Most Common Graduate School Application Mistakes

Most Common Graduate School Application Mistakes


Every year hundreds of thousands of applicants submit a graduate school application riddled with the same mistakes. These mistakes range in intensity from the mildly irritating to guaranteed rejections. Whether you’ve trolled the grad cafe forum or already spoken to your advisor about graduate school application tips, it behooves every single applicant to read through this list of the most common mistakes to avoid when preparing your application materials. Is it possible to get accepted if you don’t follow these rules? Sure, but you’re gambling your future by not doing everything in your power to get into your top choice program.

 

 

Not Being Active In Your Letters Of Recommendation

Perhaps it stems from how intimidating professors can be when you’re young, or maybe it’s a remnant from the days where only the most privileged elite were able to seek out higher education. No matter what the cause, the idea that you simply ask someone for a letter of recommendation and walk away is the ultimate application killer. When your application is stacked in a pile of hundreds (if not thousands) of equally qualified candidates, all with GRE scores and GPAs only a few points in either direction, the difference between a generic vs a great recommendation is the difference between an acceptance and a “We regret to inform you…”
You need to be involved in your letters of recommendation from day one. Make sure you ask your professors right way, give them a clear direction, and provide all the material they’ll need for a great letter. If you’re not sure how to do this, read through our guides on how to decide who to ask and how to get the best letter you can. If you were tasked with writing it yourself (as a draft or final copy), our how to write a recommendation letter should help you with the nuts and bolts of a recommendation letter.
For those who are still shy the three letters you need, our step by step guide on how to get into graduate school without letters of recommendation should be your first stop.

 

 

Placing Too Much Weight On Your GRE Score

If you search through the grad cafe forum and r/gradschool you’ll see applicants obsessing endlessly about the the GRE. Weeks, months– even a year or more of studying. While we’d never tell you not to study for the GRE (Magoosh is a great study resource), you need to know the limitations the GRE has in helping (or hurting) your applications.
First, there are definitely programs that won’t accept “low” GRE scores. If you’re absolutely set on going to MIT, a nearly perfect score on the general and subject exam is almost a non-negotiable. Are there people who get into their engineering programs with only 162 quant scores? Yes, but those people usually have flawless application materials: a compelling story, a perfect research fit, publications, and in the end–a lot of luck. Likewise, if you’re angling to get a PhD in economics from Harvard, you’re arguably even more restricted to >165 cut off for your quant score. These types of stringent standards aren’t the norm though.
For most programs, the GRE is highly overrated amongst applicants. They spend months preparing to take the exam, get close to the same score as everyone else anyway (that’s why it’s called an average), and leave precious little time to prepare the other (arguably more important) parts of the application. The truth is that as long as your score is in the ballpark of your target program, your time is usually better spent on other parts of the application. Researching good program fits, perfecting a beautiful statement of purpose, and working with professors on stunning letters of recommendation will all have a lot more return than increasing your score a couple points. If you think you can complete these other application materials in a few weeks, you’re not giving them the weight and respect they deserve. Rest assured this will come back to bite you in March.

 

 

Not Writing Statements of Purpose For Each Program

Even the most well intentioned forum posters seem to miscalculate this one, and it’s such a shame considering it’s the only part of your application packet you have 100% control over.
YES you need to write a completely unique, tailored, specific statement of purpose for each program. Every university webpage out there tells graduate applicants straight out that they need to explain why they want to attend THEIR program, and yet every year people keep spreading the misinformation that you can do that with a generic copy and paste statement. Your SoP needs to explain why you want to attend that program (specific faculty, department research scope, opportunities, program structure, etc) and how it matches with your background and goals. It’s possible you could get away with a copy/paste situation for one paragraph on your future goals (afterall, those won’t change from school to school). No two schools or programs are alike however, so the rest needs to be custom tailored from hours of research.
If you’ve ever wondered why you see profiles with 4.0 GPAs and 168 GRE scores getting rejected, while someone with a 3.7 and 159 was accepted–this mistake is probably why. Think of it this way, if you were on an admissions committee and you had a pool of 100 applicants who were all great students, but ten of them seemed like your program was their ultimate life dream while the other ninety seemed like they were applying just as a safety option: who would you rather accept?
If you’re not sure how to tailor your statement of purpose to perfection, you can read through our step by step guide.

