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.
If you are applying to a PhD program, it’s important to understand how the admissions process works once your application gets sent. Many people offering expertise on admissions writing come from the world of undergraduate, business school, or law school admissions, but these areas of expertise are of very limited usefulness when it comes to understanding how to approach an application to a doctoral program. To be blunt: while some basic concepts are portable, on the whole an admissions strategy built upon a business school or undergraduate model puts you at an acute disadvantage.
Below are four factors that will help you understand how to approach your graduate school application. For additional questions or to get help with your graduate school personal statement or positioning, be sure to check us out at Gurufi.
1. Professors are the AdCom. Unlike colleges, law schools, and business schools, graduate school departments don’t have dedicated staff whose only full-time position is selecting the incoming class. In most departments, the Admissions Committee is composed of professors in that department, sometimes supplemented by one or a few advanced graduate students or postdocs. As such, you can be assured that you are interacting with high-level experts who understand your subject with comprehensive sophistication and granularity. These means a few things: a) you can feel a bit more free to use jargon; b) you need to know the department’s strengths; c) you should figure out where your department’s professors stand on controversial topics within your field so that you don’t step on toes; and d) you need to write as though you understand the field yourself and are ready, on day one, to do advanced work within it. This last point is really vital. Unlike business school applicants, who don’t need to spend time in their essay discussing the scholarship on, say, leadership, investment, or corporate structures, you need to have at least a paragraph (and probably more) in your essay where you’re engaging with the core questions within the field you’re studying.
2. Grades are important, BUT… One of the things to keep in mind is that departmental admissions committees have a great deal of latitude to admit whomever they want. In fact, except in rare cases, the overall graduate school admissions boards tend just to rubber-stamp the choices made by particular departments. As such, particular departments don’t have concerns about, for instance, maintaining an overall GPA average for the admitted class; they just want to pick the best people who fit the culture and academic strengths. What this means is that, while grades are very important, they’re not the be-all and end-all of doctoral admissions. I recall one instance of a student, who is now a professor at a very prominent West Coast university who had a 1.8GPA in college, but went on to work as a lab tech where he fell in love with neuroscience and in his free time began studying up on the subject. A few years later, he was making substantive contributions to the research of the lab and his advisor urged him to apply for doctoral programs. His advisor wrote him a compelling letter of recommendation that detailed his accomplishments and, despite his disastrous four years of college, was admitted into a dozen of the top doctoral programs, including Harvard and UCSF.
Also, do keep in mind that many departments have different ways of calculating GPA. When I was on the Admissions Committee, we were given a form that included “relevant GPA,” which excluded any grades from the first 1.5 years of college. This is based on pretty sound research suggesting that grades in the first three semesters of a student’s undergraduate career are mostly correlated with the quality of their high school, and not long-term success or ability. This may have changed since, but when I applied to graduate schools, about half of the top programs either didn’t even ask my freshman year grades (there was no spot on the form for them), or I later discovered that the packets produced by the department secretaries simply excluded this information. This can be a huge relief to people who might have stumbled out of the gates but found their academic stride later.
3. The AdCom is very concerned about “fit.”
When the committee met, one of the most frequent conversations that we had about a candidate is whether they were a good fit. This is important for two different reasons. First, the AdCom wants to know if you will actually attend if admitted. Most graduate school cohorts are quite small (usually fewer than 25 people, often fewer than 10), and once admissions are offered, the tables turn a bit and it becomes a scramble for departments to recruit the admitted applicants they see as the top students. So, if the committee is confident you’ll attend, they’re slightly more likely to offer admission to you. This is doubly true if a school perceives that it’s your “safety school.” In my case, I was admitted into all of the top-8 programs I applied to, but didn’t get into the #24-ranked program. I don’t know for certain, but I think it was likely because the committee didn’t think I would go if offered a slot. With this in mind, if there is a school that is absolutely your top choice, say that in your essay or in other communications with the department. BUT, don’t say this to more than one school. First, it’s lying; and second, these professors talk to each other, and there’s a too-high-to-risk-it chance that your rouse will be discovered.
The other way that fit becomes an issue is in discussions about whether your intended area of scholarship actually fits in with what that department does. Note that this is partly linked to the discussion I just referenced, in that we often had conversations that went like, “Jane is interested in applied legal theory, but Stanford’s department is better at that. She’s likely to go there…” But, it was often just a more general assessment of where the candidate might fit in within the department. It’s important to note that sometimes this is a function of how many advisees the professor who would likely serve as your advisor already has.
