My granddaughter confuses substance and form. Actually she generally ignores the former in favor of the latter, except when food is involved. Her behavior is particularly endearing because she’s only one year old. However, applicants can’t afford to confuse substance and form in their applications, and unfortunately doing so is one of the most common applicant mistakes .
In my granddaughter’s case, when she sticks her two arms high up in the air and looks at us slyly, she knows someone will obligingly yell, "How big is baby?" Then she grins from ear to ear, as we answer "So big!" She of course has no concept of "big"; she’s an adorable little parrot whom we have trained (or who has trained us) to respond on cue.
Graduate schools, colleges and the various programs to which you apply are not nearly as cooperative, and with all due respect, your applications are not nearly as cute. Adcom members will not respond on cue to applicants who merely mouth the right noises, but whose essays lack substance and meaning. Furthermore, when you confuse form with substance, you fail to engage your reader and frequently annoy her.
When do applicants essentially say "So Big!" with a silly, look-at-me smile on their faces? When they:
- Claim to be kind, caring human beings to impress med school admission readers, but have never volunteered in a clinical setting.
- Spout their commitment to sustainable development, but have spent all waking hours working for bulge banks and can’t point to any actions related to development, the environment, or CSR.
- Profess an interest in public interest law, but have never stepped foot in a legal clinic or organization having to do with the public interest.
- Repeat marketing jargon found in school brochures and marketing materials like empty mantras.
Writing what you think the admissions committee will want to read is like a baby playing peek-a-boo with her eyes uncovered — another one of my granddaughter’s tricks — or sticking your hands in the air so someone will ask "How big is baby?" You don’t get it.
First you have to dig, think, and uncover what is important to you. Then find the programs that best match your educational, professional, and personal needs. And finally demonstrate fit between your goals and the school’s strengths, between your background, character, and interests and the institution’s culture, values, and educational program.