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.

Five Topics to Avoid in Your Medical School Personal Statement

 

Two cartoon medical school applicants in white coats cross a rickety wooden bridge over a river of lava, where playful monsters representing topics like alcohol use, religion, and politics emerge. The applicants hold their application papers and look anxiously towards a stylized medical school building in the distance. The scene is light-hearted and colorful, set in a fantastical landscape.
Steering Clear of Pitfalls: These Medical School Applicants Navigate the Perilous Path to Admission, Humorously Avoiding Topics Like Politics and Alcohol Use

We’re deep into April, and as medical school applicants begin thinking about their personal statements in earnest, we at Gurufi are putting the final touches on our medical school application video series. Every year, we help scores of applicants earn admission into top medical schools and residency programs.

In a recent post, I talked about the worst topic to use as your medical school personal statement introduction. Though I think that some topics are more complicated and fraught than others, I don’t usually give clients hard “no-go” topics. Rather, it’s about thinking about framing, context, and delivery. Another way to think about it is that these aren’t “banned” topics, per se; they’re just topics that have higher degrees of difficulty. Here are some topics to think twice about as you approach your personal statement.

  • Religion and politics. Don’t ever proselytize or make assumptions about what the reader’s politics are. Faith can be a vital part of many applicants’ lives, but to the extent that you bring it up, do it in a way that isn’t gratuitous, and make sure that you embrace a spirit of inclusivity. Similarly, it’s becoming increasingly common for people with backgrounds in politics, policy, or advocacy to transition into medical careers. As you talk about your political engagements, focus on what you hope to accomplish and avoid denigrating other political positions.

 

I have noticed that applicants with policy and politics backgrounds are becoming increasingly common in medical school applications, and they’re having a lot of success in their applications! Indeed, having helped many people write personal statements that emphasize the intersection of policy and medicine, I would note that the best essays focus on issues and policy, and don’t make sweeping statements about partisanship. What’s the difference? Well, advocating for, for example, better public health initiatives, protection of abortion rights, or better recognition of LGBTQ issues within healthcare spaces are all instances of health policy advocacy, whereas saying something like, “the Trump administration…” is a focus on partisanship.

  • Personal tragedy. Again, this is a topic that can be an important and effective part of a personal statement, if done properly. If done poorly, it can weigh the essay down in negativity. As a general rule, I urge clients to eventually bring their stories around to a forward-looking and optimistic vision. Tragedies either inspire you to become better, urged you to fight for a solution, or somehow teach you vital insights that will make you a better doctor. What you do NOT want is to include a sad story because you’re seeking emotionality for its own sake. Remember your purpose: to convince the reader that you’re a prepared, interesting, qualified, and mature candidate. Overcoming hardship can show that; a sad-sack story about life grinding you down that doesn’t end on an optimistic note will not.

  1. Your personal setbacks. Everybody makes mistakes, and if the AdCom will know about your setback, you HAVE to talk about it. I’ve made several videos about how to do this. Heck, I even did a full-length detailed course for MBA applicants on how to do this (the same basic rules apply). So what are the basic rules?

 Be clear about what your setback was. Don’t be vague or use euphemism.

 Own it. Accept responsibility and state directly that you fell short of your standards.

 Explain what you learned AND how you’ve improved since.

 If you can point to subsequent examples of success, do so.

 Move on. Take an optimistic tone about the future and embrace the fact that you’ve learned and grown since.

  1. Talking about your use of drugs or alcohol in a personal statement for medical school is typically not a smart idea. Discussions about past substance misuse may not be consistent with the admissions committee’s expectation of candidates who are responsible and dedicated to upholding a professional image. If, though, you have a conviction for some alcohol-related crime, you MUST address it at some point, so use the guidelines laid out above for how to address missteps thoughtfully.
  2. In general, it’s not a good idea to mention that you want to become a doctor only for the money or the status. Admissions committees are searching for applicants who are passionate about medicine and truly want to assist others.

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 medical schools. 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.

 

Here are some additional resources for this topic:

  1. “Medical School Personal Statement Dos and Don’ts.” Kaplan Test Prep, Kaplan, Inc., www.kaptest.com/medical/medical-school/medical-school-personal-statement-dos-and-donts.
  2. “5 Things to Avoid in Your Personal Statement.” Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/personalstatement/5things.
  3. “5 Things to Avoid in Your Personal Statement.” Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/personalstatement/5things.
  4. “Medical School Personal Statement Dos and Don’ts.” Kaplan Test Prep, Kaplan, Inc., www.kaptest.com/medical/medical-school/medical-school-personal-statement-dos-and-donts.
  5. “5 Things to Avoid in Your Personal Statement.” Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/personalstatement/5things.

