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!



How to Choose the RIGHT Graduate School

Right Graduate SchoolWe couldn’t do our national survey of current graduate students without asking our respondents to reflect on their grad school search experience and to give some advice to the next generation of grad students on how to choose the right graduate school.

Nearly half of our respondents indicate that knowing what they know now, they would change the way they researched grad schools. And while the majority of our sample is satisfied in their current grad program, a quarter of our respondents indicate they wish they had chosen a different grad school/program or decided not to pursue a graduate degree at all.

So with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, what do current graduate students recommend to prospective students for choosing the right graduate school?

Our respondents indicate that in addition to spending time researching program/school websites, the following three things are the most critical to choosing the BEST grad school for you:

  1. Contact program faculty/staff

82% of the current graduate students surveyed indicated that communicating directly with program administrators or program faculty would have improved their ability to make an informed decision about graduate school and prospective graduate programs. Grad students indicate these interactions were not only influential in deciding which programs to apply to but also affected their final decision of which program to attend.

  1. Contact current/former graduate students

While many prospective grad students consider communicating with program faculty far fewer reach out to current/former grad students at programs they are interested in. This is a mistake! Current and former graduate students may be the best resource for determining which faculty to consider working with, understanding the academic/social environment and even for getting tips/suggestions on how to make your application stand out!

This is likely why nearly 90% of our respondents indicated that communicating directly with current or former graduate students would have improved their ability to make an informed decision about graduate school and prospective graduate programs.

  1. Seek advice from academic professors/mentors

Lastly, our respondents suggest seeking advice from academic professors/mentors. Tapping into these resources would be a great way to learn about a program or a field you know little about. And while our respondents do recommend seeking advice from professors and/or mentors from your undergrad institution, less than a third of students found their Career Services Advisors and/or On-Campus Academic Advising Offices useful in their graduate school search.

We at Gradschoolmatch are not surprised by these responses! We have always seen the value in direct communication between prospective grad students and faculty, admins and students. That is why facilitating communication between student and program is at the core of what happens on gradschoolmatch.com.

So get matchin!


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

Survey of Current Graduate Students

Graduate Student Survey – Demographics and Fields of Study

Students Don’t Apply to Many Graduate Programs

Getting Into Grad School – How to Improve Your Chances

Are Grad Students Happy?


Thinking About a Research PhD? Here’s Some Grad School Advice

Here’s some really good grad school advice from Slate’s Quora Contributor.

I could quibble with some of what’s said, but overall it has some very good insights that anybody considering the research doctorate path should heed.

Since the point of Gradschoolmatch is to help prospects focus on fit, that often means think more about the best programs for your interests, not necessarily about the ‘best school’. The following bit of insight from the article is particularly appropriate to highlight:

Choosing your institution is your least important choice.
Is a Ph.D. from Harvard any different than one from Fresno Tech? No—you are both called doctor. What matters is who you did your work under, not the name on your degree. Yes, the institution carries prestige, but it is your adviser’s connections and reputation in the community that matter the most. Additionally, you need to think about lifestyle a little bit. The stipends are pretty close to parity without regard to institution. This means your stipend is the same in Boston as it is in Bloomington, Indiana. Different parts of the country are more expensive than others—take this into consideration. Generally, save the big name-brand institutions for your postdoc. It looks better on your CV to show continued improvement in brand than it does to get you degree from a big name-brand and postdoc at a second- or third-tier institution.

A bit of advice for those of you at big-name institutions: You are good, you are working with some of the best in the field, and you should be proud of that. However, at every second-tier and third-tier university, there is someone there who is as good or better and smarter than you are. The first truly scary genius I ever met did not come from Harvard, Stanford, or MIT. She came from a third-tier school in North Dakota.



How To Recruit The Best Grad School Candidates On A Budget

Does your program want to recruit the best grad school students, but lacks the financial resources to do so? Specialized graduate programs often face the challenge of limited marketing budgets, a need to recruit nationally or even worldwide, and don’t have the infrastructure in place to reach the right audience of prospective students.

MBA programs typically do an excellent job of fostering relationships with students and bringing in a wide pool of applicants. However, MBA programs often have access to funds that smaller, more niche masters programs don’t have available.

How can resource-strapped masters programs recruit the best grad school students on a budget?

Focus on Precision, Not Scale

Many graduate programs seek to bring in hundreds of applicants, despite a small number of actual spots available. By attracting a large number of applicants and only selecting a handful, the program appears to be more selective, and therefore more appealing to students looking for a top program.

While scale hypothetically allows programs to choose from the best and brightest, focusing on scale is not the most cost-effective way to recruit the best students.

