10 Common Grad School Application Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Avoid making these mistakes to put together the strongest application possible.

Even silly mistakes are easy to make under pressure and we want to help you improve your chances of getting into grad school.

We’re sure you’ve heard some of these application mistakes before, but we wouldn’t be reminding you of them if we didn’t still see them EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Luckily for you, we’ve put together this list of mistakes to avoid (and what to do instead) to read through BEFORE you start your applications. Think of this as a “how to apply to grad school” from a very high level.

Application Mistake #1: Applying at the deadline

Start now, not later.
There’s no time like the present, so start NOW!

Little known fact: Graduate programs often make admissions decisions on the fly, many of which include scholarship offers. You may be the best applicant they’ve seen all year, but miss out on the money (and maybe even admission) by procrastinating. You may work well under pressure, but that fact won’t matter if there are no seats or money left for next year’s class.

Our Advice: Get your application in as early as you can complete it and ensure that it gives the admissions committee the best picture of who you are and why their program is perfect for you.

Application Mistake #2: Not answering application questions correctly

At this age, there’s NO reason you shouldn’t be able to read and follow directions. Not all application questions are the same and it’s important to read them through and give them EXACTLY what they’re looking for.

Our Advice: Answer questions with specific details and examples. For example, if they ask you to explain why their program would be a good fit for you, you should answer with specific details about their program, university and city. Help them visualize the full picture – one that includes you in their program.

Application Mistake #3: Using poor grammar and misspelling words

Application mistake #3: Bad grammar or improper punctuation. Just one more reason in support of proper punctuation.
Just one more reason to use proper punctuation.

Academics write a LOT and highly value good writing. Read: you will be writing a lot as a graduate student and you need to show that you can do this well and pay attention to detail.

Our Advice: Use spell check and get another set of eyes on your essays before submitting them. Grammar and correct punctuation are very important.

Application Mistake #4: Not speaking with your recommenders

Recommendations tell the graduate admissions committee how others think of you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help them identify areas to focus on. Missing the opportunity to have a discussion about your strengths, what makes you a good fit for the program and particular examples to showcase is a HUGE miss; lukewarm letters that don’t focus on your unique strengths will hurt even a strong application.

Our Advice: Schedule time to speak with your recommender WEEKS before the deadline and provide them with something to work from. Explain your goals and tell them where you are applying and specifically what each program is looking for in candidates. Then, remind them of examples and accomplishments that show you’re a great candidate. Provide them your CV and a statement of purpose and anything else they can use as source material. Get them excited about you and make their job as easy as possible. Lastly, don’t be scared to ask them point blank if they feel comfortable writing a strong recommendation on your behalf. If you’re uncomfortable having this conversation, that might be a sign to consider a different recommender.

Application Mistake #5: Applying to the wrong program

Nope – you didn’t read that wrong. Sadly, this is much more common than you think; a whopping 25% of current graduate students admit theyare in the wrong program! Wrong in this sense could mean a poor fit academically or culturally, or one that won’t lead them into their dream career.

Application mistake #5: Applying to the wrong program. Make sure to compare your options thoroughly.
Make sure to compare your options thoroughly before making a decision.

Our Advice: Take the time to figure out what distinguishes one program from another. Speak with current students, alumni and faculty of programs to get a REAL idea of what it would be like to be a student there and if it’s the right program for your career goals.

Application Mistake #6: Copying and pasting answers

Now is not the time for shortcuts, especially not the Ctrl C + Ctrl V kind. If you’re thinking about writing a generic, one-size-fits-all-none narrative, you may as well not apply.

Our Advice: Prepare each answer individually. You may end up using some of the same examples, but be sure to specifically tailor each answer to what each program is asking. Programs are interested in how you fit into their graduate program and the answers you provide help them gauge your interest in their school and if you are a good fit.

Application Mistake #7: Using grandiloquent writing

You’re doing it wrong if the first sentence of your narrative reads like a fairly competitive entry for the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest. Nothing

Application mistake #7: Avoid grandiloquent writing in your applications.
Don’t be an aeolist!

says you really struggle with writing than melodramatic overwriting. Remember: academic papers are generally straightforward, data-driven and avoid flowery language.

