The application cycle is in full swing in early December, when I’m recording this podcast. In reflecting on the many applications that my colleagues and I review here at Accepted and the problems we help our clients deal with, I thought it might be a good time to discuss things you shouldn’t do – mistakes that can really hurt your chances of admission.
We’ve also prepared an “Unchecklist” that you can download and review at your leisure. The Unchecklist contains the Toxic 16 + one bonus. Make sure none of them poison your application efforts. Click here to download your copy now!
1. Waiting until the last minute to start. [2:00]
After you receive your test score and select your target schools the application process is still a marathon, not a sprint. How long will it take? That depends on the degree program, but typically three months ahead of time is a great time to start working on applications, and two months still works. However, when you get down to a month prior to deadlines for starting work, it gets a little dicey in terms of time crunch.
If you work with an Accepted consultant, waiting until the last minute means there is less we (and you) can do to optimize your application. Delay limits the opportunity for us to review your overall profile, and can lead to a rushed application, which does not allow either you or us to do our best work. Applying is a detailed, difficult process whether you are working on your own or with a consultant. The essays require writing, rewriting, sometimes distancing yourself, and then returning to the essays. There are the boxes to fill in, the recommendations to procure, and perhaps a video to create.
And of course, there’s the exam (MCAT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, etc), which I’ve been assuming you already took. In reality, we talk to so many people who take the exam at the last minute thinking they will apply right after and they bomb it – the low score throws their whole timeline out of whack. Get your tests done early (at least 6 months before you apply), so when application cycle swings into gear, you’re satisfied with your score and the test is behind you.
2. Focusing on your past instead of your future when choosing schools. [4:43]
Graduate school is to a certain extent about changing you. Sometimes applicants are so stuck on what they’ve done in the past (“I’m an Indian male engineer. What schools accept lots of applicants with that profile?”), they fail to think about which schools will prepare them most effectively for what they want to do AFTER they graduate.
3. Putting too much emphasis on the rankings. [6:35]
Rankings are great storehouses of data, but the absolute rankings are not the elements you should be focusing on when you choose where to apply. You should be focusing on:
• Your future goals and how well your target program will help you achieve them.
• Your qualifications vs the class profile of admitted students.
• Your fit with the schools’ culture, values.
• Your personal preferences: Do you want rural or urban, warm or cold climate, a particular geographic location?
Rankings should come into play if they measure something that is really of value to you, like how many women are on the faculty and a ranking weighs that factor. Otherwise, only use the rankings as rankings if you are accepted at multiple schools and you are neutral on where to go among the accepting schools – then go to the higher ranked school, as it reflects some element that an influential media organization has chosen to value.
4. Not having clear goals. [10:10]
Failing to have a post graduate school goal that requires the degree you’re aiming to achieve is a luxury most people simply don’t have. Attending the wrong program can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Having that cogent reason for pursuing the degree should be your North Start in this entire process.
Furthermore, applicant direction is important to most graduate schools. They ask for goals essays or a statement of purpose because they want you to have a goal and a purpose. If the goal is something as vague and meaningless as “I am excited to join your school to learn all of the things your school teaches” which is what one of our consultants, Jessica Pishko, relayed she sometimes sees (or the equivalent), you are sunk.
Closely related to having no goal is having so many goals that it’s clear you haven’t a clue what you want to do. Accepted consultant and former Cornell EMBA admission director Jen Weld gave the example, “I want to do this. Or maybe this. Or maybe this.” While the example is made up, the reality is that we see this kind of “goal” all the time. And it telegraphs that you have NO goal.
5. Assume that one element in your qualifications or profile will get you in. [14:02]
You have a 3.9 GPA or a 22 MCAT or 750 GMAT or 330 GRE or 166 LSAT. Congrats! But don’t rest on your laurels. Admissions is holistic. Yes certain fields will focus more on one area or another, but no highly regarded graduate program looks only at a test score or a GPA or even at one exceptional experience.
6. Assume that one element in your qualifications or profile will keep you out. Forever. (Most things can be changed.) [15:52]
This actually has some basis in reality – if you are unwilling to change or improve. But we’ve worked with many applicants who had an undergrad record or test score that they were not proud of and they worked and showed that they had changed. So if you are willing to change and improve and perhaps adjust some of your school choices, you still have a chance. Obviously, the particulars count here, but don’t assume that one flaw automatically means you’re a failure or certain to be rejected or that you can’t achieve your dreams. One flaw means you’re human. Most, not all, flaws can be corrected or overcome in admissions if you are willing to make the effort.
Turning to the application itself, let’s start with the essays, be they a personal statement, statement of purpose, goals essay, or various other type that you may need to write.