Programs with big budgets spend significant time and money on tools like Google AdWords to cast a wide net and bring awareness to as many students as possible. This practice is costly, and doesn’t necessarily yield the most qualified, interested applicants.

By honing focus on the right students, programs will spend less time and resources sifting through hundreds of applicants, and will have a smaller, more targeted pool of pre-qualified candidates from which to choose.

Boost Alumni Involvement

Alumni are not only a great source from which to gain donations, but they’re an excellent resource to assist in your program’s recruiting efforts, in which success is relationship driven. Use your program alumni to your advantage; have your alumni use their personal and professional networks to recruit on your program’s behalf.

Seek donations from program alumni specifically for recruiting and scholarships to help welcome the next generations of students to their alma mater. It’s proven that satisfied former students give back to their universities and programs; Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business received donations from an impressive 67% of their MBA alumni in 2010, showing an extremely high level of alumni participation and engagement.

Not just business schools receive a large volume of alumni donations; of U.S News’ 2014 report of colleges and universities with the highest alumni donations, 8 of the top 10 were small liberal arts schools.

Alumni can also bring in job opportunities for current program students. With more and more prospective graduate students concerned about post-grad job placement, encouraging an active alumni community on your campus can help self-promote your program’s offerings.

Utilize Resources That Provide the Most Value for the Money

While it’s almost impossible to effectively recruit prospective students for free, there are a variety of ways to meet and engage students that provides the most bang for your buck.

Many small graduate programs participate in a variety of interactive conferences and workshops to find applicants and engage with a niche group of prospective students. While travel costs can often add up, these conferences provide an efficient way to meet a variety of interested potential applicants at one time.

While we admit that it’s a shameless plug, Gradschoolmatch.com is a great way to vet students to determine those to seek out and begin a conversation with.

Our platform appeals to those programs that seek a large volume of applicants; with over 227,000 students registered on Gradschoolmatch, it’s easy to find the students that your program is looking for.

However, if your program is looking for very specific students that fit a set of criteria, it’s easy to search for students by GPA, graduate year, and field of academic interest, thus eliminating students who don’t fit the bill.

Our platform is also very affordable; compared with Google AdWords, where the cost of keywords for programs in some fields can reach upwards of $30 per click, Gradschoolmatch offers highly targeted matching with students that you personally pre-qualify. Gradschoolmatch allows a higher level of control in the recruiting process, leading to better applicants and greater return-on-investment for your program.

Like this article? Sign up for Gradschoolmatch blog updates, and visit us at Gradschoolmatch.com to start recruiting the best and brightest future graduate students.


How Valuable is Work Experience Before Grad School?

As we showed in a recent article, only 16% of graduate students immediately continue their education by enrolling in an advanced degree program straight out of their baccalaueate. Why do recent graduates shy away from a graduate education and go to work right out of school?

Many recent bachelor’s earners simply need a breather after four years of undergraduate work. Others are unsure of what path they want to take in graduate school, and aren’t willing to front the costs until more certain. A great reason for recent undergrads to delay an advanced degree is the desire to gain work experience due to the many personal and financial benefits that often result.

While work experience is not always required to apply to or succeed in postgraduate education, prospective students often underestimate how important it is when competing for increasingly more coveted seats in graduate school.


Why Does Work Experience Before Grad School Matter?

While not all master’s programs require work experience in order to be considered, it often gives candidates applying to competitive programs a serious edge.

For example, if you plan on getting your MBA, you can bank on needing work experience prior to applying. While most full-time programs prefer candidates to come in with 1-2 years of experience, students entering top-tier business schools have on average at least 3 years of work experience. At the Wharton School of Business, whose MBA program is ranked 3rd in the nation, students enter the program with a whopping 5-6 years of prior work experience.

In MBA programs, as well as many other master’s and Ph.D. programs, work experience is a differentiating factor in the admissions process. Program admissions directors use work experiences as a way to measure an applicant’s motivation for the field of study, and ensure they aren’t someone just experimenting with an idea that seems interesting.

Savvy applicants understand that program recruiters are looking for highly qualified candidates with work experience that sets them apart from the pack. Relevant work experience is also valuable to graduate programs because it adds depth and enriches the learning environment; if you don’t have any, you’re at a disadvantage because you are competing with peers who are more attractive in the admissions race.

Take it from Robert Farrington, a renowned expert on personal finance and college. His advice?

“Getting an MBA [is about] combining the degree with work experience. That’s what makes it extremely valuable. When I went to grad school, I was the youngest in my class. While this was amazing from a networking and learning perspective, I couldn’t contribute as much as others.”


