Common Grad School Application Mistakes — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
7 min readMar 31, 2023

As you embark on the exciting journey of applying for graduate school, make sure to watch out for the common grad school application mistakes that can unexpectedly sabotage your immediate future.

Don’t worry if these mistakes sound familiar — everyone has probably made each one at least once — but don’t skimp on applying due diligence to avoid them next time! Get ready to laugh (or cry) at some of the most embarrassing grad school “oopsies” as we walk through what not to do during the application process.

Waiting until the last minute

If you want to get into the graduate school of your dreams, don’t rush it. You would be wise to give yourself at least a year or preferably six months ahead of time to prepare adequately and have better chances with your GRE scores and glowing letters of recommendation. If you made up your mind about going to grad school, you need to act now. Do not linger on your decision and make sure you complete all the necessary tasks needed to fulfill your goal. To guarantee success, take the time to write down important due dates and deadlines in your calendar. Doing this will help you stay on top of important tasks! ( Pssst! Feel free to download our free timeline if you’re looking for a quick fix.)

Don’t procrastinate when it comes to preparing for the GRE! Schedule an achievable study plan and pick a date that works with your timeline.

Flipped out about staying on track? Reach out to someone who understands this journey well and enlist their assistance when mapping out your schedule or creating task lists.

Getting too personal

Your statement of purpose/personal statement is not the place for TMI or oversharing. Keep the personal stuff to a minimum. Your essay should showcase how your unique personality perfectly aligns with the academic expectations and rigorousness of the department. Refrain from mentioning individual psychological health issues, unveiling too much about yourself professionally or personally, topics that are not suitable for a professional setting, expressing excessively generous intentions, and excessively referencing religion.

Represent yourself authentically, while simultaneously conveying your educational ambitions and professional aspirations. By doing so, you’ll demonstrate that you’re an ideal fit for this program. Your graduate school application is not the time or place for grandiose claims about changing the world, so be specific regarding your objectives and deliver a realistic, straightforward, yet authentic depiction of your academic interests as well as research interests.

Disregarding the instructions

To ensure that your application stands out from the others and remains on top of the admitted list, be sure to provide exactly what is requested. One of the most common grad school application mistakes consist in quickly scanning the requirements on a program’s website. Submitting a carefully crafted portfolio tailored to your target programs’ requirements will demonstrate your commitment and dedication — don’t miss this opportunity! Make sure to approach each question on the application with clear and in-depth answers, including pertinent examples. Paying attention to details will demonstrate your respect for authority, rather than any display of arrogance or forgetfulness.

Selecting programs randomly

Investing your time and money in a program or school should not be done lightly. To ensure you choose the one that is right for you, do your due diligence: don’t base your grad program choices solely on rankings, location, or accreditation status. You must carefully prepare to make sure it fits with what you want out of this investment.

To gain a deeper understanding of the school and its program, connect with your future department. Chatting with students and professors in the program will give you an idea of what’s ahead-and whether or not it’s right for you.

It’s your life-your hard-earned money, and education. Don’t just settle for any program simply because it looks nice or is conveniently located; take the time to discern which choice fits you best.

If you don’t have a thorough grasp of the program to which you are applying, it could give the impression that your interest is shallow and that you’re simply desperate for admittance into any graduate school. You need to understand what you are signing up for and programs expect this too!

Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the program by studying its specializations and faculty. Researching its disciplines not only shows how you fit but also reveals how eager you are to be a part of it.

Rushing the writing of your SOP

Crafting a flawless grad school essay is no easy feat-it’s your chance to showcase who you are, and it could be the deciding factor in getting admitted.

Your essay should not just be a flashy rehash of your resume. A quickly written SOP ranks at number one among the most common grad school application mistakes. Keep in mind that your SOP must embody and articulate who you are and why you feel compelled to continue on the path toward graduate school. Tell a story that reveals your passions, strengths, motivations, and aspirations — something that will set you apart from other applicants.

When telling your story, keep your language simple and comprehensible. There’s no need to try to sound more sophisticated than you are; people value authenticity over flowery words! When creating content, aim to touch on topics that resonate with a wide range of audiences while avoiding heated debates. Instead of boasting, give your readers an inside look at what you think and feel about certain matters. Ensure that your essay is impeccably polished before submitting it — triple-check for errors and typos.

Finally, don’t forget to make sure that your essay is formatted properly and in accordance with the program’s requirements.

Selecting recommenders that won’t have your back

It’s essential to give your recommenders plenty of lead time for them to craft exceptional letters. Look into providing at least three months rather than mere weeks when possible.

Start early to acquire impressive graduate school references from respected sources that can attest to your work ethic, intelligence, originality, and capacity for success within a graduate program.

Finding the right people to write your recommendations isn’t easy.

When selecting people to write letters of recommendation for you, don’t just settle for someone simply because they have an impressive name and a broad network. Rather, prioritize those who understand your work ethic and can vouch for your abilities in their respected roles at the institution or job. The prestige of the person may be nice but what really matters is the contents of that letter-so select wisely!

You must acquire references from reputable sources such as professors, employers, and prominent figures in the field that have a strong connection with you and will make positive remarks about your character.

Obtaining the ideal letter of recommendation is a task best done with input from someone familiar with and appreciative of your hard work. If you can’t locate this type of person, why not reach out to one of your chosen professors or professional contacts? Make an appointment for a conversation about what you want to achieve and how special talents could help you on that journey. To assist them in composing their letter of recommendation, give your resume and work samples as a reference.

To ensure that you receive the most favorable letter of recommendation, it is essential to take all necessary steps. Connect with professionals in your field and make sure they have nothing negative to say about you. Doing this will go a long way toward ensuring that any potential future employers or educators view you favorably.

Now, what?!!

To make it through the graduate application process unscathed, or at least sane, it’s important to keep in mind common grad school application mistakes to avoid. From mismatches between your program of choice and your experiences to the slippery slope of procrastination, there are many common pitfalls you’ll need to avoid. If you’re unsure of where to begin or feel overwhelmed by the application process, don’t stress; our graduate school application services can help smooth the process and get you into a program without any added drama. So there you have it-graduate school can be intimidating, but just like always taking those pesky extra workshops in undergrad-you’ll thank yourself later.

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Philippe spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Philippe has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on March 31, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/