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!

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmail

You Should Know This to Write Your Best Grad School Application

things to know for the grad school applicationAre you applying to graduate school soon? Getting inside the mind of an admissions committee prior to writing up your grad school application can really help present yourself in the best possible light.

Speaking from a lot of direct experience I can distill the admissions committee mind as being pre-occupied mostly by only 3 problems. Address these questions proactively and you’ll make their job easier. Which means they’ll probably like you better. Use this insight in your narrative section, to better provide your value proposition to the committee.

Is the applicant qualified?

For most graduate programs the qualifications boil down to academic background, standardized exam scores, and relevant experiences. These take on different weights given the specialty and the level of degree. But most programs are “full packagers” or “holistic” and so all of them are important. Truly.

There is no getting around the fact that past accomplishments testify to future ability. Therefore, grades and test scores are used to evaluate if you can handle a rigorous curriculum. Work experience is used to assess how well you understand what you are about to start, your motivation, and the expertise you can bring to the table to enhance the overall program culture.

Perfect candidates have the the right undergraduate majors and coursework, high GPA’s in a challenging curriculum, high performance on the standardized exam, and have experiences that clearly express a passion for their chosen graduate specialization.

Everybody program wants the perfect candidate, but most applicants are not perfect.

Therefore, the narrative sections of your grad school application should deal head on with where you underperformed. Bad grades? Explain how you’ve grown responsible through your post-bac work experiences. Crappy exam score? Point out how hard you worked to earn your good grades. Don’t make excuses. Describe how you’ve learned and grown from mistakes.

Is the program a good fit for the applicant?

A surprising number of grad school applications are, in fact, misapplications. The application got to the right address, but the applicant doesn’t realize the program is a poor fit for them.

Why would people spend their valuable time and good money chasing after a slot in a program that doesn’t fit? Good question.

Sometimes it comes from shallow research (eg, thoughtlessly using someones “ranking” index as an application guide). Just not enough due diligence. Other times its more complex. For example, situations where a student feels obligated or even under pressure from others to pursue a degree that the program experts can clearly see the applicant really doesn’t want.

One important duty of the admissions committee is to figure that out for you. As a general rule, admissions committees at graduate programs attempt to avoid compounding a misapplication error by committing a misplacement error. But the system is far from perfect. About a quarter of all graduate students admit they ended up in the wrong programs. That’s a lot of mistakes.

When you are convinced you are a great fit, then you need to be prepared to state your case directly. Point out your qualifications explicitly. Demonstrate you’ve researched the program deeply. Describe how that program is important for the career trajectory you’ve mapped out for yourself. Be assertive. The less arrogant, naive, cliche or canned any of this reads, the better chance it comes off in your favor.

Will the applicant enroll if offered a slot?

Programs are generally careful in handing out admissions offers because graduate students actually cost money to educate. Most programs avoid over-subscribing, less they get in trouble with the university budget demons.

They have to balance that caution against making sure they get the students that they really want. Programs know that their best applicants often have other options.

Meanwhile, students hold off making decisions hoping to have all of their cards on the table before pulling the trigger.

Oftentimes, even the thought of this can lead to quirky, guessing game decision making. What I like to call “You go down there” moments; absurdities driven by uncertainty.

For example, a program may convince itself that you won’t enroll if offered, even though they want you, but they don’t make you an offer fearing it might be “wasted”. Meanwhile, they’ve misread you. You’re more open to going there than they realize…

Look, everybody should just play straight up. As an applicant, be honest about where you are leaning. Somewhere, someone anonymous on the internet wrongly advises this is a great time to play coy. Honestly, it really isn’t.

Remember, in musical chairs, there aren’t enough seats for everybody after the music stops. After you’ve started to get offers, keep in touch with the program to let them know where you stand. Send everybody your decision as soon as possible.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmail

Students Don’t Apply to Many Graduate Programs

A principle goal of our randomized national survey of current graduate students (see an introduction and our methods here) is to better understand the application strategies of successful students. Such insight would be useful to graduate programs seeking to deepen the quality of their application pools.

Our survey respondents self-reported that they applied to anywhere from one to 30 different graduate programs, with a surprisingly large fraction, 22% of students, applying to just a single program. Approximately three-quarters of our current graduate respondents applied to 6 or fewer programs.

The median number of programs our survey respondents applied to is only four and they were accepted by a median of two programs. Overall, the respondents were accepted by an average of two-thirds of the programs that they applied to.

We segmented our respondents on the basis of the award level for the programs they are currently enrolled in and this data is shown in the accompanying figure. The application number increases for students applying to more comprehensive degree programs with an inverse relationship to acceptance rates.

For example, the median number of applications prepared by our respondents enrolled in a master’s program is only 3. The master’s students were accepted into an average of ~80% of the programs to which they applied. Doctoral students applied to twice as many programs as master’s applicants and they were accepted by more than half of the programs they applied to.

Together, these data indicate that successful graduate students don’t apply to many programs, and they are accepted by the majority of programs they apply to.

What this means for graduate programs

There are hundreds of worthy graduate programs at strong universities in any given academic specialty. Students have many options, and the best applicants are sought by many programs. These survey data show that a typical prospect will apply to only a very small group of programs that would otherwise be of interest to them.

This, of course, makes sense. Applying to graduate school takes a lot of effort and the costs quickly add up. However, even if it were easy and inexpensive for students to apply, prospects can’t possibly explore every conceivable option. Students instead invest their time and effort into researching the relevant programs that pop up on their radar, eventually applying to the small handful that seem to match their needs.

Programs that receive many applications should resist the temptation to become complacent with their overall application numbers. They are likely missing out on scores of top prospects simply because these candidates are unaware the program exists. If a program’s goal is to build a deeper and stronger application pool, the first step is to get on the applicant’s radar.

But even this is not enough. Programs must also effectively communicate their value proposition. That case can be made by taking the known assets and advantages of their program in consideration with the unique interests of a prospect. One can’t expect that value proposition to be immediately obvious to a prospect.

In the end, the goal is to convince prospects who, as a general rule do not apply to many program, that it is worth their time and effort to prepare just one additional application.

 

 

Check out the other articles on our current graduate student survey:

Survey of Current Graduate Students

Graduate Student Survey – Demographics and Fields of Study

Getting Into Grad School – How to Improve Your Chances

Are Grad Students Happy?

How to Choose the RIGHT Graduate School

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmail