7 Deadly Sins for Graduate School Applicants

Author, Enrollment Expert

After spending nearly three decades in admission, this grad school expert knows what's up—including those big-time mistakes that can send your grad school application straight to the trash.

During my 28 years as Dean of Admissions at Columbia University (Teachers College), University of Chicago (Booth School of Business), and Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism), I read thousands of applications.

Making graduate admission decisions was daunting. But I believed that if an applicant invested time in applying, it was my responsibility to invest time in giving them a full and fair assessment. I made a point to consider every detail that would aid in making the final admission decision. It didn’t take long for me to notice certain trends pop up amongst my grad school applicants—trends both positive and negative.

Over the years it also became apparent that some of these negative trends were almost a guaranteed “kiss of death” for prospective graduate school students. Here I’ve dubbed them the Seven Deadly Sins. In your graduate school applications (and in life), I suggest avoiding them at all costs.

Deadly sin #1: Misrepresenting the facts

I believe individuals who are less than honest in the application process are not necessarily dishonest people. Because admission to graduate school is especially competitive, candidates sometimes yield to pressure to take certain "liberties" with the facts, because they believe their grad school application won’t be as impressive as their peers.

While suspicious embellishment on your graduate application will certainly weaken your chances, I assure you, fabrication will kill it. I recall one applicant who said he was a Navy Seal, a piano virtuoso, and had won a national humanitarian award. Naturally, I was very impressed. Unfortunately, none of it was true.

As the saying goes, "just say no" when tempted to exaggerate or misrepresent facts on your grad school applications. It’s never worth it. And we always find out.

Related: What Graduate Admission Counselors Want to See in Your Grad School Application

Deadly sin #2: Rude or arrogant behavior

Graduate schools have high expectations for the students they accept into their programs. Thus, there is never an excuse for less-than-polite or immature behavior. Yes, we all have bad days. But when interacting with the graduate admission office in any capacity, it is imperative that you be professional, courteous, and accommodating.

Admission committees value personal character and confidence. But remember that over-confidence can easily be interpreted as arrogance, so be careful. Be self-assured but avoid conceit. A splash of humility doesn't hurt either.

Deadly sin #3: Too much contact

If you have a legitimate question, by all means, ask the graduate admission office. But don't overdo it. Avoid excessive contact or weekly e-mails reminding the admission committee of your "strong interest." Graduate applicants need to successfully walk the line between persistence and annoyance. The latter is often interpreted as desperation and will lessen your appeal. 

Deadly sin #4: Not following directions

Those of you following my grad school posts here on CollegeXpress might recall that I mentioned the importance of following directions in my last post, “7 Ways to Shine as  Grad School Applicant.” So why would I bring this up again? Because grad school applicants ignore the directions all the time.

If you are asked to submit a 750-word essay, don't submit 1,000 words. If you are asked for two letters of recommendation, don't send seven—don’t even send three. Though it may not seem like a big deal, this behavior begs the question: if you cannot follow simple directions on the application, how will you follow directions and procedures as a student?

Deadly sin #5: Sending erroneous and/or unedited information

There is no excuse for sending grad school application essays that have numerous misspellings or grammatical errors. Let spellcheck be your friend, but always proofread your work, checking specifically for grammar errors. Have someone else review your applications too.

Most of all, double-check the school names (and mailing addresses) before sending in your applications. Let's say you're applying to the MA program at XYZ University in Florida and also to the MA program at ABC State in Ohio. If you send the Florida essay to Ohio, you may as well remove Florida from your list, because they will remove you from theirs. (Believe me, it happens.)

Deadly sin #6: Asking questions you could answer yourself

Do your homework and take the time to know the basics (at the very least!) of the graduate programs you’re applying to. Steer clear of asking questions you can easily find answers to on your own, such as "What are your application deadlines?" or "Do you offer financial aid?" When an applicant asked me these questions, I made a note for future reference—and not because I was impressed. 

However, if there are aspects of a program of particular interest to you, such as a study aboard component, it's perfectly acceptable to ask for more details. This shows that you are taking the time to look deeper into the program's offerings and considering what makes the school special.

Deadly sin #7: Leaving something unaddressed or making excuses

If there is something about your application you believe needs explaining (a gap in employment, a low undergraduate GPA), be sure to address it head on. Otherwise, the admission committee may think you are hiding something. But when you do address it, don't make excuses. Provide an explanation and offer to provide more information if needed/requested.

Feel free to share your questions in the comments below. You can also check out my website, and/or to join me on Twitter.

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