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.

Ten Tips for Getting a GREAT Letter of Recommendation

 College-aged student handing over CV and personal statement to a smiling professor in a colorful cartoon office setting, with books, laptop, and certificates in the background.
As with all parts of your application, you need a smart strategy for Letters of Rec

In the competitive world of applications—whether for college, graduate school, or a new job—a strong letter of recommendation can be a deciding factor in your favor. At Gurufi, where we specialize in personal statements, CVs, and letters of recommendation, we have seen firsthand how a well-crafted letter can make a substantial difference. Despite the fact that they play a pivotal role, far too many people simple hand them off to letter-writers and don’t have a thoughtful plan to ensure they get the most of their letters. Here is a 10-part guide to writing a strong letter of recommendation.

recommendation.

 

  1. Ask for a STRONG Letter of Recommendation

When I worked as a professor, I would write a letter for anybody who asked… but not everybody got a strong letter. If you earned a B-, my letter would basically say, “Johnny was in my class, completed the assignments on time, and earned a passing grade.” I told people beforehand, “I’ll write you a letter because it’s part of my job, but you haven’t earned a strong one.” By contrast, a great student got a longer, more specific and detailed, and effective letter.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t just ask if somebody will write you a letter; ask if they’ll write you a STRONG letter. They may say “no,” or otherwise, hedge, which indicates that you need to find somebody else. And, if they were going to write you a strong letter beforehand, it helps to set the expectation that you are seeking a letter that highlights your strengths and capabilities in a compelling way.

 

  1. Provide Your Personal Statement and CV

The best letters of recommendation are details, specific, and align with the core themes of your application. As such, to write a strong and detailed letter, your recommender needs to know about your achievements, goals, and experiences. Providing them with your personal statement and CV offers a comprehensive view of your background. Your personal statement will give them insights into your motivations and aspirations, while your CV will highlight your accomplishments and relevant experiences. This information helps them write a letter that is specific and tailored to the opportunity you are seeking.

When I wrote letters, having these documents was quite helpful in terms of making sure that I included details that complemented their application.

  1. Offer to Meet with Them to Discuss Your Application

A face-to-face or virtual meeting can be incredibly valuable. During this meeting, you can discuss the specific points you would like them to mention in the letter. Share your goals, why you’re applying for this particular program or position, and any specific achievements you want to highlight. This conversation can also help you gauge their willingness and enthusiasm for writing the letter, and it provides an opportunity for them to ask questions to better understand how they can support your application.

  1. Be Judicious About Who You Are Asking

Choosing the right person to write your letter of recommendation is crucial. Ideally, your recommender should know you well and be familiar with your work. This is FAR MORE important than simply choosing a big name. They should be someone who has observed your skills, achievements, and character firsthand and can write extensively about them. A letter from a well-known person may carry weight, but only if they truly know you and can provide a detailed and personal account of your abilities. Academic advisors, professors, direct supervisors, or mentors who have worked closely with you are often the best choices.

 

  1. Provide Them with Plenty of Time

Respect your recommender’s time by asking them well in advance of your application deadline. A rushed letter may lack the detail and thoughtfulness of one that was written with ample time. Asking somebody at the last minute might, frankly, also really annoy them, and “annoyed” isn’t the state of mind you want your writer to have. Aim to ask at least a month before the deadline, and be clear about when you need the letter. This allows your recommender to plan their schedule and gives them the time to craft a well-considered letter.

  1. Follow Up Politely and Be Sure to Thank Them Afterward

Once your recommender has submitted the letter, express your gratitude. A hand-written thank-you note is a courteous way to acknowledge their effort and support. Let them know how much you appreciate their help and keep them informed about the outcome of your application. A sincere thank you not only shows your appreciation but also leaves a positive impression for any future requests you may have.

If the deadline is approaching and you haven’t received confirmation that the letter has been submitted, it is appropriate to follow up politely. A gentle reminder can ensure that your application is completed on time without causing undue stress to your recommender.

 

Lastly, if you earn admission or get the job, be sure to forward that information to your letter-writer and thank them for it again.

 

  1. Provide Context and Details

If there are specific experiences or projects you want your recommender to mention, provide them with details. For example, if you worked on a significant project under their supervision, remind them of the specifics and the impact of your work. This helps them include concrete examples that can strengthen your letter.

I always appreciated it when students said, “please emphasize my work on X, Y, or Z…” as it gave me clarity about what to include.

 

  1. Stay Organized

Keep track of who you asked, when you asked, and the deadlines for each letter. This organization ensures you don’t miss any important dates and allows you to follow up as needed without appearing disorganized or forgetful.

 

  1. Offer to Write a Draft

In some cases, your recommender might appreciate a draft letter that they can edit and personalize. This can save them time and ensure that the key points you want to be included are covered. However, this should be offered tactfully and only if you believe it will be helpful.

Letter writing is highly individualized, and different people will ask you for different things. Remember that you’re the one asking for a favor, so do whatever you can -within ethical boundaries- to help them help you.

 

  1. Understand the Format and Requirements

Different institutions may have specific requirements for letters of recommendation. Make sure your recommender is aware of these requirements, whether it’s a particular format, length, or topics that need to be covered. Providing this information upfront can help them write a letter that meets all necessary criteria.

This is especially important if letters have to be uploaded to particular portals. Make sure that you provide clear instructions and perhaps even offer to set it up for them if they haven’t already.

 

Conclusion

Securing a strong letter of recommendation requires careful planning, clear communication, and consideration for your recommender’s time and effort. By following these steps, you can ensure that your letters of recommendation are compelling, detailed, and tailored to support your application. At Gurufi, we’re here to help you through every step of the process, ensuring that your application stands out for all the right reasons. Good luck!

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.