Our Advice: Use a natural writing style that’s both conversational and professional. Don’t use a thesaurus. Stories about overcoming obstacles can be very good, but avoid exposing your unresolved issues and psychological wounds in the process of telling them. There’s also a fine line between passion and over-the-top obsession.

Application Mistake #8: Assuming that “Accomplishments” = Resume

You’re missing a huge opportunity to tell the admissions committee who you are and what experiences have shaped you if you simply copy and paste your resume.

Our Advice: Provide some context about your experiences here (what you learned, how they shaped your goals, etc). Avoid getting TOO personal, though, since you want to maintain an air of professionalism.

Application Mistake #9: Assuming nobody will read your narrative

Real people read them very carefully. Programs are looking to understand your personality and what makes you tick. They want to know if their program will satisfy your interests and whether you’d be a good program

Application mistake #9: Making the reader fill in the blanks. Your story should connect the dots for your reader
Your story should connect the dots for your reader. Don’t make them fill in the blanks on their own.

citizen. Good narrative writing will help applicants who might have average numbers, whereas applicants with strong numbers can sink quickly on poorly written narratives.

Our Advice: We might be sounding a little redundant at this point, but we can’t emphasize it enough: take the time to do this right. Make sure your narrative is unique, connects the dots for the reader and strengthens your candidacy for their specific program.

Application Mistake #10: Not using a proofreader

Spellchecking and grammar checking are precursors to this step, but don’t underestimate the importance of having someone with the knowledge and experience to look over your whole application. Skipping this step will hurt you, as your proofreader can help you avoid cliches and remove anything that might be a red flag.

Our Advice: First, identify who can play the role of proofreader. Ideally, he/she is an academic who is writing a recommendation on your behalf AND has experience with admissions. This person will have a good idea of your story and your goals and can assess if your application conveys your message clearly. Offer them your narrative and ask for candid feedback. Lastly, remember feedback is a gift and do not take their constructive criticisms personally – they’re only trying to help.

Keep calm and apply for grad school.
No reason not to keep calm now that you can avoid silly mistakes!

Of course this list is not completely exhaustive, but we really hope this list helps you to prepare a strong application for your graduate studies. Feel free to leave us comments or questions below and good luck with your applications!

 

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Data Take the Wheel: Your New Dashboard and How to Use It

As academics ourselves, we know we don’t have to sell you on the importance of data and the value of data-based decision-making. With that (and your feedback) in mind, we recently designed and launched a Program Dashboard to help you monitor your Programs’ performance at a glance (see our example below).

Dashboard insights are a powerful way to: 

  • Assess program performance in real-time by analyzing the number of ingoing and outgoing bookmarks. Ideally, your programs are receiving a good number of incoming bookmarks as well as proactively bookmarking prospective students.
  • Identify best practices and opportunities for improvement with programs that are not using the platform to its full potential. Find out what the successful programs are doing well and how others can learn from them.  
  • Develop benchmarks and an action plan for the coming year based on admission goals. Decide on target numbers for the coming year and stay tuned for our next post on how to turn your Dashboard insights into action.

We envisioned the Dashboard as a place for program users to gather all the insights you need to take action and make the most of your subscription. Here, you can monitor the programs in your account and make changes immediately. Let’s take a closer look by clicking on one of the Programs (Architecture, in this case).

The dashboard allows you to quickly monitor three key metrics.Using the Dashboard, you can easily keep tabs on three key metrics (called out in the above image):

  1. Program Profile completion – Is your profile complete and does it provide prospects with all pertinent information? Your goal here is 100% completion.
  2. Engagement with prospective students  – Is your program receiving more interest from students than your Collaborators can handle? Together, these numbers are a key indicator of how much interest a program is generating. Your target number here depends on your program size, but you should strive to maximize the number of bookmarks your program receives.
  3. Usage by Collaborators – Who are your top Collaborators? Are all of your Collaborators connecting with prospective students? Ideally, you’ve selected different kinds of Collaborators (faculty, staff and students) to answer different kinds of questions and they have all learned how to use the platform.