Make It Count- Personal and Financial Benefits to Working Before Graduate School

It’s no secret that graduate school can be expensive. For an average 1-2 year master’s program, you’re looking to get set back between $30-40k.

Additionally, time in grad school is opportunity cost to earn a salary. In order to be able to more comfortably pay for a graduate education when the time is right, consider working for a few years to financially support yourself when you won’t have a steady income as a student.

After working and gaining experience,  you’ll also be in a better position to compete for scholarships when you do apply for graduate programs.

Don’t forget- many employers will pay for a master’s degree after a certain amount of time spent with the company, especially if more schooling beefs up a skillset that will make you a better asset to the company. While you might be itching to stay in school and get your master’s, consider how great it would be to have it completely paid for by your employer just a few years down the road.


The Bottom Line of Gaining Work Experience Before Grad School

While you might not take your dream job directly following undergrad, working for a few years, being accepted to a stronger graduate program, and excelling in your graduate education can lead to more lucrative job opportunities down the road.

Remember, those who possess a master’s degree are likely to earn much more income in their lifetime than their bachelor’s degree counterparts…and those with doctorates even more. Think about what you can do with a bit of work experience and admission into a top-tier graduate program because of it!

Like this article? Sign up for Gradschoolmatch blog updates, and visit us at Gradschoolmatch.com to start matching with graduate programs for free.


Does University Pedigree Matter?

Most prospective graduate students have the same concerns when applying to programs. Will I be able to afford graduate school? What types of jobs can I find post graduation? Will this program ultimately propel my career?

When choosing which graduate programs to apply to, many students focus on university pedigree as a major factor in their decision-making process. Through references stemming from popular culture, as well as societal notions and norms that having a degree from a top university makes you more likely to succeed and get a great job, more and more students are becoming concerned with attending the best, highest ranked schools possible.

The Impact of Rankings on Application Decisions

University and program rankings have a large impact on student perceptions; most notably, the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of Best Graduate Schools holds a lot of weight in the eyes of prospective graduate students.

According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, an improvement of one place in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings leads to a 1 percent increase in the number of applications a university receives. While this statistically represents a small impact, the larger implications on both graduate schools and prospective applicants is significant.

Dr. Don Martin, a former admissions dean at schools including Columbia and Northwestern, says that students are relying too heavily on rankings to make their decision, and not enough on what they are actually looking to get out of the program they choose.

“Sometimes a student chooses a graduate program based solely on the name of the institution,” Dr. Martin said. “The student does not conduct any additional research whatsoever. It is little wonder than individuals who choose their graduate program this way are often unhappily surprised and severely disappointed.”

When Does University Pedigree Matter?

The importance of graduate program rankings and perceived university pedigree is especially evident amongst law schools. The U.S News annual ranking of the nation’s top law schools is considered to be the single most influential factor in prospective students choosing and applying to law schools. However, the data from the report shouldn’t be the deciding factor when students are applying.

Edward Poll, a nationally acclaimed law firm management consultant, believes students who don’t attend the top schools still end up at good law firms. “Law school is important. Which one you go to is important. But other than the top 10, it really doesn’t matter,” Poll said. He also states the importance of getting solid experience, as well as gaining insight from a mentor, in order to land a job.

MBA programs are also heavily influenced by ranking systems. Businessweek is the ranking authority for MBA programs nationwide; a good ranking has the potential to increase the number of applicants to the program, allowing for increased selectivity and yield. From this stems a variety of other desirable benefits, such as the caliber of companies that recruit from the program, as well as the amount of money donated by alumni.

Students are increasingly attracted to MBA programs that can provide strong networking and career opportunities, and therefore place a lot of emphasis on choosing highly ranked programs.

The Bottom Line

Prospective graduate and Ph.D. students are placing too much weight on university pedigree and program rankings, and not enough emphasis on the programs that will provide them with the best career opportunities in their chosen field. Financial considerations should also be top-of-mind for students laden with undergraduate debt.

“The old advice to go to the highest ranked law school is far more questionable now,” says University of Cincinnati law professor Paul Caron. “Students need to factor in the financial side of things. Law school tuition and debt loads, combined with fewer job prospects, make this more important than ever.”

Students should be viewing the graduate school application process from a more holistic approach to choose the program that is right for them personally and financially. While U.S. News & World Report rankings, in addition to other ranking platforms, do hold weight to some employers, critics still believe students should make the decision that is best for them.

Says Greg Brandes, Dean of Faculty at Concord Law School: “You’re relying on the [ratings] authors to weigh the factors that will affect your decision, and their criteria might not be yours.”

