Skip to: Navigation | Content | Sidebar | Footer


A joint 2006 study from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Idaho State University identified five major categories, known as “Kisses of Death,” that disintegrated applicants’ chances of entering their favorite programs. And yet still managed to constantly rear themselves up time after time after time after time. While their research mainly focused on one discipline, admissions counselors and professionals across diverse majors chuckled over the familiar findings. Luckily, a logical solution exists for each of the five most predominant issues the authors outlined: damaging personal statements, harmful letters of recommendation, lack of program information, poor writing skills, and misfired attempts to impress.

Damaging Personal Statements

The study specifies four different categories of damaging personal statements: “personal mental health,” “excessive altruism,” “excessive self-disclosure,” and “professionally inappropriate.” All of these portend doom for graduate students hoping to land a spot in their dream program, even if they mean well. While overcoming mental illness obviously weaves a compelling narrative, stigmas continuously surround patients and sadly preclude acceptance. MBAs and other aspirant grad students should avoid discussing them.

Likewise, stories involving oversharing or drawing out unnecessary details should also be considered no-nos. But students should avoid swinging too far in the other direction and laying on the Florence Nightingale rhetoric. Everyone wants to look good on their applications. Laying on the selfless acts seems insincere and self-serving rather than genuinely helpful. If a candidate’s motives reek of artificiality, that severely turns off the decision makers they’re supposed to impress.

“There’s so many different ways to write a damaging personal statement … one is just failing to answer the question,” explains Accepted.com founder and president Linda Abraham. “You don’t think through your question well and you don’t think through the response well.” She believes the only way to truly combat this is a simple, two-fold technique: Pay attention. Be sincere.

“Cliches and generalities … [that] don’t educate the reader in any way” also hurt one’s chances of scoring a primo graduate student spot. Address prompts and questions directly and honestly; that’s the only real way to prevent the issue from presenting itself.

Harmful Letters of Recommendation

When it comes to letters of recommendation, the kisses of death involve either selecting the wrong references or people with few positive things to say. Letters of recommendation should not come from individuals with an obvious personal bias, like family members, romantic partners, close friends, religious leaders, and – funny enough – the applicants themselves. This compromises the objectivity schools need to select the most suitable students. Applicants should also avoid asking for letters of recommendation from professors, managers, and others who may not know them well. Readers will pick up on the vagaries and generic sentiments because they’re looking for specific reasons to say yes.

Saving applications from this kiss of death involves nothing more than a little common sense. “Choose your recommenders well. You should choose a recommender who knows you well and who is happy to write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation,” suggests Abraham. “Give the recommender a resume, some information about the school or program you’re applying to, what the school values.”

She stresses this specificity as essential to the strongest references. Business schools find students with letters of recommendation explicitly outlining what they want and how snugly they fit into the program the most attractive. They need to pick out professors, employers, and volunteer coordinators who understand them best and would write excellent letters customized to the schools themselves.

Lack of Program Information

Another way graduate students hamstring themselves in the application process is only tangentially understanding the program they’re pursuing. Schools want to know what the candidates have to offer their specific degree plans, not the discipline on the whole. The amount of research an applicant invests, the more attractive they seem. It shows more interest than a broad, generic (or even flat-out wrong) essay. Other common oversights include expressing interest in working with professors no longer at the college or university – or even still alive – and research options not even offered.

Intensive research stops this mistake from destroying an application. Students must invest a little extra time to make sure what they write reflects specific opportunities at specific schools they see for themselves. A cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mindset is an absolute hindrance when it comes to seeking graduate programs.

“If the applicant basically cuts and pastes … then they’re failing to answer the question,” says Abraham. What they want to do is talk about the specific elements of this school’s program that will help them achieve their goals. Specific faculty, perhaps … Recruiters who are recruiting at that school … And finally, extracurricular activities they want to get involved in, and perhaps take a leadership role in.”

Poor Writing Skills

Even if students say all the right things, graduate schools dismiss applicants whose materials overflow with spelling and grammar errors. They understand that a few scattered mistakes here and there are inevitable, but a liberal amount of oversights frequently means the difference between success and failure. But even beyond legibility, readability must stand as the utmost priority as well. Not only do students need to fully research the programs, they also have to ensure they clearly convey the “whats” and “whys” behind their motivations.

Margaret Mary Oakar, Assistant Director of Admissions Services at Penn State University’s Continuing Education and World Campus, considers plagiarism and failing to address the prompt further examples of poor writing skills. While both of these factors should be obvious, she points out that students turn in fraudulent applications – or applications not meeting simple requirements, such as page length – frequently. Sites like TurnItIn.com make detecting plagiarism a quick, simple process difficult to bypass, and reading thousands of applications train counselors to notice patterns.

The fixes? “Don’t do it! It is not worth it!” Oakar says. And the same advice applies to sticking with the criteria. Keep any creative flourishes within the stated boundaries. Admissions professionals ask for specific things for specific reasons. They won’t see applicants defying their standards as edgy, iconoclastic rebels who stand out. They’ll see applicants defying their standards as not worth considering.

