5 critical mistakes to avoid while preparing your graduate school application

  • Be sure to read all instruction and questions in detail.
    Be sure to read all instruction and questions in detail.

    5 critical mistakes to avoid while preparing your graduate school application

    From taking the GRE to sourcing recommendations and preparing a stellar personal statement, applying to graduate school is a comprehensive process. Hopeful graduates spend considerable time on their applications in a bid to maximize their chances of receiving acceptance letters. As Dr. Mark Tomforde made clear in an online article from the University of Houston, there are considerable resources and information available that can help graduate students produce the best applications possible. Such guidance tends to focus on all the things that candidates should do to increase their chances of acceptance. There is perhaps less discussion, however, of the things that hopefuls absolutely should never do.

    While admissions panels may overlook small errors, Tomforde stated that there are a set of critical application mistakes that most schools will regard as deal-breakers. Tomforde uses a colloquialism to describe these errors, as first coined in a 2006 study by Drew and Karen Appleby – "kisses of death." Such a strong term is pertinent, because when candidates make these mistakes it can potentially lead to rejection, even if, overall, the application is strong or outstanding.

    If you're concerned about making a major mistake in your graduate school application, fear not. Knowledge is power, and the best way to avoid the application "kiss of death" is to recognize and avoid critical mistakes. Read on for a break-down of some of the most common graduate school application missteps. 

    1. Failing to adhere to instructions
    According to TJ Murphy, PhD, writing in an article published by LinkedIn, a common trap that candidates fall into is not thoroughly reading instructions and questions provided in the application. These directions and questions may be a part of the personal statement section, or the general application itself, and failing to provide answers to specific questions asked is a big mistake. There is an incredibly simple way to avoid this error, however. Simply take time to read the question slowly to ensure that you understand what is being asked. Put another way, don't skim through questions and assume you know the gist of what is being asked.

    2. Not tailoring your personal statement to each school
    In a similar vein to a cover letter for a job application, the personal statement affords you the opportunity to explain in some detail why you believe you are a suitable candidate. In a quest for expediency, it can be tempting to draft a personal statement and include it as part of multiple applications to different institutions. This is a major mistake. Admissions counselors will be able to spot that your personal statement is generic.

    This is a problem because, as detailed by journalist Chuck Cohn, writing for the Huffington Post, schools want to hear why you chose their particular institution, and it is expected that you will elaborate, in some detail, how you envision your academic career at their school and the unique things that you can bring to that particular graduate program. The only way to avoid this mistake is to craft a unique personal statement for each application. While it is surely okay to keep some elements of the statement the same, it is imperative that you highlight the reasons why you believe you can excel at each individual institution. 

    "It is important to craft a unique personal statement for each application."

    3. Allowing grammatical errors in your personal statement
    If you think that the odd typo or misplaced word isn't a big deal, think again. While some admissions panels may let one or two grammatical errors slide, if your application contains any notable problems in regard to spelling, sentence structure, idioms and so on, then you've likely damaged your chances beyond repair. The reason for this is simple. You are applying to study at one of the most advanced levels of education possible, and poor grammar can indicate one of two things: either that you are unable to write to a standard that is acceptable for graduate education, or that you are too careless to review your work for mistakes, an article from Washington University in St. Louis asserted. Both impressions are obviously major red flags for any admissions committee. 

    Again, there are simple steps to avoid this issue. Take the time to review your work thoroughly before submitting it. Run the work through a spell-checker more than once, and consider asking a trusted advisor, such as an undergraduate professor, to read over your statement for comments and/or advice. 

    4. Including certain details in your personal statement
    The American Psychological Association reported on a 2006 study from Drew and Karen Appleby which attempted to discern some of the major mistakes that psychology students make when they apply to graduate school. The results were obtained by asking the opinion of 88 admission chairs from graduate psychology programs. One of the major issues highlighted as a "kiss of death," was the inclusion of details in personal statements that were too intimate or personal. An example is mentioning struggles with mental illness. Respondents also explained how personal statements that were too innovative or casual in terms of form and structure – including jokes, for example – were also widely perceived as inappropriate. The best advice is to stick to a more traditional personal statement format, while still including information and insights that are different and engaging.

    5. Asking for recommendations from the wrong people
    As pointed out by Cohn, you may be tempted to ask the dean of your undergraduate college to provide a recommendation, or perhaps a professor in your program who is widely known in academic circles. In other words, many people assume the more prestigious the reference, the better. This is true to an extent, but only if you have worked closely with the individuals in question. Too often candidates will source references from individuals of high prestige who know next to nothing about them. This lack of insight will be evident in the statements these people provide. Admissions panels will likely be more impressed with a detailed reference from a trusted mentor or professor, with whom you have worked closely in an academic or professional capacity. 

    6. Trying too hard in the personal statement
    While it is important to craft a personal statement that is engaging and stands out from the crowd, it is important not to write in a way that is too excessive or overly literary, Murphy noted. Put another way, don't try too hard to impress, both in terms of the language you use and the topics you discuss. It is a fine line to tread – you don't want your statement to come across as dull or unsophisticated – but it is an important balance to strike nonetheless. The most effective way to do this, according to Murphy, is to use language that is professional, yet clear and concise. Murphy also explained that while personal anecdotes can be an effective device, it is important not to overshare. 

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