 

 

Writing A Statement of Purpose As A Personal Statement

This mistake is correlated with the one above, but it’s a different beast all together. It’s very important that you read the exact wording for each document requested from you. Statements of Purpose are usually about getting to know you as a researcher, and they should be structured like a research proposal intertwined with reasons why you want to attend that program.
A personal statement is more emotional/historical in nature. It’s aimed at getting to know you as a person, rather than a researcher. This is where you’d delve into your history, background, and what you’d bring to the department culturally and socially.
Many applicants make the mistake of writing personal statement anecdotes in their statement of purpose, which is a huge mistake. If the program only asked for an SoP, it’s because they think your potential as a researcher should be more important than your background. It’s also possible that you may be able to add an optional diversity statement, which parallels the personal statement in many ways, so don’t waste precious SoP space discussing personal motivations.
The thing to keep in mind is that applying to graduate school is more like applying to a job than applying to an undergraduate program. You’re trying to convince them you can contribute professionally.
If your program only asks for a statement of purpose but you feel compelled to share personal (or explanatory) information, think about how you might be able to add it to your CV or diversity statement instead. Remember: YOUR STATEMENT OF PURPOSE IS NOT A SUMMARY OF YOUR RESUME. So you can really save on valuable space by adding smart details to your CV (which has no page limit). For example, instead of talking about your volunteer work in your statement, add it to your CV with a brief summary and some bullet points about what you learned. It will make you more interesting, plump up your CV, and let you focus on you as a researcher and why you want to attend that specific program in your statement.

 

 

Submitting A Lackluster & Disorganized CV

The CV needs to be well organized, easy to read, and provide enough research details to assess your fit for the prospective programs. A lot of applicants fall into two categories with their CV: they don’t put enough on it, or they put too much non-relevant information on it in an attempt to make up for little research experience.
Remember, a CV is an academic style resume. If you aren’t sure what that means, read our outline on the differences between a CV and a resume before you dive in. Once you get it put together, we highly recommend having a professor or at minimum a friend/current graduate student look it over to assess how readable it is.

 

 

Not Visualizing Your Application Packet As A Whole

Each element of your application would ideally say something completely different about you, with your CV being a common thread. Instead, most applicants find one or two gold stars they’re especially proud of and beat it to death on all aspects of their application. Maybe they’re applying to Art History PhD programs and spent a summer curating a gallery in NYC. They decide the best thing they can do is cram their  statement, CV, and letters of recommendation with the same details about this one particular job. Don’t misunderstand us, you definitely want to highlight things of particular relevance or prestige, but you also never want to look like you’re a one trick pony, or worse, that you just got lucky one time. Focus on a range of things: teaching experience, class performance, research (preferably more than one project/experience), and examples of maturity or self motivation. The more different examples you can give that speak to a variety of positive attributes, the more likely you will persuade the committee you’re the best candidate.

 

 

Not Proofreading!

It should go without saying, yet it doesn’t. Applicants dump hundreds of dollars, thousands of hours, and invest themselves emotionally into this process–only to submit materials that haven’t been meticulously proofread by at least 3 different people for grammatical and spelling errors. Usually this isn’t because they’re overtly irresponsible. Last minutes tweaks and perfectionist tendencies are to blame in most cases. Still, you need to get that out of the way early enough that you can proofread all your materials. Nothing will kill your glow of awesomeness faster than a your/you’re error and and the of to erroneous words.