We built the dashboard with you (our Program users) in mind, and we hope you find it really useful. We think the new Dashboard will enhance the program user experience by making Gradschoolmatch easier to do the things you need to do to be successful. And like we said, stay tuned for our step-by-step post on how to build an action plan using the new Dashboard.

If we can help you maximize the data from this new tool, or if you have any feedback on it, please don’t hesitate to contact us . We would love to hear from you!

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An Interview with the Founder of Gradschoolmatch

Brian Clark, Camila España and TJ Murphy
Brian Clark, Camila España and TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch launched in beta a few years ago with precisely zero users. Today, the platform has over 425,000 prospective graduate student users and is used by almost 1,400 (and growing) graduate programs at over 140 (and growing) universities. The platform has helped tens of thousands of students find their graduate school match.

Camila España is a recent addition to the Gradschoolmatch team. She grew up in California and recently settled in Atlanta after receiving a dual-degree (MBA/MS) from the University of Michigan. Through her work on several marketing, innovation and strategy products, she’s developed an affinity for startup environments such as ours. She reached out to us after a presentation that Brian Clark, President and Co-Founder, gave at Switchyards Downtown Club (Atlanta’s only B2C startup incubator). As someone who has been through the process recently “the old-fashioned way”, she’s excited to play a key role in revolutionizing the way people approach graduate school in their career journey.

Camila recently sat down for something like an orientation chat with Gradschoolmatch Founder TJ Murphy, who asked her to come up with a list of questions as a way to get up to speed on what Gradschoolmatch is all about. The conversation was so enlightening we thought it was worth sharing with you.

Let’s start at the very beginning. What were you doing before Gradschoolmatch?

Before Gradschoolmatch I was just a regular university professor minding my own business, running a small biomedical research group, training students, lecturing on medicines and statistics, yada, yada yada.

How did the idea come to you? Do you remember the moment when you thought of Gradschoolmatch?

Sort of. One day, I listened as a friend discussed a small internet company he knew of that connects high school athletes with college coaches. I must have put two and two together later while sleeping that night because I awoke with the idea for Gradschoolmatch the next morning, so we’ll credit it to a dream, I guess.

How did you know this was an idea worth pursuing?

Well, this seemed like a good idea, and most of my job as a scientist was about making decisions about ideas to follow up. For years, I’d participated in shepherding students into our PhD programs at Emory. I had actually reflected a lot on that very personal process and how crazy it can be. Attracting the right students can be a frustrating experience for a program. You know they’re out there. You just wait and hope enough good people apply every year. Then you select the best and try to convince them to come to your program and not go somewhere else. It’s mostly a reactive system that would work better for all parties involved if it were far more proactive. At some point, you just have to reject the status quo and create something that actually solves the problems everybody admits we have.

What do you mean by that? That everybody admits we have these problems?

Every university writes a strategic plan and puts it online. So I looked up a bunch of them as a sample (around 50 or so chosen at random) to read what they had to say about their graduate students and programs. Doing that, I only found one school that didn’t declare it was important to improve the quality of their graduate students and/or their enrollment numbers. One. All the rest admitted they had problems.

Which one was that?

The University of Southern California (USC), which makes sense if you look at their numbers. They seem to be doing really well out there. 

So where did you go after having this great idea? What did you do to validate your concept after conceiving it?

Lots of data analysis, such as reading those strategic plans, digging up enrollment and outcome data. Concept validation is a continuous process. Early on, for example, a big moment of validation is when I told Brian (Clark) about the idea. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He wanted to get going on the spot. After that, he and I spoke with a lot of people and not a single one said it was a dumb idea. So one day, we realized we couldn’t do much more talking and decided to go ahead and build a beta site.

It sounds like a great idea, but there’s always a difference between great ideas in theory and reality. How did you go about testing the beta site and attracting users initially?

Right after launching beta, we did an email promotion through an academic honor society. Basically, they sent their members an email with a link to Gradschoolmatch. Our beta site got a lot of traffic over the next few days and over 40% of the visitors signed up! That’s a unicorn-scale signup rate for any website. That told us there is a lot of demand on the student side and that was concrete validation for us. Even now, we continue to get very high signup rates (just under 20%). 

