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.

How to Build Powerful Med School Secondaries

A four-panel cartoon illustrating the journey of a medical school applicant. In the first panel, a weary student stands at the start of a long, winding path carrying a heavy backpack filled with books, a laptop, and papers. In the second panel, the student, looking even more exhausted, reaches a point where the path splits into multiple smaller paths. In the third panel, the student sits on a rock, looking at a map while a mentor figure offers a bottle and smiles encouragingly. In the fourth panel, the student appears confident and focused, writing on a laptop with papers spread out around them.
The journey of a medical school applicant: From initial preparations to mastering secondary essays, with guidance and perseverance leading to success.

Here at Gurufi, we spend much of the late summer and early fall working with hundreds of clients to perfect their medical school secondaries. In my experience, at this point, applicants are quite exhausted by the immense work it takes to get to this point: studying for and taking the MCAT, getting letters of rec, completing your prerequisite courses, supplementing your clinical experience, completing the AMCAS, and ironing out your personal statement and Word & Activities sections. Now, you must complete a dozen or more additional school-specific essays. This naturally leads people to wonder how they can complement their existing materials in ways that maximize the value and impact of their secondaries. This post seeks to help you craft powerful secondary essays.

Secondary essays provide an opportunity to showcase your unique qualities, experiences, and motivations that make you a suitable candidate a specific medical school. Crafting effective secondary essays requires thoughtful reflection and a strategic approach. Here’s how to respond to common secondary essay prompts and tailor your responses for different schools:

1. Understand the Purpose of Secondary Essays

Secondary essays allow admissions committees to learn more about you beyond your primary application. Moreover, because the admission committees of particular schools craft these essays, they reflect questions that the AdCom obviously cares about. They are designed to assess your fit for the specific program, your alignment with the school’s values, and your readiness for the challenges of medical school. Understanding this purpose will help you craft essays that effectively convey your qualifications and aspirations.

2. Research Each School Thoroughly

Before writing your secondary essays, conduct thorough research on each medical school you are applying to. Understand their mission, values, curriculum, and unique features. Familiarize yourself with their specific programs, faculty, research opportunities, and community involvement. Talk to people at the school, including both faculty and staff if you can. This research will enable you to tailor your responses to align with the school’s specific expectations and culture.

3. Address Common Secondary Essay Prompts

While each school may have unique prompts, some common themes often appear in secondary essays. Here are strategies for responding to these common prompts:

a. Why This School?

This prompt asks you to explain why you are interested in attending that particular medical school. Be specific and detailed in your response. Highlight aspects of the program that resonate with your career goals and interests. Mention unique opportunities, such as specific research programs, clinical experiences, or community service initiatives, that make the school a good fit for you. Demonstrating a genuine interest and thorough knowledge of the school will strengthen your response.

One thing to beware of is writing a “school brochure” where you simply list a series of things that you like about the school. This doesn’t show much more than that you have access to Google. If you can explain in depth, using examples from your past, a few things really well, that is much better than mentioning a bunch of things. As with personal statements, saying one or two things really well is better than saying a bunch of things poorly.

b. Describe a Challenge You’ve Overcome

This prompt seeks to understand your resilience and problem-solving abilities. Choose a significant challenge you have faced, either personally or professionally. Describe the context, the actions you took to address the challenge, and the lessons you learned from the experience. Focus on how the experience has prepared you for the rigors of medical school and a career in medicine.

c. Diversity and Inclusion

Many medical schools value diversity and seek to understand how you will contribute to a diverse and inclusive community. Reflect on your background, experiences, and perspectives that contribute to your unique identity. Discuss how your experiences with diversity have shaped your worldview and how you plan to promote inclusivity in medical school and your future career.

d. Significant Research Experience

If you have significant research experience, this prompt allows you to highlight your contributions to scientific knowledge. Describe your research project, your role, and the impact of your findings. Explain how this experience has influenced your interest in medicine and your future career goals. Emphasize any skills you developed, such as critical thinking, data analysis, or teamwork.