“I tell students all the time … to read their writing out loud,” Oakar advises regarding checking an application’s validity before sending it off. A visual skim and review is great, but reading it out loud helps to ensure that the tone and flow of your writing works,” Lucky ones might bribe some friends and family into listening and offering up a fresher perspective on what needs fixing. They might want to schedule some time with professors or on-campus writing centers to strengthen their communication abilities.

Misfired Attempts to Impress

The study noted several methods through which students sabotaged themselves by trying too hard (or too wrong) to wow their selected schools. Insulting previous professors and schools is a startlingly common kiss of death. Colleges want to see positive academic experiences and open attitudes, and frowning upon other institutions to make oneself seem lofty accomplishes the exact opposite end. And this very same sentiment applies to casually including well-known industry names. Include studying or interning under that big-timer by all means, but seeing him or her at a lecture and exaggerating or implying anything beyond the reality turns off rather than tantalizes. Think of them as personal Holden Caulfields — skeptical of phonies and unwilling to hear them out.

Abraham explicitly discourages students from writing based on what they believe the schools want to hear. While applying, they need to present an honest, straightforward, and professional package. Tailoring everything to a preconceived ideal gives off the wrong impression and may result in future academic struggles should they enter the program. No matter how sincere the intent, staying true to oneself rather than forcing something because it might amaze the admissions board works far better.

What Else Can Go Wrong?

“Some students look at the process as something they can put together at the last minute, spending just a few hours on it before the deadline,” warns Master Admissions founder and author of Admitted Betsy Massar. “A rush job usually means typos, repeated themes, and lack of organization. It can also demonstrate arrogance, with the assumption that admissions officers would accept a second-rate job. Finally, it shows that the candidate isn’t taking himself seriously, a huge red flag.” Landing a spot in a graduate program is serious business. Treat it like serious business. A bit of frivolity breaks up the gravity and helps a candidate’s chances, but this technique requires some sidestepping to avoid “clumsy attempts at humor” and other detriments.

“Students sometimes think that if they make a joke, or say something outrageous, they will stand out from the competition. It almost never works,” Massar explains. “It’s fine to write with a light touch — you want to keep them interested!”

Finding the proper balance is essential when writing admissions essays. Too much reliance on showing off those comedy chops proves just as damaging as drying out one’s writing style. Just approach everything carefully. And early.

Applicants must display some time-management savvy if they hope to meet their deadlines while simultaneously impressing the admissions board. “If you try to rush and write your resume and writing sample the week the application is due, you will inevitably have writer’s block or not produce your best and most thoughtful work,” cautions Oakar. “I think you also have to find a system that works for you. It’s good to start finding out how you work best, as you will certainly need that during graduate school!”

How to Make It Right

Massar’s tips advocate a decompressed approach stressing balance and clarity. “My number-one recommendation is to prepare in advance. Do research on the school, think long and hard about your own goals, and talk to students or alumni of the target program. Take the process seriously, but have fun with it — up to a point. You want to present the best you have to offer to the admissions committee, and that means doing your homework.”

Keeping the kisses of death in mind during the process helps applicants avoid them. And the best way to keep them in mind is to plan ahead. Time crunches jeopardize quality, placing students at risk of succumbing to desperate shortcuts. Once the desire to start applying creeps in, sit down, research, prioritize, and schedule; taking pains to outline the process reduces the stress involved.

“If you don’t think your writing is original enough … ask for help,” advises Oakar. “If you don’t think your writing is good enough for graduate study, take a class or simply practice more. Many students, especially adult, working professionals haven’t had to write content like this for some time, so getting back into the rhythm of academic writing takes time and practice.” Applying to a graduate program is exciting, and obviously a source of pride for eager students. However, they must avoid letting pride cloud their success. Reach out.

Pretty much every undergraduate campus offers up advising and writing centers, both of which the aspirant master’s or Ph.D. applicant need to visit. These services exist to help them explore their post-bac options and strengthen their communication skills, respectively. For free. Seek them out with any questions at all, because chances are they’ll provide the best answers.

It’s trickier, though obviously not impossible, for those entering graduate programs after a stint in the work force. Some might find working with a friend or family member and bouncing ideas off them (a strategy perfectly reasonable for current students as well) the best solution. The less confident or skilled writers might check out online forums, workshops, or classes for practice and reinforcement. Finding the best options might take a little extra work for this demographic, but readily available if they’re willing to look.

Sometimes, the most insightful mindset to have during the graduate school application process is what not to do. It saves time and stress while obviously increasing an aspirant grad student’s chances of landing in their dream program. Navigating these not-so-complex, strangely common patterns fortunately proves rather easy. With a bit of common sense, a lot of balance, and even more patience, moving up in academia might prove surprisingly … well … not easy, but easier.