This is a really useful overview. I’d recommend anyone applying print this out and upload its details into their calendars!
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or check out our website.
Applying to doctoral programs can be stressful and mysterious, and one of the real challenges is that most of the advice that you’ll find online about the application process comes from people whose experience is in the world of business school, law school, or undergraduate admissions. This advice isn’t well suited to graduate school applications because the process is simply different, as are the goals of the admission committee and the people who staff that admissions committee. We detailed much of this in a recent blog post.
Today, I want to follow up on some of the items we talked about by giving you three practical tips that will help you with your PhD application.
1. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to study. In my last blog, I pointed out that, the closer you can get to articulating what the thesis of your eventual dissertation will be, the better. This advice often elicits two concerns from clients. First, will being overly specific hurt my chances of admission? No, quite the opposite. If you don’t have a really specific answer to “what?” and “why?” you’ll come across as someone who isn’t quite ready for graduate school. The old joke that ‘PhD’ stands for “Piled Higher and Deeper” is a reminder that doctoral studies are about becoming highly expert in a very narrow question within a very specific field. Or, as my old PhD advisor put it, “Brian, your task is to become the world’s foremost expert in the thing you’re writing about.”
Second, people are often concerned that they either don’t yet know what exactly they want to study or that they might change their mind along the way. Now, if you have no earthly clue whatsoever what you want to investigate, the short answer is that you have no business applying to graduate school. You should at least enter graduate school with some idea of what you want to study. BUT, even if you don’t, you should at least be able to articulate a plausible question that you may want to study. It’s fine if you end up changing your focus because most people don’t actually end up researching the precise areas that they intended to when they arrived. Now, obviously, you will stay close to home, intellectually speaking, so it’s not as though you’ll go from studying Medieval History to Cell Biology, but chances are that you might, for instance, go from studying how neural cell plasticity is impacted by traumatic injury to studying how neural cell plasticity might be involved in autism. It’s the same general subject, be very different questions. That’s a VERY normal thing to happen. In fact, your initial classes and (if you’re in the sciences) rotations through labs are designed to give you a broader exposure so that you can select a precise topic that interests you.
So, if most people end up changing their intended thesis, why do the admissions committees even emphasize your laying out your intended intellectual route? Two reasons: 1.) applicants who can articulate what they see as a cognizable and important question have done the requisite homework and thus demonstrated their seriousness, and 2) you are showcasing your ability to think and write about complicated questions within the field, and especially your capacity to position yourself vis-à-vis the important debates. This is very important skill in academics.
2. You HAVE to email the professors. So, technically speaking you don’t have to do this. Many people are admitted without having done so. That said, you really should do it. The reasons have mostly to do with the nature of graduate school and the nature of graduate admissions. Suppose, for instance, that you want to study Cell Biology under Prof. Jones at State University. In fact, the work she’s doing is what inspired you to study cell biology, her papers are groundbreaking, and her excellence and reputation are what State University’s Department of Cell Biology are built upon. Given this, you need to find out if it’s possible to study under her. She might, for instance, be retiring, moving to a new position at a new university, or may not be taking any more graduate students into her lab. You would thus be in a bad way if you showed up at State University to study under her, only to discover that Prof. Jones is now at Stanford! Or, she might tell you that she doesn’t think you’d be a good fit, and that if asked, she couldn’t enthusiastically support your application. This would hurt, no doubt, but it would allow you to adjust your application tactics.
This brings us to the second reasons. You should email potential advisors because, if you mention them in your personal statement, the admissions committee will usually forward your application to them and ask if they are a good fit for what they do. Them saying “yes” certainly doesn’t guarantee your admission, but either a “no” or an indifferent response will hurt you. As such, you should let that professor know who you are so that when they get that email, they can, “Oh Jennifer? She’s great, and I think she has some interesting ideas and could do great work in my lab.”
Just so we’re clear, if a professor hasn’t heard of you and the Admissions Committee asks them about you, they likely aren’t going to take a ton of time to look over your application at that point. Professors are very busy with other teaching, research, writing, committee work, etc., and they rightly don’t see it as their job to resuscitate your application because you didn’t bother to reach out to them before you name-dropped them.
