Five Tips for a Great College Admissions Essay

A cartoon illustration of a college student sitting at a desk, deep in thought while holding a pencil and notebook. The desk is cluttered with books, a laptop, and sticky notes. A corkboard with pinned photos and a calendar labeled "College" is on the wall behind him. Two friends are standing near the window, pointing and laughing. A light bulb with question marks around it floats above the student's head, symbolizing an idea or realization.
Have a plan for your personal statement!

Many college aspirants use the summer before their senior year of high school to write their personal statements. We’ll be doing a full, detailed day-by-day video series on how to build a college personal statement in late July (follow our YouTube channel to make sure you’re notified when it drops), but for now, we wanted to give you a quick five-part guide with some tips on writing a great personal statement.

Writing a college personal statement can feel quite daunting. It’s a unique opportunity to showcase your personality, achievements, and aspirations to an admissions committee that knows little about you beyond your academic record. With only 650 words (for CommonApp) to cover all that ground, it’s high-stakes and quite stressful. To help you craft a compelling and memorable personal statement, here are five tips that will guide you through the process.

 

  1. Set a Schedule and Stick to It

One of the most effective ways to reduce stress when writing your personal statement is to set a schedule and adhere to it. Breaking the task into manageable steps can make it less overwhelming and ensure you have ample time to produce a polished final draft. Here’s a suggested timeline:

  • Day One: Brainstorm: Spend an afternoon brainstorming topics and themes you want to cover. Reflect on your experiences, achievements, and the qualities that make you unique. There are lots of ways to brainstorm. This video is a quick-and-simple brainstorming activity that you can use.
    Many people avoid this step and feel like brainstorming is too “touchy-feely” but every time I’ve used this process in a seminar, the students have loved it and found it immensely valuable.
  • Day Two: Outline: Once you have a list of potential ideas, create an outline. This will serve as a roadmap for your essay, helping you organize your thoughts and ensure your narrative flows logically. Different people outline in different ways, but whatever system you use, the point is to nail down the basics of your story and note some details you want to include.
  • Day Three: Write: In my experience, two two-hour sessions can be enough to write a draft. The key is to schedule the time, turn off your phone, disconnect from the internet, and create a quiet, distraction-free space for writing. Focus on getting your ideas down on paper without worrying too much about perfection. The goal is to develop a first draft.
  • Pause and Revise: After completing your draft, take a break. A few days away from your essay will give you fresh perspective when you return to revise it. If you have the time, three days is an optimal break to put some space between you and your first draft. Then, go back and revise the text. Start by reading it once through completely without fixing anything. Ask yourself whether overall construction, transitions, and theme are strong. Make changes, as necessary, to get that right. Then do sentence-by-sentence revisions, paying special attention to grammar and syntax, but also to tightening the prose by eliminating everything unnecessary. Your edited essay should be considerably shorter.
  • Seek Feedback: Finally, share your draft with a trusted mentor, teacher, or professional editor for constructive feedback.

 

  1. Don’t Ask Too Many People for Feedback

While seeking feedback is crucial, asking too many people can be counterproductive. The adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” applies here. Here’s why:

  • It Will Make You Feel Bad: Receiving conflicting advice from multiple sources can be disheartening and confusing. It may leave you feeling unsure about the direction of your essay.
  • You Can’t Incorporate It All: Different people will have different opinions, and trying to incorporate every piece of advice will dilute your unique voice and message. This is the dreaded “Frankenstein Essay” that’s a mishmash of parts from multiple perspectives.
  • Unhelpful Suggestions: Often, people will suggest adding more content but won’t advise on what to remove to make space. This can lead to an overstuffed essay that lacks focus.

Instead, select one or two trusted individuals who understand the application process and your goals. Their targeted feedback will be more manageable and meaningful.

