Mar 30, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Great job! You’ve decided to apply to grad school.

You’re ready to take a leap, invest in your future, prepare for the new job market, pursue your interests in-depth, network, get some academic recognition, and make your mark on the world.

Ready to go? Good.

Now comes the tricky part: applying.

Let’s take a closer look at some mistakes you should avoid:

1. Postponing it

You’ve made the decision—that’s good, but you have some work to do. Don’t put it off, especially if you need to get a few things in order or take an extra class or two to top up your transcript.

Lay the groundwork for success by marking your calendar with deadlines and due dates.

Make sure you give your recommenders enough time—at least a few months, not a few weeks.

Need to take the GRE? Don’t put it off. Select a date that will work with a realistic study schedule.

You can’t prepare to apply to graduate school in a week. Realistically? Give yourself a year. At a minimum, six months should do it—you’ll have your best GRE scores and fantastic letters of recommendation.

Get your application in well before the deadline.

Need some help? If you’re still in undergrad, talk to your academic advisor. If you’re a few years out and going back, ask a friend or mentor to help you map out your calendar and task lists.

2. Not doing your research

You can’t select a program or school haphazardly. After all, you’re investing lots of time—and lots of cash—into this endeavor. Prepare wisely. A program’s ranking, location, or accreditation status alone won’t get you there.

Get to know the school and the program by reaching out to your prospective department. Talk to current students and professors in the program to get a sense of what could be coming your way—and assess whether you want to pursue it or not.

It’s your life—your money and education. Just because it’s a great program or it’s in the place you want to be, does not mean that it’s a perfect match for you.

Take the time to make the best choice.

3. Writing a careless essay

Let’s be real. Writing is hard. Your grad school essay needs to be as perfect as you can make it—it’s the thing that speaks most about who you are personally and it’s critical for your acceptance.

Your essay cannot be a fancy summary of your resume.

You need to tell a story that shows who you are and why you want to pursue a graduate education.

A few tips:

Tell a story.

Don’t summarize your resume.

Write clearly. No fancy-pants language. It doesn’t impress.

Focus on broad appeal, not controversial topics.

Don’t brag.

Offer personal perspective.

Be brief and pithy.

Proofread, proofread, proofread. Don’t submit an essay with errors and typos.

4. Ignoring the directions

Give the admissions committee what they ask for, not what you want to give them. Don’t risk ending up in the rejection pile.

Follow directions.

Answer all the questions on the application with specific details and examples.

There’s no reason that you cannot follow directions, other than arrogance.

5. Picking the wrong recommenders

Remember Step 1? By giving yourself enough time from the get-go, you should be able to secure great graduate school recommendations from academics and professionals who can vouch for your diligence, intelligence, creativity, and ability to thrive in and contribute to a graduate school community.

Finding the right people to write your recommendations isn’t easy.

Don’t just pick someone with a big name and lots of connections.

Choose people who know you well, who can speak to your work, and who have reputable positions within your institution or job.

The content of the letter matters—not the prestige.

You’ve got this. You know which pitfalls to avoid. Start planning now.

Learn more about graduate schools.


Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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