So, how do you reach out to a professor? I’ll have more on this tomorrow, but the short version is that you should write a VERY short email introducing yourself, identifying what you’re working on, and asking if you could have 10 minutes of their time. Attach your CV and any relevant other documents. (Again, more on this tomorrow)
3. Copy-Paste will kill your application
We all know that applying to graduate school is hard and time-consuming. You have to study for the GRE, get letters of recommendation, write a personal statement, research and contact potential advisors, revise your writing sample, and fill out lots of other forms. BUT, one thing that will really hurt your chances is to use a personal statement that is very obviously just a single standard essay with the names of your various schools copy-pasted in. It shows that you haven’t done your research and aren’t particularly interested in that school. This doesn’t mean that you have to write completely different essays for each school. In fact, it’s usually the case that you can write your first essay for your first school and repurpose the first two-thirds for every school, and then the final third or so that focuses on your fit with the school you’re applying to can be written custom for each university. But readers know when they’re reading generic broadly-applicable text with the school’s name pasted in, and they don’t like it. So if you have a section like this, dump it and rewrite it:
I want to attend Stanford University because of its excellent faculty, abundant research resources, and the opportunity to work within a renowned university. I have looked at the Course Catalog, and there are many classes that fit my intellectual interests…
You could replace “Stanford” here with any top school, so you’re not really saying anything useful or demonstrating that you know anything about Stanford other than it’s a good university.
All three of these points make clear that a lazy applicant is probably going to be an unsuccessful one. Yes, it takes extra time to email professors, generate a plausible dissertation thesis, and write lots of unique text for all of your schools. But if you’re thinking about spending 7 years in graduate school, why wouldn’t you take an extra 10–12 hours to make sure that you are attending the right graduate school and are positioning yourself for long-term success and happiness?
Okay, as some who has four graduate degrees, this might seem like hypocritical advice. And, in truth, many people should go to graduate school. But my experience is that far too many people do and that folks rarely invest the requisite thought before they begin applying.
While researching for an upcoming article on graduate school completion rates, I came across this blog post from a few years back in which Christopher Pierznik reflects on his decision to drop out of graduate school. He calls it “the best decision I’ve ever made.” His wisdom and perspective resonated with me, so I thought I’d share it. Most of what I do professionally is help people get into top graduate and professional schools, but when working with clients I often get the distinct impression that many people have invested far more time into trying to get into a school than they did in figuring out if they should go in the first place.
In my old job as a university professor, students would often come to me for letters of recommendation for graduate or professional school (med, law, business, etc.). Whenever they did, I saw it as my job to try to talk them out of it. This isn’t necessarily because I didn’t want them to go -indeed, for many people it’s the right move- but because I wanted to make sure they were going for the right reasons. Going to graduate school if you’re not passionate about the material will probably lead to you dropping out, and starting medical or law school if you’re not 100% committed could mean taking on massive amounts of debt that lock you into a professional track you despise.
So, when these bright-eyed youngsters came to me seeking affirmation, I did my best to show them the hard road ahead. I’d ask them all sorts of important questions that they probably hadn’t asked themselves. For aspiring doctors, I’d talk about debt and the fact that, once you start down the path of medicine, it’s almost impossible to get off: four years of medical school, at least two years of residency (and up to 7), and maybe a decade in which you’ll have to stay within the profession to pay off your loans.
For people thinking about graduate schools, I would ask why they want to get a graduate degree. The most common response I got was, “because I like the subject.” That’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. First, for all kinds of graduate degrees you need to have a clear conception of how it moves you closer to your professional goals. What job do you want to get right out of graduate school? Why is that the job for you? If you don’t know the answer to that question, delay graduate school until you know.
For folks who are seeking to pursue doctoral work with the idea of entering academia, the job question is an even more pressing one, since even very high-performing newly minted PhDs from elite programs struggle to get jobs. Almost none get tenure-track positions. What’s your plan if you’re among the substantial majority of PhDs who can’t get a fulltime position? More to the point, what’s the question that you will enter graduate school wanting to answer? If you’re doing doctoral research, “I like the subject” isn’t nearly specific enough to sustain the immense effort needed to get you through the slog that Pierznik is talking about here.
As a professor, my fear was that bright students who did not know clearly and passionately what they wanted to do were just using graduate school as a fallback. In law school and in graduate school, I saw so many people who fell into this category, and in every instance they were miserable, and most did not graduate.
