Letters of recommendation are a vital part of your application, but people often don’t treat the process like it! Even though your recommender is doing the writer, you still have real work to do in order to make sure that it is a strong letter that advances your candidacy. Here are some hints and insights on letters of rec.
Applying to doctoral programs can be stressful and mysterious, and one of the real challenges is that most of the advice that you’ll find online about the application process comes from people whose experience is in the world of business school, law school, or undergraduate admissions. This advice isn’t well suited to graduate school applications because the process is simply different, as are the goals of the admission committee and the people who staff that admissions committee. We detailed much of this in a recent blog post.
Today, I want to follow up on some of the items we talked about by giving you three practical tips that will help you with your PhD application.
1. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to study. In my last blog, I pointed out that, the closer you can get to articulating what the thesis of your eventual dissertation will be, the better. This advice often elicits two concerns from clients. First, will being overly specific hurt my chances of admission? No, quite the opposite. If you don’t have a really specific answer to “what?” and “why?” you’ll come across as someone who isn’t quite ready for graduate school. The old joke that ‘PhD’ stands for “Piled Higher and Deeper” is a reminder that doctoral studies are about becoming highly expert in a very narrow question within a very specific field. Or, as my old PhD advisor put it, “Brian, your task is to become the world’s foremost expert in the thing you’re writing about.”
Second, people are often concerned that they either don’t yet know what exactly they want to study or that they might change their mind along the way. Now, if you have no earthly clue whatsoever what you want to investigate, the short answer is that you have no business applying to graduate school. You should at least enter graduate school with some idea of what you want to study. BUT, even if you don’t, you should at least be able to articulate a plausible question that you may want to study. It’s fine if you end up changing your focus because most people don’t actually end up researching the precise areas that they intended to when they arrived. Now, obviously, you will stay close to home, intellectually speaking, so it’s not as though you’ll go from studying Medieval History to Cell Biology, but chances are that you might, for instance, go from studying how neural cell plasticity is impacted by traumatic injury to studying how neural cell plasticity might be involved in autism. It’s the same general subject, be very different questions. That’s a VERY normal thing to happen. In fact, your initial classes and (if you’re in the sciences) rotations through labs are designed to give you a broader exposure so that you can select a precise topic that interests you.
So, if most people end up changing their intended thesis, why do the admissions committees even emphasize your laying out your intended intellectual route? Two reasons: 1.) applicants who can articulate what they see as a cognizable and important question have done the requisite homework and thus demonstrated their seriousness, and 2) you are showcasing your ability to think and write about complicated questions within the field, and especially your capacity to position yourself vis-à-vis the important debates. This is very important skill in academics.
2. You HAVE to email the professors. So, technically speaking you don’t have to do this. Many people are admitted without having done so. That said, you really should do it. The reasons have mostly to do with the nature of graduate school and the nature of graduate admissions. Suppose, for instance, that you want to study Cell Biology under Prof. Jones at State University. In fact, the work she’s doing is what inspired you to study cell biology, her papers are groundbreaking, and her excellence and reputation are what State University’s Department of Cell Biology are built upon. Given this, you need to find out if it’s possible to study under her. She might, for instance, be retiring, moving to a new position at a new university, or may not be taking any more graduate students into her lab. You would thus be in a bad way if you showed up at State University to study under her, only to discover that Prof. Jones is now at Stanford! Or, she might tell you that she doesn’t think you’d be a good fit, and that if asked, she couldn’t enthusiastically support your application. This would hurt, no doubt, but it would allow you to adjust your application tactics.
This brings us to the second reasons. You should email potential advisors because, if you mention them in your personal statement, the admissions committee will usually forward your application to them and ask if they are a good fit for what they do. Them saying “yes” certainly doesn’t guarantee your admission, but either a “no” or an indifferent response will hurt you. As such, you should let that professor know who you are so that when they get that email, they can, “Oh Jennifer? She’s great, and I think she has some interesting ideas and could do great work in my lab.”
Just so we’re clear, if a professor hasn’t heard of you and the Admissions Committee asks them about you, they likely aren’t going to take a ton of time to look over your application at that point. Professors are very busy with other teaching, research, writing, committee work, etc., and they rightly don’t see it as their job to resuscitate your application because you didn’t bother to reach out to them before you name-dropped them.
