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Students wondering what not to do when applying to graduate school can look to a new qualitative study published in the January issue of Teaching of Psychology (Vol. 15, No. 1) that polled 88 psychology graduate admissions committee chairs to find the mistakes most likely to spell the "kiss of death" to a potential student's application.

The most common mistakes are:

  • Writing a damaging personal statement. Applicants' personal statements should tell admissions committees about their personal and professional background, fit with the program and future career goals. However, admissions committees' chairs disliked applications that include listings of students' own mental health problems, excessively altruistic personal goals, such as "wanting to help all people," or attempts to be "cute" or funny.

  • Obtaining harmful letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation should elucidate characteristics-such as intelligence, motivation, responsibility and agreeableness-that point toward applicants' ability to excel in graduate school. Too often, admissions committee chairs said, students received unflattering letters because they failed to ask whether the potential recommendation author would write a strongly favorable letter. Respondents also cautioned against letters from inappropriate references, such as people who do not know the applicant well, whose portrayals may not be objective, such as a parent, or who lack an academic context, such as a minister.

  • Lacking information about the program. Students need to learn the key details of a program-including faculty research interests and specific courses offered-before they apply, says the study's co-author Drew C. Appleby, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. One admissions committee chair recalled reading an application from a student who expressed a desire to work with a faculty member who was dead.

  • Failing to communicate clearly. Applications that are unclear, disorganized or contain spelling or grammatical mistakes convey applicants' inability to clearly communicate their thoughts, admissions committee chairs said.

  • Overdoing attempts to impress. A number of admissions committee chairs cited a distaste for applications that include insincere flattery, such as praising the program in an obsequious manner. Other chairs added inappropriate name-dropping or blaming others for a poor academic record as potential kisses of death.

With appropriate academic advising, students' common mistakes can be avoided, Appleby says.

"Students may have the right stuff to be accepted into a program," he says. "But if they are unaware of the culture of graduate school, they may be prone to make these mistakes."

As a result, Appleby suggests that students seek out services, such as mentoring, academic advising and courses that prepare them for their lives after their undergraduate career. If a student's school doesn't have official mentoring and advising programs, Appleby says that he or she should participate in a faculty member's research or find other ways to get to know the faculty.

Faculty members can provide students with a road map to avoid pitfalls in the application process, Appleby says.

-Z. Stambor

Learn more about careers in academia

APA is hosting several free Academic Career Workshops in conjunction with annual conferences to introduce graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to academic careers. Topics range from how academic cultures differ among institutions to the pragmatics of the hiring process.

Workshops scheduled at gradPSYCH press time include:

Society for Personality and Social Psychology,
Palm Springs,
Calif. Jan. 26, 9–10:30 a.m.

Southwestern Psychological Association, Austin, Texas.
April 13–15, time to be determined

Midwestern Psychological Association (MPA), Chicago.
May 4, 3–5 p.m.

-S. Dingfelder