Here’s how to alienate the admissions committee, annoy references or worse – and what to do instead.

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Ever wondered how to torpedo your chance at graduate school and wreck an application? Here’s how to alienate the admissions committee, annoy references or worse — and what to do instead.


Ignore the directions

“It’s boring but obvious,” says Marie Boisvert, director of graduate admissions at Pacific Lutheran University. If you can’t follow the directions regarding dates, essay prompts or supplemental materials, you may not be a good fit for your target school.

Miss deadlines

“The deadline date isn’t the date you start the application process, it means you’re done,” says Kelly McGovern, director of the graduate program within Washington State University’s College of Education. She’s dealt with her share of applicant stragglers who call, email and walk in with deadline questions – on deadline day. Late applicants must compete for any openings that may — or may not — remain after top choices are admitted.

Forget your manners

Don’t write curt emails or act dismissively toward anyone, including graduate program receptionists. Boisvert uses a dating analogy: “How you treat the waiter or waitress on a date could be seen as a red flag, and the same can be said of the graduate application process if you’re rude to admissions staff.”

Pester professors

Don’t spam busy professors or admissions staff with questions you can find answers to online, or with vague questions about the program. On your own, discover research interests, areas of specialization and other narrower fields of inquiry before reaching out or appearing like a needy, demanding student. “Just like in life, resolve at the lowest level possible,” Boisvert says. Don’t email a professor to inquire about a deadline date.

Go negative

“If you’re concerned about something, if you keep it positive, that attitude goes so far,” Boisvert says. An example of a positive e-mail: “I know you guys must be busy, but I need clarification on (X). Thank you for your time.” Doing so demonstrates that you know how to navigate issues, even those with notable ambiguity. “It’s one of the skills you need to be successful in grad school: to get what you want and not alienate people.”

Let your ego lead

When asked why you want to participate in a program, check your ego. Not “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, because I like my summers off,” but how learning can help inspire children, or a deeper, more meaningful explanation. “Graduate school is connecting you to a larger good, not just satisfying you personally,” Boisvert says.


Procrastinate on references

“Approach references before starting the application,” McGovern says. Upon filling out the Common application, a reference request automatically goes to the referee’s email. Contact your reference, ask whether they’re willing and excited to refer you, and ensure that they’re aware of the deadline.

Think generic

“A letter has to capture your character and what’s unique about you, or it’s not productive,” says Todd Faubion, a Seattle-based independent education advisor focused on graduate school admissions. If you don’t have anyone you can ask for a personalized letter, it’s a red flag to the program. “Letters convey your ability to form relationships that matter,” he says.


Be too brief

Stay within the word count, but avoid any “personal statement that has one sentence, which has been more common than I’d like to admit,” McGovern says. “It would be nice if an applicant takes the process professionally, as this is a job they’re going to do for next one to 10 years.”

Stay sloppy

“You need to apply as a strong writer,” Faubion says. “If you have poor writing skills and poor grammar, your application will be pitched right away.” Most applicants don’t understand the limits of their writing skills, he notes. Ask a strong editor to read over your personal statement, red pen in hand.

Write a wandering essay

“Every paragraph should have a point, or I don’t want to see it,” Faubion says. “Brevity is an important skill, and you should always be clear about the point you’re making. If the point isn’t evident, you leave meaning up to interpretation.” Another question to go into what you’re writing is “so what?” he says: “What’s the added value of what I’ve just said?”

Get too personal

A personal vignette shouldn’t sound like a therapy session. “I think sympathy can be very powerful,” Faubion says, as long as you connect to skills. “For example, if a student is a first-generation college graduate, and managed to do this despite childhood poverty and an abusive father, this demonstrates tenacity and offers experiences that will potentially greatly enrich the program. But it needs to be about what is — or has become — a character strength as opposed to just telling a sad story.”