So, if you’re not sure about graduate school, take a year off. Travel. Get a crummy job. Try things. And, if you do go to graduate school and recognize that it isn’t for you, take Pierznik’s advice and jump ship while you still can.
On the other hand, if you’ve done your homework, gone through a rigorous process of introspection, and still feel committed to this path, then let’s get to work!
The author is the founder and CEO of Gurufi.com and FourthWrite.com, two educational consultancies dedicated to helping students get into the graduate schools of their dreams. For questions about your graduate school application, you can email the author at email@example.com
If you have a draft personal statement, get it revised by our team of experienced Ivy League educated consultants at Gurufi.com. If you need more comprehensive assistance developing, outlining, drafting, and refining your text, check us out at FourthWrite.com!
I have mentioned the importance of contacting potential professors at the schools to which you are applying. It’s vital that you both contact particular professors with whom you might want to work and mention them in your Personal Statement. Today I will say a bit more about what to write in your introductory email. Here are four guidelines for your email to the professors:
1. Keep it short. Aim for about 150 words. If your email is too long, it likely won’t be read. After all, when is the last time you read a long email from a complete stranger asking you for something? Get right to the point and save deeper and lengthier communications for future interactions.
2. Why them? You should say briefly why you have contacted them. Ideally, this would link their intellectual / research interests to yours. If you can point to particular articles or books that you found interesting, then do so. (if you do, and you end up meeting, you should probably familiarize yourself with that book before your meeting!) A little flattery goes a long way. The agony of being in academia is that you can spend years researching arcane topics that few people understand, so having someone tell you that they read your stuff and found it useful is really nice. Of course, don’t lay it on too thick. Nobody likes a phony.
3. Have an ask. In your email, you should state directly what you hope will happen. If you can go to their campus, then meeting up with the professor is a fair thing to ask. Again, make it painless; don’t ask to follow them all day in their lab. Instead, offer to buy them a coffee or “drop by your office for 15 minutes to talk about your research…” If you’re not going to go to the campus, then ask if there’s a time you can talk briefly on the phone. (Again, emphasize briefly, and when you do talk, keep it fairly short)
4. Attach your CV and any relevant documents, such as papers or research you’ve completed.
Here is a sample email that’s about 150 words.
Dear Prof. Joanna Jones,
My name is Sally Smith, and I am presently applying to doctoral programs in American History. As part of my research on the Haymarket Riot, I read your piece in the Journal of American History and found your thesis on the role of anti-immigration violence fascinating. In fact, it informed much of my own thinking about FBI actions in the 1960s.
I am applying to State University this fall, and I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about your work and my potential as a graduate student at State University. I will be in Collegetown this October and could stop by your office or we could chat over coffee. If that timing doesn’t work, I could also do a brief telephone call.
I have attached my CV and the aforementioned research on FBI actions in the 1960s. Thank you for your time.
Note that this isn’t especially fancy or long. A few additional notes:
-If, after a week, you don’t get a response, you can send a polite follow-up. After that, assume that it’s a ‘no.’
-If you do meet, be sure to send a thank-you note afterwards. Ideally, this would a short hand-written thank-you card, but it should at least be an email.
-Show up prepared with both knowledge of their subject, what you’re looking for in graduate school. As with all interviews, have several questions to ask. Even if you feel like you know what you need to, the correct response to, “do you have any questions?” is never “nope, I’m good.” Do your research and have a few substantive things to discuss either about their work or the graduate program.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check him out at Gurufi.com. Note that GREPrepClub members get a 25% discount on Gurufi.com revisions. Just use the Coupon Code GREPrepClub at checkout!
After laying out my journey to graduate school, a few people asked me how it is that I ended up choosing Yale over the other very good graduate programs that had offered me admission. Now, my partner and I here at Gurufi / FourthWrite are putting together a series of posts and videos to guide you through the process of applying to graduate school from beginning to end, but since people have asked, I’ll use this opportunity to talk some about the end of the process, which is choosing your school. This post is mostly specific to doctoral programs, but much of the reasoning is applicable to Master’s programs, professional schools (med, law, biz, etc.), and even to some extent to undergraduate schools.
To recap, I had been accepted into most of my top programs: Yale, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, and Michigan. This left me in an envious -and given my previous application disasters, quite unexpected- position: which one to choose? It basically came down to five factors: fit, money, advisor, place, and placement.
