Writing A Powerful Personal Statement, Part 2

In Part 2 of my seminar of writing a powerful personal statement, I talk about how you can turn your story ideas into compelling and interesting essays that engage the reader and make them view you as an interesting, prepared, and attractive candidate. Though these seminars were written for MBA applicants, the same basic ideas and approaches will also work for graduate, medical, law, and undergraduate applicants.


Final Business School Boot Camp of the Year!

Welcome GMATClub Members! If you’re here after watching our “Five Big Mistakes and Five Easy Fixes” video, you’ll definitely want to check out our previous video and download the companion workbook.


ALSO: We’re offering our third and final Business School Bootcamp of 2020! If you need help with your Personal Statement or other Business School admissions writing, this weekend bootcamp can take you from blank page to polished final document! Sign up today.

Included in the GMATClub Boot Camp Package:

  • Two days of instruction, activities, and live workshopping of student essays.
  • An hour-long individual essay consultation where you and one of Gurufi’s essay experts will go through your essay (or outline). Collaboratively, we will work to tighten your theme, improve your structure, and otherwise prepare you for the writing process.
  • A professional full revision of your admissions essay once you have a full draft
  • A 20% discount on future admissions essay editing
  • A $1,000 credit toward Comprehensive Admissions Writing service
  • $100 cash for every friend you sign up


November 13th: 11:30AM —> 7pm (Eastern Time, US)

November 14th: 1PM –> 6pm (Eastern Time, US)

Cost: $500 off with Coupon Code GMAT Club special pricing: $949

SIGN UP TODAY!! Limited enrollment.


Welcome GMATClub Global Fair! (download workbook below)

Hello to everyone from GMATClub’s Global Fair. Click the link below if you’re here to download  Personal Statement Workbook PDF. These activities are designed to get you to ask some important questions and to give you a customizable template for you to turn your experiences and strengths into a fantastic business school personal statement!

For folks who aren’t quite sure if they can do this on their own, I’d encourage you to sign up for our Biz School Bootcamp! It’s a two-day weekend bootcamp hosted via Zoom to take you from blank page and polished revised essay!

Included in the GMATClub Boot Camp Package:

  • Two days of instruction, activities, and live workshopping of student essays.
  • An hour-long individual essay consultation where you and one of Gurufi’s essay experts will go through your essay (or outline). Collaboratively, we will work to tighten your theme, improve your structure, and otherwise prepare you for the writing process.
  • A professional full revision of your admissions essay once you have a full draft
  • A 20% discount on future admissions essay editing
  • A $1,000 credit toward Comprehensive Admissions Writing service
  • $100 cash for every friend you sign up


October 31st: 11:30AM —> 7pm (Eastern Time, US)

November 1st: 1PM –> 6pm (Eastern Time, US)

Cost: $500 off with Coupon Code GMAT Club special pricing: $949

SIGN UP TODAY!! Limited enrollment.


How Will Coronavirus Impact Business School Applications?

No matter how this crisis ends, it’s safe to say that COVID-19 has produced one of the most profound tragedies and transformational events in our lifetimes. As the husband and brother of two physicians, the son of aging parents, and the father of two children, I have certainly felt the angst that this has caused, and I consider myself fortunate that all of my loved ones are so far safe from it. More than anything, this is my deepest and most genuine takeaway from this crisis.

Nonetheless, I’m also a business owner who has, for 15 years, helped MBA applicants take an important step forward in their careers by earning admission into the school of their dreams. Before the crisis hit, we at Gurufi / FourthWrite had scripted out a video series, hired production crews, and were prepared to film a multi-part YouTube series on MBA personal statement writing. Shelter-in-place has made that impossible, but in this hard time, I still wanted to say a few words to people who are at various stages of applying to business schools.

Here are three thoughts:

1. Uncertainty rules. For both students who have been accepted into business schools and people who intend to apply in the coming year, we just don’t know what will happen. I will try to give my best guess as to what I think, but the fact is we don’t know if schools will start on time in the fall, if the timing of the admissions season will be altered, and if schools do open if a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall/winter will again grind the global system to a halt, including universities. The short answer is to “what will happen?” is, unfortunately, “wait and see.” Schools are planning for multiple contingencies, ranging from altered calendars, to exclusive online learning, to cancelation, to back-to-normal.