7. Lying anywhere in the app. [18:30]
I am not going to take a moral or ethical approach to this issue. Lying simply isn’t worth it, and there is always the possibility of being discovered – after acceptance, while you are in school, or even after you’ve graduated. Bottom line – you’re toast. Just don’t do it.
8. Write what you think they want to hear. This one is the most common complaint I’ve heard from admissions directors. [19:58]
Writing what you think the admissions committee wants to hear is one of the most common complaints from admissions directors. Write what you want them to know– what you’re proud of. What experiences and achievements show you fit with the program? What would make them thrilled to have you as part of the community? Have the essay address the prompt and complement other aspects of your application. If you write what you think they want to hear, you’ll have a really difficult time standing out.
9. Aiming to sound sophisticated as opposed to actually being clear. [20:44]
Your goal in writing your essays is clarity, NOT sophistication. Don’t write flowery sentences for the sake of being flowery. You want to be showing your communication skills, motivations, achievements, and goals as clearly as possible.
10. Verbosity. [22:15]
If you can say something in two words, say it in two words. For the most part you will be dealing with tight word limits. For those essays that don’t have word limits, nobody wants to read a War and Peace-length answer to “What matters most to you?”
You can’t afford to waste space with unnecessary gobbledy-gook in your essays. Here are two quick techniques that will allow you to put your writing on a diet:
• You don’t need to say, “I had the opportunity to do X, Y, and Z.” Instead you can say, “I did X, Y, and Z.”
• There are a lot of words that come in verb and noun form – if you use the verb form you will always tighten your language. “I made the decision to,” vs “I decided.” We do have some resources on word limits on our website, and I will link to that in the Related Resources [see below].
11. Writing generically. [24:35]
If you write, “I want to go to this school because it has a fantastic faculty, amazing student body, and fascinating classes,” it says you haven’t done any homework on the school and your general flattery won’t impress anybody. Say which specific elements of the program attract you and why. The specifics will be more credible and persuasive.
If you say, “I love my volunteer work because I am assisting society,” that is generic. Give me an example, like a small child that you helped, or an elderly person that you spoke to. Give me some specifics about what is motivating you. Ask yourself the question why until you get into specifics.
12. Failing to answer the question posed. [26:07]
Some of you are just asked to write general personal statements so this item won’t apply to you. However, most of you are responding to very specific questions, sometimes multi-part questions. Make sure you answer all parts of the question. One way to check and see if you’ve answered completely is to engage an Accepted.com consultant, but if you want to do it yourself, read the essay and then read the question to see if you can answer the question entirely based on what you just read.
13. Going for title over substance in choosing recommenders. [27:15]
This is a big mistake. Choosing the senior VP at your company who barely knows your name or a professor you haven’t spoken to in years isn’t going to help you much. You need people who have a relationship with you, and based on personal experience supervising, mentoring, or working with you, can comment on your fitness for the program you are applying to.
14. Attempt to wing an interview. [28:22]
Interviews require preparation. It’s just that simple. Preferably a mock interview, which Accepted provides, because the rehearsal can calm nerves and allow you to address weaknesses before the real interview.
If you prepare on your own, review your application for the interviewing school and take notes. Start with the things you are proud of, and anything noteworthy since you applied. Figure out what qualities these examples exhibit. Also list the interviewing school’s criteria and values, and match your experiences to those values. Hopefully they gel well with the school’s values.
15. Be arrogant or rude to any member of the school’s community when you visit or go for an interview. [30:04]
Be polite, courteous, and kind to every person you encounter – whether the receptionist, the janitor, the Uber driver, or the students. Arrogance or rudeness toward any member of a school’s community is an application killer.
16. Wear attire that draws attention to your appearance and perhaps takes away from the professional impression you are trying to make. Particularly true of professional programs like MBA, med, and law. [31:08]
An acquaintance of mine is a medical school admissions interviewer, and she has been instructed to let the admissions committee know whenever she interviews anyone not wearing a suit. Make sure your attire is professional and conservative (err on the side of conservative if in doubt).
17. [Bonus] If you are waitlisted, pester or pressure the waitlisting school. [32:27]
An admissions director once said an applicant was waitlisted and called in after being on the waitlist for several weeks. The applicant said he needed to know that day if he was accepted by that school because otherwise he was going to put a deposit down at another school. The director wasn’t pleased with the gunshot-to-the-head approach, but reviewed the application, and said, “Denied.” The applicant then asked if he could still be considered on the waitlist, and he was promptly told that not only was he no longer on the waitlist, but he would never be admitted to the school because he had lied to the director in attempting to pressure him for a decision. Period. End of story.
Bottom line, be appreciative of the extended consideration you are being given on the waitlist (we know the uncertainty is not easy to deal with!) – you are not owed an acceptance — or even a spot on the waitlist. Exercise restraint.
There you have it. 17 application killers. Download the Unchecklist and review to make sure you aren’t making any of these mistakes.
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