1. Fit. This one is, really, the most important one. There are some objective ways to assess this, such as whether the program is strong in your particular field, the number of strong frequently-cited publications related to your topic that the department is churning out, etc. But, if we’re being honest, this was mostly a matter of the vibe. Unlike some professional schools (notably, medical school and business school), for the most part interviews play no role in doctoral program admissions, so I only visited these schools after I had gotten in. It’s a squishy metric, but in talking to students and faculty, I liked the “vibe” at Yale, Columbia, and Cal-Berkeley. I will still remember that, after an hour talking to a famous history professor at Cal, he said, “oh my god, I haven’t filled out my bracket! Are you an NCAA hoops fan!?!?” I was, so the two of us spent the next 25 minutes talking college hoops as he filled out his bracket. I thought, “I could go here.” This may seem irrational, but the average PhD program takes 7 years, so you will be spending A LOT of time with these people, so you’d better make sure that you could like them.
2. Money. When I decided to pursue a PhD, my rule was that if a school wasn’t going to fund me fully, I would consider it a rejection. Earning a PhD is hard, and I didn’t want to weigh down my studies with concerns about racking up more student loan debt. As a practical matter, all of the top private schools (Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, etc.) fully fund all of their PhD students with grants and stipends. To be admitted is to be admitted with tuition waived plus a small allowance for living expenses (this year, Yale’s stipend is about $31,000). In the good public schools (the UC system, Michigan, UNC, etc.) that’s not always the case. In fact, most of them will both push for you to pursue outside funding from fellowships and have heavier teaching requirements to pay your way through. As a point of comparison, my first two years at Yale I would not teach, whereas I was expected to be a TA right from my first semester had I gone to Cal-Berkeley. Teaching is a real time commitment, so it should factor into your decision.
3. Advisors. Getting the right advisor is huge. In fact, once you’re ABD (All But Dissertation, in the lingo), your advisor will be far more important to you than the program or the school. As such, I gave serious consideration to all of the people who might end up being my advisor at these various schools. (I’ll talk about this in a future post, but the funny and dirty little secret of PhD programs is that almost nobody studies the thing they intended to when they came, and thus you’ll probably not actually have the advisor you think. But still, this is an important part of the process) I talked to professors and asked them how their particular students did on the job market, and I also talked to current and former students about their experiences working with different professors. Were they supportive? Good mentors? Help provide them with structure and clarity? Etc.
4. The Place. Again, this often gets overlooked, but remember that you are going to spend A LOT of time in graduate school. So, if cities make you nervous and miserable, give very careful consideration before you go to Columbia or NYU, even if they are a better fit for you academically. Similarly, if college towns drive you nuts, and you need big city life, don’t go to Wisconsin because you’ll hate Madison. The truth is that if you are unhappy, the likelihood that you complete your PhD drops precipitously. There is no shame in saying that sunshine, weather, city size, culture, and other quality of life factors are important. If you catch yourself saying “it’s only 6 years, I can take it,” then stop and reconsider. It’s just not worth it, and your unhappiness could very well lead you to hate the subject you went there to study!
5. Placement. For all applicants, BUT ESPECIALLY FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO GET INTO ACADEMIA, you should have a clear sense of what your job prospects are after graduation. Ask about recent placement success, talk to students about the support they get from the Career Development Office, and if you’re looking to go into academics, get a sense of where recently-minted PhDs have gone. If we’re being blunt, if your intention is to become a professor, then you really should think twice, then think twice more, before going to any program outside of the top 15 in your field. It’s hard for Harvard and Yale PhDs to get academic appointments, and it’s near impossible for a PhD from a less sterling university.
The reason that I ended up choosing Yale was because of reasons 1,2,3, and 5. Fortunately, I had close friends who were there, so Factor 2 ended up not being a big deal, even though (sorry) New Haven isn’t nearly as nice as Berkeley, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or Ann Arbor.
In the end, I think that everyone who goes through this makes their own metric, but these metrics are mostly a way of getting at what you just know in your heart is true. In fact, even though I made myself a big fancy chart with all the pros and cons, I probably put my finger on the scale to get the outcome that my heart wanted anyway. And that’s okay. It worked for me: I had a great time in graduate school, made lifelong friends, got my PhD, and afterwards taught at Harvard before discovering that academia isn’t my cup of tea. The only thing that I would urge everyone to do is to be really thoughtful about ALL elements of a school. To me, it’s absolute folly to just accept years and years of misery to achieve some professional goal.