Things can induce as much anxiety as uncertainty, but the one thing that gives me some comfort is that everyone appreciates the scope of the crisis and most people and institutions will take a proactive, flexible, and humane approach to making sure every applicant and student is treated as best and as fairly as possible.

2. What if I’m applying to business school in the next year? Though there is conflicting opinion on this, but I think that business school applications are about to become more competitive. Business school applications have declined the last several years, meaning that the intense fight for slots at select schools was even tougher. I think that this trend will reverse, in large part because during economic downturns many people will view graduate and professional schools as a good place to wait out the storm and acquire new skills until the economy rebounds. 

 It’s not a perfect analogy, but in 2007 applications to business school and law schools had been declining for several years, but from 2008-2010 they skyrocketed as the economy tanked. Then, as the economy stabilized, the numbers of applicants to business and law schools began a decline that lasted several years.

This economic disruption likely means fewer lucrative job offers for early-stage professionals, fewer promotions and raises, etc. This means that people who want to continue their professional ascent will need to augment their skill set by earning graduate degrees. 

3. If you’re under stay-at-home orders, now is a great time to do some initial work… with an important caveat

There are two schools of thought for how to deal with the stay-at-home isolation that has with the coronavirus outbreak, either of which can be completely acceptable, depending on the person. 

Approach One: You’re forced to be indoors, so you use the time to be productive. If this is something you can do, then do it. Use the time to better yourself, prepare your application materials, investigate schools for fit and likelihood of admission, and study for your GMAT if you need to. This way, you’ll emerge from this crisis prepared to move assertively on your applications.

Approach Two: If you’re finding this period highly stressful or if the realities of your life (kids, job, parents, finances, etc.) make it impossible to do the kind of work that an application requires, then focus on your health and wellness and worry about applications later. These “if you don’t come out of this crisis with X, it’s not because you didn’t have time, it’s because you didn’t have the will” memes are wrong and, frankly, cruel to people for whom this crisis has placed extraordinary burdens.

If you do have the bandwidth to work on your application, here are my suggestions

  • Work on tasks that don’t necessarily require a lot of mental engagement. Everyone is distracted and drained, so do things like read about various programs, make lists prioritizing what you want in a business school, or make detailed timelines for yourself so that you spread the work out over time. 
  • Brainstorming is a fantastic way to generate content for your eventual personal statement AND to de-stress. There are lots of ways to brainstorm, but my favorite is the 12-minute timed write. It works like this: 1) clear a comfortable place for yourself to write. Ideally, it should be quiet and distraction-free. If you like writing with snacks or music, then, by all means, have those things. 2) Get a notebook if you can. There are some good studies talking about how handwriting -as opposed to typing- is better for spurring creativity. 3) Set a timer for 12 minutes. 4) The rules are: no matter what, you keep writing. If you feel a pause coming, have a phrase or mantra that you write over and over so that your hands don’t stop. Some people like affirmations like “I have an interesting story to tell!” and others like “A quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” because it uses every letter in the alphabet. But whatever your fallback phrase is, try to get back to writing relevant content quickly. Importantly, do NOT JUDGE what you’re writing, erase or scribble anything out. The purpose of brainstorming isn’t to generate refined elegant prose that is tightly organized and ready to present; it’s to start generating ideas and content, and to explore your thinking on a topic. 5) Commit to doing 3 days of brainstorming. Each day, select a different one of these topics:
  • Why am I a great candidate?
  • What will my life be life after business school?
  • What moments am I most proud of?

By committing just 12 minutes per day for 3 days, you will create many pages of content that you can use as the “bricks” for the building you intend to create.

In future posts, I’ll have some additional steps that you can take to maximize your time in social isolation. The most important “tip,” though is obviously to take care of yourself, focus on your health and wellness, and find ways to demonstrate appreciation to loved ones, particularly people who may be physically isolated or alone.

Brian Fobi is the CEO of FourthWrite / Gurufi. Gurufi and FourthWrite offer admissions writing consulting. If you have a draft that you’re not sure about, have our experts revise and advise by going to Gurufi.com. If you don’t have a draft or if you need more comprehensive services, check us out at FourthWrite.com/graduate

If you have questions, contact Brian at fobi@fourthwrite.com

How Is a Graduate School Personal Statement Different?

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 fobi@fourthwrite.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!