the front
c) how you motivated your team in times of struggle
d) how you learnt from failure and recognised that failure itself was part of growth

Topic 2.

Accidentally breaking a table…
What students normally do:
They talk about how they broke the table. How they lied or got yelled at. Express sorrow.


  • Choose a genre
  • Dwell on the key words ‘accidentally’, ‘broke’ and ‘table’
  • Use reflections and values
  • Extrapolate personal response to bigger accidents and materials
  • Reflect on being in the other person’s shoes
  • Explore the ideas of loss, taking responsibility, and making compensations

Way forward:
This can be humorous, (humour is created by exaggeration, puns, absurdity or irony). It is about how you express your anguish with extreme imaginary punishments, or exaggerations on the face and body language of the owner by comparisons that are absurd, or what is likely to happen to you next.

It could also be a serious reflection on the nature of material things… on sentimental values…on what you might want to do with broken pieces, on conservation and recycling and creativity. Or in karma and transience of things as in mandalas.

It could be a reflection on the moral dilemmas when we do something wrong. On our reactions of panic, fear, wanting to distance ourselves from the accident, of planning to lie and escape, discomfort. What if we owned the table? Use the other’s perspective. How do we compensate? What are the things that are hard to compensate? Extrapolate to world situations

Topic 3.

The 3 most important people.

What students normally write:
They write about their mother or father and recount what sacrifices were made, how good their parents are, or what a teacher taught them with a lot of superlatives in praise.


  • Scrutinise the key words ‘important’ and ‘people’
  • What is important beyond the creature and material comforts? Growth, values?
  • Nature and actions of people who impress that are unique
  • Think contrary on learning from negative people. Can they be included?
  • Extrapolate to common characteristics of global role models

Way forward:
Speak of incidents that are unique and rare if you mention your parents, teachers, or neighbours. Even strangers or common people by extraordinary feats of courage or generosity can reduce you to tears. Celebrities, philosophers and political figures who have shown exemplary stoicism in the face of adversity can be role models. People who have nothing, are bereaved, terminally ill or penniless and yet generous, sunny optimistic can become life changers.
If you turn it around on its head and say 3 important people who showed you the way because I learnt what not to do from them – your idea would be a stand-alone and unique one and will draw attention. You will demonstrate contrary thinking here.

Final word
Therefore, mysuggestions for success are:
We should actually teach our students to think laterally and critically, to use controversy and contrariness to their advantage, and to analyse topics for genre and diverse potential, and extrapolate their final observations to higher areas or situations.
As an educator and teacher of creative writing for over three decades, and as an expert in enrichment programmes, I can assure you, these thinking strategies are extremely successful and doable, and they spell guaranteed success.

Do you know: the most coveted university entrance examinations reward you for
a) originality
b) unique perspectives and
c) critical thinking.


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