4. Your potential advisors are consulted… If the committee looks at your application and says, “oh, Jane would likely work under Prof. Sarah,” then do note that Prof. Sarah may be contacted about your application. And, if you do mention (which you ABSOLUTELY should) a professor under whom you are interested in working, the committee will usually contact that professor about your application. Having them say, “yes, Jane’s ideas are interesting and I could work with her” is quite useful for your application. This is why it’s really important to contact your potential advisors before you apply (a VERY brief email + a request for a coffee or telephone call) so that they have the heads-up on your application. Sometimes, they might tell you that they’re not taking graduate students or that you’re not what they’re looking for. This can be disappointing, but it allows you to reframe your admissions strategy accordingly by either selecting other professors or simply scratching that school off your list.
You see that the admissions process for PhD programs is quite different than that used in law schools or business schools. There are additional steps that you need to take and additional things that you need to be cognizant of. It’s its own kind of process, and as such if you decide to get help with your application or with your personal statements, then you need to choose someone who’s aware of how this all works. At Gurufi, all of our consultants and editors have graduated from elite graduate programs and we have experience serving on graduate admissions committees so we know the idiosyncrasies of this process quite well.
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.
Some years back, a Columbia University professor conducted a study that produced some shocking results. In criminal cases, hungry and tired judges handed down sentences far stricter than when they were rested and well-fed. Specifically, as the author explained, “You are anywhere between two and six times as likely to be released if you’re one of the first three prisoners considered versus the last three prisoners considered.” Further, defendants were most likely to receive a positive result at the beginning of the day, when judges were presumably most rested and well-breakfasted. That 65% chance of a favorable ruling declined nearly to 0% just before lunch, with that rate spiking again after lunch and again declining toward the end of the day.
So, what does this have to do with admissions? Well, in my decade working with clients, I’ve noticed that most of the people I work with invest admissions officers with a nearly mythical ability to judge their worth and to do so precisely and objectively. Thus, these clients (and especially their parents) fear being denied admissions because they see it as an objective repudiation of their value as students and even as people. Moreover, there has developed an immense ecosystem of highly dubious “admissions Kremlinology” in which people parse out in highly detailed ways what precisely each school looks for and how exactly you must thread the needle to get in.
Frankly, it’s nearly all nonsense. There is no Oracle at Cambridge, Wizard of Wharton, or Grand Poobah of Palo Alto. What you have are mostly earnest and hardworking people -like the judges in the study- who are human and thus subject to human failings. Indeed, because admissions is much more opaque and subjective than the law, it’s far more susceptible to the individual mood swings and unknowable, unpredictable circumstances of the room where the AdCom sits. If we know that judges, who are trained in their very specific job and must deal with clearly delineated laws and rules, produce results that are often swayed by random external factors, why would we assume that admissions officers -for whom there are no real national standards and who make their decisions in secret and without review- would somehow have and deploy flawless objective processes?
Take my case. After being rejected the first time, when I applied to PhD programs the second time, I got into five programs that had denied me just a few years before (Yale, Columbia, Michigan, Harvard, Cal-Berkeley), even though my core metrics (grades and GRE) were unchanged. And, even though those programs were very highly ranked (#1, #3, #5, #2, and #7, respectively, at the time), I did not get into NYU, which was barely in the top 25. Why didn’t NYU take me? Maybe I didn’t fit their precise profile, maybe the program already had too many students in the area I was studying… or maybe my Admissions Reader assessed my application at 11am and was grumpy. Who knows?
So what do you do with this information if you’re an applicant? My purpose isn’t to suggest that you become overly cynical about the process or that you don’t put in the requisite effort because it’s all random. That would be as dumb as a lawyer deciding that all verdicts are purely a function of time and thus shows up to court unprepared. Instead, here are the five main takeaways:
1. Take the process seriously, but never view this as some grand assessment of your value as a person or a divine weighing of your soul. It’s not. It’s a group of people who don’t know you trying their best to figure out who gets in. Yes, work hard to earn your educational goals, but don’t let the stress of it overwhelm you.
2. If you don’t get admitted, don’t take it personally. Understand that the randomness of it all means that next year the exact same candidate could get in. That said, if you dis-invest yourself emotionally as much as possible from the process, you can objectively look at your application and work to figure out what you can do better next time. You can even ask the AdCom why you didn’t get in; they’ll often give you a sketch of why.
3. Try again. Once you understand that admissions isn’t perfect, and that one committee’s assessment of your application isn’t immutable, you should feel inspired to try again. Obviously, work to both assess your last application’s weaknesses and to add experiences that make you more attractive.
4. Don’t buy too much into hyper-specific assessments of schools and programs. There is an immense industry out there that sells school-specific guides, etc. These are, honestly, of very marginal value. Yes, you want to understand a school’s core strengths, but it’s often the case that I work with clients who are so focused on tailoring their essay to a school that they forget the basics of writing. Though obviously you want both, a fantastic and compelling essay that is perhaps imprecisely tailored to a school will be more effective than a clunky, boring, and poorly written essay that’s intended to hit all the supposed check-marks for a particular school. In other words, make sure you tell a compelling story first.