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Do *NOT* Write Your Medical School Personal Statement About This…

The death of a grandparent is the most overused cliche on personal statements

“As I looked into my grandma’s eyes, a single tear rolled down my cheek. I wished that I could save her life, but I felt so powerless. In that moment, I knew that I had to become a doctor so that I could save the lives of people like Grammy. I was only six years old, but that moment changed my life!”

Does your personal statement begin like this? In my 17 years of helping aspiring physicians earn admission into their dream medical school, I have seen some version of this essay hundreds of times. The dying grandma (or aunt, uncle, or grandpa…), the bedside revelation, the moment of irrevocable inspiration.

I don’t doubt that such moments occur nor that they are deeply meaningful, but I do worry that after reading the 25th such story in a week, the Admissions Committee will find it hard to differentiate your application from the scores of other people whose essays feature a med school origin story that requires the sacrifice poor ol’Granny.

Of course, I’m being a bit facetious (okay, a LOT facetious), but depending on the year, I would guess that between 15% and 30% of medical school essays lean heavily on this trope. The personal statement is just too valuable to waste on a story that the AdCom has read hundreds of times before. Applicants have one opportunity to frame their experiences, accomplishments, and goals, and selecting a cliché subject for your personal statements instantly puts you in the JAG (“just another guy” / “just another gal”) pile. Although the applicant may consider these subjects to be significant, they are overused and do not help the candidate stand out.

Cliches are shallow and don’t give a complete picture of the applicant’s motives and objectives. An applicant’s experiences should be discussed in their personal statement, along with how those experiences affected their decision to pursue a career in medicine. It’s this second part that too often gets overlooked. Obviously, experiences and stories are central to your personal statement and application, BUT you need to build out these stories by linking them to bigger themes, making clear how and why they motivated you (as manifested in actions and decisions), and then projecting that motivation into a vision of the future you aspire to build. The superficial facts of an encounter are frequently highlighted in cliches, leaving out the applicant’s internal dialogue or feelings. The admissions committee could find it difficult to comprehend the applicant’s motivations for applying to medical school without this extra information.

Cliches can sometimes be deceptive and fail to accurately represent an applicant’s experiences. For instance, a candidate who writes about their time spent volunteering at a hospital can say that it confirmed their decision to pursue a career in medicine. The reader can’t know how profound an experience was, though, until the author describes it in detail and reflects on their feelings and ideas when they were having it. Cliches can thereby produce a fictitious narrative that is unrepresentative of the applicant’s experiences and motives. This is why I often urge applicants whose personal statements look flat or cliché to do a journaling or brainstorming exercise where they explore their feelings on the topic, how they worked through an experience or challenge, how it transformed them, and why it informs the kind of doctor they will become.

A useful tip for moving beyond cliché is to provide specifics and engage in deeper storytelling. For instance, many applicants will discuss their time doing volunteer work at a hospital. Does this mean you should avoid that experience altogether in your personal statement? NO! Instead, highlight specific instances and give depth, detail, and personality to that story. Describing your duties in a broad way won’t have nearly the impact that telling a single story of a meaningful interaction with a patient or a hard conversation with a doctor. Tell me about how you assisted a patient with navigating the healthcare system AND HOW THAT INFORMED YOUR VISION OF MEDICINE, or tell me why a particular medical procedure was exciting for you to witness.

You might also talk about how their experiences outside of medicine, such working in another industry or engaging in creative hobbies, have inspired their choice to become a doctor. These subjects offer a more thorough and distinctive perspective of the candidate, highlighting their personality and capacity for critical thought.

Candidates should also think back on their experiences, take into account the lessons they acquired from them, and assess how those experiences have affected their aspirations. Instead of just recounting an incident, candidates should discuss how it affected them academically and emotionally and motivated them to seek a career in medicine. A candidate who had a personal health crisis, for instance, may talk about how that event motivated them to support others or engage in relevant research.

When talking with a colleague a few years back, we joked that May, when applicants begin working on their personal statements, was the “grandma culling season.” Beyond this dark joke, there is a deeper bit of actionable advice for you: cliches lack depth and complexity, can be deceptive, and fail to exhibit an applicant’s originality and critical thinking abilities. Candidates can write a personal statement that highlights their abilities and potential as healthcare professionals by emphasizing their unique experiences and thinking back on the lessons gained and how they have affected their aspirations.

A personal statement gives you 5300 characters to make your case, and it’s often the biggest differentiator between acceptance and denial. Therefore, it’s imperative for candidates to approach this crucial part of the application process with imagination and consideration.

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 medical schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email atservice@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.