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Program Spotlight: Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University


Gradschoolmatch recently sat down with Shane Hoon, Director of Admissions and Communications for the Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) Master of Arts Program at Georgetown University.

The CCT Program at Georgetown is unique in that it allows students to explore the relationship between rapidly changing technologies and cultures, with an emphasis on interrelations between government, media, business, and other entities on a global scale.

The program is also known for attracting students from a wide variety of disciplines; there is no standard career path for CCT graduates, with recent grads going into diverse fields including international affairs, public relations, and arts and entertainment.

Read Mr. Hoon’s take on what makes the CCT Program unique, what he looks for in potential applicants, and how he uses Gradschoolmatch.com to recruit the best and brightest students.


1. What are some of your main objectives as the Director of Admissions and Communications for the CCT program at Georgetown?

My main objective is to continue to identify innovative and talented students that are motivated to explore the themes of communication, culture and technology, through an interdisciplinary lens. In my role, I not only work with applicant candidates that are interested in pursuing graduate education here at Georgetown, but help students identify their long-term academic and professional goals as well. My purpose is to serve as a resource for graduate applicants and as an advocate for higher education and personal and professional development.


2. What are you looking for of applicants to the program?

we robot cctWe are looking for applicants that offer unique backgrounds and experiences that will compliment our already diverse and accomplished student population. Given that we are an interdisciplinary program, there is no standard or typical background for our candidates, as we actually encourage individuals with any array of knowledge, skills, and aptitudes.

However, what is most important for us, is that an applicant understand that CCT will [challenge them] to think outside of the box and to look at issues, ideas, and themes, in a variety of different ways. We want applicants that can demonstrate unique vision in how they approach issues and problem solve, regardless of their educational and professional background.


3. In what focus areas are you looking for the program to grow and improve in the next 5-7 years?

Given that CCT is still a relatively young degree program, celebrating our 20th year in 2016, we are still establishing our identity in many ways. However, part of what makes this M.A. program so unique and relevant is the fact that we are constantly growing and adapting to the professional world and our larger society and social needs.

We see ourselves as pioneers in this space, and over the next 5-7 years hope to advance even further in terms of our understanding of new technologies and how we use them in our everyday lives to communicate with one another and function in our worlds. We are constantly adapting and improving to keep up with the changes in society, so that we are not just being reactive, but proactive and thinking ahead to what is next and needed in the future.


4. Have you admitted any students to the program who might not have looked perfect on paper, but had an interesting skillset or contribution to make that piqued your interest? If so, what has their impact been?

Yes, of course. There have certainly been occasions where we have admitted students that otherwise may not have satisfied all of our requirements or standards, but instead, based on their experiences and what we felt they could contribute to our academic community here at CCT and Georgetown. Those individuals that we have admitted have not only been successful and impactful contributors to our program, but typically are some of the hardest working and most accomplished students and graduates that we have produced.

We encourage any applicant, regardless of her or his background to apply if they feel as though CCT is the right fit for them and that they could bring something unique or new to our community.


5. How effective and important is it to you to communicate with prospects before they apply?

Recruiting - HoonFor me, it is extremely important and effective for me to communicate with prospective students before they apply, and I encourage them to reciprocate this and communicate with me as well. This not only allows me to get to know them better and help them determine what their graduate career might look like during their time at CCT and Georgetown, but also after.

Furthermore, by talking with applicants before and during the application process, I can help them better understand their own goals, whether this program or perhaps another is the right fit, and also answer any questions they may have, so as they are knowledgeable, confident, and prepared when they make that decision to matriculate and join our community. Seeing as how graduate education truly is an investment in one’s academic and professional career, it is crucial that any candidate understand this process, what it means, what the program or school has to offer, and more importantly, what THEY have to offer as an applicant.


6. How useful is Gradschoolmatch to you and your program as a recruiting tool?

While we have only been with Gradschoolmatch for a few years now, it has already become an important recruiting tool for our program. Gradschoolmatch has aided in identifying and connecting us to potential applicants and individuals that may be great future students within our program and our program a great fit for them. By acting as a resource for graduate degree seeking students, Gradschoolmatch serves to connect us with students whose backgrounds and experiences would be appreciated and desired here within the CCT program.

From the student’s perspective, Gradschoolmatch also offers them a platform to help identify excellent universities and institutions that offer programs in the areas that they are interested. It is truly a win-win.

To learn more about the Communication, Culture, and Technology Master of Arts Program at Georgetown University, view the CCT program profile on Gradschoolmatch.com, as well as the video below.

Like this article? Sign up for Gradschoolmatch blog updates, and visit us at Gradschoolmatch.com to start recruiting the best and brightest future graduate students.