“The ideal student, seen through the eyes of graduate faculty, is gifted and creative, very bright and extremely motivated to learn, perfectly suited to the program, eager to actively pursue the lines of inquiry valued by the faculty, pleasant, responsible, and devoid of serious personal problems.”
-Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman
A 2006 study conducted by Drew C. Appleby and Karen M. Appleby, titled “Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process” surveyed psychology admissions chairpersons’ and uncovered 5 mistakes made on applications that reduce the likelihood of a candidate being accepted into a program. While this study focused on the opinions of psychology program admission’s committees, the findings included some universal lessons that may be applicable to any program. Being aware of these mistakes may help you avoid the “Kiss of Death” on your own graduate application.
According to the study, the five applications mistakes most likely to negatively affect your chances of getting into a graduate program are damaging personal statements, harmful letters of recommendation, a lack of program information, poor writing skills, and misfired attempts to impress.
Damaging personal statements:
Avoid references to personal mental health problems, overly indulgent self-disclosure, professionally inappropriate topics, grandiose demonstrations of altruism, and excessive religious references
Make sure your personal statement is clear, focused, and professional. Your essay should demonstrate how your personality fits with the academic goals and rigor of the department. Share yourself personally, but within a context of your academic and professional goals. Strive to keep your essays five to ten percent personal and ninety to ninety-five percent professional and academic.
Your graduate school application is not the place to make sweeping claims about saving the world. Be specific about your goals and give admissions teams a clear, realistic, and authentic portrayal of your academic and research interests. Fluffy niceties and vague statements distract from the information that is most important.
Harmful letters of recommendation:
Make sure you request references from credible (professors, employers, leaders in the field) sources with whom you have a significant relationship who will say positive things about you
The perfect letter of recommendation is sincerely written by a professional who has respect for and insight into your professional and academic work. In the absence of the perfect recommender, reach out to one of your favorite professors or professional contacts and arrange a meeting to discuss your goals and talents. Provide them with your resume and examples of your work as a reference for when they compose their letter.
You should do everything in your power to avoid a negative letter of recommendation. Use a professional contact with ties to your field of study and try to make sure they will not say anything bad about you.
Lack of program information: Your personal statement should demonstrate that you have done your research into the program you are applying to. Make sure you are not describing how well your research interests align with a faculty member who retired or has left the institution.
Most colleges and universities are looking for graduate students who can help them meet their own academic objectives. Speak with an admissions counselor to determine what kinds of skills, experiences, and goals the school or program requires students to have. Once you understand a program’s goals and objectives, write an essay describing the ways you can help the program meet them.
Poor writing skills:
Do not submit any written material that contains spelling or grammatical errors, demonstrates poor structure, or sounds unprofessional.
Your graduate school application is a place to be professional, clear, and focused. It is a place to be academic, rather than personal; professional, rather than casual; focused rather than uncertain. It is a time to utilize your best grammar, spelling, and formatting; and call upon your greatest ideas, insights, and wisdoms. Present yourself and your academic skills, experiences, and goals in a brilliant and professional manner.
Enlist the help of friends, advisors, or professional contacts to help edit your essay. Even the best of writers will benefit from having a second pair of eyes. Explain to the message you want to convey to your editor so they can make suggestions about the messaging of the piece.
Misfired attempts to impress:
Do not blame others for your failures or flawed academic record, do not lie, do not try to be cute, do not inappropriately name drop.
Genuine interest in a topic and the ability to demonstrate that you are a good match for a program are far more important than who you know, your ability to use pun’s, or your excuses for previous failures. If you feel the need to address a less than perfect academic record do so in a way that focuses on the positive aspects of the experience, like lessons learned or how it inspired your interest in a particular research topic. Lying about your credentials is never good, even if your deception helps you get into a program you may be setting yourself up for failure, which may wind up costing you time and money. Avoid slang, clichés, and casual sentences. Imagine you’re engaging in a discourse with brilliant people who want to know how your brilliance may help them.
It may be tempting to highlight connections to others in your field, but keep in mind you may be name dropping at your own risk. If you believe it is appropriate to weave a relationship with a powerful connection into your application materials make sure it fits within the context of your overall message.
The bottom line is this, admissions committees are looking for applicants who meet their academic standards and can demonstrate they may add value to the program. If you can demonstrate the fit between you and the program then you should be able to avoid application kisses of death. Keep in mind that these five steps are only meant to give you an idea of the application process. Discuss the application process in depth with representatives from each program to which you plan to apply.
About the Author: Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science, from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an instructor of writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado.
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