How to Write About Blemishes, Setbacks, and Failures in Your Personal Statements

After collaborating with hundreds of business school applicants over the past 15 years, one thing that I have learned is that there are many paths to an MBA. Often, these paths are bumpy, circuitous, or unconventional. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking to a group of applicants on GMATClub’s YouTube Live broadcast, and I decided to focus that talk on how to overcome blemishes or even big problems in your application.
Midway through, a funny thing happened! My kids escaped from the playroom and decided to investigate what Dada was doing… several times! Like many of you, all of us at Gurufi.com have had to adjust our lives to the realities of COVID-19. Our office in Portland closed because of local restrictions, so we’re all working remotely from home. As my kids ran in (repeatedly) to see what was going on, it occurred to me that this was an excellent lesson for the kinds of challenges we face in life: randomness intervenes, complications arise, family situations suddenly require our attention.
I hope you’ll check out this presentation because it gives some handy advice for how you can account for setbacks, blemishes, and disasters in your life within the context of your Personal Statement. We also touch on how to write a powerful “biggest failure” essay that some schools ask for. The TLDR is:
• You shouldn’t run from your mistakes if it’s something that the admissions committee will know. You need to provide the frame for how they view this.
• “If you can’t fix it, feature it.” For big mistakes, think about how you can contextualize the setback within the broader scope of your life and career in a way that depicts it, not as a failure, but as the first act in a story of success.
• Admissions committees understand that people aren’t perfect. Find ways to make them see you holistically.
If you have questions for Brian, send him a line at service@gurufi.com.
For help with your Personal Statement or other admissions writing, check us out at Gurufi.com! We have a fantastic group of experienced editors and consultants ready to make your application shine!

Part 1 of Our “Interview With a Doctor” Series.

In our “Interview With a Doctor” series, we talk to doctors about their journey to medicine, medical school admissions, what they wished they had known when they started this process, and what they see as the rewards and challenges of being a doctor. Today is Part 1 of our interview with Dr. Aloysius Fobi, who is a board-certified emergency medicine physician, professor of medicine at Oregon Health Science University, and attending physician at Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon.

If you have questions about medical school admissions, please check us out at Gurufi.com or email us directly at service@gurufi.com. The editors and consultants at Gurufi have helped hundreds of motivated aspiring physicians get into their dream medical schools. We hope that you can be the next one!

Advice from Doctors on Medical School Admissions & Life As a Doctor

As part of our ongoing series on medical school admissions, life as a doctor, and the challenges of life in medicine, today we interview Dr. Aloysius Fobi, MD and Dr. Rachel Pilliod, MD. Dr. Fobi is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician and professor of Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University. Dr. Pilliod is a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist and ObGyn who trained at Massachusetts General Hospital / Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, and currently is an attending physician at Oregon Health Sciences University.
Today, they talk about persistence in the medical school process, how to differentiate yourself from other qualified doctors, and what committing to medicine means on a practical level.

If you need help with your medical school applications, please check us out at FourthWrite.com/medical or email us at info@fourthwrite.com

Tips for Medical School Secondary Essays

For med school applicants, writing your AMCAS Personal Statement can be hell. You spend weeks perfecting every sentence. Then… secondaries come. Maybe even dozens of them. It can feel overwhelming. Here are some tips for how to think about this process.

Tips for Getting a STRONG Letter of Recommendation

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.

A Great Breakdown of the Medical School Admissions Process

This is a really useful overview. I’d recommend anyone applying print this out and upload its details into their calendars!

From Scribe to MD: Use Journaling to Mine Your Experiences for Medical School Applications

When I work with scribes on their personal statements to medical school, the thing I encounter over and over is that, despite their many relevant and often amazing experiences, they have no clue what to write about in their personal statements. Importantly, it’s not that they struggle to choose from among so many great options, it’s that they feel like they don’t have a single story that’s compelling and interesting enough to make for a powerful personal statement.