There are three additional points that I’d make with this prompt. First, writing about science can be hard. It’s difficult to balance accuracy, clarity, and complexity. As such, this is among the most difficult kinds of admissions writing and you may want to think about getting help with someone experienced and adept with this. (like Gurufi! ) Second, think about how you view the role of science and research as you move forward. Do you (be honest) intend to continue doing research in and beyond medical school? If so, think about including this, even if briefly, in your essay. Lastly, also think about your research experience in the same way that you wrote about an important job in your Work & Activities section: did you grow, improve, receive additional responsibilities, or earn a promotion?

  1. Professional Goals and Aspirations

    This prompt asks you to articulate your career goals and how the medical school will help you achieve them. Be clear and specific about your short-term and long-term goals. Explain how the school’s resources, faculty, and curriculum align with your aspirations. Demonstrating a clear vision for your future and how the school fits into that vision shows that you are focused and motivated.

    4. Tailor Your Responses

    Tailoring your responses for each school is essential to demonstrate your genuine interest and fit. Use the research you conducted to incorporate specific details about the school into your essays. Mention faculty members you are excited to work with, unique programs that align with your interests, and community initiatives that you want to be part of. Personalizing your essays shows that you have a sincere interest in the school and have thoughtfully considered how it aligns with your goals.

    5. Be Authentic and Reflective

    Authenticity is key to crafting compelling secondary essays. Be honest about your experiences, motivations, and aspirations. Reflect on your journey and share meaningful insights that provide a deeper understanding of who you are. Avoid generic statements and clichés. Instead, focus on specific examples and personal stories that illustrate your points.

    6. Show, Don’t Tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. I don’t love “show, don’t tell” as a piece of advice because it doesn’t feel actionable. You can get to the same idea by saying “tell a story and let the story demonstrate your traits.” Not as punchy, but more accurate. For example, instead of simply stating that you are passionate about medicine, provide examples that demonstrate your passion. Describe experiences that have solidified your commitment to the field and the actions you have taken to pursue your interest. This approach makes your essays more vivid and memorable.

If you need help with storytelling, check out this video. It was made for MBA applicants, but all of the core ideas apply to medical school applications. This other video also provides a useful way to attack the “show don’t tell” problem.

7. Edit and Revise

Writing effective secondary essays requires multiple drafts and revisions. After writing your initial draft, take a break and then revisit your essay with fresh eyes. Seek feedback from mentors, peers, or professional consultants to gain different perspectives. Revise your essays to improve clarity, coherence, and impact. Pay attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation to ensure your essays are polished and professional.

BUT, do be judicious with who you send your essay to. Too many chefs spoil the broth.

Crafting effective secondary essays for medical school applications involves understanding the purpose of these essays, conducting thorough research, addressing common prompts thoughtfully, and tailoring your responses to each school. By being authentic, reflective, and detail-oriented, you can create compelling essays that resonate with admissions committees and enhance your chances of acceptance. Good luck with your applications!

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.

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!

What to Include AND NOT INCLUDE In Your AMCAS Personal Statement

Cartoon of a female medical school applicant surrounded by thought bubbles representing clinical experience, lab work, excellent grades, leadership, and volunteering with the homeless

         As the May 2nd AMCAS release date approaches, many applicants have begun planning their applications and personal statements. After nearly 20 years of helping people get into top medical schools, I have seen, over and over, how the best applications feature a focused personal statement complemented by Work/Activities sections that provide breadth and complementarity. This is a tricky task, and in putting together your AMCAS application package, it’s crucial to understand the difference between “box-checking” and “ differentiators.” All applicants will, no doubt, possess the necessary prerequisites, but how you present these alongside your unique experiences can set you apart in the competitive medical school admissions process.