I guess that’s why I’m not a doctor.
Over at Gurufi.com., we’re putting together a short series of videos on how you can use effective storytelling techniques to make your personal statement more engaging. We decided to create this series in order to combat what is the most prevalent problem that I encounter when helping people organize, write, and revise their personal statements: bland essays that feel like narrative versions of the author’s CV.
Many people resort to this style of writing because they either don’t understand what makes for a compelling essay or they’re convinced that they don’t know how to write a good story. To the first point, what I can tell you after having read literally thousands of admissions essays is that the best essays are essays that tell a story. Rather than looking to recount lots of small achievements, they go into depth on just a few (or even one) really important transformative moment. These sorts of stories, when properly deployed, can clarify your positioning as an applicant and make you memorable in a way that a list of accomplishments simply cannot.
So how do you write a compelling story? Well, there are many aspects to this, which our video series will cover, but over the next few weeks, I’ll be describing some of the most important tips and tricks. Today, I’ll start with the most important one: have a good villain. Now, let me be clear about what I’m describing. I’m not telling you to describe a terrible person in your essay, but rather I want you to think about what makes any adventure story or movie good: you have to believe that the good guy might fail. You create stakes by making the obstacle immense, and thus when the hero surmounts it, they show their qualities of strength, guile, intellect, resilience, and maturity.
To use an example, think about the recent two-part “Avengers” movie. In the first part, the villain, Thanos, had to seem invincible, and the audience had to believe that their heroes couldn’t possibly beat him. He was too strong, too smart, and was always two moves ahead of them. Then, when in the second part, the heroes managed to beat him, their story was much more interesting and engaging and the audience was left with far more awe and respect for the heroes.
So how does this apply to writing a personal statement? Far too often, applicants will write about their accomplishments without fully explaining what made those accomplishments so impressive. Take the following examples:
“I led a $15 million purchase of Company A.”
“I spent a month working with HIV orphans in Tanzania.”
“I volunteered for 18 months with a legal aid non-profit.”
If this is all you write, these would be nice additions to your application, but they wouldn’t be fantastic home runs. What these applicants need to do is ask some follow-up questions: 1) why was this work so challenging? 2) What was my hardest day on the job? 3) What was the biggest challenge I faced doing this work? 4) What was the closest I ever came to failing? 5) Why? The applicant could then use these answers to these questions to tell their story in a fuller and more interesting way. For instance:
“I led a $15 million purchase of Company A.”
You can flesh this out by adding some vital points that make clear how hard this was to achieve, such as:
->The deal nearly collapsed because of miscommunication
→ With a midnight deadline looming, I gathered the conflicting parties on a teleconference and worked through each of the sticking points
→ The CEO of the target company refused to budge, and the deal looked dead until I flew to Cincinnati and convinced him to have lunch with me. My coming to his home office established trust, and this laid the foundation for fruitful dialogue that let us complete a win-win deal.
These details, when added thoughtfully into the essay, will make the experience pop off the page in a way that merely describing the end accomplishment could never do.
By going through this process of really focusing on the most difficult and dire moments, you make your contributions stand out and the story becomes both more memorable and a more powerful expression of your strengths as an applicant. The reason is that the reader can feel the difficulty of this situation and recognizes that, but for your efforts, this deal might have failed.
For this reason, I often urge clients never to focus only on the accomplishment. If you feature an accomplishment in an essay, you should first try to make clear why the accomplishment was such a big deal. Your story needs “a villain” to really allow the hero to shine. This “villain” is almost never an actual person / opponent, but rather a set of tough circumstances and unexpected occurrences that you had to overcome, solve, or work around.
Every year, Gurufi.com helps hundreds of applicants get into the school of their dreams. Last year alone, Gurufi clients earned admission into the top business schools in America and around the world, including: Oxford Said, Wharton, Kellogg, Yale School of Management, Harvard Business School, NYU Stern, MIT Sloan, Booth, U Michigan Ross, and Cal Berkeley Haas, to name but a few. For help, visit Gurufi.com or contact them directly at email@example.com