Kisses of Death: What to Avoid in Graduate School Applications

by Dr. Mark Tomforde

Abstract: This article outlines the various Kisses of Death for graduate school applications as described in the article Appleby, D. & Appleby, K. (2006) with additional descriptions relevant to graduate programs in Mathematics.

As you prepare an application to graduate school, there are two types of issues you need to be aware of:
  1. Things you should do.
  2. Things you should not do.
Most advice on graduate school applications tends to focus on (1), but it is equally important for applicants to be aware of the issues related to (2). You can do all the things you are supposed to when composing your graduate school application, but if you inadvertently do a single thing you are not supposed to, it can completely destroy your chances of being accepted. Such a severe mistakes is often called a "Kiss of Death".

Kiss of Death: Aberrant information in an application that causes a graduate admission committees to immediately reject what may otherwise be a strong applicant. "Kisses of Death" are also sometimes called "Red Flags", "Application Killers", or "Deal Breakers".

A Kiss of Death results in automatic rejection, regardless of how strong the other portions of your application are. Kisses of Death are the kinds of things that admissions committees view as an indication of serious problem that they either cannot or do not want to deal with. Many admissions committees also view Kisses of Death as signs that the applicant has additional hidden problems, which they believe will surface later if the individual is accepted.

While it may seem harsh to reject an applicant for a single error --- even an egregious one --- this approach by the admissions committees is understandable and purely pragmatic if you look at it from their perspective. Unlike undergraduate education, graduate programs tend to be much smaller with much more interaction among professors and students. A single problematic graduate student can be severely disruptive to the department, impeding the progress of other students and wasting both the time and resources of the faculty.

What are Graduate Programs Looking For?

"The ideal student, seen through the eyes of graduate faculty, is gifted and creative, very bright and extremely motivated to learn, perfectly suited to the program, eager to actively pursue the lines of inquiry valued by the faculty, pleasant, responsible, and devoid of serious personal problems."

---Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman (2000, p. 32)

Pay particular attention to the qualities described in the above quotation. Graduate programs are not looking for geniuses, students with perfect grades or extensive experience, or classic overachievers. Indeed, qualities such as "bright" and "motivated" are often more highly valued than innate talent, perfect GPAs, or high GRE scores. Furthermore, note that personal aspects, such as "pleasant", "responsible", and "devoid of serious personal problems", are just as important as academic considerations.

Kisses of Death result from any indication, no matter how small, that an applicant may be severely deficient in one of the highly desired qualities described bove. Kisses of Death can be roughly grouped into four categories:
  1. Damaging Personal Statements.
  2. Harmful Letters of Recommendation.
  3. Poor Writing Skills.
  4. Misfired Attempts to Impress.

Below we describe common examples from each of these four categories.

1. Damaging Personal Statements.

"The personal statement section of a graduate school application is an opportunity to inform an admissions committee about personal and professional development, academic background and objectives, research and [professional] experiences, and career goals and plans."

---Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman (2000)

In your personal statement, it is best to avoid topics that are irrelevant or inappropriate. Some common mistakes are the following.

• Excessive Self-Disclosure

If an applicant shares overly personal information in a written statement, it often indicates poor interpersonal boundaries as well as a lack of understanding of what is appropriate. It is best to avoid irrelevant personal details, particularly ones that are sensitive, unpleasant, or involve conflict.

•Professionally Inappropriate Material

Information or presentation that does not match the context of a graduate school application is an indication that the applicant either does not understand professional behavior, or does not feel obligated to follow it.

Some examples to avoid are:

• Indications the Applicant is a Bad Fit for the Program

Sometimes, such indications are due to a misunderstanding of what graduate school entails, such as saying you dislike research or that you want to earn your Ph.D. to be a high school teacher. Other times, they are due to lack of familiarity with the particular program to which you are applying, such as saying you want to work in a research specialty not represented in the department, expressing your desire work with a research group that is no longer active, or naming a specific faculty member you wish to work with who has retired, died, or relocated. It's best to research the program you are applying to with care, and realize that information on the program's website may be inaccurate or outdated. Ideally, it is best to talk with a current student in the program or a professor who attended that program in the past, in order to get some inside information. It is also better to err on the side of saying too little, rather than inadvertently indicating you are seeking something that the program cannot provide.

