The Elephant in the Room

No, we’re not THAT kind of admissions consultancy…

“So… do you guys…? You know… like those people in the news?”

I get some version of this cryptic question a lot. When you work in private admissions consulting, you have to expect it. People know vaguely what I do, and wonder if all of us operate on the shady side of things. After all, the last two months have seen high-profile actors and millionaires arrested by the FBI as part of a massive college admissions fraud perpetrated by a supposed college admissions counselor. It’s not a good look for this industry.

The short answer is “no, we don’t do that, and we’re not like those people in the news.” We don’t write people’s essays, submit their applications, pull shenanigans with their tests, or otherwise act in a way that’s illegal, unethical, or shady. And it’s sad that this is something we have to say, but given the proliferation of bad actors in this field, it’s necessary and important.

Over the years, as I’ve built a reputation as someone who can maximize applicants’ chances for admission to college, graduate school, or professional school, I’ve had many offers from would-be clients who want me to write their personal statements for them. I still remember laughing when I got an email from a parent in Dubai offering $15,000 in BitCoin to write their kid’s personal statement to Dartmouth. In every instance, I politely and firmly declined.

Rooting out the obvious bad actors is important, but this moment should also provide us with an opportunity to think about our general approach to admissions. There are many good insights that people have made about the structure of admissions, but today I’d just point to one important thing: admissions have never been fair and admissions committees have never been great at judging someone’s true talent and worth. So often, applicants invest admissions committees with these amazing abilities to look into their souls and judge their qualities as people. That’s part of the reason why it can feel so heartbreaking to get rejected. Stanford turned me down… I’m unworthy as a person! In fact, given the sheer volume of applicants, it’s usually the case that even well-staffed admissions committees can only give your application a few moments. Their decision is nothing more than a few strangers’ judgments of a snapshot of an impression of a picture of a distillation of your life.

Once you disabuse yourself of the belief that admissions committees are judging you, as opposed to what you choose to put on paper about yourself, you can begin to think about the process more strategically, and let go of the idea that you need to approach the application as though you’re looking for a soulmate. This is where having an effective consultant can help. They can look at your life with a sense of distance and help you identify the things that are important to potential readers (even if they aren’t necessarily the most important things to you). If you understand that schools want certain things, give them those things. Don’t become stubborn about the process and insist that your application must be a broadcast of your truest most innermost soul.

It’s a game, and while you should always be truthful and behave ethicallydon’t ever buy into the notion that any group of strangers can truly know you based on 750 words, a transcript, and a CV. Keeping this in mind will preserve your sanity in an insane process and help you to think about how to craft a compelling and accurate version of your life that engages your audience.

In the coming weeks, this is what we’re going to be focusing on: how to identify strengths and present them in story form.

For folks who don’t feel like they can do this without some professional guidance and consultation, contact us at, and we’ll help walk you through the process of writing a powerful and winning personal statement.

Brian Fobi is the CEO of Gurufi / FourthWrite, an admissions consultancy. You can contact directly at

Everyone Has A Story

At Gurufi, we stress storytelling as a means of building engaging and powerful personal statements. When I talk to clients about storytelling, the most common response I get is, “but my life isn’t very interesting.” Experience has taught me that in nearly every case, that person is wrong. In fact, over and over, I work with people who have done really unique things, come from amazing backgrounds, or who have experiences that would absolutely capture the attention of an admissions officer if that story were properly told, but who are convinced that their life is dull, generic, and uninteresting.

The joke I sometimes tell clients is that only sociopaths and Instagram models think they are interesting; mentally healthy people often don’t have the kind of runaway ego that allows them to identify and talk about those aspects of their life that are truly exceptional. More often than not, there’s an inverse relationship between how interesting people think they are, and how interesting they really are. When I think about how hard it can be for people to identify the stories that make them unique, what immediately pops to mind is the story of “Samir,”[1] a medical applicant I helped get into a top-five medical school in the United States.

