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Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process

Drew C. Appleby Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Karen M. Appleby Idaho State University

A survey of psychology graduate admissions committee chairs re- vealed 5 categories of mistakes applicants make that diminish their probability of acceptance. We discuss 3 strategies that psychology departments can use to decrease the likelihood that students will commit these mistakes in their graduate school applications and provide suggestions that will help students avoid these mistakes.

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, responsi- ble, and devoid of serious personal problems.

  • Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman (2000, p. 32)

This statement indicates that applicants must convey these impressions to graduate school admissions committees throughout the application process to gain acceptance into graduate programs. Numerous authors have offered advice to undergraduate psychology majors about gaining admission to graduate programs during the past decade (Appleby, 2003a; Buskist & Sherburne, 1996; Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000; Kinder & Walfish, 2001; Kuther, 2003, 2004; Landrum & Davis, 2003; Lloyd, 2001; Morgan & Korschgen, 2005; Peterson’s, 2001; Sayette, Mayne, & Norcross, 2004; Taylor-Cooke & Appleby, 2002). Despite this wealth of valu- able information, few authors advise students about what they should not do when applying to graduate school. When authors do offer this advice, few support it with data.

We surveyed chairs of graduate school admissions com- mittees in psychology about the characteristics of graduate school candidates that decrease their chances for acceptance (i.e., kisses of death [KODs]). Our data provide faculty who mentor, advise, and teach psychology majors with strategies to enable their students to avoid KODs when they apply to graduate school.


We mailed a letter addressed to the Chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee to each of the 457 psychology gradu- ate programs listed in the American Psychological Associa- tion’s (2001) Graduate Study in Psychology 2001. The letter explained the purpose of the study and asked participants to provide “one or two examples of kisses of death you have en- countered during your career.” We defined KODs in the letter as “aberrant types of information that cause graduate admis- sions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants.”

Vol. 33, No. 1, 2006

Data Analysis

Eighty-eight of the 457 chairs (19%) returned their sur- veys, and these responses yielded 156 examples of KODs. This relatively low response rate is common in qualitative re- search that uses open-ended questions because, although this type of question gives respondents freedom to “expand on ideas,” it often “requires more time to answer than closed questions” (Thomas & Nelson, 2001, p. 263). We qualita- tively analyzed the 156 examples of KODs according to the following procedures (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Patton, 1990). First, we independently inductively analyzed each ex- ample (McCracken, 1988). This approach required us to consider each response individually and to identify its central theme (poorly written application, harmful letter of recom- mendation, or lack of interest in research). Second, we inde- pendently grouped these inductive findings into categories, or “words, phrases, sentences, or whole paragraphs, con- nected … to a specific setting” (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 56), that described broad situations in which several similar KODs occurred (e.g., we placed an example identified as an inappropriate letter of recommendation author under the major heading for harmful letters of recommendation). Third, we conducted “analyst triangulation” (Patton, 1990, p. 468) by comparing our findings from Step 1 and our cate- gories from Step 2. This procedure yielded a set of themes that were both internally consistent (i.e., all categories con- tained numerous similar responses) and externally represen- tative of broad examples of KODs (Patton, 1990).


We identified the following five major KOD categories: (a) damaging personal statements, (b) harmful letters of rec- ommendation, (c) lack of program information, (d) poor writing skills, and (e) misfired attempts to impress. We subse- quently describe these categories in descending order of fre- quency accompanied by illuminating examples.

Damaging Personal Statements

The personal statement section of a graduate school appli- cation is an opportunity to inform an admissions committee about personal and professional development, academic background and objectives, research and field experiences, and career goals and plans (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000). We found 53 responses related to damaging personal


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