Humans Behaving Blog

“Kisses of Death” When Applying to Graduate School

Posted on September 25, 2017 by Paul Silvia

When the leaves change colors on campus, we professors know that four seasons are coming: Fall, basketball, flu, and grad school. But for now, we’ll focus on grad school.

Nationally, graduate school applications are due roughly between December 1 and March 1. So now is around the time when undergraduates naturally begin to fret. Applying to grad school is complex, but we’re here to help. You can get advice through the regular advising process, from the many Psi Chi/Psyc Club events devoted to grad school, and even from a book a few of us professors wrote about it.

For today, anyone thinking of applying to grad school should read this excellent essay on “kisses of death” in graduate school applications.

In a classic research study, Drew and Karen Appleby surveyed professors who admit grad students to ask about “kisses of death”: fatal flaws in an otherwise strong application. It happens all the time. You’re reading a nice application by someone with solid qualifications, and then bam—a huge red flag pops up and the application is put on the decline pile.

You do not want to get smooched by these kisses of death. Here’s a brief snapshot of the categories that Appleby and Appleby found:

Personal Statements

  • Avoid references to your mental health. Such statements could create the impression you may be unable to function as a successful graduate student.
  • Avoid excessively altruistic statements (e.g., “I just want to help people.”). Graduate faculty could interpret these statements to mean you believe a strong need to help others is more important to your success in graduate school than a desire to perform research and engage in other academic and professional activities.
  • Avoid providing excessively self-revealing information. Faculty may interpret such information as a sign you are unaware of the value of interpersonal or professional boundaries in sensitive areas.
  • Avoid inappropriate humor, attempts to appear cute or clever, and references to God or religious issues when these issues are unrelated to the program to which you are applying. Admissions committee members may interpret this type of information to mean you lack awareness of the formal nature of the application process or the culture of graduate school.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Avoid letters of recommendation from people who do not know you well, whose portrayals of your characteristics may not be objective (e.g., a relative), or who are unable to base their descriptions in an academic context (e.g., your minister). Letters from these authors can give the impression you are unable or unwilling to solicit letters from individuals whose depictions are accurate, objective, or professionally relevant.
  • Avoid letter of recommendation authors who will provide unflattering descriptions of your personal or academic characteristics. These descriptions provide a clear warning that you are not suited for graduate study. Choose your letter of recommendation authors carefully. Do not simply ask potential authors if they are willing to write you a letter of recommendation; ask them if they are able to write you a strong letter of recommendation. This question will allow them to decline your request diplomatically if they believe their letter may be more harmful than helpful.

Lack of Information About the Program to Which You Are Applying

  • Avoid statements that reflect a generic approach to the application process or an unfamiliarity with the program to which you are applying. These statements signal you have not made an honest effort to learn about the program from which you are saying you want to earn your graduate degree.
  • Avoid statements that indicate you and the target program are a perfect fit if these statements are not corroborated with specific evidence that supports your assertion (e.g., your research interests are similar to those of the program’s faculty). Graduate faculty can interpret a lack of this evidence as a sign that you and the program to which you are applying are not a good match.

Poor Writing Skills

  • Avoid spelling or grammatical errors in your application. These errors are an unmistakable warning of substandard writing skills, a refusal to proofread your work, or your willingness to submit careless written work.
  • Avoid writing in an unclear, disorganized, or unconvincing manner that does not provide your readers with a coherent picture of your research, educational, and professional goals. A crucial part of your graduate training will be writing; do not communicate your inability to write to those you hope will be evaluating your writing in the future.

Misfired Attempts to Impress

  • Avoid attempts to impress the members of a graduate admissions committee with information they may interpret as insincere flattery (e.g., referring to the target program in an excessively complimentary manner) or inappropriate (e.g., namedropping or blaming others for poor academic performance). Graduate admissions committees are composed of intelligent people; do not use your application as an opportunity to insult their intelligence.

I’ve been reviewing grad school applications for 15 years, and I can tell you that Appleby and Appleby are totally right—you see some shocking stuff in personal statements.

There’s much more to a good application than avoiding fatal flaws, of course, but not messing up is always a good place to start.

Unlike flu season, there’s no vaccine for grad school season. If you plan to apply this year, don’t miss any of the upcoming Psi Chi/Psyc Club events: most of them are connected to grad school in some way, and you’ll get some great advice.


“Humans Behaving” is an informal blog run by the UNCG Department of Psychology devoted to matters large and small, from humble happenings to departmental history to our students’ many stories and successes. Have an idea for a story? Are you one of our graduates with a story to tell? Contact Paul Silvia at p_silvia@uncg.edu.


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