Wow 40%, that is pretty unheard of and a great proof of concept. So how does Gradschoolmatch actually work? Could you describe how Gradschoolmatch addresses the problem you first discovered?

There are actually two problems. One is the difficulty students face in finding the right graduate program. The other is the difficulty graduate programs face in being discovered by the right students. Our solution is a simple bidirectional space, where they can meet and greet each other with really high precision.

Tell me about the student side. How do students typically go about their search and how does Gradschoolmatch change the process?

Students have always operated on the basis of word-of-mouth, rankings and recommendations, which makes tons of sense if you stop to think about it. They tend to focus on a very small set of programs beginning with those that someone has recommended. We think they self-limit like that because as soon as they scratch the surface they see way too many options, and they have no idea where to start, so instead they lean on people they can trust. I like to call those people an applicant’s “influence network”.

Gradschoolmatch helps in two ways. First, we make it very easy for people from the graduate programs, who are the real experts when it comes to their program and detecting a fit, to connect with students and offer guidance directly. We often hear from students who’ve been discovered by programs just how helpful that guidance has been. Second, our match algorithm helps narrow down their options to a more digestible number of programs to focus upon. Those matches usually open their eyes to possibilities they hadn’t previously considered. Together, those two processes become a very efficient way for people to explore their options and make better decisions.

Do you think most students end up in the right place through the old not-so-scientific method? What about that process strikes you as especially problematic?

What’s bad is that reactive recruiting is actually incredibly costly. We actually have survey data that show 1 in 4 students ends up in the WRONG place.  That’s over a quarter million people each year who find out too late they’ve made a mistake in choosing a graduate program. That almost surely drives attrition. That wastes the time and money of students, while burning resources at universities that are in no position to be throwing good money after bad.

Wow, 1 in 4? Sounds like a market ripe for disruption, and one that could benefit from a more efficient system. How about from the program’s perspective – what do they stand to gain by using Gradschoolmatch?

Graduate programs just want the best possible, most engaged students. They want people who will add value to their specialized program, and eventually become a great alumnus they can point to proudly. That fit is something that goes well beyond the numbers. It’s very nebulous but the bottom line is that a program can spot a good fit more easily than a student who’s researching options. In the end, what programs gain by using Gradschoolmatch is the ability to proactively shape their applicant stream.

It sounds like you’re delivering a great value to both sides. Are both groups of users charged for the service?

What we provide students on Gradschoolmatch right now is free and always will be. We’re structured in a way that the cost for programs can be as little as a few dollars per program per month when they join in clusters. The basic premise from the beginning has always been to provide a service that every graduate program can afford to use, because breadth makes our concept work better. Besides, we don’t want it to be so expensive that programs would need to steal from the grad student pizza budget to pay for Gradschoolmatch.

What percentage of the US population goes to grad school, just to get a better idea of the market size?

I’m not sure about percentage, but the really shocking statistic is that HALF of all baccalaureates go on to earn an advanced degree. That surprises most people; it surprised me when I first ran the numbers. When you’re in a program or on a campus you tend not to “feel” the thousands of other grad students around you. The programs and people are dispersed all over campus. Most graduate programs operate on a very small scale – the average program class size is only 6 students, which is hardly noticeable individually, but collectively they are a big part of most universities.

Do any direct competitors or substitutes currently serve either audience?

There are a lot of click bait sites and/or email address re-marketers. We don’t do that. If anything, we have to fight against the poor track record of these techniques because they breed a lot of skepticism among our prospective users. It’s hard to overstate how ill-suited graduate programs and students are for what traditional advertising delivers. We’re not a traditional marketing service, we’re probably not even a marketing service. We’re a platform for like-minded parties.

How has being a user yourself shaped your company strategy and the platform itself?

Brian was just telling me the other day that my feedback as a program user has been as important as anything else I’ve done for Gradschoolmatch. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a criticism. Also, as I’ve experimented with various ways to engage prospects for my program at Emory, I’ve been able to share those insights and tips with other program users. And going back to what you asked earlier, the feedback I hear from my prospects has validated the whole project.

What have you learned since starting it that you wish you knew before?

