The Top 10 Mistakes People Make on their Graduate School Applications

Uncover the top 10 common mistakes that applicants often make on their graduate school applications to help you avoid these pitfalls, strengthen your application, and increase your chances of admission success.

Indrani S.

By Indrani S.

Posted May 18, 2023

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Applying to graduate school is a slog. The details, time-consuming writing, and strict deadlines can easily become overwhelming and stressful. It’s imperative that you give it your best shot, so here is a list of common errors people make during the process. This list can apply to any type of graduate program – master’s, Ph.D., Law, … you name it!

Mistake 1: Applying blindly

When I worked in graduate admissions at Stanford, I recall reading personal statements that focused on fields we didn’t even offer. Curricula were publicly accessible and it was clear these applicants didn’t review our courses before applying. Why would we admit someone with a passion for something we didn’t offer, or someone who didn’t take the time to find out?

Mistake 2: Being too vague

Tailoring your personal statement to an individual school can pack a punch. However, saying things like, “Attending a school with world-renowned faculty and brilliant students…” is not specific enough. If you can swap out one school for another at the end of your essay, it’s not even worth the effort. Do some research and be more specific.

Mistake 3: Asking the wrong people to write letters of recommendation

A recommendation letter that shows no understanding of your values or core skills is not helpful. The title of the person writing the letter means less than you may think, but there are some unwritten rules: professors that have tenured positions > adjunct professors. Any professor > employers. However, if you have been out of school for more than three years, a letter or two from an employer is fine, but ideally, you will have at least one professor in the mix.

Mistake 4: Leaving your resume ‘as-is’

The resume that your career center helped you with is not what admissions committees are looking for. For example, a whole section on ‘technical skills’ that include things like MS Office Suite, Slack, and Adobe takes up valuable space and probably isn’t relevant. Flesh out your work experience and add some personal information like hobbies and interests in lieu of technical jargon or a career-focused summary statement

Mistake 5: Providing TMI

Most programs request a personal statement to help them assess your potential as a graduate student. But what are they actually looking for? Sometimes people go into a personal obstacle that they have overcome. This can work, but you need to tread lightly. Think of the admissions officer’s job as a risk assessment professional. The question they ask as they read your file is: “If I admit this person, is there a risk they may not thrive?” The key is to touch on the topic in such a way that you come out stronger than you were before. Admissions officers will not offer you a seat because they feel sorry for you—a sob story won’t work.

Mistake 6: Not getting to the point

I understand that you may have experienced an impactful situation when you were six years old. But filling up one page of a two-page essay about this will backfire on you. As an admissions officer, if I don’t know the point of the essay within the first paragraph, I push it aside and pick up the next one. The topic of your essay doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is 100% relevant to your inspiration for attending graduate school.

Mistake 7: Regurgitating your resume in your essay

If your resume is in good shape, it will provide plenty of compelling information. Each item in your application package should provide unique information that the committee won’t find elsewhere. Using your essay to rehash the activities on your resume is a waste of time and energy, and it is boring for the committee to read!

Mistake 8: Submitting more because you can

Schools may give the option to include additional materials like a diversity statement, extra essays, or short answers. If you read an optional essay prompt and think, “How the heck will I answer this question?”, it may be best to skip it. Similarly, even though a personal statement can be up to four pages long – do you really need it to be? Admissions readers appreciate brevity!

Mistake 9: Typos

When I worked at Stanford, it was laughable how many times I would get to the bottom line of an essay and read something like, “And for these reasons, UC Berkeley is my top choice.” Have at least one extra set of eyes (a coach, a parent, a friend) check for spelling and grammar mistakes before you submit. Although a minor typo may not ruin your chances of admission, it could. It all depends on who is reading the file.

Mistake 10: Reddit

Spending time on Reddit threads will only make you anxious. Joe Schmoe’s experience has nothing to do with yours! After you submit your applications, try to distract yourself in other ways so you don’t make yourself crazy waiting. Reddit is a rabbit hole that won’t help you with this process.

Applying to graduate school is detailed, complex, and stressful. Stay organized, manage your time, and meet your deadlines! If you’d like to work with me on anything related to law or graduate school admissions, head to my profile to book a free intro call. I’d love to help you reach your goals!

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