So, how do you reach out to a professor? I’ll have more on this tomorrow, but the short version is that you should write a VERY short email introducing yourself, identifying what you’re working on, and asking if you could have 10 minutes of their time. Attach your CV and any relevant other documents. (Again, more on this tomorrow)
3. Copy-Paste will kill your application
We all know that applying to graduate school is hard and time-consuming. You have to study for the GRE, get letters of recommendation, write a personal statement, research and contact potential advisors, revise your writing sample, and fill out lots of other forms. BUT, one thing that will really hurt your chances is to use a personal statement that is very obviously just a single standard essay with the names of your various schools copy-pasted in. It shows that you haven’t done your research and aren’t particularly interested in that school. This doesn’t mean that you have to write completely different essays for each school. In fact, it’s usually the case that you can write your first essay for your first school and repurpose the first two-thirds for every school, and then the final third or so that focuses on your fit with the school you’re applying to can be written custom for each university. But readers know when they’re reading generic broadly-applicable text with the school’s name pasted in, and they don’t like it. So if you have a section like this, dump it and rewrite it:
I want to attend Stanford University because of its excellent faculty, abundant research resources, and the opportunity to work within a renowned university. I have looked at the Course Catalog, and there are many classes that fit my intellectual interests…
You could replace “Stanford” here with any top school, so you’re not really saying anything useful or demonstrating that you know anything about Stanford other than it’s a good university.
All three of these points make clear that a lazy applicant is probably going to be an unsuccessful one. Yes, it takes extra time to email professors, generate a plausible dissertation thesis, and write lots of unique text for all of your schools. But if you’re thinking about spending 7 years in graduate school, why wouldn’t you take an extra 10–12 hours to make sure that you are attending the right graduate school and are positioning yourself for long-term success and happiness?
Okay, as some who has four graduate degrees, this might seem like hypocritical advice. And, in truth, many people should go to graduate school. But my experience is that far too many people do and that folks rarely invest the requisite thought before they begin applying.
While researching for an upcoming article on graduate school completion rates, I came across this blog post from a few years back in which Christopher Pierznik reflects on his decision to drop out of graduate school. He calls it “the best decision I’ve ever made.” His wisdom and perspective resonated with me, so I thought I’d share it. Most of what I do professionally is help people get into top graduate and professional schools, but when working with clients I often get the distinct impression that many people have invested far more time into trying to get into a school than they did in figuring out if they should go in the first place.
In my old job as a university professor, students would often come to me for letters of recommendation for graduate or professional school (med, law, business, etc.). Whenever they did, I saw it as my job to try to talk them out of it. This isn’t necessarily because I didn’t want them to go -indeed, for many people it’s the right move- but because I wanted to make sure they were going for the right reasons. Going to graduate school if you’re not passionate about the material will probably lead to you dropping out, and starting medical or law school if you’re not 100% committed could mean taking on massive amounts of debt that lock you into a professional track you despise.
So, when these bright-eyed youngsters came to me seeking affirmation, I did my best to show them the hard road ahead. I’d ask them all sorts of important questions that they probably hadn’t asked themselves. For aspiring doctors, I’d talk about debt and the fact that, once you start down the path of medicine, it’s almost impossible to get off: four years of medical school, at least two years of residency (and up to 7), and maybe a decade in which you’ll have to stay within the profession to pay off your loans.
For people thinking about graduate schools, I would ask why they want to get a graduate degree. The most common response I got was, “because I like the subject.” That’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. First, for all kinds of graduate degrees you need to have a clear conception of how it moves you closer to your professional goals. What job do you want to get right out of graduate school? Why is that the job for you? If you don’t know the answer to that question, delay graduate school until you know.
For folks who are seeking to pursue doctoral work with the idea of entering academia, the job question is an even more pressing one, since even very high-performing newly minted PhDs from elite programs struggle to get jobs. Almost none get tenure-track positions. What’s your plan if you’re among the substantial majority of PhDs who can’t get a fulltime position? More to the point, what’s the question that you will enter graduate school wanting to answer? If you’re doing doctoral research, “I like the subject” isn’t nearly specific enough to sustain the immense effort needed to get you through the slog that Pierznik is talking about here.
As a professor, my fear was that bright students who did not know clearly and passionately what they wanted to do were just using graduate school as a fallback. In law school and in graduate school, I saw so many people who fell into this category, and in every instance they were miserable, and most did not graduate.
So, if you’re not sure about graduate school, take a year off. Travel. Get a crummy job. Try things. And, if you do go to graduate school and recognize that it isn’t for you, take Pierznik’s advice and jump ship while you still can.
On the other hand, if you’ve done your homework, gone through a rigorous process of introspection, and still feel committed to this path, then let’s get to work!
The author is the founder and CEO of Gurufi.com and FourthWrite.com, two educational consultancies dedicated to helping students get into the graduate schools of their dreams. For questions about your graduate school application, you can email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have a draft personal statement, get it revised by our team of experienced Ivy League educated consultants at Gurufi.com. If you need more comprehensive assistance developing, outlining, drafting, and refining your text, check us out at FourthWrite.com!
I have mentioned the importance of contacting potential professors at the schools to which you are applying. It’s vital that you both contact particular professors with whom you might want to work and mention them in your Personal Statement. Today I will say a bit more about what to write in your introductory email. Here are four guidelines for your email to the professors:
1. Keep it short. Aim for about 150 words. If your email is too long, it likely won’t be read. After all, when is the last time you read a long email from a complete stranger asking you for something? Get right to the point and save deeper and lengthier communications for future interactions.
