What Hungry Judges Can Teach Us About Getting Into Harvard

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.

For questions, feel free to reach out to the author at fobi@fourthwrite.com. In the coming months, we’ll be adding free guides and courses to our Facebook page, so be sure to ‘like’ us there as well.

The Elephant in the Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For folks who don’t feel like they can do this without some professional guidance and consultation, contact us at service@gurufi.com, 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 fobi@fourthwrite.com

Everyone Has A Story

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do?”

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

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

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

“WHAT? Tell me more!”

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

“You did this for a year?!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gurufi’s Origin Story

Brian Fobi, CEO of Gurufi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s our mission at Gurufi.

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