Common Mistakes and Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process

The field of Speech Language Pathology prides itself on an evidence based approach. Applying to the field of SLP should be the same! I found an article published in 2006 that attempts to put together evidence and analyze it regarding the process of applying to graduate school. It looks at “Kisses of Death” (KOD’s) in the process. It is a proper research article that I’ve read and synthesized for you below.

Here are the major sections:

The Original Article: 

The original research was conducted in relationship to graduate studies in psychology, and so it’s application may vary when applied to the field of Speech Language Pathology. It would be very interesting to see the study repeated in our field (thesis project anyone?) Regardless, there are some definite lessons to be learned!

The study was conducted by Dr. Drew C. Appleby and Dr. Karen M. Appleby (not sure if there’s any relation). Their goal was to gather some evidence and data to back up advisors as they recommend strategies for students applying to graduate school.

It is titled, Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process and you can view a PDF of the original article here.

The Method:

The authors of the article sent a letter to the Chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee at 457 different institutions. The letter explained the study and asked the respondent to give examples of a “Kiss of Death” that might occur in an application.

The letter defines a Kiss of Death as, “aberrant types of information that cause graduate admissions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants.”

Obviously, this was a very open question.


The researchers report a 19% response rate (88 responses) to the letter, and explained this is common in this type of survey. Once the 88 responses were in hand, they saw they had 156 examples of Kisses of Death (KOD’s). The researches analyzed the responses independently and in groups in order to come up with the results.


The results of the analysis lead to five major categories of Kisses of Death, most of which have subcategories within them.

Let’s get to it!

1. Damaging Personal Statements

After your GRE and GPA get your application through the first filter and onto the committee’s radar, your personal statement (also statement of purpose or SOP) is the most important part of standing out and making a good impression. It is the perfect way to inform the admissions committee about you, your goals, background, and professional trajectory.

Calling the “Personal Statement” such might be misleading because it isn’t really a document that should be “too personal.” In fact, the article this post is based off of reports that “damaging personal statements” are one of the main “Kisses of Death” in the grad school application process. They’re so common, that they were actually divided into four main categories:

Damaging Personal Statement: Personal Mental Health

Examples of this particular KOD include “emotional instability” or “evidence of untreated mental illness.” Let me clarify something: It is okay to have suffered mental illness (pretty much everyone has at some point), but untreated illness or the possibility of it could be viewed negatively during the admissions process.

The article mentions that admissions committees are strongly put off “when students highlight how they were drawn to graduate study because of significant personal problems or trauma. Graduate school is an academic/career path, not a personal treatment or intervention for problems.” I think that last sentence is worth repeating: “ Graduate school is an academic/career path, not a personal treatment or intervention for problems.”

I think it is important to note here that I think it is okay to mention if you received speech or language therapy at any point in your life. It can be a great way to introduce how you came to know the field. However, I think it would be unprofessional to say you want to earn a degree in SLP for self-treatment or something to that effect. Another thought, I speak Spanish and am married to a Mexican. My children will be bilingual which strongly relates to my interest in bilingual language development, but I didn’t mention that anywhere in my application materials because it crosses the line from professional interest into personal.

Damaging Personal Statement: Excessive Altruism

If you are applying to attend school in Speech Language Pathology, it is kind of obvious that you are interested in helping people. Your SOP is probably only a page long and so you shouldn’t waste too much time repeating something so obvious. The original article calls this Kiss of Death “excessive altruism.” 

Furthermore, statements such as “I want to help everyone,” or “I think I am a strong candidate because people view me as warm, empathetic, and caring,” will not impress an admissions committee. Flattering words regarding your personal character are better left to your recommenders.

Instead of focusing on altruism, focus on things like your research interests, academic strengths, and professional experiences. Your personal motives for entering the field are valuable, but they can easily work against you. Becoming an SLP is first and foremost a professional endeavor. Therefore it should be approached with professionalism.

Damaging Personal Statement: Excessive Self Disclosure

Speech Language Pathologist teach people social skills (among many other things), and so they must be adept at measuring boundaries and using interpersonal skills. “Excessive self-disclosure” is the 3rd subcategory of “Damaging Personal Statements” mentioned by the Appleby’s in their article.