 

 

Aiming Too High, Aiming Too Low, Aiming Anywhere

Deciding where to apply is one of the biggest factors for graduate school success. You need to apply to programs that are a good fit and aligned with your statistics–but you don’t want to discount yourself from top schools just because your history isn’t perfect.
Again, applicants tend to go to extremes in these situations. You have people who will apply to half a dozen top programs despite not having a very competitive GPA, GRE, or much research experience. Others with impressive CVs very well suited to a particular niche often don’t even bother applying to relevant top programs for silly reasons (like they went to a state university for undergrad). Lastly, and most irritatingly, you have people who will apply to as many places as they can afford, just desperately trying to get in anywhere that will accept them, which usually ends in disaster for obvious reasons.
You have to do your research when it comes to programs. If you don’t find programs that match you and your interests in some special way, you’re gambling with your applications.
Finally, apply to schools that are in your tier range, but don’t be persuaded to apply / not apply simply because the school is prestigious. In graduate school, university rankings don’t matter that much. It’s much more important to get into a good department and even more importantly, get set up with a good advisor. A PhD in Materials Science at UCSB is more competitive than one from Harvard–so don’t let the school name make your school list for you. If you want to focus on rankings, look at departments, not universities.
Do your research, match your interests, and writing an amazing statement of purpose will follow naturally.

 

 

Inaccurate Expectations

(1) Graduate school is all about research. Students choose professors, not just coursework. Graduate Students have two major goals on the path to graduation: passing the Preliminary / Qualifying Exam and choosing a thesis advisor. A common misunderstanding is that this decision can be delay, but in truth, you should know why you’re applying to this University, rather than another, and already have a good idea of who exactly you want to work with. This aligns with our previous discussion on how to approach the statement of purpose. Research as an undergraduate is required by most grad schools in part to help you clarify your interest in doing research while providing technical insight. There is no bigger application killer than a Graduate Student not knowing what they want. Grad school is not a place to find yourself.
(2) Graduate Students can be treated as slaves and academia is a complex administrative community filled with its own pettiness and social hierarchies. People skills are just as important as academic ability when it comes to being successful, and you should be aware of this going in. 
(3) Lastly, intellectual freedom is reserved for faculty members (the ones bringing in the money) and does not apply to graduate students in most cases. This doesn’t mean you won’t make your own decisions and work independently, but it does mean you should have realistic expectations when it comes to 

 

 

Good luck! If you have any questions please leave us a comment.

 

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Most Common Graduate School Application Mistakes

Most Common Graduate School Application Mistakes April 18th, 2016


Every year hundreds of thousands of applicants submit a graduate school application riddled with the same mistakes. These mistakes range in intensity from the mildly irritating to guaranteed rejections. Whether you’ve trolled the grad cafe forum or already spoken to your advisor about graduate school application tips, it behooves every single applicant to read through this list of the most common mistakes to avoid when preparing your application materials. Is it possible to get accepted if you don’t follow these rules? Sure, but you’re gambling your future by not doing everything in your power to get into your top choice program.

 

 

Not Being Active In Your Letters Of Recommendation

Perhaps it stems from how intimidating professors can be when you’re young, or maybe it’s a remnant from the days where only the most privileged elite were able to seek out higher education. No matter what the cause, the idea that you simply ask someone for a letter of recommendation and walk away is the ultimate application killer. When your application is stacked in a pile of hundreds (if not thousands) of equally qualified candidates, all with GRE scores and GPAs only a few points in either direction, the difference between a generic vs a great recommendation is the difference between an acceptance and a “We regret to inform you…”
You need to be involved in your letters of recommendation from day one. Make sure you ask your professors right way, give them a clear direction, and provide all the material they’ll need for a great letter. If you’re not sure how to do this, read through our guides on how to decide who to ask and how to get the best letter you can. If you were tasked with writing it yourself (as a draft or final copy), our how to write a recommendation letter should help you with the nuts and bolts of a recommendation letter.
For those who are still shy the three letters you need, our step by step guide on how to get into graduate school without letters of recommendation should be your first stop.

