Kisses of Death in Graduate Applications: Review and Summary

Kisses of Death in Graduate Applications

If you haven’t read about the five “Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process,” then please allow me to save you a boatload of trouble and anxiety. In 2006, two researchers surveyed admissions chairs from eighty-eight psychology graduate departments. They didn’t want to find out what helps students get accepted. Instead, they wanted to determine the opposite:

What causes automatic rejection?

The original article focused specifically on Psych departments. But, the advice proved so profound that it’s since become canonical reading for wise grad applicants in every field.

In this summary, I’ll explain the five “Kisses of Death” that most frequently earn rejections. I’ll also provide tips for bulletproofing your applications, and explain who most often makes these mistakes that doom applications to a miserable death.

“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.

— The Complete Guide to Graduate School Admission: Psychology, Counseling and Related Professions (p. 32)

What are Kisses of Death?

In the original article, authors Drew and Karen Appleby defined kisses of death as “aberrant types of information that cause graduate admissions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants.”

In other words, how do picture-perfect students still screw up and get rejected?

Among the 457 department chairs whom they surveyed, 88 replied. They listed 156 different “KODs.” Through qualitative analysis, the authors synthesized these 156 screw-ups into the 5 following categories:

  1. Damaging Personal Statements
  2. Harmful Letters of Recommendation
  3. Lack of Program Information
  4. Poor Writing Skills
  5. Misfired Attempts to Impress

As a WriteIvy reader, you may notice something interesting about these 5 KODs: 4 of them have to do with the Statement of Purpose. Obviously, the first is a general umbrella category for “Bad SOP.” But 3, 4, and 5 also reflect common mistakes that crop up in this all-important essay.

Now you know why I never shut up about the SOP. It’s everything. It’s the entirety of your candidacy wrapped up in one 750-word package. Other than the LORs, every other aspect of your application is negotiable.

Bad GPA? There are hundreds of success stories on Reddit.

Little research experience? There’s still a path for you (and even mythical PhD success stories, I’ve been told).

But if you submit a bad SOP….you’re cooked, friend. Not taking the time to learn how to write well and meet expectations, this just means you’re not qualified for graduate study.

Of course, if you’ve read Structure is Magic or the SOP Starter Kits (for master’s or PhD applicants), you’ll never have to worry about these doom kisses. The template addresses 4 of the 5 directly.

Either way, let’s dig into the Kisses of Death, and ensure you know how to bulletproof your own application.

The 5 Kisses of Death

  1. Damaging Personal Statements

The authors define a “damaging” SOP as containing one of the following four problems:

Personal Mental Health – The candidate shows evidence of untreated mental illness or emotional instability. This might be disclosing that you’re on antidepressants. It might be mentioning a bleak semester where depression caused a drop in your grades. Whatever it is, do NOT mention it in your SOP, just like you wouldn’t bring it up in a job interview or first date. Graduate school can be brutally difficult. You don’t want to be flagged as a potential dropout. It’s fine if you’ve dealt with mental health issues, as long as you resolved them and earned academic success. Just don’t bring them up.

Excessive Altruism – The candidate says he “wants to save the world.” The candidate says she “wants to fix the economic problems in my country.” While noble thoughts, they’re excessively naïve. Everybody wants to do good in the world. We know this already. Focus instead on what you plan to do academically and professionally. Don’t give grandiose, world-conquering, Pinky and The Brain-style proclamations. In fact, don’t mention personal characteristics (purposeful, driven, compassionate) at all. Nobody will believe you. Leave those for your LOR writers, who are much more believable.

Excessive Self-disclosure – The applicant provides overly personal information, typically emotional, indicating a lack of interpersonal boundaries. This is most often a hangover from freshman admission essays which are far more creative and personal. This might mean writing 500 words about past traumas or how a family illness/death/problem inspired one’s academic pursuits. Of course, this is only a problem when it’s “excessive.” Balancing personal motivation and academic goals is exactly what we advise in Structure is Magic.

Professional Inappropriateness – The applicant writes in a way that doesn’t match the professional context of the application. This might mean telling jokes, using cutesy gimmicks, or again, writing in the “creative” way of freshman application essays. Examples from the article include “a 10-page narrative of [the applicant] as Dorothy on the yellow-brick road to graduate school” and using excessive religious references. Religion is great. The Wizard of Oz is great. But none of this has anything to do with your professional qualifications for grad school.

  1. Harmful Letters of Recommendation

The only Kiss of Death unrelated to SOPs, a bad LOR usually features one of two problems:

Undesirable Applicant Characteristics – The LOR author might directly say that the candidate is arrogant, overconfident, immature, not a team player, or any other negative quality. If this happens, well, you’re so oblivious it’s astonishing. The sneakier issue, however, is when LOR authors don’t mention any superlative qualities at all. They don’t say things like “She is highly motivated, independent, and one of the 10 best students I’ve ever taught.” If an LOR indicates that you’re just “competent,” then you’re not going to be competitive for admission. Make sure to choose referrers who are true fans, and who want to see you succeed.

Inappropriate Sources/Referrers – The applicant submits an LOR from someone completely unrelated to their academic candidacy. LORs should ONLY come from professors (or perhaps professional managers in certain fields) who know the applicant deeply. They should never come from family, employees, ministers, friends, or even professors who hardly know the applicant. This latter one is most common. Even if the professor is a Nobel Prize winner, if she isn’t intimately familiar with you and your work, her LOR will be a Kiss of Death.

