Advice from Graduate School Admissions Committee Members
Applying to graduate school is a time-consuming process that can be challenging but can also lead to great reward for the stalwart applicant. Unfortunately, even the best-qualified and most careful applicants can do serious harm to their application through any number of small, seemingly insignificant mistakes and snafus. After you've spent the time and energy meticulously compiling your application, it would be a shame to have your efforts undone by a simple overlooked point, so before you send off your information to the schools of your choice, give your forms a final once-over to make sure you haven't incorporated any of these common application missteps.
Personal statement land mines
The personal statement or letter of intent is one of the few open-ended components of your graduate application. As such, many applicants see it as an opportunity to share as much of their stories as possible, whether to compensate for non-stellar test transcripts or to beef up their application with what they perceive to be an inspiring personal story. The danger of the open format of the letter is that it can, if candidates aren't careful, create confusion and lack of direction - overzealous essayists can talk themselves into a corner or risk sharing information that is irrelevant or worse, counterproductive to their application.
One survey conducted by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln was designed to root out some of the more common errors people commit in their applications, and the personal statement was a hotbed of application no-nos. Among some of the more egregious gaffes were those who did not adopt the proper level of professionalism in their essay - being too conversational, for example. Perhaps counter intuitively, the study found that reports of excessive charity of altruism could have a negative impact on an application. The classic "I want to help people" response, rather than being viewed as a benefit, is instead seen as trite and underdeveloped by many who review applications.
It should go without saying that your essay needs to be technically spotless. Grammar and spelling errors may seem innocuous, but they can have a serious impact on how your applications materials are perceived. Have a friend or family member read over your statement for easily avoidable errors. PhD Student recommended avoiding a stock letter sent to all schools if at all possible. Instead, changing a few key pieces of information every time will keep your essay from sounding canned and also provide you with another opportunity to check for errors.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep your application viable is thoroughly research the schools and graduate programs you're interested in applying to. Even if you're looking at several schools, each program may be drastically different, and it's obvious when you haven't brushed up on the basics of a given program.
The UNL survey revealed that improperly understanding the focus of a school's program can be detrimental as well. Not only does it demonstrate a lack of preparation and foresight on your part, but expressing a fervent interest in an area of research not conducted by the school of your choice is a sure way to set yourself up as an improper fit.
"Students who express an interest in research activity that does not correspond to the research interests of our faculty are not likely to be admitted," the study authors wrote in the report. "This is especially true if the student appears set on doing research in his or her area of interest."