When this happens, I’ll direct our conversation back to the days before they began scribing, ask them to talk about their first few days, and then slowly go through all of their experiences. What happens is that there’s often this, “oh yeah, I DID do that, didn’t I!??” moment where they start to recall all of the interesting cases they were a part of and, more importantly, gain a sense of just how much they’ve learned, changed, and grown since they began scribing. These are all components of an effective personal statement.

Though we do offer essay revision services and broader medical school application writing consultation, we are committed to providing thoughtful and effective resources for people who might not have the means to pay for what we offer. With that in mind, we’ve spent the past several months speaking with scribes, successful MD applicants we’ve helped, doctors, and people who have worked in medical school admissions to put together a guide that will help you transform your experiences as a medical scribe into a powerful personal statement (and secondaries, etc.) that position you effectively for medical school.

We elected to make this in the form of a journal so that you can begin the process now, even if you’re a year (or even two years) away from applying. The most important thing is that you should start as early as possible, when your memories are fresh, and you can lay down markers that track changes in your understanding, ideas, ambitions, self-perception, competence, and confidence.

We urge you to download this free document, share it with friends if you’d like, and use it regularly so that when it comes time to write your personal statement, you’ll have a wealth of information, moments, accomplishments, and insights to call upon.

Why It’s Important to Journal During Your Medical Scribing Experience

Yesterday, I put up a Scribe Journal designed to aid medical scribed who want to become doctors document their experience in a manner that will help them when it comes time to write their personal statement. The inspiration for this journal comes from helping hundreds of applicants -many of whom were medical scribes- through their application process. The consistent repeated theme that I encountered is that scribing is such an intense experience, that you can sort of lose track of just how much you’ve done, how much you’ve changed and learned, and why this work can be so meaningful to aspiring doctors.

Last spring, while consulting with a scribe who aspired to become an orthopedic surgeon, I asked him about his clinical experiences, and whether there were any moments that stood out. He reflected for a second, then said, “hmmm… yeah, I don’t know. Probably not?” Knowing what scribes see and do, I was skeptical, so I asked him about his very first day on the floor, following an ER doctor.

He proceeded to tell me a story about how unprepared and nervous he felt, and how every case -each of which he described in some detail- left him feeling in awe of what the doctors did. I took a moment to dig down on one particular case, and the scribe described in fascinating detail the patient’s presentation, what the doctor suspected, and how that physician was able to figure out what the issue was.

I then asked the scribe to talk about the most interesting case he’d seen that week. His tone changed completely, and it was apparent that at each stage of the patient’s presentation, diagnosis, and treatment, the scribe had ideas and suspicions about what was going on that were informed by his experience over the prior year working as a scribe next to doctors. I set my notebook down and said, “you don’t know it, but you have the framework of your Personal Statement. Those two experiences are benchmarks for your growth and, when combined with some other aspects of your life, tell a compelling story about you.”

Though we designed our journal allow you to note important moments and then circle back to reflect on them, even if you don’t use this one, it’s a smart idea to, from time to time, write down important moments. Good days, really rough days, days you failed, days you had a meaningful conversation with a doctor, days that you realized that working in medicine is the only thing you could ever do, days that you’re so tired that you question your decision… if you document these moments, you’ll find that, when you sit down to write your AMCAS personal statement (and, later, your secondaries), your mind will start to race with recollections, ideas, and options for themes and stories that you can include in your text.

So, check out our Scribe Journal today and start making entries that will help you build a dynamite personal statement!

If you are a medical school applicant, and you think you might need help with your Personal Statement, Secondaries, or Work & Activities Section, either give us a shout (info@fourthwrite.com) or check out our website.

How Thanos Can Help You Write a Powerful Personal Statement

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 service@gurufi.com

How to Get Good Advice on Your Personal Statement

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.

6. Consider using an essay editing service

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 fobi@fourthwrite.com