 

 

Placing Too Much Weight On Your GRE Score

If you search through the grad cafe forum and r/gradschool you’ll see applicants obsessing endlessly about the the GRE. Weeks, months– even a year or more of studying. While we’d never tell you not to study for the GRE (Magoosh is a great study resource), you need to know the limitations the GRE has in helping (or hurting) your applications.
First, there are definitely programs that won’t accept “low” GRE scores. If you’re absolutely set on going to MIT, a nearly perfect score on the general and subject exam is almost a non-negotiable. Are there people who get into their engineering programs with only 162 quant scores? Yes, but those people usually have flawless application materials: a compelling story, a perfect research fit, publications, and in the end–a lot of luck. Likewise, if you’re angling to get a PhD in economics from Harvard, you’re arguably even more restricted to >165 cut off for your quant score. These types of stringent standards aren’t the norm though.
For most programs, the GRE is highly overrated amongst applicants. They spend months preparing to take the exam, get close to the same score as everyone else anyway (that’s why it’s called an average), and leave precious little time to prepare the other (arguably more important) parts of the application. The truth is that as long as your score is in the ballpark of your target program, your time is usually better spent on other parts of the application. Researching good program fits, perfecting a beautiful statement of purpose, and working with professors on stunning letters of recommendation will all have a lot more return than increasing your score a couple points. If you think you can complete these other application materials in a few weeks, you’re not giving them the weight and respect they deserve. Rest assured this will come back to bite you in March.

 

 

Not Writing Statements of Purpose For Each Program

Even the most well intentioned forum posters seem to miscalculate this one, and it’s such a shame considering it’s the only part of your application packet you have 100% control over.
YES you need to write a completely unique, tailored, specific statement of purpose for each program. Every university webpage out there tells graduate applicants straight out that they need to explain why they want to attend THEIR program, and yet every year people keep spreading the misinformation that you can do that with a generic copy and paste statement. Your SoP needs to explain why you want to attend that program (specific faculty, department research scope, opportunities, program structure, etc) and how it matches with your background and goals. It’s possible you could get away with a copy/paste situation for one paragraph on your future goals (afterall, those won’t change from school to school). No two schools or programs are alike however, so the rest needs to be custom tailored from hours of research.
If you’ve ever wondered why you see profiles with 4.0 GPAs and 168 GRE scores getting rejected, while someone with a 3.7 and 159 was accepted–this mistake is probably why. Think of it this way, if you were on an admissions committee and you had a pool of 100 applicants who were all great students, but ten of them seemed like your program was their ultimate life dream while the other ninety seemed like they were applying just as a safety option: who would you rather accept?
If you’re not sure how to tailor your statement of purpose to perfection, you can read through our step by step guide.

 

 

Writing A Statement of Purpose As A Personal Statement

This mistake is correlated with the one above, but it’s a different beast all together. It’s very important that you read the exact wording for each document requested from you. Statements of Purpose are usually about getting to know you as a researcher, and they should be structured like a research proposal intertwined with reasons why you want to attend that program.
A personal statement is more emotional/historical in nature. It’s aimed at getting to know you as a person, rather than a researcher. This is where you’d delve into your history, background, and what you’d bring to the department culturally and socially.
Many applicants make the mistake of writing personal statement anecdotes in their statement of purpose, which is a huge mistake. If the program only asked for an SoP, it’s because they think your potential as a researcher should be more important than your background. It’s also possible that you may be able to add an optional diversity statement, which parallels the personal statement in many ways, so don’t waste precious SoP space discussing personal motivations.
The thing to keep in mind is that applying to graduate school is more like applying to a job than applying to an undergraduate program. You’re trying to convince them you can contribute professionally.
If your program only asks for a statement of purpose but you feel compelled to share personal (or explanatory) information, think about how you might be able to add it to your CV or diversity statement instead. Remember: YOUR STATEMENT OF PURPOSE IS NOT A SUMMARY OF YOUR RESUME. So you can really save on valuable space by adding smart details to your CV (which has no page limit). For example, instead of talking about your volunteer work in your statement, add it to your CV with a brief summary and some bullet points about what you learned. It will make you more interesting, plump up your CV, and let you focus on you as a researcher and why you want to attend that specific program in your statement.

 

 

Submitting A Lackluster & Disorganized CV

The CV needs to be well organized, easy to read, and provide enough research details to assess your fit for the prospective programs. A lot of applicants fall into two categories with their CV: they don’t put enough on it, or they put too much non-relevant information on it in an attempt to make up for little research experience.
Remember, a CV is an academic style resume. If you aren’t sure what that means, read our outline on the differences between a CV and a resume before you dive in. Once you get it put together, we highly recommend having a professor or at minimum a friend/current graduate student look it over to assess how readable it is.