 

  1. Be Positive

Admissions committees appreciate honesty, but your personal statement should ultimately be a positive reflection of who you are and your future potential. Here’s how to maintain a positive tone:

  • Acknowledge Setbacks: It’s okay to discuss challenges and mistakes, but frame them in a way that highlights your resilience, growth, and lessons learned. We’ve spoken extensively about failures and how to write about it in your admissions materials. Here are three videos that might help you with this!
  • Forward-Looking Stance: Focus on how your past experiences have prepared you for future success. Show enthusiasm for your goals and the opportunities that lie ahead. For example, instead of dwelling on a low grade, explain how it motivated you to develop better study habits and led to academic improvement.

 

  1. Be Judicious with Getting Advice Online

The internet is a double-edged sword when it comes to advice on writing personal statements. While there are valuable resources available, there are also many “message board cowboys” who may offer misguided advice. Consider the following:

  • Unknown Sources: You don’t know the credentials or motivations of people giving advice online. What worked for someone else might not work for you.
  • Individual Experience: Personal statements are highly individualized. Tailoring your essay to your personal experiences and goals is essential, and generic online advice may not be applicable.

Use online resources to gain general insights, but rely on trusted mentors and professionals for personalized guidance.

 

  1. Resist the Urge to Make a Lot of Last-Minute Changes

As the submission deadline approaches, it’s natural to feel nervous and second-guess your work. However, making significant last-minute changes can be detrimental. Here’s why you should trust your process:

  • Nervousness: Last-minute changes are often driven by anxiety rather than actual improvement. Trust that the time and effort you put into planning, writing, and revising have paid off.
  • Process and Feedback: Rely on the feedback you received from trusted sources and the revisions you’ve made. Your personal story, as thoughtfully crafted, is your best asset.

Instead of overhauling your essay at the last minute, focus on minor tweaks and proofreading to ensure your final draft is polished and error-free.

 

Conclusion

Writing a great college personal statement requires careful planning, thoughtful reflection, and a balanced approach to feedback and revisions. By setting a schedule, limiting your feedback sources, maintaining a positive tone, being cautious with online advice, and trusting your process, you can craft a compelling and authentic personal statement.

If you need additional support, consider reaching out to a professional service like Gurufi, which offers personalized feedback on completed drafts and consultations to help you select topics and build detailed outlines. With the right approach and resources, you can create a personal statement that stands out and truly represents who you are.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your AMCAS Work & Activities Section

Applicant preparing their Work &Activities section for their AMCAS medical school application
Be thoughtful about your Work & Activities section!

Every year, our editors at Gurufi help scores of candidates earn admission to their dream medical school. In the fifteen years I have been helping applicants, I have noticed that far too many applicants don’t put enough time or thought into their Work & Activities sections.

Crafting the Work & Activities (W&A) section of your AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) application is a crucial task that requires careful thought and precision. Unfortunately, while many people spend weeks or ever months fine-tuning their personal statement, they treat this vital section almost as an afterthought. The W&A section allows you to showcase your experiences, learning, and growth in a succinct yet comprehensive manner and provides the reader with a clear overview of your overall strengths as a candidate. Here are some essential tips to help you make the most of this opportunity.

Focus on Your Actions, Learning, and Growth

When describing your experiences, it’s important to clearly articulate what you did, what you learned, and how you grew from each activity. Admissions committees are looking for evidence of your dedication, skills, and personal development. Applicants will sometimes get this wrong by spending too much time describing what the organization does or talking too much about things that don’t relate directly to their roles or tasks.

What You Did: Describe your specific responsibilities and actions. For instance, if you volunteered at a clinic, detail the tasks you handled, such as assisting with patient intake or organizing health education workshops.

What You Learned: Reflect on the skills and knowledge you gained. Did you develop better communication skills, learn about healthcare disparities, or gain insight into patient care?

How You Grew: Explain how these experiences influenced your personal and professional growth. Did they strengthen your commitment to medicine, enhance your empathy, or inspire you to pursue a particular medical specialty? If you struggle to nail this down, think about who you were before you started and who you were afterward. How are these different people?