Samir was a smart, low-key, and unassuming person who was easy to talk to and even easier to like. The kind of guy you would love to have as a neighbor. He came to us because he was intimidated by the idea of writing an essay extolling his own virtues. As part of our consultation process, Samir filled out a questionnaire, and then we spoke on the telephone for almost an hour, going over every aspect of his life, education, and ambitions. His story was impressive: he had fled civil war in his home country, come to the United States, enrolled in community college to learn English, transferred to a top state school, and earned excellent grades, all while doing some really admirable public health volunteer work in his community.

As our hourlong conversation was wrapping up, we had a really nice outline that highlighted his life, and I felt confident that he would make a compelling candidate. Then, just to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, I asked, “I noticed that after your last year as an undergraduate in your home country, you had a year off before you left for America. Did you do anything interesting or relevant during that time?”

“No, not really. The civil war made things hard.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, the government bombed our university, and most of the faculty fled. Then, as the fighting got near, the remaining medical school professors turned the medical school into a clinic to treat wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict. I stayed there and worked.”

“Wait, WHAT!?!?! You have to tell me more about this!”

“Why? It’s not very impressive. American doctors wouldn’t be impressed by this. We didn’t have any fancy equipment or anything. In fact, our professors handled the more complicated cases, and we just did things like remove bullets from limbs or stitch up people hurt by bombs.”

“WHAT? Tell me more!”

“It really wasn’t very interesting, and it’s a little embarrassing. Our clinic was quite shabby. I had only been at medical school for a year, so I didn’t know how to do anything. Because our professors were handling more urgent cases, I had to look up diagrams for how to perform procedures from Google or YouTube. I wasn’t very good at it at first.”

“You did this for a year?!?”

“Yeah, I stayed and did what I could. Sometimes I scrubbed in on more complicated surgeries just to lend a hand. We all did what we could.”

For the next five minutes, I spoke to Samir and urged him to use this experience as the central motivating story of his application. It was an amazing story that SHOWED all of the important things that a medical school applicant has to have: compassion, resourcefulness, intelligence, commitment to a bigger purpose, toughness, a willingness to learn.

Samir wasn’t being coy or displaying phony humility; he actually thought his life wasn’t very interesting, and that his readers would look down on the “shabby” work he did in an understaffed and under-resourced clinic in the middle of a warzone. Because he had lived it, and because he was a humble man who just wanted to do good, the thought never crossed his mind that he had done something truly extraordinary. It took a third party (me) to say, “woah, you understand that what you did was amazing, right? You HAVE to write about this!”

Samir very reluctantly agreed, and in fact the day before he was going to send off his personal statement, he wrote a completely new draft that excluded this story and was just sort of a bland narrative version of his CV. Only one final urgent phone call from me got him to back off of that bad choice, and he ended up submitting the essay that featured his time in the war zone clinic. When he earned admission from all of his top-choice medical schools, he understood that he’d made the right choice… though he remains humble about the remarkable year he spent at the clinic!

You may be thinking, “sure, Samir made the right choice, but I’ve never done anything THAT extraordinary!” Fair enough, but what I can tell you from doing consultations with clients for over a decade is that in nearly every case, people either exclude their most compelling stories or tell them in a manner that undermines their power. If Samir can have a blind spot to the amazing things about him, what are you missing about yourself? My bet is that there’s something big.

As we progress through these blog posts in the coming months, I’m going to offer you some tips, tricks, and processes for identifying compelling parts of your own life to write about. For many people this is a skill that can be learned and a process that they can navigate on their own with just the written guidance we provide. For those folks, stay tuned here for insights on how to tell your best story.

For folks who don’t feel like they can do this without some professional guidance and consultation, contact us at, and we’ll help walk you through the process of writing a powerful and winning personal statement.

[1] Every story is true and told with the permission of the person involved. Nonetheless, I change the names and remove identifying information to protect their identity.

Brian Fobi is the CEO of Gurufi / FourthWrite, an admissions consultancy. You can contact directly at

Gurufi’s Origin Story

Brian Fobi, CEO of Gurufi

People often ask me how I got into this line of work. The short version is that I know what it feels like to be blocked from educational and professional dreams because you can’t navigate the mysteries of the admissions process. Throughout college, I had dreamed of becoming a history professor, but when I applied to Ph.D. programs during my senior year, I was rejected or waitlisted from every single one. I had strong grades and top-notch GRE scores, but nonetheless I was turned away by even my “safety schools.”