I wish I knew building a startup was so creative and challenging. It’s been just like running the lab in terms of coming up with hypotheses and testing ideas, solving problems, all of what science is. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been very rewarding to see this idea take flight and see all the people who we’re helping. I was just so naive about business when we started…I just never paid it much attention. Had I known science and business were so similar, I might have started a business sooner in my life.

How do you define success for Gradschoolmatch? Where do you see the company going in the next 5 or 10 years?

Success is solving our users’ problems, for programs and students alike. That’s all I really care about. I have a lot of empathy for both sides and I think universities and the highly-educated specialists they produce are incredibly important. If we do that well, the long term will take care of itself.

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Perhaps medical illustration is your graduate school niche?

Almost everybody who begins to explore their graduate school options eventually discovers the incredible diversity that exists out there. Graduate degrees are niche. Specializations exist that span a wide and colorful spectrum of opportunities. A world of options exist. People thinking about graduate school typically only apply to programs when they find ones that offer a match to their interests. Often times, they don’t know a niche even exists until they see it for the first time.

I recently exchanged a few emails with Professor John Daugherty, director of a graduate program in Biomedical Visualization at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His program recently renewed its subscription on Gradschoolmatch for another year with hopes of finding and attracting just the right students. That’s a problem every graduate program faces, irrespective of their niche.

And that’s exactly the problem Gradschoolmatch is designed to solve. Our aim is to reduce the friction out there for programs and students alike, to make it easier to find each other and then have an intelligent, high level exchange to decide on fit.

By coincidence, just today I ran across a great article in The Atlantic that describes the field of study in medical illustration and the work one can do. If you are someone with an aptitude for both art and biology, you should take a look at the article and then sign in on Gradschoolmatch to give Professor Daugherty a shout.

In fact, the article features Meredith Osborn, a graduate of UIC’s Master’s in Biomedical Visualization program. Here’s some examples the work by students in the program:

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Gradschoolmatch is to guidance like the microwave is to cooking

radarange_so_newI’m not only old enough to remember the first microwave ovens, I’m old enough to remember that they were called radar ranges. Ack! But these machines have been on my mind since the early days of the Gradschoolmatch project.

Our goal was to do what we have done: create a space where guidance happens. The conceptual premise is based upon observations that interactions with someone knowledgeable is how most people end up choosing where to attend graduate school.

At one early point we were advised by an insightful businessman that in Gradschoolmatch we may have another microwave oven story on our hands.

Briefly, in the early days, people were reticent to adopt the microwave because they had perfectly good stoves and ovens with which to accomplish the same result. Sales only grew after the microwave manufacturers were able to convince consumers that microwave cooking could be effective, not to mention quick and convenient.

A similar friction probably exists in the graduate school recruiting space. The old way of doing things is to hope enough applications fly in over the transom and that enough of them are good. At the same time, everybody agrees the status quo is crappy. Really good prospects struggle to find the right place and need our help. Many of them end up in the wrong programs. Meanwhile, seats in really good programs go unfilled.

All of the evidence indicates that one-to-one engagement with prospective students is the driver of better matriculation rates. Still, there is a lot of skepticism that something novel and innovative, like Gradschoolmatch–which promotes one-to-one engagement between programs and prospects–can be a solution.

Here are the most common reactions we get from people, and our responses.

“I don’t know how to recruit.”

You don’t have to. Just offer guidance to someone considering an advanced degree in you specialty. That’s actually very effective recruiting because you know everything about what they are looking for.

“We have a perfectly good program website.”

Great program websites are only useful when the prospects you want find them. Still, they are no replacement for the human touch.

“We have plenty of applications.”

Matriculates are more important than applications. Meanwhile, how many do you lose to other programs in your specialty?

“I don’t have enough time.”

Think of guidance as immunization against dropoutitis. You’ll spend far more time on dealing with the latter.

“Our faculty won’t get involved in recruiting.”

Did they ever have a tool that makes engagement with prospects and offering guidance so easy?

“We just buy email lists.”

The people receiving your spam don’t like spam any more than you like spam.

“Does it work?”

Absolutely. When used the way it is designed.

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