An example given in the article of this KOD is the telling of a “long saga about how the student had finished school despite incredible odds.” This kind of story might absolutely be interesting to the committee if it is told in a professional (not self-victimizing) way that is also brief. It is such a sensitive topic that must be handled without crossing the line.

The point is that you don’t want to be seen by the admissions committee as “making excuses” for any shortcomings that might be present in your personal narrative.

If you have something that might help contextualize a bad semester or a failed class, you first want to consider if its worth addressing. Personal example: I failed and had to retake a finance class when I was an undergrad. I came up with a pretty good, introspective explanation about why I’d failed the class. When I really thought about it though, I realized it was not worth drawing the committee’s attention to a “Corporate Finance” class probably didn’t receive anything more than a cursory glance from the admissions committee. If you think it is worth addressing, do it briefly; you don’t want to use too much of your valuable SOP space.

Other common situations that people struggle with are the death of a loved one, an accident, or suffering a blow to your health. These could all be valid to include in a personal statement, but it must be done with absolute professionalism. In these cases, it is probably best to seek professional advice in the form of a professional career counselor or admissions expert.

Damaging Personal Statement: Professionally Inappropriate

Initially, I was pretty surprised to see that “professionally inappropriate” even needed to be listed! Then I read some of the example’s given in the article. One applicant wrote about their performance in pornographic movies. Another turned her SOP into an lengthy allegory in which she was Dorothy on the yellow-brick road to graduate school. Neither of these were well received by the admissions committee (as you can imagine).

Anything that is excessively cutesy or clever is probably a bad idea (if Elle Woods from Legally Blonde would do it, you probably don’t want to). At some point, you might be tempted to include jokes or humor in your essays. I was certainly tempted to lighten the mood of my essays, but I know that these things can easily be misunderstood or missed completely.

Excessive religious references should also be avoided. The Dean of one Graduate program quoted in the article said, “Being religious is OK, but it has little relevance to research… or graduate school.”

2. Harmful Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation (LOR’s) are the best way an admissions committee can learn about you apart from your personal statement. Because they’re ideally written by peers of the admission committee, they might even be more valuable than the SOP.

If an LOR is poorly written, it can be a sure Kiss of Death. The Appleby’s divided this KOD into 2 categories.

Harmful LOR: Undesirable applicant characteristics

There are certain character traits that are needed for success in graduate school: Determination, intelligence, motivation, independence, responsibility, the ability to work with others. Letters of recommendation are often supposed to talk about these things, and so any LOR that doesn’t include these things is going to hurt your application.

The original article included several examples of KOD statements in Letters of Recommendation like, “arrogant and not a team player,” or “unreliable” or even “immature.”

To avoid recommenders writing things like this in your letter, you’ll want to be sure that you have a good relationship with him or her first! Also, always ask someone if they can write a positive letter of recommendation.

If you think you need more advice on this, try this post on Asking for Letters of Rec for SLP School

Harmful LOR: Inappropriate sources

Just because someone is going to say nice things about you doesn’t mean they’d be a good recommender. The admissions committee will also consider the source and its relationship to you. If the source is inappropriate, it is a Kiss of Death for your application.

Some examples of inappropriate sources:
• Parents
• Family / Relatives
• Employees
• Your therapist
• Travel agents
• Boyfriends or girlfriends
• Yourself

3. Lack of Information About a Program 

During my conversation with Treasyri (a practicing SLP), she often used the analogy that finding a graduate school is a bit like finding a boyfriend/girlfriend. To continue her analogy, imagine if someone told you on the first date, “You’re perfect for me. I want to marry you!” You’d probably run away! Your personal statement for graduate school is kind of like that. You can’t just jump right in and say, “Your school is perfect for me,” and you can’t spend the whole thing talking about yourself (just like you can’t spend the first date!)

This specific KOD is a lot like that. In your application you have to make the school think they’re ready to marry you after the first date (or at least invite you on a second date… a.k.a. an interview). And you do that by showing them you understand who they are (program focus) and you have reasons to show why you should be together (your fit).

Lack of Info: Program Focus

It is imperative that you understand the focus of any program you’re applying to. As you know, Masters in Speech Language pathology that lead to clinical certification (CCC), are pretty tightly regulated and might not have much wiggle room. But, professors definitely have their own research interests, preferred populations, and areas of expertise. You should absolutely study the research interests of these professors and even read some of their publications! You should be able to articulate how your interests align with those of the faculty and at the school you’re applying to.