5. Stay out of online forums. There are so many forums in which people offer advice on how to get into a particular school. Beyond the fact that it can be hard to separate out good advice from knowledgeable people from nonsense spouted by forum cowboys, the bigger truth is that once you accept that admissions is so subjective and often so personal to the readers of an application, you recognize that it’s a fool’s errand to try to over-tailor your essay for a reader whose tastes you just know almost nothing about.
At Gurufi.com, we understand that admissions can be vexing, opaque, and confusing. One of the things that frustrates us, as people within this industry, is that so many people are selling jargon-filled nonsense to clients. We believe that the best approach is a simple one. We don’t talk about “finding your brand”; we focus on telling your story. We don’t help you build your essay by looking at your CV in one hand and the Harvard Admissions brochure in the other; we work to mine, deploy, and refine your most authentic and powerful stories because our experience is that when you get the basics of storytelling right, your personal statement will be far, far more powerful than had it been built on the advice you received on some “assess my chances” forum.
Finally, I know personally how hard it is to keep the admissions process in perspective. When you hit “send” on your application, you feel as though you are delivering all of your hopes and dreams into the hands of people you may never meet. And, especially for high-performing and intelligent people, the desire to understand -and thus exercise more control over- this process is understandable. But, to keep your head through this process, you have to hold two ideas that may seem in tension: 1) you have to do everything you can to make yourself a compelling candidate, and 2) you have to accept that there is randomness involved, and it may just come down to whether or not your readers had a healthy breakfast.
“So… do you guys…? You know… like those people in the news?”
I get some version of this cryptic question a lot. When you work in private admissions consulting, you have to expect it. People know vaguely what I do, and wonder if all of us operate on the shady side of things. After all, the last two months have seen high-profile actors and millionaires arrested by the FBI as part of a massive college admissions fraud perpetrated by a supposed college admissions counselor. It’s not a good look for this industry.
The short answer is “no, we don’t do that, and we’re not like those people in the news.” We don’t write people’s essays, submit their applications, pull shenanigans with their tests, or otherwise act in a way that’s illegal, unethical, or shady. And it’s sad that this is something we have to say, but given the proliferation of bad actors in this field, it’s necessary and important.
Over the years, as I’ve built a reputation as someone who can maximize applicants’ chances for admission to college, graduate school, or professional school, I’ve had many offers from would-be clients who want me to write their personal statements for them. I still remember laughing when I got an email from a parent in Dubai offering $15,000 in BitCoin to write their kid’s personal statement to Dartmouth. In every instance, I politely and firmly declined.
Rooting out the obvious bad actors is important, but this moment should also provide us with an opportunity to think about our general approach to admissions. There are many good insights that people have made about the structure of admissions, but today I’d just point to one important thing: admissions have never been fair and admissions committees have never been great at judging someone’s true talent and worth. So often, applicants invest admissions committees with these amazing abilities to look into their souls and judge their qualities as people. That’s part of the reason why it can feel so heartbreaking to get rejected. Stanford turned me down… I’m unworthy as a person! In fact, given the sheer volume of applicants, it’s usually the case that even well-staffed admissions committees can only give your application a few moments. Their decision is nothing more than a few strangers’ judgments of a snapshot of an impression of a picture of a distillation of your life.
Once you disabuse yourself of the belief that admissions committees are judging you, as opposed to what you choose to put on paper about yourself, you can begin to think about the process more strategically, and let go of the idea that you need to approach the application as though you’re looking for a soulmate. This is where having an effective consultant can help. They can look at your life with a sense of distance and help you identify the things that are important to potential readers (even if they aren’t necessarily the most important things to you). If you understand that schools want certain things, give them those things. Don’t become stubborn about the process and insist that your application must be a broadcast of your truest most innermost soul.
It’s a game, and while you should always be truthful and behave ethicallydon’t ever buy into the notion that any group of strangers can truly know you based on 750 words, a transcript, and a CV. Keeping this in mind will preserve your sanity in an insane process and help you to think about how to craft a compelling and accurate version of your life that engages your audience.
In the coming weeks, this is what we’re going to be focusing on: how to identify strengths and present them in story form.
For folks who don’t feel like they can do this without some professional guidance and consultation, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll help walk you through the process of writing a powerful and winning personal statement.