• Discussions of Mental Health or Interpersonal Problems

This includes showing evidence of untreated mental illness, emotional instability, or difficulty getting along with others. Do not highlight that you are drawn to graduate school because you prefer to work alone, or that you don't believe you would get along in an office setting.

2. Harmful Letters of Recommendation.

The most harmful occurrences with letters of recommendation are letters that describe undesirable applicant characteristics and letters from inappropriate sources.

• Undesirable Applicant Characteristics

"To excel in graduate school, a student must possess fundamentally positive personal characteristics such as intelligence, motivation, responsibility, and agreeableness."

---Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman (2000)

Any letter that even suggests an applicant is missing one of these characteristics can be a Kiss of Death. Some examples of phrases that can kill your application are the following: In addition, it can be a Kiss of Death if a letter includes a lack of superlatives. Applicants are expected to rise above competency, and letters need to convey this.

While you cannot control what your letter writer chooses to say about you, you can control who you select as your letter writers. Choose professors that you know well and that you are confident will write a very positive letter. In addition, choose professors that are active in research, or have served on admissions committees in their own departments, since they will be most aware of the issues involved in writing a good letter. Furthermore, you should feel comfortable asking a professor in a frank manner whether they will write you a good letter. It is completely appropriate for you to ask this, and if the professor seems hesitant or expresses reservations when you ask, it is best that you move on and ask someone else.

• Inappropriate Choice of Letter Writers

In addition to choosing letter writers who will say positive things about you, it is incredibly important that you choose appropriate letter writers. Letters of recommendation should typically be from professors or other experts who have been involved in your education and research activities. In particular, they should not include any the following: Letters of recommendation should come from people that can truthfully and accurately describe your work habits, and have the knowledge and expertise to assess your potential as a successful graduate student. Typically, this is a tenured or tenure-track faculty member; someone who has both successfully completed a Ph.D. program themselves and who has experience supervising and evaluating current students (ideally, both undergraduate and graduate students) in their department's own program.

Letters from inappropriate authors give the impression you are unable or unwilling to solicit letters from individuals whose depictions are accurate, objective, or professionally relevant.

3. Poor Writing Skills.

"Completing an application for graduate school is much like writing a manuscript. The application must include appropriate content, but it must also be cohesive, organized, concise, written skillfully, and proofread thoroughly."

---Buskist & Sherburne (1996)

• Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation Errors

For many graduate admissions committees, any spelling or grammatical error in an application is an immediate Kiss of Death. This is not because the committee believes it necessarily indicates a lack of writing ability, but rather because it indicates sloppiness and a willingness to submit carelessly written work. It also calls into question the seriousness of the applicant; if they aren't willing to spend the time and effort to proofread their own application, it suggests they also aren't willing to commit to the much more intense time and effort required to earn a graduate degree.

• Organization and Style Errors

The application itself is one of the only opportunities the admissions committee has to evaluate the applicant's writing ability firsthand. Writing is a crucial skill for success in graduate school. Moreover, most admissions committees feel that good writing is a skill that should be learned at the undergraduate level, and anyone pursuing graduate work should already be a competent writer. Consequently, applications and statements that are overly verbose, have poor sentence transitions, lack cohesion or logical organization, are unconvincing, or have other evidence of bad writing can be Kisses of Death.

4. Misfired Attempts to Impress.

Avoid attempts to impress admissions committee. Graduate admissions committees are often composed of intelligent people that can identify insincerity and see through bombastic claims.

Some things to avoid:


Appleby, D. & Appleby, K. (2006) Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process. Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 19--24.
(A copy of this article is available here.)

Buskist, W., & Sherburne, T. R. (1996). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: 101 questions and answers. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling, and related professions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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