2. Why them? You should say briefly why you have contacted them. Ideally, this would link their intellectual / research interests to yours. If you can point to particular articles or books that you found interesting, then do so. (if you do, and you end up meeting, you should probably familiarize yourself with that book before your meeting!) A little flattery goes a long way. The agony of being in academia is that you can spend years researching arcane topics that few people understand, so having someone tell you that they read your stuff and found it useful is really nice. Of course, don’t lay it on too thick. Nobody likes a phony.
3. Have an ask. In your email, you should state directly what you hope will happen. If you can go to their campus, then meeting up with the professor is a fair thing to ask. Again, make it painless; don’t ask to follow them all day in their lab. Instead, offer to buy them a coffee or “drop by your office for 15 minutes to talk about your research…” If you’re not going to go to the campus, then ask if there’s a time you can talk briefly on the phone. (Again, emphasize briefly, and when you do talk, keep it fairly short)
4. Attach your CV and any relevant documents, such as papers or research you’ve completed.
Here is a sample email that’s about 150 words.
Dear Prof. Joanna Jones,
My name is Sally Smith, and I am presently applying to doctoral programs in American History. As part of my research on the Haymarket Riot, I read your piece in the Journal of American History and found your thesis on the role of anti-immigration violence fascinating. In fact, it informed much of my own thinking about FBI actions in the 1960s.
I am applying to State University this fall, and I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about your work and my potential as a graduate student at State University. I will be in Collegetown this October and could stop by your office or we could chat over coffee. If that timing doesn’t work, I could also do a brief telephone call.
I have attached my CV and the aforementioned research on FBI actions in the 1960s. Thank you for your time.
Note that this isn’t especially fancy or long. A few additional notes:
-If, after a week, you don’t get a response, you can send a polite follow-up. After that, assume that it’s a ‘no.’
-If you do meet, be sure to send a thank-you note afterwards. Ideally, this would a short hand-written thank-you card, but it should at least be an email.
-Show up prepared with both knowledge of their subject, what you’re looking for in graduate school. As with all interviews, have several questions to ask. Even if you feel like you know what you need to, the correct response to, “do you have any questions?” is never “nope, I’m good.” Do your research and have a few substantive things to discuss either about their work or the graduate program.
Once you’ve decided to pursue a Ph.D., one of the challenges that you’ll face is that, unlike undergraduate, medical, law, or business school applications, there isn’t really a robust ecosystem offering lots of guidance to would-be applicants. Part of this has to do with subject matter fragmentation. That is, it just seems like an application for a doctoral Physics program at MIT should be very different than, say, a History program at Stanford. There is some truth to this, and there are important subtle differences for how you should approach different kinds of graduate school applications, but graduate school applications as a whole differ in important ways from applications for colleges and professional schools.
I am that rare breed of expert who first attended law school (University of Michigan) then, after practicing briefly, I earned my PhD in History (Yale University). When I applied to graduate school, the process was far more nuanced and complicated, and I benefited immensely from the advice of people who had gone before me, whereas I had found law school applications quite straight-forward. In future posts, I’ll cover some other aspects of graduate school applications that many applicants don’t know about, but today I just want to note what I see as the five most important factors that differentiate graduate school personal statements from professional school (law, medical, business, etc.) or college personal statements.
1. Get the Tone Right
For many applicants, the only advice they’ve ever been given about personal statements came when they were applying to college. College personal statements tend to be very much what you expect from a teenager who’s never actually done or experienced much in their lives: emotionally overwrought, zany, and all about having great “hooks” and a lot of puffery about what they’ve already accomplished and all that they’re going to achieve in life. There is a heavy emphasis on “personal,” and very little that could be classified as substantive. Fair enough, they’re 17 years old! But, if you’re applying to a high-level doctoral program, this is NOT the route you want to take/
You can (and should) incorporate storytelling, and your essay should be engaging, optimistic, and passionate, but it also has to be mature and clear-eyed. In short, you need to show that you’re capable of doing high-level original thinking about a thin slice of a complex subject, and this means projecting gravitas. Humor, purple prose, or stories for their own sake don’t have a place here.
When working with clients, I’ll often say, “this is for graduate school, not your Tinder profile.” In other words, the Admissions Committee isn’t trying to find a life partner or figure out the machinations of your soul; they’re trying to assess whether you have the talent to do difficult scholarship and an interesting perspective and set of germane experiences to build upon.
