5 Ways to Sabotage Your Own Grad School Application | Top Universities

5 Ways to Sabotage Your Own Grad School Application

By Mathilde Frot

Updated March 26, 2021 Updated March 26, 2021

Applying to graduate school is a long and perilous journey riddled with impossible obstacles and crippling self-doubt… Well, not really! But there are many pitfalls to avoid that could seriously undermine your grad school application. Look out for these five common mistakes...

1. Use graduate school as a life buffer.

The immediate aftermath of graduation can be a stressful time for some, as many students feel the mounting pressure of finding a job and their dream career straight away. It’s not surprising that for many a master’s degree in their field might seem like the miraculous solution to their struggle and an opportunity to delay their job hunt by a year or two…

But while the ROI of doing a postgraduate program might be strong in some cases, the associated costs can be so astronomical that it’s really important that you think it over. Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why this subject specifically? What are you hoping to achieve? Do the research first and make sure you pick the course and school most likely to augment your career prospects and earning potential! Asking yourself these tough questions before you embark on the process will only make your personal statement stronger and more compelling.

2. Use the same application essay for every university.

Admissions officers read hundreds of applications every day. This is why your personal statement needs to be original and sincere! Your personal statement should show that you have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the university’s resources and offerings. As when applying for jobs, personalization is key. Your personal statement should be tailored to the specific university and course you are applying for and – fundamentally – do three things:

  • Outline your research and professional goals
  • Explain why you are qualified to pursue them (academically, personally, etc.)
  • Mention the university’s resources and course modules that make it the best place to conduct your research.

You might want to structure your essay along these lines – or adapt it, if another structure works better for you.

3.  Leave it to the last minute.

There are several important deadlines to be aware of. Do you need to sit any standardized tests? If so, when are the test-taking dates and how long will the examiners take to mark your paper and send the results through? What about the references? Does the university require letters of recommendation to be sent through by mail or online, and do they have a separate deadline?

You need to start your graduate school application from several months up to a year in advance, depending on the course and country. Deadlines for PhD and master’s programs in the US or for the UK’s Oxbridge institutions, for instance, tend to be around the months of November and December for courses starting the following year.

4.  Undersell yourself.

While it’s important not to come across as brash in your personal statement or during the interview, a healthy dose of confidence is essential. Don’t undersell yourself! Be your own PR agent. What are your unique selling points? Why should the university choose you over any other applicant?

Graduate school applications are by nature competitive, and it’s very easy to feel inadequate in comparison to the horde of other anonymous candidates – especially if you have an unusual profile or are a mature student – but focus on your strengths. Your unusual profile might actually help you to stand out.

5. Be vague.

One of the most common mistakes in graduate school applications is vagueness. Avoid abstract statements about your passion for a subject like the plague. Use clear examples to show that you are pragmatic and serious about graduate school.

Be specific throughout your personal statement. Back up any claims that you make about yourself with examples and details from your life. Have you developed or put into practice your communication or analysis skills during internships, research experience or competitions? If so, how? Have you overcome any specific challenges? Why is work experience A relevant to your research, and how did work experience B train you to develop skills X and Y?

One final point – be sharp, critical and specific about your goals. What exactly are you trying to achieve? Why have you chosen this specific course? Was it the reading list? The faculty? Unless, of course, you really DO want to sabotage your own grad school application…

Want to meet grad schools from around the world?

If you’re seeking an international experience at graduate school, meet representatives of leading universities from around the world at the QS World Grad School Tour – coming soon to a city near you. This is your chance to get personal advice from graduate school admissions directors, attend free seminars, and apply for exclusive scholarships. 

This article was originally published in August 2016 . It was last updated in March 2021

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I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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