Last Updated: Jun 4, 2015
Graduate school students represent the cream of the academic crop. With hundreds of applicants but few available spots, an outstanding application is crucial to admission to a graduate program. While you can’t change certain aspects of your application, like the C+ you got in Anthropology 101 as a wide-eyed undergrad, there are a lot of things you can control, including your personal statement, your letters of recommendation, and the overall presentation of your application. A carefully prepared, thoughtful application will give you the best chance of admission to the program of your choice. Before you begin applying, check out this list of common graduate school application errors and, more importantly, ways to avoid them.
1. Informality, dude
Overly casual language or an informal tone may irk admission counselors. This isn’t to say you should strip your application of all passion and personality, but if you’re unsure of how you come off, always err on the side of formality. For starters, avoid slang and harsh language, spell out words, and use exclamation points sparingly. Similarly, be careful with trying to be cute or funny in your essay. These things can be effective when done clearly and cleverly, but keep in mind that humor might not translate well in written text, and an unfamiliar admission counselor might not appreciate your penchant for cat memes.
Along the same lines, don't write your personal statement as if the reader is your BFF. Too often, students include information that is inappropriate or irrelevant. A good essay is sincere and candid without revealing anything awkward or off-putting. A graduate school application is not the place to vent about a conflict over a grade with an undergraduate professor or detail the painful loss of your childhood guinea pig, Sir Reginald McWhiskerson.
3. One size doesn’t fit all
Applying to dozens of schools is a good idea in theory, but only if you are able to write a unique personal statement for each one. Submitting a generic essay is a quick way to lose the interest of an admission counselor. They want to know why you are the best candidate for their university, not just any graduate program. Make sure you research each program you are applying to and include specific details about why you would flourish there. For example, you could nerd out over an illustrious faculty member you are excited to work with or gush about their state-of-the-art laboratory equipment that can't be found elsewhere.
4. Excuses, excuses
Unfortunately, you can’t write notes in between the margins of your application to explain low grades, a low test score, or even a brush with the law. Some students, eager to assuage potential concerns, use their essays as an opportunity to address shortcomings. Rather than focus on your weaknesses, though, try to emphasize your strengths. If you do think you need to address something, keep your explanation short and positive or see if you can submit a brief additional personal statement. Admission counselors know you’re not perfect; no one is. What they are interested in is why you’ll be successful going forward.
5. Letters of “recommendation”
Obtaining letters of recommendation can be tricky. Professors and supervisors are busy people. But don't just ask whether a potential author has the time to write you a letter. It seems like a no-brainer, but you should make sure he or she is able to write you a flattering letter. An unfavorable letter of recommendation is as bad as having no letter at all, if not worse. A lukewarm or generic letter of recommendation is not great either. To avoid this, try to choose people who know you well, even if you have a more “impressive”—but less familiar—VIP you could possibly ask. In addition, be sure to include with your request your résumé, transcript, or any other relevant documents that will help your reference recall specific details about your strengths.
6. You rebel
Always follow the directions. Always. And don't forget that it’s easy to misread or overlook instructions, especially when you’re juggling multiple applications, each with its own requirements. Despite the challenges, it’s extremely important to follow application directions to the letter. For example, if there’s a word limit for the essay, follow it exactly, even if that means deleting a favorite (yet superfluous) paragraph. If you don’t adhere to an application’s guidelines, it raises questions about whether you’ll be able to follow policies and procedures once enrolled. So check, double-check, and, yes, triple-check all directions carefully.
7. Speling and grammer errorz
Whether you are applying for your master’s in literature or astrophysics, your spelling and grammar must be on point. Misspelled words and incorrect punctuation suggest poor attention to detail and subpar communication skills—not the qualities a school wants in future students. To avoid this, first, use spellcheck and review your work line by line. Once you are reasonably sure your application doesn't contain any errors, print it out, and read it again. Then take a break, and . . . read it again. And again. And probably one more time too. It’s also helpful to read your writing aloud to avoid glossing over mistakes. Finally, ask a qualified friend, family member, or colleague to proofread too.
8. Late to the party
Start your applications as soon as possible. That way you’ll give yourself ample time to deal with any glitches, and with all the moving parts, one or two are inevitable. Another benefit to a head start? Rolling admission processes accept applications only as long as slots are available, which means the earlier you apply, the higher your chance of acceptance.
9. The Stepford Applicant
You don't need to be perfect. No one is, and that’s okay. In fact, admission counselors expect it. If you try to make yourself seem too perfect, you may come off as insincere. Even worse, it could seem suspicious. And if you lie or embellish, you can get yourself into serious trouble. Don’t be yourself simply to avoid trouble, though. Be yourself because it will give you the best shot at acceptance. Honesty and sincerity are sought-after qualities that will shine through in your application. Don’t assume that graduate schools want flawless, cookie-cutter enrollees. Frequently, the most ideal candidates are the ones who are unique— shortcomings and all. Speak about yourself and your accomplishments with authority, candor, and pride, and the right school will be thrilled to have you.