2. You Need to Demonstrate Subject Matter Familiarity
Unlike law school, where you can arrive with little to no real knowledge of the law, graduate programs operate under the assumption that you know the field and will arrive on Day 1 ready to engage with it. As such, how you discuss your field and the questions you want to pursue are really important. If you can signal work that you think is important and position yourself relative to scholars whose work you think is interesting, then that helps. Doubly so if those scholars you’re talking about are at the school you’re applying to (more on this next). A good rule of thumb is that the closer you can get in your personal statement to articulating what your eventual dissertation thesis will be, the better. Another way of thinking about this is that you are going to graduate school to acquire the intellectual tools to answer a question; what is that question? What do you think the answer is? Why? These are the sorts of questions that you can only really discuss if you’re familiar with the field.
3. Applying to a Program, not Really to a School
Okay, this one isn’t REALLY about the Personal Statement, but it’s worth keeping in mind. It’s hard not to be impressed by a brand name, but while top schools do have lots of top programs, don’t fall in love with brands. If the precise thing that you’re passionate about isn’t a strength at Harvard, don’t apply to Harvard. It may be that the University of Indiana or Georgia Tech (two perfectly good schools) are actually the best at what you’re interested in. Over and over, I’ve had clients who will either try to shoehorn their interests into what is offered at an Ivy League school or decide to pursue something else that they’re less interested in because it’s offered at a school they think is great. These are bad ideas. First, graduate school is a long hard slog, and if the school can’t support your particular intellectual interests, you’ll get frustrated and, frankly, you’ll probably quit. Likewise, if you elect to pursue something else just so that you can get a Princeton degree, it’s likely that in year 4 of your 7-year PhD program you’ll be so miserable that you’ll just decide you’ve had enough. A major contributor to the fact that only slightly more than 50% of doctoral candidates earn their PhD is that people aren’t thoughtful about selecting their program.
4. Talk with specificity about why THAT program
Given that you’re applying to a program, and not a school, you need to articulate why you want to attend that school. Importantly, this means avoiding generic sentences like, “Columbia’s excellent faculty, fist-rate facilities, and strong curriculum make it a compelling choice for me.” That just reeks of copy-paste text that could apply to any school. Instead, get specific about which professors you want to work with (I’ll have more on this later this week) and why, the specific programs and facilities that you want to use, and maybe even some of the coursework you hope to complete. So, the generic section above should instead say something like:
“I would be excited to study under the direction of Prof. Jones, whose work on the instability of zeta particles in the CERN superconductor-supercollider poses complex questions about string theory. While working in the Jones Lab, I hope to have access to Columbia’s new high-frequency spectroscopy device so that I could explore whether similar conditions manifest in high-radiation environments.”
Note how (fake physics gibberish aside), a reader knows exactly “why Columbia?” and can picture what the applicant’s time within the program would look like.
6. It’s Both an Intellectual and Personal History
As I noted above, it’s great to use storytelling to establish how you came to be interested in this particular subject. After all, graduate programs want people who will finish, and if you’re not passionate and excited about the field, you likely won’t. So, having early or formative experiences within a subject be the frame for your essay is a great idea.
But you also need to weave in your intellectual journey. What questions triggered this exploration? What books, ideas, studies, or intellectual problems have you found engaging, exasperating, or in desperate need of solution? If you answer these sorts of questions, and can fuse them with your personal narrative, you can produce an essay that moves the reader and allows them to understand your potential within the field and, importantly, like you as a person who shares their excitement for the subject.
You can see why I said that graduate school personal statements are more nuanced and complicated. And, frankly, my experience is that they’re just harder to write. Given the general rule that you shouldn’t exceed two single-spaced pages, this means you need to write with economy, structure, clarity, and punch. This is a high bar to clear, but if this is really your life’s passion (and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t apply), it’s well worth the work it requires to write, revise, and perfect a dynamite personal statement!
If you need help with your graduate school personal statement, or if you have any questions about these topics, please shoot Brian an email at email@example.com. You can also check him out at Gurufi.com. Note that GREPrepClub members get a 25% discount on Gurufi.com revisions. Just use the Coupon Code GREPrepClub at checkout!
After laying out my journey to graduate school, a few people asked me how it is that I ended up choosing Yale over the other very good graduate programs that had offered me admission. Now, my partner and I here at Gurufi / FourthWrite are putting together a series of posts and videos to guide you through the process of applying to graduate school from beginning to end, but since people have asked, I’ll use this opportunity to talk some about the end of the process, which is choosing your school. This post is mostly specific to doctoral programs, but much of the reasoning is applicable to Master’s programs, professional schools (med, law, biz, etc.), and even to some extent to undergraduate schools.
To recap, I had been accepted into most of my top programs: Yale, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, and Michigan. This left me in an envious -and given my previous application disasters, quite unexpected- position: which one to choose? It basically came down to five factors: fit, money, advisor, place, and placement.
