Kisses of Death for the Graduate School Application Process

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Updated: February 29, 2024, Reading time: 7 minutes

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You’ll see a lot of articles offering advice to undergraduate students on what to do to have successful graduate school applications. Few authors, however, provide guidance to prospective graduate students on what they should not do when applying to graduate school. 

The most famous study on what not to do in graduate school admission is the five “Kisses of Death. It’s a very long read, and you may not have the time to read the lengthy study. Allow us to give you an overview of the Kisses of Death.

More Info: Super Helpful Tips to Improve Your Grad School Application

Kiss of Death Grad School Application - fact

The original research was conducted in 2006, with 88 admissions committee chairs providing feedback on a survey. The participants were requested to give at least one example of “kisses of death” they have encountered. The results were quite intriguing and highly significant for any graduate school application. 

According to the authors, grad school application kiss of death is characterized as “aberrant pieces of information that urge graduate admissions committees to reject what may be a strong applicant.”

The admissions committee chairs gave 156 separate instances of kisses of death they had witnessed. The grad school application kiss of death was grouped into the following five main categories:

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The Five Kisses of Death

Damaging Personal Statements

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Damaging Personal Statement: Personal Mental Health

Before anything else, we would like to clarify that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. However, emotional instability or untreated mental illness could be taken unfavorably during admissions. 

According to the KOD report, admissions officers dissuade graduate school applicants who emphasize their serious personal problems or traumatic life experiences. “Grad school is an academic/career path. It is not a personal treatment or intervention for problems,” according to them.

Damaging Personal Statement: Excessive Altruism

Praising yourself is another thing you should avoid. The admissions committee won’t be impressed by your own claims about you “wanting to serve everyone” or “wanting to give back to the community.” This part is best left to your recommenders. 

Although they are valuable, your motivations for entering the field could easily backfire against you. Instead of praising your own character, you should focus on writing about your research interests, professional experiences, and academic strengths.

Damaging Personal Statement: Excessive Self Disclosure

An example of this type of story being intriguing to the committee is recounting a long saga about how the student had finished school despite extraordinary odds, which is mentioned in the KOD article.

The loss of a loved one, an accident, or enduring a setback with health are additional ordinary circumstances that people struggle with. Any of these might be acceptable to mention in a personal statement, but it must be done so in the strictest of professional manners. 

The key is to avoid seeming to the admissions committee as though you are “making up” for any flaws in your narrative that may exist. If you want to include your sufferings to the admissions committee, it’s best to consult a qualified career counselor or admissions expert and ask for advice for the best course of action.

The point here is to avoid sharing overly personal information.

Damaging Personal Statement: Professionally Inappropriate

It’s common sense that you practice professionalism when applying to graduate school. According to the report, a student wrote about their performance in an adult film. 

The best approach to being professional is to avoid being excessively “cutesy” or “clever.” It’s also highly suggested not to include jokes or humor in your essays. You might think jokes and humor are icebreakers, but they are not! Your jokes can easily be perceived as offensive.

Additionally, avoid being excessively religious, especially if you’re applying to a non-religious school. 

Harmful Letters of Recommendation

Apart from your personal statement, letters of recommendation are another way the admissions committee learns about your character.

In fact, LORs can be more valuable than your personal statements since most LORs are written by members of another admissions office. Negative LORs will be the kiss of death to your graduate school application. 

Harmful LOR: Undesirable applicant characteristics

Graduate school success depends on several personal qualities, such as determination, intelligence, independence, and the capacity for teamwork. Any LOR that doesn’t address them may harm your candidacy.

Many examples of KOD remarks in letters of recommendation, such as “arrogant and not a team player,” “unreliable,” or even “immature,” were provided in the original article. So, the person writing the LOR must have a solid relationship with you. 

Harmful LOR: Inappropriate sources

The source of your LOR is a big deal. The admissions committee considers the relationship with the recommender. It’s best if it’s not written by a relative, employee, boyfriend, girlfriend, or even your insurance agent!

Lack of Program Information

To avoid another KOD, you must show the school that you have enough knowledge about the program you’re applying for and why you fit into that program. 

Lack of Info: Program Focus

Having no deep understanding of the program will signal to the grad school you’re applying to that you’re not really interested in the program; you’re just desperate to get into just about any program.

While your interests may not completely coincide, you still want to understand what you’re signing up for, and programs want that, too!

Lack of Info: Fit Into the Program

You should be able to show how you fit within the program’s focus. The best approach to this is to investigate the specializations of the programs. You can research the graduate faculty and learn more about the program and its disciplines. 

Doing so will demonstrate your eagerness to actively pursue the program.

Poor Writing Skills

Acquiring excellent writing skills while still in your undergraduate degree is essential! Your graduate school application is not an opportunity to practice your writing ability. 

Poor Writing Skills: Spelling and grammatical errors

No section of your application should have spelling or grammatical errors. 

While misplaced commas or punctuation errors might go unnoticed, before emailing your application materials, have someone (or numerous people) proofread them. Take no chances. In addition to this, it’s imperative to double-check any professor or institution names that are referenced.

Poor Writing Skills: Poor Writing

The mechanics of your writing are only one of the many things you should worry about. You also need to have excellent writing style and organization. The personal statement you provide will be your primary writing sample.

Make sure to have compelling information and clear structures. 

According to one of the original research participants, KODs are “overly extensive and elaborate statements of purpose that are written inadequately.”

Misfired Attempts to Impress

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The Misfired Attempts to Impress section was probably the most entertaining part of the study. It was split into two key concepts:

Criticism of an undergraduate program AND/OR unsupported praise for the institution

According to a participant, candidates who blame others for their poor academic records create a very negative image. Also, praising the graduate school while condemning your undergraduate school will not give you any merit.

This may easily take the form of, “I didn’t learn enough during my undergrad at University X, which is why I want to obtain a master’s at your prestigious university,” or “The professors at this university, X, were not interested in seeing me succeed.”

Remember: Graduate schools do not need any of your flattery.

Avoiding general negativity in your personal statement and application would be best. Remember that the admissions committee chooses their future classmates, colleagues, and fellow students.

Name Dropping

Without having a strong professional link, this can take the form of highlighting a family member’s work in the industry. 

One candidate described in the report acquired a LOR from a senator who was friendly with the candidate’s family and spoke more favorably of the senator’s standing and influence than of the candidate.

As with any letter of recommendation, make sure that any connections to notable persons are credible and appropriate.

Valuable Info: Rejected From Grad School? How To Handle Not Making the Cut

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