Highlight Promotions and Expanded Responsibilities
If you received promotions or were given additional responsibilities, make sure to mention these. They demonstrate your competence, reliability, and the trust others have placed in you. For example, if you started as a volunteer and later became a team leader, highlight this progression to show your leadership and ability to take on more significant roles.

Avoid Jargon
Medical and scientific jargon can be confusing and may not convey your experiences effectively. Moreover, individual organizations often use idiosyncratic title names or other descriptors that don’t mean anything to people outside the organization. Use clear and straightforward language to ensure your descriptions are easily understood by all readers. Instead of using technical terms, explain your activities in a way that highlights your contributions and impact and think about how you might describe what you did to a loved one who isn’t in the medical world.

Choose Strong Verbs
The verbs you use can significantly influence how your actions are perceived. Strong, active verbs convey confidence and decisiveness. For example, instead of saying you “helped with patient care,” say you “provided patient care” or “coordinated patient services.” This subtle change makes your role sound more impactful and direct.

Be Succinct but Complete
You have only 700 characters for each entry, so brevity is essential. However, being succinct doesn’t mean using incomplete sentences or resorting to “CV speak.” Write in complete sentences to ensure clarity and coherence. Focus on the most critical aspects of each experience and eliminate any unnecessary details.

Plan Your “Most Significant” Experiences Thoughtfully
Deciding which experiences to designate as “most significant” should be done in conjunction with planning your personal statement. Because you get an extra 1325 characters, you can obviously cover a lot more ground, which is a huge benefit. Taking a strategic approach ensures you provide comprehensive coverage of your strengths and avoid redundancy. Your personal statement will delve deeply into your motivations and key experiences, while the Work & Activities section can highlight a broader range of accomplishments.

Review Last Year’s Secondary Essays

Looking at the secondary essay prompts from the schools you’re applying to can provide valuable insights. Most schools reuse essay topics for multiple years before changing, so understanding what they’ve asked in the past can help you align your “most significant” selections with potential secondary essay themes. This foresight can save you time and ensure your application remains focused and relevant.

Emphasize Breadth in Your Work & Activities
While your personal statement focuses on the depth of your decision to pursue medicine, the Work & Activities section should emphasize breadth. This is your chance to demonstrate the variety of your experiences and how they collectively prepare you for a career in medicine. Highlight diverse activities such as clinical work, research, volunteering, leadership roles, and extracurricular pursuits to present a well-rounded picture of your qualifications.

Apply the Same Care as Your Personal Statement
The Work & Activities section is just as important as your personal statement, so it deserves the same level of care and attention. Meticulously proofread your entries, ensuring they are free of errors and clearly communicate your achievements. A well-crafted Work & Activities section can significantly enhance your application and leave a lasting impression on admissions committees.

Example Entry
Here is an example of how to succinctly and effectively describe an experience:

Volunteer at Community Health Clinic (June 2020 – Present): Coordinated patient intake, assisted with health screenings, and organized educational workshops on nutrition and wellness. Developed strong communication skills and a deep understanding of healthcare disparities. Promoted to team leader, overseeing a group of 10 volunteers and managing clinic operations during weekend shifts.

This entry clearly outlines the responsibilities, learning outcomes, and growth experienced, all within the character limit. Note that the above provides a 388-character breakdown of the job. From there, you could add another 312 characters where you could briefly mention something like the most important task you accomplished, how this informs your thoughts on medical school, where this fits within your journey to medicine, or where you hope to go from here.

Conclusion

 

Writing the Work & Activities section of your AMCAS application requires careful planning and thoughtful execution. By focusing on your actions, learning, and growth, using clear language and strong verbs, and strategically selecting your most significant experiences, you can create a compelling and comprehensive account of your qualifications. Remember, this section is a vital component of your application, so give it the attention it deserves to ensure you stand out in the competitive field of medical school admissions.

Our editors at Gurufi have years of experience helping people put together their W&A sections. You can check us out here if you need help revising them, including making them fit within the tight character caps!