1. Fit. This one is, really, the most important one. There are some objective ways to assess this, such as whether the program is strong in your particular field, the number of strong frequently-cited publications related to your topic that the department is churning out, etc. But, if we’re being honest, this was mostly a matter of the vibe. Unlike some professional schools (notably, medical school and business school), for the most part interviews play no role in doctoral program admissions, so I only visited these schools after I had gotten in. It’s a squishy metric, but in talking to students and faculty, I liked the “vibe” at Yale, Columbia, and Cal-Berkeley. I will still remember that, after an hour talking to a famous history professor at Cal, he said, “oh my god, I haven’t filled out my bracket! Are you an NCAA hoops fan!?!?” I was, so the two of us spent the next 25 minutes talking college hoops as he filled out his bracket. I thought, “I could go here.” This may seem irrational, but the average PhD program takes 7 years, so you will be spending A LOT of time with these people, so you’d better make sure that you could like them.
2. Money. When I decided to pursue a PhD, my rule was that if a school wasn’t going to fund me fully, I would consider it a rejection. Earning a PhD is hard, and I didn’t want to weigh down my studies with concerns about racking up more student loan debt. As a practical matter, all of the top private schools (Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, etc.) fully fund all of their PhD students with grants and stipends. To be admitted is to be admitted with tuition waived plus a small allowance for living expenses (this year, Yale’s stipend is about $31,000). In the good public schools (the UC system, Michigan, UNC, etc.) that’s not always the case. In fact, most of them will both push for you to pursue outside funding from fellowships and have heavier teaching requirements to pay your way through. As a point of comparison, my first two years at Yale I would not teach, whereas I was expected to be a TA right from my first semester had I gone to Cal-Berkeley. Teaching is a real time commitment, so it should factor into your decision.
3. Advisors. Getting the right advisor is huge. In fact, once you’re ABD (All But Dissertation, in the lingo), your advisor will be far more important to you than the program or the school. As such, I gave serious consideration to all of the people who might end up being my advisor at these various schools. (I’ll talk about this in a future post, but the funny and dirty little secret of PhD programs is that almost nobody studies the thing they intended to when they came, and thus you’ll probably not actually have the advisor you think. But still, this is an important part of the process) I talked to professors and asked them how their particular students did on the job market, and I also talked to current and former students about their experiences working with different professors. Were they supportive? Good mentors? Help provide them with structure and clarity? Etc.
4. The Place. Again, this often gets overlooked, but remember that you are going to spend A LOT of time in graduate school. So, if cities make you nervous and miserable, give very careful consideration before you go to Columbia or NYU, even if they are a better fit for you academically. Similarly, if college towns drive you nuts, and you need big city life, don’t go to Wisconsin because you’ll hate Madison. The truth is that if you are unhappy, the likelihood that you complete your PhD drops precipitously. There is no shame in saying that sunshine, weather, city size, culture, and other quality of life factors are important. If you catch yourself saying “it’s only 6 years, I can take it,” then stop and reconsider. It’s just not worth it, and your unhappiness could very well lead you to hate the subject you went there to study!
5. Placement. For all applicants, BUT ESPECIALLY FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO GET INTO ACADEMIA, you should have a clear sense of what your job prospects are after graduation. Ask about recent placement success, talk to students about the support they get from the Career Development Office, and if you’re looking to go into academics, get a sense of where recently-minted PhDs have gone. If we’re being blunt, if your intention is to become a professor, then you really should think twice, then think twice more, before going to any program outside of the top 15 in your field. It’s hard for Harvard and Yale PhDs to get academic appointments, and it’s near impossible for a PhD from a less sterling university.
The reason that I ended up choosing Yale was because of reasons 1,2,3, and 5. Fortunately, I had close friends who were there, so Factor 2 ended up not being a big deal, even though (sorry) New Haven isn’t nearly as nice as Berkeley, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or Ann Arbor.
In the end, I think that everyone who goes through this makes their own metric, but these metrics are mostly a way of getting at what you just know in your heart is true. In fact, even though I made myself a big fancy chart with all the pros and cons, I probably put my finger on the scale to get the outcome that my heart wanted anyway. And that’s okay. It worked for me: I had a great time in graduate school, made lifelong friends, got my PhD, and afterwards taught at Harvard before discovering that academia isn’t my cup of tea. The only thing that I would urge everyone to do is to be really thoughtful about ALL elements of a school. To me, it’s absolute folly to just accept years and years of misery to achieve some professional goal.
I guess that’s why I’m not a doctor.
Over at Gurufi.com., we’re putting together a short series of videos on how you can use effective storytelling techniques to make your personal statement more engaging. We decided to create this series in order to combat what is the most prevalent problem that I encounter when helping people organize, write, and revise their personal statements: bland essays that feel like narrative versions of the author’s CV.
Many people resort to this style of writing because they either don’t understand what makes for a compelling essay or they’re convinced that they don’t know how to write a good story. To the first point, what I can tell you after having read literally thousands of admissions essays is that the best essays are essays that tell a story. Rather than looking to recount lots of small achievements, they go into depth on just a few (or even one) really important transformative moment. These sorts of stories, when properly deployed, can clarify your positioning as an applicant and make you memorable in a way that a list of accomplishments simply cannot.