Understanding “Box-Checking”

Box-checking activities are essential components of any medical school application. These are the basic qualifications that admissions committees expect every applicant to possess. Generally, these include:

  • Clinical Experience/Exposure: Demonstrating hands-on patient interaction and an understanding of the healthcare environment.
  • Sufficient Scientific Training: Evidence of rigorous scientific education, typically highlighted by coursework and lab experiences.
  • Service-Mindedness: Engagement in activities that show a commitment to helping others, often through volunteering or community service.
  • Leadership: Doctors are leaders of healthcare teams, so the ability to lead is crucial. Thus, admissions committees prize situations (academic, athletic, personal, professional) that demonstrate leadership.

While these elements are critical, they do not usually distinguish one candidate from another because almost all applicants will meet these criteria.

 

The Role of Differentiators

Your application’s most precious “real estate”—particularly your personal statement—should be dedicated to what makes your journey to medicine unique. The easy rule of thumb is that “the personal statement is about depth; everything else is about breadth.” That is, use your personal statement to tell 1-3 compelling stories, but tell them well and with relevant detail. These differentiators are what make your application memorable and can significantly enhance your appeal to an admissions committee.

What kinds of things work well as differentiators?

 

Identifying Your Unique Elements

First, it’s important to note that every candidate will have different differentiators, depending on their interests, backgrounds, and career goals. For example:

  • MD/PhD Candidates: If you’re aiming for a dual-degree program, emphasizing your research experience and long-term investigative goals could be your differentiator.
  • Aspiring Medical Researchers: Highlight any unique research projects, particularly those where you played a pivotal role or contributed to meaningful outcomes.
  • Leaders in Healthcare: If you’ve held significant leadership roles, either in healthcare settings or in community organizations, these experiences showcase your potential to lead in the medical field. Don’t be afraid to feature something that is ostensibly non-medical. Working on Capitol Hill, doing GOTV, your time as an elite NCAA athlete… these can all be tied into a narrative that supports your medical school aspirations.

 

Strategic Placement of Information

It’s essential to strategically place information about box-checking and differentiators across different parts of your application:

 

  • Personal Statement: This should be primarily reserved for telling your unique story. How have your experiences and ambitions shaped your desire to pursue medicine? Focus on moments that highlight your unique insights, challenges overcome, and personal growth. Don’t weigh your essay down with box-checking. Remember, you’ll have additional chances to show your full range of accomplishments, BUT the best way to ensure that the reader doesn’t give your W/A, reccos, etc. a full reading is to write a boring and rote personal statement. On the other hand, if your reader’s interest is piqued, then they’ll really dig into all parts of your application.
  • Work & Activities Section (AMCAS): Utilize this section to detail your box-checking activities. Use the “Most Significant” activity descriptions to expand on experiences that have prepared you for medical school but are more common among applicants.
  • Secondary Essays: These can also be a valuable space to discuss aspects of your candidacy that you didn’t explore fully in your personal statement, including additional differentiators or significant box-checking activities. That said, beware: don’t leave important / featured parts of your life / application for your secondaries for two reasons: (1) not every school will ask you a question that allows you to bring up this important accomplishment, and (2) if something is a needle-mover, don’t put it in a part of your application that might not come (because you don’t a secondary) or that will be so late in your package that your reader is already sort of made up their mind.

 

Why Differentiators Matter More Than Ever

 

Medical schools increasingly value well-rounded candidates who bring diverse perspectives and skills to their programs. Indeed, it’s such a point of emphasis that the Work/Activities section has a new Social Justice and Advocacy experience type. This shift means that admissions committees are looking for more than just academic and clinical excellence; they want individuals who can contribute uniquely to the medical community through:

  • Policy Work and Public Health: Experience in these areas can demonstrate an understanding of the broader factors that impact healthcare systems and patient care.
  • Innovative Research or Unique Clinical Experiences: Especially those that break new ground or address significant challenges in medicine.
  • Personal Stories: Compelling personal narratives that connect your life experiences to your medical aspirations can be powerful differentiators.

