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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.
Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Kisses of Death

DON’T Do This in Your Graduate School Applications

Kiss of death

We are now in the midst of the busiest time of the year for those applying to graduate school in psychology. December 1 and 15, and January 1 and 15 are the dates when most applications are due for fall admission. Therefore, in this final post of 2010, let´s discuss what NOT to do in your last minute application preparations.

There are "kisses of death" in applying to graduate school. That is to say, if you make certain mistakes on your application, you can be assured that you will be receiving many more rejection than acceptance letters. Luckily for applicants, research has been conducted to determine exactly what the kisses of death are.

In an article in Teaching of Psychology (Appleby & Appleby, 2006), 88 chairpersons of admissions committees responded to a survey. They were asked to "provide one or two examples of kisses of death you have encountered" in reviewing application materials. The authors of the survey defined kissed of death as, "aberrant types of information that cause graduate admissions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants." The results were very interesting, and very important for any graduate school applicant to know about.

The admissions committee chairs responded with 156 different examples of kisses of death that they have encountered. Appleby and Appleby categorized all of these responses into five broad categories:

Kiss of Death #1: Inappropriate Personal Statements
Personal statements that included too much personal information, evidence of the candidate's mental instability, excessive altruism (e.g., "I believe I am destined to save the world"), or stating the obvious (e.g., "I want to be in psychology to help people.") were viewed as damaging to an application by selection committee chairs. Rather than discussing personal characteristics or motives, Appleby and Appleby suggest focusing on your qualification for graduate study in personal statements (the professional activities and experiences you have had that prepare you for graduate school) and I fully endorse this suggestion.

Kiss of Death #2: Harmful Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation that mention character flaws are a kiss of death. Be sure that those who are writing your letter writers have a positive impression of you. If they describe you as self-centered, lacking in motivation, difficult to work with, etc., it will send up a red flag to admissions committees. Letters from inappropriate sources can also be a kiss of death. Do not include a letter of recommendation from your therapist, minister, or a family friend in your graduate school applications. Letters from your professors, research advisors, or, in select cases, your employer only are appropriate.

Kiss of Death #3: Lack of Knowledge About the Program
Today, when you interview for a job, the first thing you should do to prepare for the interview is go to the company's website. Learn about the organization and be prepared to show and discuss what you have learned. The same applies for graduate school. If your application does not reflect that you know something about the program you are applying to (i.e., what type of research is being conducted there), it's a kiss of death.

Kiss of Death #4: Poor Writing Skills
Your application materials should not have typos, spelling errors, or non-grammatical statements PERIOD. Poor writing will only show committee members that you are not prepared or not motivated enough for graduate school for admission.

Kiss of Death #5: Misfired Attempts to Impress
Speaking poorly of other programs, name dropping shallow connections to important people, discussing your family´s involvement in the field of psychology and other superficial attempts to impress the admissions committee will be viewed as lame. Don't do it. Stick to your own qualifications and experiences.

Bottom line: Steer clear of these pitfalls! And you will have better chances at admission than those who didn't.

For more information, look up the full Kisses of Death article:
Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 19-24.

An update to the Kisses of Death article was published in 2013 by

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.

About the Author
Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.

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