So how do you write a compelling story? Well, there are many aspects to this, which our video series will cover, but over the next few weeks, I’ll be describing some of the most important tips and tricks. Today, I’ll start with the most important one: have a good villain. Now, let me be clear about what I’m describing. I’m not telling you to describe a terrible person in your essay, but rather I want you to think about what makes any adventure story or movie good: you have to believe that the good guy might fail. You create stakes by making the obstacle immense, and thus when the hero surmounts it, they show their qualities of strength, guile, intellect, resilience, and maturity.
To use an example, think about the recent two-part “Avengers” movie. In the first part, the villain, Thanos, had to seem invincible, and the audience had to believe that their heroes couldn’t possibly beat him. He was too strong, too smart, and was always two moves ahead of them. Then, when in the second part, the heroes managed to beat him, their story was much more interesting and engaging and the audience was left with far more awe and respect for the heroes.
So how does this apply to writing a personal statement? Far too often, applicants will write about their accomplishments without fully explaining what made those accomplishments so impressive. Take the following examples:
“I led a $15 million purchase of Company A.”
“I spent a month working with HIV orphans in Tanzania.”
“I volunteered for 18 months with a legal aid non-profit.”
If this is all you write, these would be nice additions to your application, but they wouldn’t be fantastic home runs. What these applicants need to do is ask some follow-up questions: 1) why was this work so challenging? 2) What was my hardest day on the job? 3) What was the biggest challenge I faced doing this work? 4) What was the closest I ever came to failing? 5) Why? The applicant could then use these answers to these questions to tell their story in a fuller and more interesting way. For instance:
“I led a $15 million purchase of Company A.”
You can flesh this out by adding some vital points that make clear how hard this was to achieve, such as:
->The deal nearly collapsed because of miscommunication
→ With a midnight deadline looming, I gathered the conflicting parties on a teleconference and worked through each of the sticking points
→ The CEO of the target company refused to budge, and the deal looked dead until I flew to Cincinnati and convinced him to have lunch with me. My coming to his home office established trust, and this laid the foundation for fruitful dialogue that let us complete a win-win deal.
These details, when added thoughtfully into the essay, will make the experience pop off the page in a way that merely describing the end accomplishment could never do.
By going through this process of really focusing on the most difficult and dire moments, you make your contributions stand out and the story becomes both more memorable and a more powerful expression of your strengths as an applicant. The reason is that the reader can feel the difficulty of this situation and recognizes that, but for your efforts, this deal might have failed.
For this reason, I often urge clients never to focus only on the accomplishment. If you feature an accomplishment in an essay, you should first try to make clear why the accomplishment was such a big deal. Your story needs “a villain” to really allow the hero to shine. This “villain” is almost never an actual person / opponent, but rather a set of tough circumstances and unexpected occurrences that you had to overcome, solve, or work around.
Every year, Gurufi.com helps hundreds of applicants get into the school of their dreams. Last year alone, Gurufi clients earned admission into the top business schools in America and around the world, including: Oxford Said, Wharton, Kellogg, Yale School of Management, Harvard Business School, NYU Stern, MIT Sloan, Booth, U Michigan Ross, and Cal Berkeley Haas, to name but a few. For help, visit Gurufi.com or contact them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve been working with clients for nearly 15 years, and in that time, I have helped clients fix, tighten, and rework probably 15,000 personal statements. Because I’ve had so many reps, I can instantly spot what I’ve come to call “the Frankenstein Essay.”
These essays are distinctive for their abrupt change of voice, inexplicable jumps between narratives, and the overall sense that I’m not reading a single coherent essay, but rather a weird amalgam pieced together from the parts of five or six different sources. Whenever I get one of these, I’ll ask a client, “so, how many people did you show the first draft of your personal statement to?” Without fail, they’ll tell me that they showed everybody they could think of who might help: their roommate, a professor, the school’s premed / pre-law advisor, etc.
This is a huge mistake.
Look, it’s understandable that once you’ve finished your personal statement, you may feel a little apprehensive about what you have written, and as such it is only reasonable to seek out second and third opinions in order to make sure that you have overlooked nothing, the prose is tight, and you have made a compelling case for your candidacy. But, just as an excellent revision and editing can make an average essay excellent, bad editing can wreck an essay. On such occasions, one is smart to heed the old aphorism that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth.’
Once you have completed your first draft, you need to think carefully about how you go about using advice from other people. Here are six pointers for how to get the best advice in order to turn your draft into an excellent final version you are proud of and happy with.
1.) Be careful about who you pick.