  1. Lack of Program Information

Not researching your target program, and not even attempting to show “fit” in your SOP…this will get you rejected. Again, if you follow the SOP Starter Kit, you won’t have this problem. This blog post also gives specific instructions for avoiding this KOD, which mostly manifests in two forms:

Program Focus – The candidate hasn’t bothered to understand the exact type of work conducted in the program. Studying the current research interests of faculty is crucial for PhD or thesis-based master’s programs. If you claim you want to research something that no one in the department is currently studying, you won’t get admitted. Even in professional or course-based master’s programs, a candidate must show that they understand the program’s unique goals, or how this program differs from others. You must do your homework.

“Fit” – This is mostly relevant for PhD candidates who don’t spend time researching the program’s faculty. Your research interest must truly match the interests of your target PIs. You don’t need to be a super-specialist in their field, but you do need to understand their work. Worst of all is when an applicant writes a very general, copy-paste SOP, and shotgun blasts it to ten schools with a few “personalized” sentences tacked on at the end. Again, do your homework, just as all of the most highly successful grad applicants do.

  1. Poor Writing Skills

Ah, my own greatest pet peeve. Writing is thinking, immortalized. If you write poorly, it indicates that you’re comfortable immortalizing lazy, shoddy thoughts. Simply put, it makes you look dumb. Even if you’re a brilliant scientist, but haven’t written much in the last four years, no one is going to give you a break. You don’t have to write like George Orwell, but you do have to show competence by avoiding these two problems:

Spelling and Grammatical Errors – This is actually disputable. Many STEM programs will overlook a typo, if they even notice it. This is especially true for international applicants, and even more so at UK schools. But many programs, in both STEM and the humanities, will automatically reject an application with abusive grammar, misspellings, or punctuation errors. As the article indicates, “It is not so much the student’s lack of writing ability, but rather the carelessness of sending such sloppy work to an admissions committee that bodes ill.”

Note for International Applicants: If your word processor is set to Singaporean, Indian, or any other English variant derived from British English, and you’re applying to US programs…be careful. It’s not “catalysing,” but “catalyzing.” It’s not “mould” or “honour” but “mold” and “honor.” Set your software’s dictionary to United States English to avoid these potential KODs.

Poorly Written Application Materials/Lack of Structure – The candidate submits an overly long, overly detailed SOP that shows a lack of editing. Most often, this is a chronological or stream-of-consciousness “autobiography” SOP, which every WriteIvy reader should know to avoid like the plague. Strong writing skills and an understanding of essay structure is essential for graduate students. As one respondent to the study said, “People who want to get their doctorate should already know how to write.”

  1. Misfired Attempts to Impress

Applicants do funny things to try to stand out in their SOPs. Unfortunately, three of these common attempts can mean immediate rejection.

Criticizing Undergraduate Institutions – The applicant denigrates their school, perhaps for a lack of courses or research opportunities. Usually they do so as an attempt to explain their own poor record. “The professor was unwilling to help me succeed in Linear Algebra, so I am taking it again online this summer.”

Unsupported Praise for the Graduate Program – The applicant writes with sentimentality about the “world-class faculty and resources” at their target program, or claims they will undoubtedly receive a “world-class education.” (Yes, I’m repeating that phrase for a reason. Don’t ever use it.) The problem is that you don’t know anything about the program yet. You aren’t in a position of authority to judge its resources. If you were the Chair of the CS department at MIT, and you called Georgia Tech’s master’s program “world class,” it would mean something. But you’re just a humble applicant. Save the praise and focus on the things you do know about: yourself, your academic goal, and how you plan to achieve it at this school.

Namedropping Famous Scholars or Practitioners – The candidate mentions famous professors or scientists whom they don’t really know, perhaps as personal inspiration, or just as an attempt to show that they’re familiar with the field. If you’re a physicist, quoting Richard Feynman won’t make you seem smart. It will make you seem silly. Even worse is submitting an LOR from a powerful authority figure who doesn’t really know you. Most often these letters come from government figures or prominent professors who are family friends. This only makes you seem manipulative, smarmy, and out of touch.

How to Avoid the Kisses of Death Entirely, 100% Guaranteed

  1. Read Structure is Magic
  2. Follow the exercises in the SOP Starter Kit (Master’s/PhDs)
  3. Use Grammarly and Hemingway App to avoid grammar problems and poor prose
  4. Visit your campus writing center or find an editor to final check your structure and look for typos. (I recommend Prompt.)
  5. Only request LORs from professors who are truly intimate with your work, and who really, really, really want to see you succeed.

Is this guaranteed to get you admitted?

No, don’t be crazy.

But it will certainly increase your chances. And, it will guarantee you don’t get rejected for submitting “aberrant” information.

Conclusion

It would be well worth your time to read the original “Kisses of Death” article. In addition to some cringey KOD examples (one applicant admitted to working in porn!), it highlights ways that many undergrad departments don’t educate their students about the expectations of grad programs. It also includes this handy cheat sheet I’ve screen-capped below:

Kisses of Death Cheat Sheet

In the end, it’s important to remember that your SOP and other application materials are read in a professional context. Be professional. Anything inappropriate can spell doom for your admission chances, and friend, I know you’ve worked way too hard to take that risk.

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