Making admission decisions is hard. We know because we’ve done it: In our over 50 years of collective experience in higher education and admission, we’ve read thousands of applications. As the former heads of graduate admission at several top-tier schools, we know how tough it can be to choose among so many applicants who, in so many ways, are worthy of admission. Unfortunately, some candidates—who by so many measures would have been great additions to a school—disqualify themselves and make the admission committee’s “deny” decision fairly easy. How do they do that? The most common behaviors we regularly saw working in graduate admission are presented here as our “seven deadly sins” for grad school applicants—things to avoid in your applications and admission process (and in life).
1. Misrepresenting the facts
Individuals who are less than honest in the application process are not necessarily dishonest people. Because graduate school admission is especially competitive, candidates can yield to the pressure that comes from believing what they bring to the admission committee is not as impressive as what others may offer—so they take certain liberties with the facts. While suspicious embellishment of your application will certainly weaken your chances, fabrication will kill them. We can recall one applicant who said he was a Navy SEAL, a piano virtuoso, and had won a national humanitarian award. Naturally, these would be very impressive credentials. Unfortunately, none of it was true. As the old saying goes, “Just say no” when tempted to exaggerate or misrepresent the facts in your application.
2. Rude or arrogant behavior
Graduate schools have high expectations for their students, so there's never an excuse for less than polite or immature behavior, especially during the admissions process. Yes, we all have bad days. But when interacting with the admission office in any capacity, it is imperative to be professional, courteous, and accommodating. Admission committees highly value personal character and confidence, but one’s confidence can easily be interpreted by others as arrogance, so be careful. Demonstrate confidence but avoid conceit. A splash of humility doesn’t hurt. In fact, it may show authentic confidence.
3. Too much contact
If you have a legitimate question, by all means, ask the admission office. But don’t overdo it. Avoid excessive contact or weekly emails 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.
4. Not following directions
Following directions is an easy way to be positively noticed. If you’re asked to submit a 750-word essay, don’t submit 1,000 words. If you’re asked for two letters of recommendation, don’t send three. This behavior begs the question: if you can’t follow simple directions on the application, how will you follow directions and procedures as a student? Do exactly what the application asks and you can't go wrong.
5. Sending wrong or unproofed information
There is no excuse for sending application essays that have numerous misspelled words or grammatical errors. Let spellcheck be your friend, but always proofread your work, checking specifically for grammar. Have someone else review your applications too. Be sure to double-check that you’re submitting the correct essays in each of your applications as well. For example, let’s say you’re applying to master’s programs at a university in Florida and a university in Ohio. If you submit the Florida essay in your application to Ohio—or even if there’s an inadvertent Florida reference in your Ohio application essay—you may as well remove Florida from your list, because they’ll be removing you from theirs. Believe us, it happens a lot.
6. Asking questions you could answer yourself
Do your homework and take time to know the basics. 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 applicants asked us basic questions like these, we always made a note for future reference—and not because we were impressed. However, if there are specific aspects of a program that are of particular interest to you—maybe, for example, a study abroad program—it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for more details. This shows you’ve taken the time to look deeper into the program’s offerings and are considering a variety of elements that make that program special.
7. Leaving something unaddressed or making excuses
If there’s something about your grad school application that you believe needs explaining (perhaps a gap in employment or a low undergraduate GPA), be sure to address it head-on. Otherwise, the admission committee may think you are hiding something. When you do address it, don’t make excuses. Provide an explanation and offer to provide more information if needed or requested.
Unfortunately, making these mistakes could cost you your grad school acceptance. But the good news is that these are easily avoidable situations that you have the power to evade by taking your time, showing care in your applications, and putting your best foot forward during the admission process. Just remember these “sins” and you’ll look like a saint to any grad school admission committee.
If you want a preview of what grad school will be like compared to your previous college experience, check out our article Great Expectations: How Grad School Differs From Undergrad.