So, I went to law school, did well, and took a position practicing human rights law in Johannesburg, South Africa. Though I loved this work, I still felt that my dream job was working in academia, so I again applied to graduate school- this time to the top 15 history programs in America, plus Oxford and Cambridge. I went 0–17.

Two years later, I was back in America when I had a conversation with my friend Craig about my failed attempt to get into a top Ph.D. program. He seemed confused; I had been an excellent student, had strong letters of recommendation, and good test scores. Why had I been rejected? He asked to see my personal statement, so I emailed it to him and a few days later he replied: “I know why you didn’t get into graduate school. Your Personal Statement sucks.”

“What do you mean it sucks?!?” I asked. I had gotten A’s on every paper I had ever written in college and law school, so I knew I could write.

“Well, look… your grammar is fine, you make some nice points… but YOU… you’re not in it,” Craig replied. “What’s your story? Why do I care about you? What was your struggle? What question are you asking? WHERE ARE YOU?”

Craig was a doctoral candidate at Stanford, so I valued his opinion. He had been where I was trying to go. We talked for an hour about his approach to personal statements and how he used storytelling to engage the reader, demonstrate expertise and maturity, and earn admission into top schools. We talked about structure and tension, what to include, what to exclude, what to emphasize, and what to play down.

So, against my better judgement, I decided to apply to graduate school for a third -and no matter what, FINAL- time. I followed his advice and made myself the hero of my story. I leaned on the hints about pacing and structure that he had provided, pestered him for proofreading and additional tips and tricks, and produced a final draft that followed Craig’s advice and reflected my journey, personality, and aspirations. Frankly, I was skeptical, but I had to accept that my way just hadn’t worked. I hit “send” on my applications, and hoped for the best.

On Valentine’s Day 2003, I got the first email: an acceptance from Cal-Berkeley, a top-5 Ph.D. program in History! I couldn’t believe it. Then, a day later, a got a telephone call from Yale; I’d been accepted into their Ph.D. program with full scholarship plus a stipend. In fact, while I was on the phone with Yale, I received a call from a famous history professor at Columbia University congratulating me on my acceptance into Columbia as well. In the next week, I heard back from Harvard, UCLA, and Michigan. In fact, I had been accepted into 13 of the 14 schools I applied to (ironically, only NYU, my safety school, rejected me), and I ended up attending Yale University, which had the top ranked history program in the world.

Two years later, in order to make some money on the side, I took a position at EssayEdge, which at the time was the largest admissions writing consultancy in the world. I knew that the “Craig Method” had worked for me, but I wondered if it would also work for other kinds of applications: law school, medical school, college, business school, etc. In that first year at EssayEdge, my clients had amazing success and earned admission into the top business schools (Wharton, Harvard Business School, Yale School of Management, University of Chicago…), medical schools (Johns Hopkins, UCSF, UCLA…), and colleges. I was a top performer at EssayEdge, and even though I haven’t completed an order for that company in almost 9 years, they still feature me on their website.

In my 15 years of helping clients get into the top college, graduate programs, and professional schools, I have had to master many of the specific finer points of the different disciplines, but in every case the core concepts of the “Craig Method” still work. In fact, if you list the top programs for nearly every kind of school, I have placed multiple students into each of them because I work to uncover, organize, enliven, and effectively deploy people’s stories.

The great irony is that I learned the “Craig Method” as a means of getting into graduate school so that I could become a professor, but after earning my Ph.D. from Yale and teaching for four years at Harvard, I discovered that what I really love is helping people to take the next step in their educational and professional journeys, so I transitioned full-time into admissions consulting. Hearing from former clients that the work I did helped them get into medical school or from parents who thank me for helping their kid get into an Ivy League college, is truly a blessing.

I know that the application process can be daunting, frustrating, or even terrifying. I’ve been there, and I have failed. But through that failure I learned the insights and techniques for crafting a powerful story, and I want to use these insights to help you take the next step in your educational and professional journey!

That’s our mission at Gurufi.

(for more about Gurufi, check us out online or visit our Facebook page. For questions and inquiries, you can reach Brian directly at