 

 

Not Visualizing Your Application Packet As A Whole

Each element of your application would ideally say something completely different about you, with your CV being a common thread. Instead, most applicants find one or two gold stars they’re especially proud of and beat it to death on all aspects of their application. Maybe they’re applying to Art History PhD programs and spent a summer curating a gallery in NYC. They decide the best thing they can do is cram their  statement, CV, and letters of recommendation with the same details about this one particular job. Don’t misunderstand us, you definitely want to highlight things of particular relevance or prestige, but you also never want to look like you’re a one trick pony, or worse, that you just got lucky one time. Focus on a range of things: teaching experience, class performance, research (preferably more than one project/experience), and examples of maturity or self motivation. The more different examples you can give that speak to a variety of positive attributes, the more likely you will persuade the committee you’re the best candidate.

 

 

Not Proofreading!

It should go without saying, yet it doesn’t. Applicants dump hundreds of dollars, thousands of hours, and invest themselves emotionally into this process–only to submit materials that haven’t been meticulously proofread by at least 3 different people for grammatical and spelling errors. Usually this isn’t because they’re overtly irresponsible. Last minutes tweaks and perfectionist tendencies are to blame in most cases. Still, you need to get that out of the way early enough that you can proofread all your materials. Nothing will kill your glow of awesomeness faster than a your/you’re error and and the of to erroneous words.

 

 

Aiming Too High, Aiming Too Low, Aiming Anywhere

Deciding where to apply is one of the biggest factors for graduate school success. You need to apply to programs that are a good fit and aligned with your statistics–but you don’t want to discount yourself from top schools just because your history isn’t perfect.
Again, applicants tend to go to extremes in these situations. You have people who will apply to half a dozen top programs despite not having a very competitive GPA, GRE, or much research experience. Others with impressive CVs very well suited to a particular niche often don’t even bother applying to relevant top programs for silly reasons (like they went to a state university for undergrad). Lastly, and most irritatingly, you have people who will apply to as many places as they can afford, just desperately trying to get in anywhere that will accept them, which usually ends in disaster for obvious reasons.
You have to do your research when it comes to programs. If you don’t find programs that match you and your interests in some special way, you’re gambling with your applications.
Finally, apply to schools that are in your tier range, but don’t be persuaded to apply / not apply simply because the school is prestigious. In graduate school, university rankings don’t matter that much. It’s much more important to get into a good department and even more importantly, get set up with a good advisor. A PhD in Materials Science at UCSB is more competitive than one from Harvard–so don’t let the school name make your school list for you. If you want to focus on rankings, look at departments, not universities.
Do your research, match your interests, and writing an amazing statement of purpose will follow naturally.

 

 

Inaccurate Expectations

(1) Graduate school is all about research. Students choose professors, not just coursework. Graduate Students have two major goals on the path to graduation: passing the Preliminary / Qualifying Exam and choosing a thesis advisor. A common misunderstanding is that this decision can be delay, but in truth, you should know why you’re applying to this University, rather than another, and already have a good idea of who exactly you want to work with. This aligns with our previous discussion on how to approach the statement of purpose. Research as an undergraduate is required by most grad schools in part to help you clarify your interest in doing research while providing technical insight. There is no bigger application killer than a Graduate Student not knowing what they want. Grad school is not a place to find yourself.
(2) Graduate Students can be treated as slaves and academia is a complex administrative community filled with its own pettiness and social hierarchies. People skills are just as important as academic ability when it comes to being successful, and you should be aware of this going in. 
(3) Lastly, intellectual freedom is reserved for faculty members (the ones bringing in the money) and does not apply to graduate students in most cases. This doesn’t mean you won’t make your own decisions and work independently, but it does mean you should have realistic expectations when it comes to 

 

 

Good luck! If you have any questions please leave us a comment.

 

By
@
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