Not understanding the specific focus of a program really kind of sends the message that you’re desperate and willing to go anywhere (which maybe you are! But you don’t want them to know that). Your interests might not have to align 100%, but you do want to know what your getting yourself in for, and programs want that too!

Imagine if a school invests in you and invites you to their program. When it comes time for your first clinical rotation, you find out that you have a pretty slim chance of ever working in a hospital, which is your career goal. You’re going to be pretty frustrated, and so is the school!

Lack of Info: Fit Into the Program

After you know the focus of the program, you should be able to demonstrate how you fit into it!
You don’t have to have 100%, laser focused interests. I didn’t when I applied! I knew I was interested in “bilingualism,” and that was about it. The area of bilingualism is huge and links to every other topic in the field. But I research programs with that speciality and within those programs I researched faculty with that speciality. I read (a tiny fraction) of their research and even scheduled phone interviews to learn more.

Think about it this way: The program has faculty who have done research and work with geriatric populations. If your personal statement is filled with your passion for children and helping them succeed in school, it is less likely to grab the attention of the committee.

One respondent to the survey by the Appleby’s said, “I’m very attentive to whether a students’ interest match our training. I expect a statement of personal interest that displays a convincing, compelling desire for what we have to offer from its start to finish. It’s a kiss of death when I read a personal essay that describes an applicant’s life-long goal of serving human-kind and has a paragraph tacked on to the end that “personalizes” the essay for that particular school…”
The take-away lesson for me is that you cannot use a generic statement like,” The ___________ University is the perfect place for me,” without backing it up with clear evidence.

4. Poor Writing Skills

You should have learned how to write while completing your undergraduate degree. Your application to graduate school (be it a writing sample, personal statement, or simply correspondence with the department) is not a chance to practice. It is the moment to put your best food forward.

Poor Writing Skills: Spelling and grammatical errors

Spelling and grammar mistakes should not happen in any part of your application. They are immediate KOD’s for many committee members.

I think an errant comma might be overlooked, but have someone (or several someones) read your application materials before sending them. Don’t risk it.

Oh and triple check the names of any professors or institutions mentioned.

Poor Writing Skills: Poor Writing

Apart from the mechanics of writing, you have to worry about the art of it. Style and structure are important in graduate study because you could easily become a representative for your institution or professors through your writing. The main writing sample you’re going to submit is the personal statement. Be sure it has a definite structure and strong content. One of the people surveyed for the research replied that a KOD is a “overly long and detailed statements of purpose that are poorly edited.”

5. Misfired Attempts to Impress

Probably the most entertaining part of this research article was the section on Misfired Attempts to Impress. It was divided into two main ideas:

1. Criticism of an undergraduate program AND/OR unsupported praise for the institution
This could easily take the form of, “I didn’t learn enough in undergrad which is why I want to earn a masters at your amazing institution.” One respondent to the Appleby’s survey said, “The candidate will give a very bad impression if he/she blames others for his/her poor academic record. Example: Faculty here at X university were unwilling to help me succeed.”

In general, you should avoid any sort of negativity in your personal statement or application in general. Remember, the admissions committee is picking their future students, coworkers, and peers.

2. Name dropping
This can take the form of mentioning important family member’s work in the field without any substantial professional connection. Also, this could come into play with letters of recommendation. One candidate mentioned in the article obtained an LOR from a senator who was a family friend of the applicant and commented little on the applicant but much more on the senator’s career and power.

Be sure that any connections to famous people are substantiated and professional, just like they should be for any letter of recommendation.

What It All Means

I think most of these Kisses of Death can be reduced to professionalism, understanding the formal nature of admissions process, and grasping the culture of graduate education.

If you have already started the application process, be sure to skim over your materials for any signs of the Kisses of Death! Taking time now to properly vet your application could help you avoid an automatic disqualification later!

Do you know of any other Kisses of Death? Do you have any questions about specific topics you’d like to see covered on this blog? Email me: michael at thespeechblog dot com




Original Article: Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process by Drew C. Appleby and Karen M. Appleby

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