Top 5 Mistakes Made By Students Applying to Grad School

Posted October 1, 2014

By Goal Auzeen Saedi, Ph.D.

When it comes to graduate school admissions, the plethora of advice can seem overwhelming. Too many times, it’s negatively skewed and not in the statistical distribution sense. Professors might remind you how competitive it is. Fellow classmates may share horror stories of being rejected by programs. But graduate school entry need not be so complicated nor hopeless. In fact, there are many ways that students can maximize their chances of graduate school admission and success. Too many times all the hype is caused by some key but commonly made mistakes.

1. Starting the process last minute

For some students, deciding to go to graduate school can be a last minute decision. Maybe they wavered between going into the job market and waiting out the economy. Perhaps the prospect of mom and dad’s couch as a post-degree option was not so attractive. Regardless of the reason, sometimes students can decide to jump head first into applying to schools without careful planning.

A successful application is made up of many components. Yes, there are your personal statements and letters of recommendations along with GPA and test scores. But often, at top programs they are ultimately assessing your potential for success as a researcher. Hence, it can be important to prioritize activities that will indicate this. Join your professor’s research team. Ask them if you can present a poster at a conference. Maybe they will even let you co-author a paper. Many schools offer undergraduate research grants. Apply for one! Naturally, these things all take time. And if you’re doing the math properly, you’ll see it is definitely not too early to get the process started freshman and sophomore years. So start early!

2. Applying to dozens of schools

Not only can it be expensive, but it is just not necessary! The ideal graduate school candidate has a focused view of exactly what they are hoping to get out of their schooling. While it isn’t required to know precisely what you’ll study, it can help to have a strong grasp of the areas that interest you. Let’s say you love marriage and family therapy focusing on interracial couples. Or you are very interested in the social psychology of health change behaviors. You can easily start to narrow the field to the handful of programs and researchers at those institutions that offer such opportunities. When I applied for graduate school I knew I loved multiculturalism and diversity. That led me to 5 total schools spanning across Clinical, Counseling and Social Psychology Ph.D. programs. By focusing on the 5 schools, I was able to create more customized applications and really emphasize how I was a strong candidate. Imagine trying to write 15 custom essays and cover letters. Forget about it!

3. Going it alone

Applying to graduate school can be a draining and taxing process. Often, finding someone who is going through the same process can help you immensely. While your competitive side might feel wary of over-sharing, you don’t have to provide every essay detail. Merely having someone there with you can be a wonderful support. Faculty and general advisors may also be a fantastic source for just sharing your thoughts and anxieties.

4. Focusing on the numbers

Really, it’s true: the GREs aren’t the single factor deciding your graduate school fate. This does not mean that you can walk out with an extremely low score, but it does mean that scoring near the average isn’t the end of the world. High GPAs, grades in advanced math courses, and other criteria can make up for a lower GRE score. There are schools that compute indexes using your GRE scores and GPA as a cutoff. But really, do you want to be attending an institution that places so much emphasis on numbers rather than on other personal qualities that cannot be quantitatively measured? Often doing your research can help a lot. For example, not all programs require the Psychology GRE test. I never took it and hope to think I am no less competent in my field because of it.

5. Forgetting the big picture

Finally, when drowning in stacks of applications, it always helps to stand back and ask yourself why you are doing this. Graduate school can be a truly incredible journey. Regardless of what happens, remember to take care of yourself and not become a martyr to your applications. Eat, sleep, exercise, see your friends and even vent if you need to. In the absolute worst case scenario there is always next year. Sacrificing your health definitely isn’t worth it. Remember to try to relax (easier said than done) and allow yourself to enjoy the beginning of what can be an amazing journey.

[Goal Auzeen Saedi is a clinical psychologist, writer of the Psychology Today blog “Millennial Media,” and author of the upcoming book, “By Invitation Only: Joining the Academy and Finding the PhDiva Within.”]