 

Crafting Your Narrative

When writing your personal statement, consider where your narrative fits best. If your experience is common, such as working in a lab doing routine tasks, it might be better placed in the AMCAS section, unless there is a compelling story or unique challenge associated with it. Always aim to tell a story that only you can tell, focusing on what sets you apart from the crowd.

 

While box-checking is necessary, it’s not sufficient for standing out in a pool of highly qualified applicants. Consider your application as a holistic, complementary package and that each section does something different for you. Your differentiators are what imbue your application with color and personality, making you memorable to the admissions committee, so make sure to feature them prominently. As you prepare your application, carefully consider how to balance these elements to present a compelling picture of who you are and what you will bring to the field of medicine. Remember, in the competitive arena of medical school admissions, it’s not just about checking the boxes—it’s about drawing outside of them.

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.

How to Approach Medical School Interview (Start EARLY!)

A cartoon of a young, attractive blonde woman dressed in a professional business suit, confidently participating in a medical school interview. She appears calm and prepared, sitting across from an interviewer in a modern, minimalistic interview room.

When most people think about medical school interviews, they assume that they’re something they’ll deal with at the very end of the application process. After all, as our consultant at Gurufi know well, applicants first have to complete their MCAT, AMCAS package, personal statement, Work & Activities, and a flood (hopefully) of secondaries. In a technical sense, they’re right: interviews are the end of a lengthy journey.

 

But, it is worth it to spend some time going and over and thinking about the most common interview questions and thinking about what your responses would be. There are two reasons. First, if these are the questions that the doctors, administrators, and (sometimes) medical students tend to ask in interviews, isn’t this a good insight into what they tend to look for? As such, having worked out your responses to them beforehand could provide some useful background guidance or content for your personal statements and secondaries. Second, there is value in reading through these questions early, exposing them to your brain, and letting your mind work through them over the course of months so that you can slowly -almost as a background process- develop nuanced, personal, and authentic answers to these questions so that if/when you get to the interview stage, you’re ready to go!

 

Indeed, I would urge you to get a notebook and do 10 minutes of writing and outlining / brainstorming for each one. Sketch out your initial ideas. As you do, you should hopefully began to get ideas for your personal statement or, later, secondaries.

 

  1. Why do you want to pursue a career in medicine? This question is often one of the first asked and is an opportunity for you to express your passion and motivation for the field of medicine. Be clear and concise in your answer, and highlight specific experiences or events that inspired your interest in medicine.
  2. What is your understanding of the role of a physician? This question is an opportunity for you to show your understanding of the responsibilities and duties of a physician. Highlight your understanding of the importance of compassion, dedication, and professionalism in the field of medicine. It also provides an excellent opportunity to talk about role models or doctors whose approach you admire.
  3. Can you discuss a specific experience that influenced your decision to pursue medicine? This question is a chance for you to highlight a meaningful experience that has shaped your decision to pursue a career in medicine. Be specific and share details about what you learned from the experience and how it has influenced your goals and aspirations.
  4. Can you discuss a time when you had to overcome a challenge? This question is asking about your problem-solving skills and how you handle difficult situations. Be honest and provide a specific example of a challenge you faced and how you overcame it. Often, this might end up being a moment where you failed. That’s fine! As we have discussed in other contexts, a thoughtful and genuine (non “humble-brag”) reflection on a failure can be a valuable part of your interview / application.
  5. What interests you most about the medical school you are applying to? This question is an opportunity for you to show your interest in the specific medical school you are applying to and why it is a good fit for you. Be sure to research the school ahead of time and highlight specific programs, opportunities, or resources that appeal to you.
  6. Can you discuss a time when you had to work with a difficult team member? This question is asking about your ability to work with others and handle conflict in a team setting. Provide a specific example and talk about what you learned from the experience.
  7. What are your long-term career goals? This question is asking about your future plans and what you hope to achieve in your career. Be clear and concise in your answer and show how your goals align with the mission and values of the medical school you are applying to.
  8. Can you discuss a time when you had to make a difficult ethical decision? This question is asking about your ethical principles and how you handle challenging ethical situations. Be specific in your answer and talk about what you learned from the experience.
  9. Can you discuss a time when you had to learn something new quickly? This question is asking about your adaptability and ability to learn new information quickly. Provide a specific example and talk about what you learned from the experience.
  10. Can you tell us about a healthcare issue that you are passionate about? This question is an opportunity for you to show your interest in and knowledge of healthcare issues. Choose an issue that you are passionate about and be sure to explain why it is important to you.