Brian Fobi is the CEO of Gurufi / FourthWrite, an admissions consultancy. You can contact directly at email@example.com
At Gurufi, we stress storytelling as a means of building engaging and powerful personal statements. When I talk to clients about storytelling, the most common response I get is, “but my life isn’t very interesting.” Experience has taught me that in nearly every case, that person is wrong. In fact, over and over, I work with people who have done really unique things, come from amazing backgrounds, or who have experiences that would absolutely capture the attention of an admissions officer if that story were properly told, but who are convinced that their life is dull, generic, and uninteresting.
The joke I sometimes tell clients is that only sociopaths and Instagram models think they are interesting; mentally healthy people often don’t have the kind of runaway ego that allows them to identify and talk about those aspects of their life that are truly exceptional. More often than not, there’s an inverse relationship between how interesting people think they are, and how interesting they really are. When I think about how hard it can be for people to identify the stories that make them unique, what immediately pops to mind is the story of “Samir,” a medical applicant I helped get into a top-five medical school in the United States.
Samir was a smart, low-key, and unassuming person who was easy to talk to and even easier to like. The kind of guy you would love to have as a neighbor. He came to us because he was intimidated by the idea of writing an essay extolling his own virtues. As part of our consultation process, Samir filled out a questionnaire, and then we spoke on the telephone for almost an hour, going over every aspect of his life, education, and ambitions. His story was impressive: he had fled civil war in his home country, come to the United States, enrolled in community college to learn English, transferred to a top state school, and earned excellent grades, all while doing some really admirable public health volunteer work in his community.
As our hourlong conversation was wrapping up, we had a really nice outline that highlighted his life, and I felt confident that he would make a compelling candidate. Then, just to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, I asked, “I noticed that after your last year as an undergraduate in your home country, you had a year off before you left for America. Did you do anything interesting or relevant during that time?”
“No, not really. The civil war made things hard.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, the government bombed our university, and most of the faculty fled. Then, as the fighting got near, the remaining medical school professors turned the medical school into a clinic to treat wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict. I stayed there and worked.”
“Wait, WHAT!?!?! You have to tell me more about this!”
“Why? It’s not very impressive. American doctors wouldn’t be impressed by this. We didn’t have any fancy equipment or anything. In fact, our professors handled the more complicated cases, and we just did things like remove bullets from limbs or stitch up people hurt by bombs.”
“WHAT? Tell me more!”
“It really wasn’t very interesting, and it’s a little embarrassing. Our clinic was quite shabby. I had only been at medical school for a year, so I didn’t know how to do anything. Because our professors were handling more urgent cases, I had to look up diagrams for how to perform procedures from Google or YouTube. I wasn’t very good at it at first.”
“You did this for a year?!?”
“Yeah, I stayed and did what I could. Sometimes I scrubbed in on more complicated surgeries just to lend a hand. We all did what we could.”
For the next five minutes, I spoke to Samir and urged him to use this experience as the central motivating story of his application. It was an amazing story that SHOWED all of the important things that a medical school applicant has to have: compassion, resourcefulness, intelligence, commitment to a bigger purpose, toughness, a willingness to learn.
Samir wasn’t being coy or displaying phony humility; he actually thought his life wasn’t very interesting, and that his readers would look down on the “shabby” work he did in an understaffed and under-resourced clinic in the middle of a warzone. Because he had lived it, and because he was a humble man who just wanted to do good, the thought never crossed his mind that he had done something truly extraordinary. It took a third party (me) to say, “woah, you understand that what you did was amazing, right? You HAVE to write about this!”
Samir very reluctantly agreed, and in fact the day before he was going to send off his personal statement, he wrote a completely new draft that excluded this story and was just sort of a bland narrative version of his CV. Only one final urgent phone call from me got him to back off of that bad choice, and he ended up submitting the essay that featured his time in the war zone clinic. When he earned admission from all of his top-choice medical schools, he understood that he’d made the right choice… though he remains humble about the remarkable year he spent at the clinic!
You may be thinking, “sure, Samir made the right choice, but I’ve never done anything THAT extraordinary!” Fair enough, but what I can tell you from doing consultations with clients for over a decade is that in nearly every case, people either exclude their most compelling stories or tell them in a manner that undermines their power. If Samir can have a blind spot to the amazing things about him, what are you missing about yourself? My bet is that there’s something big.
As we progress through these blog posts in the coming months, I’m going to offer you some tips, tricks, and processes for identifying compelling parts of your own life to write about. For many people this is a skill that can be learned and a process that they can navigate on their own with just the written guidance we provide. For those folks, stay tuned here for insights on how to tell your best story.
For folks who don’t feel like they can do this without some professional guidance and consultation, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll help walk you through the process of writing a powerful and winning personal statement.
 Every story is true and told with the permission of the person involved. Nonetheless, I change the names and remove identifying information to protect their identity.
Brian Fobi is the CEO of Gurufi / FourthWrite, an admissions consultancy. You can contact directly at email@example.com