Obviously, you want to get advice from someone who writes well, can be frank with you, and has some understanding of the field to which you are applying. If you choose to get advice from a boyfriend or your mother, for example, then be careful because they might give you an overly glowing review because of their esteem and love for you or may lack the qualifications to point out minor problems with your approach. Similarly, asking your English major friend to look at your Engineering graduate school essay is not a bad idea, but if you go that route, also have someone involved in Engineering (preferably in an academic capacity) also look at your essay is a good idea.
Good people to talk to are your academic advisor (if you are applying to graduate or professional schools) or guidance counselor (if you are applying to college). I know that many people will take their essays to message boards and post them to see what people think of it. This is the one thing I would advise you NEVER to do. The problem here is that you have no real way to gauge someone’s level of expertise and you may get too much feedback from too many sources.
Which leads us to point #2…
2. Don’t give it to too many people.
If you get critiques on your essay from 8–9 different people and you incorporate all of their suggestions, you will be pulled in too many directions and the essay will lose its sense of voice and focus. The old joke that a camel is a horse designed by committee applies here. Your essay cannot be everything to everyone, and you have to accept this fact. There will always be something that someone would have done differently, so they will often naturally advise you that you should do something different than what you are doing.
3. Ask follow-up questions
Whenever someone suggests a change, don’t be afraid to ask them about it. Sometimes you will agree with their rationale but disagree with the execution of the change. Also, through a conversation people will often help you see larger problems that you may have missed. People are often hesitant to give tough advice, and a friendly conversation can help you to avoid this problem because by talking to someone, the person will see that you are serious about valuing their advice.
The most frequent form of advice that people will give is, “you should include _____.” Now, this is often useful advice, but because most personal statements have tight word caps, you can’t just add everything that might kinda-sorta be relevant. Thus, in my experience, one of the best questions you can ask is, “if you think that I should add ____, what do you think I should take out to make room for this new text?”
The reason is that writing is about choices, and just because something is relevant in the abstract doesn’t mean that it should be included in your essay. If their suggestion for what you should remove to make room for their suggested new text is something that you don’t think you can lose, then that may indicate that you should ignore this bit of advice.
Which brings us to Point #4:
4. Don’t be afraid to ignore advice.
At the end of the day, this is *your* personal statement, and *your* future depends on how well you execute it. When someone suggests changes, consider their level of expertise (both as a writer and as a subject-matter expert), think about it carefully and, if you disagree, then don’t do it. Not every piece of advice given is good; often, you will receive terrible advice.
The final decision is yours, so take your role as the gatekeeper of advice seriously, and only let the best suggestions that work well with your theme, tone, approach and goal through.
5. BUT, try to avoid pride of authorship
In my capacity as an admissions essay consultant, I often encounter customers who are furious when I tell them that they have things that they need to work on. It is almost as if they paid me $500 for me to tell them that their work was perfect, and they should not change a single letter.
Because a personal statement is so, well, personal, it can sometimes sting when someone gives you pointed advice. Try to see the bigger picture and embrace the process that will help you to move towards a better and stronger essay. Do your best not to see a critique of your essay as a criticism of you as a person, and rather see it as a positive moment that moves you one step closer to your goal.
They can be a bit expensive, but in the end, if you’re willing to tens -or even hundreds- of thousands of dollars on college or graduate school, spending a small fraction of that to get you into your desired school only makes sense. Getting into a top school, as opposed to an average one, is worth investing in.
Some things to consider:
-Make sure that they guarantee your satisfaction.
-Ask if they will work with you beyond just receiving a single revision back from you. Often, it will take 2–3 exchanges with your editor to completely understand what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what core message you want to convey.
In the end, selecting the right editor / consultant is a personal choice about vibe and fit. We at Gurufi.com and our sister site FourthWrite.com understand that admissions can be a stressful and opaque process, and our editors are fantastic at working with you to produce a powerful essay that reflects your personality and aspirations.
If you’re looking for revision of a single essay that you’ve already written a draft for, check us out at Gurufi.com. If you’ve not yet begun your draft, or if you have many essays as part of a larger application push, we have packages at FourthWrite.com that include consultations designed to help you produce an effective outline, overall positioning, and a compelling final set of essays.
If you questions, shoot me an email at email@example.com
We are working hard right now to put together our free webinar series on how to write a powerful and compelling story-based personal statement, but while we’re putting the finishing touches on that, I wanted to dispel some misconceptions people might have when I urge them to tell stories. Specifically, they think that I’m telling them to produce fluff content that’s all about personality. Quite the contrary, our method is really focused on the idea of using relevant experiences to tell stories that demonstrate your excellence, readiness, and uniqueness.
So how do people go wrong when they tell stories? Somewhere along the line, people got it in their head that the purpose of a personal statement was to let the reader get to know them. Over and over, I will read a personal statement for medical school or law school in which the author will tell a story that is highly personal to them, but ultimately absolutely irrelevant to their application. When I try to explain that they need to focus on things germane to their application, they will tell me that they want to let the reader know who they are, as if this is a sufficient explanation for a medical school essay that focuses almost exclusively on their love of triathlons or a law school essay that does not ever use the word “law.”