When it comes time to actually interview, you should revisit your responses to these questions and perhaps expand on them, noting information you’ve gleaned from the following steps:

  1. Research the medical school ahead of time and be familiar with their mission and values.
  2. Work you’ve done to make your answers more concise and specific.
  3. Moments from your life that display your passion and motivation for the field of medicine.

 

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our medical school personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top med schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements and refining Work & Activities sections and secondaries in ways 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.

Ten Tips for Your Medical School Secondaries

With your MCAT, personal statement, Work & Activities, and letters of recommendation all lined up, it’s time to start on your secondary application essays. Here are eleven tips for getting the most from your secondary essays.

  1. Get a head start. Your calendar is going to get pretty crowded, so begin as early as you can. Fortunately, most schools use the same essay from year to year, so even if you’ve not yet received the prompts, you can at least begin some light brainstorming, outlining, and rough-draft writing for the secondary essays you anticipate getting.
  2. View your secondaries as complementary. Think of your application holistically. Your personal statement provides your core theme and depth on a few moments and accomplishments. Your Work & Activities provide breadth and some additional depth on a few “most significant” items. Then, your secondaries fill out the application while emphasizing how your strengths, interests, and background align with what the school offers and values. As such, don’t use these secondaries to repeat information at length that you’ve already covered well elsewhere. A good way to think about it is that your AMCAS personal statement is your best case for admission, but your secondaries should emphasize your next best arguments. For instance, if you feel your core argument is “clinical experience and extensive public health work,” then your AMCAS personal statement should focus on that in-depth. Then, in your secondaries, you might also highlight another strength or experience, such as your scientific research.
  3. Carefully follow the directions. Be careful to follow the medical school’s word restrictions, formatting specifications, and any other instructions.
  4. Create unique essays for every school. I know you’re going to write A TON of essays. And, you can repurpose some text where it makes sense. But, don’t shoehorn text into an essay that doesn’t quite fit just because you want to avoid some work. The main idea behind a secondary essay is to focus on aligning your strengths as an applicant with the school’s culture and values. This requires customization. Find out the aims and values of the medical schools to which you are applying, and then use your essays to show how you share those ideals.
  5. Provide concrete instances to support your arguments. Use particular stories and examples to explain your experiences and accomplishments rather than making generalizations. Your essay will become more interesting and memorable as a result.
  6. Steer clear of clichés and overused words. Avoid using overused words and clichés in your writings since they may make them look generic. Your essays should be distinctive and genuine.
  7. Carefully proofread and edit. To guarantee that your writings are devoid of typos, grammatical errors, and other faults, be sure you proofread and edit them thoroughly. You should be just as fussy and meticulous about your secondary essays as you were about your primary AMCAS essay.
  8. Show, don’t tell. To demonstrate your experiences and accomplishments rather than merely recounting them, use vivid language and specific facts. This can make your writing more compelling and interesting.
  9. Be true to yourself. Write about subjects that are personal and significant to you since medical schools are seeking applicants who are real and authentic.
  10. Write clearly and concisely. Be as plain and succinct as possible in your writing, and avoid using jargon or too complicated terminology. Be sure to end your essay by returning to your introduction.

