Grad School Apps – Five Kisses of Death

If you are a prospective PhD student, you will probably be spending these next couple of weeks putting the finishing touches on your graduate school applications. With looming deadlines for fall admission, the majority of applications will be due in December or January.

Now might be a good time to read a research article from Teaching of Psychology (Appleby & Appleby, 2006). In this qualitative study, chairs of admissions committees were asked to provide detailed examples of “kisses of death” they had encountered when reviewing a candidate’s application materials. In this study, “kisses of death” were defined as “aberrant types of information that cause graduate admissions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants.” From these responses, Appleby and Appleby categorized their findings into five broad themes.

While this study specifically focused on psychology graduate programs, the results can be applicable to all types of graduate programs. The findings were interesting and can be important reminders for all applicants.

The five kisses of death in the graduate school application process are:

  1. Inappropriate Personal Statements
    Many falsely interpret a personal statement at face value and view this document as an opportunity to share personal and private information instead of addressing research interests and their perceived fit with the program. Rather than focusing on your personal characteristics and motives, the authors of study suggest focusing on your qualifications for graduate study and the professional activities and experiences that have prepared you for this next step.
  2. Damaging Letters of Recommendation
    First and foremost, make sure that your letter writer is an appropriate reference. If you seek recommendation letters from a family friend, minister, or other personal contact, this could potentially raise a red flag with the admissions committee. Make sure you choose professors and research mentors who not only know you very well, but also who you are sure will write positively about your qualifications. Don’t be shy about explicitly asking if the letter will be strong.
  3. Lack of Information About the Program
    The importance of researching the focus of each program cannot be overemphasized. Studying key research interests of current faculty is also crucial. Your application will not be successful if you use generic statements for each different school/program.
  4. Poor Writing Skills
    Sure, writing skills can be improved over time and with practice. However, if you are applying to graduate school, admissions committees expect your writing to be of a certain caliber already. Also, any type of spelling or grammatical error in your application is completely unacceptable. Proofread and ask others to read through your materials as well.
  1. Misfired Attempts to Impress
    Attempts to impress the admissions committee often go awry when they are seen as insincere (such as, complimenting the program in an excessive way); inappropriate (blaming others such as your undergraduate institution for your poor academic performance); and arrogant (touting family connections by name dropping).

Even intelligent, qualified and motivated applicants can make simple mistakes in their application. So, try your best to avoid these five pitfalls! If you want to read full article, it can be found here: Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 19-24.

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