Why does this happen? Essentially, it happens because people get so fixated on writing what they believe will be an interesting essay that makes the applicant sound unique. I hear these words –interesting and unique- all the time, and while they are very important for a compelling essay, they are a means to an end, and not the end itself. The end is simple: convince the reader that you are prepared and qualified for admission. If you succeed in this task and the reader thinks you’re a funny and engaging gal, that’s super. If they don’t, just as well.
Given this, as you write your personal statement, you should keep in mind a simple and well-worn maxim that every salesman has heard a million times: Always Be Closing (ABC). In other words, at every point in the essay, you need to keep in mind whether or not what you are saying is moving the reader closer to believing that you have the requisite knowledge, experience and understanding of the field you hope to enter. So, that really cute and funny story about your high school soccer team? Probably not a good idea to include it because it fails the ABC test.
For every story, for every paragraph and for every sentence, you do need to ask yourself, “what does this say about the strength of my candidacy?” If the best that you can come up with that it says something interesting or unique about you, it doesn’t pass the ABC test. On the other hand, if it shows that you have an important and germane skill or perspective, then it passes the ABC test.
I know that when you have a really great story or if you have done something quite unique, you feel compelled to include that story or fact in your essay. And, with some thought you can frame it in a manner that does link to relevant characteristics that the school is looking for. That said, you should remember that this is more akin to a job interview than a first date. You want to make the reader think you’re qualified, not see you as their future husband or wife. Save the funny stories for your new classmates once you’re admitted.
In the meantime, use stories and examples that emphasize skills and knowledge that are germane and that relate to the field you hope to enter. So, as you write your essay, keep in mind: Always Be Closing.
If you need help writing a powerful story-based personal statement, email Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our website Gurufi.com
“I don’t want to brag… I need to find a way to make this a little less about me and what I’ve done….”
I often encounter clients like this one who want to write a powerful personal statement but are concerned that by talking about their accomplishments in glowing ways, they risk coming across as smug or self-impressed. This is an understandable concern because in most areas of your life, if you talk at length about how great you are, you’ll come across as unlikeable and vain. If this is something you’re struggling with, here are five tips and insights to help you navigate the process of talking yourself up in your personal statement.
1. It’s What You’re Supposed to Do! The Admissions Committee is literally asking you to talk about why you’re a prepared and qualified candidate. This isn’t the same as going on about how great your abs are on a first date; this is you responding to a request to produce a compelling reason to admit you. Embrace that this is simply the nature of the beast and put yourself in the mental space to describe yourself in a positive light.
2. If you don’t, nobody will! When the Admissions Committee meets to discuss candidates, you wont’ be in the room. Your only “advocate” will be your admissions packet, so you need to make the case for yourself. Too often, candidates expect AdComs to behave like archaeologists, digging through your application in order to figure out who you are and why you’re great. While most admissions officers are conscientious and thoughtful, they’re not going to do your work for you, so you need to make sure that your essays and other materials make explicit why you are great. If you get sheepish about self-advocacy, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage.
3. Use Storytelling. Most applicants have heard people tell them “show, don’t tell.” This is an important idea when it comes to accentuating your strengths. If you tell the reader “I am resourceful and smart,” that is both unpersuasive (because it lacks evidence) and also risks coming across as gratuitous self-praise. But, if you tell a story about a time that you demonstrated resourcefulness and intelligence, then you both impact the reader more AND reduce the sense that you are boasting.
4. Show Your Work. Related to that, in the course of telling your story, be thoughtful about the details you provide. The best way to show intelligence, for example, is to provide examples of moments where you solved a really difficult problem. Walk the reader through the nature and scope of the problem and describe if you can why others had failed to solve it. Then, provide details about what you tried, why you eventually succeeded, and what the final outcome was.
5. Show humility by talking about a failure. If you’re still concerned that you’re being a braggart, then one potential approach is to consider infusing some humility into your narrative by talking about a failure or misstep. Now, as I described last week, this still needs to be a “failure” in the sense that it (1) served as a learning experience and (2) taught you lessons that you subsequently deployed in a way that produced an ultimate success.
Big picture, though, what I would encourage you to do is to write from a confident and assertive posture. I appreciate that imposter syndrome is real and that high-performing people often feel the most insecure about their ability and credentials, but in the end, you have to push through this and remember that it’s your job to convince the reader that you’re great. If you won’t, NOBODY else will. Once you’ve turned in your application, you can go back to being the humble self-effacing person you’ve always been. 🙂
Brian is a consultant and editor at Gurufi.com. He works with applicants to sharpen their personal statements and refine applicants’ positioning. Every year, Brian’s clients earn admission into top schools throughout the world. Check him out at Gurufi.com or contact him directly at email@example.com.