 

BONUS!

  1. Request input from others. Think about inviting dependable mentors, family members, or friends to read and comment on your essays. This might assist you in identifying areas for development and ensuring the strongest possible essays. BUT, make sure that you are thoughtful and assertive in weighing every piece of advice.

 

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.

 

References:

Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). “Writing Your AMCAS Personal Comments Essay.” https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/writing-your-amcas-personal-comments-essay/

 

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A Non-Minority Student’s Guide to Diversity Essays

An animated image featuring a diverse group of medical school students in a classroom setting. The students, representing various ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds, are all wearing white lab coats and have stethoscopes around their necks. Some are engaged in conversation, holding medical textbooks, or examining medical charts. The classroom is equipped with essential medical tools, adorned with anatomy posters, and includes a skeleton model in one corner. Their expressions convey happiness and a shared enthusiasm for learning, illustrating an inclusive and collaborative educational environment
Embracing Diversity in Medical Education: Future healthcare professionals learning together in an inclusive environment

As a non-minority student, it’s important to approach the writing of a diversity essay with sensitivity and an open mind. Here are five tips to help you write an effective diversity essay:

  1. Think of “diversity” expansively. When most people think of diversity in the context of admissions, they focus on racial, ethnic, national, gender, and sexual identity. But you should also think about experiential diversity. How has your life been different? Think about the kinds of people you’ve encountered, what they taught you, and how you grew. Reflect on the places you’ve lived, unique trials you’ve faced, jobs you’ve held, training you’ve received, or unusual insights you’ve gained. Then, take the additional step of asking yourself how these things would help you make School X a more dynamic, challenging, accepting, and comprehensive educational and life experience for your peers.

  1. Acknowledge privilege: It is important to acknowledge any privilege you may have as a result of your race, ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic background. Reflect on how your experiences may have been shaped by these factors, and how they have impacted your understanding of diversity and inclusion. A frame that can be helpful is to complete this sentence, and then expand on it in a brainstorming writing session: “my privilege has allowed me to ______, and as a result, I feel compelled to _______ in order to _____.” For instance, “My privilege as an upper-middle class man raised in a healthy home has allowed me to have access to mentoring, networks, and advice that many of my peers never had, and as a result, I feel compelled to mentor others, build robust inclusive networks, and look for talent in unexpected places.” This sort of opening could provide the foundation for an insightful, frank self-assessment that gives the reader genuine insight into your values.”

  1. Show empathy: Demonstrate your ability to understand and respect different perspectives and experiences by expressing empathy and a desire to learn from others. Describe how you plan to continue to learn about and engage with diverse communities in the future.

  1. Highlight your commitment to diversity: Emphasize your commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in your academic and professional pursuits. Explain how you plan to use your experiences and understanding of these issues to contribute to the graduate school community. Identifying and listing your values is good, but providing stories and examples is much better.

  1. Seek feedback: Before submitting your diversity essay, consider seeking feedback from someone who has experience with these types of essays. This could be a mentor, a teacher, or someone else who has a good understanding of the graduate school application process. Their feedback can help you refine your essay and ensure that it effectively communicates your commitment to diversity.

Importantly, our editors and consultants at Gurufi have extensive experience helping people write diversity essays.

Lastly, we recognize that this form of essay can feel unusual or uncomfortable, especially for non-American applicants who aren’t conversant with the world of DEI, why universities value diversity, or even what this idea means. After all, many applicants come from places that are largely mono-racial.

So, while there can be a learning curve, your mindset should ultimately be that the diversity essay is an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding and commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion, whether or not you are a minority. By reflecting on their experiences, acknowledging privilege, showing empathy, highlighting their commitment, and seeking feedback, non-minority students can write effective diversity essays that showcase their ability to contribute to diverse and inclusive academic communities.

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 MBA programs. 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.