statements, which we sorted into four subcategories: personal mental health, excessive altruism, excessive self-disclosure, and professional inappropriateness.
Personal mental health.
mental health problem is likely to decrease an applicant’s chances of acceptance into a program. Examples of this par- ticular KOD in a personal statement included comments such as “showing evidence of untreated mental illness,” “emotional instability,” and seeking graduate training “to better under- stand one’s own problems or problems in one’s family.” More specifically, one respondent stated that a KOD may occur “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.
Several respondents described per-
sonal statements that expressed excessively altruistic profes- sional goals as KODs. Admissions committees are not im- pressed by statements such as “I want to help all people,” “I’m destined to save the world,” or “I think I am a strong candidate for your program because people have always come to me with their problems; I am viewed as a warm, empathetic, and caring person.” One respondent offered the following advice: “Ev- erybody wants to help people. That’s assumed. Don’t say the reason you want to go into clinical psychology is to help peo- ple.” Thus, a personal statement should focus on the student’s professional activities such as research interests and pursuits, academic strengths, and professional experiences rather than on purely personal characteristics and motives. It is better to allow letter of recommendation authors to describe strong personal qualities than to include them as self-perceptions in
a personal statement.
characterized another KOD in personal statements. An ex- ample of such disclosure was “a long saga about how the stu- dent had finished [school] over incredible odds. Much better to have a reference allude to this.” However, one committee chair noted that graduate admissions committees do not al- ways view this type of information negatively if an applicant has written it in a professional manner that is appropriate for the context of a formal application.
The applicant mentions in the personal statement that he/ she decided to pursue a career in clinical psychology due to personal family experience with psychopathology. This isn’t always a kiss of death, but a sensitive area such as this should be communicated carefully. If the applicant is “spilling” overly personal information in a written statement, I often view this as a “worry sign” or an indication of poor interper-
A final example of a KOD
that can occur in a personal statement is any professionally in- appropriate information that does not match the context of the application. One applicant admitted to feeling “a thrill of excitement every time he/she steps into a morgue.” Another wrote “a 10-page narrative of herself as Dorothy on the yel- low-brick road to graduate school.” A third indicated that he
or she “had performed (acted?) in pornographic movies, which was not well received by the admissions department in consideration for acceptance into graduate school.” Other types of professionally unsuitable content include using ex- cessive or inappropriate humor, “cutesy/clever stuff,” and ex- cessively religious references (e.g., “I am a gifted therapist nat- urally. God has given me natural talents that make me a very good clinician. This was recently demonstrated when I helped my devil-worshipping brother go on the right path, God’s path.”). As one respondent noted, “Being religious is OK, but it has little relevance to research or psychology graduate school.”
Harmful Letters of Recommendation
A total of 45 KOD examples centered on letters of recom- mendation. The two most harmful aspects of these docu- ments centered on undesirable applicant characteristics and
letters from inappropriate sources.
Undesirable applicant characteristics.
To excel in grad-
uate school, a student must possess fundamentally positive per- sonal characteristics such as intelligence, motivation, responsi- bility, and agreeableness (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000). Therefore, any letter of recommendation suggesting that a stu- dent does not possess these qualities can be a KOD. Statements such as “arrogant, not a team player, and self-centered”; “unre- liable, manipulative, and immature”; “strong will and imposing character”; “does not like research”; and “scattered and needs some direction” are detrimental to a student’s acceptance chances. One respondent noted that a KOD can occur if the letter included “a lack of superlatives. The student has to rise above competency.” Finally, a personality characteristic deemed vital for a graduate student was the ability to work in- dependently. For example, a KOD may occur if
The letter of recommendation somehow suggested that the applicant has trouble working independently and is not clearly intrinsically motivated. Then that person would be at a serious disadvantage. Admissions committees believe that graduate school is a challenging and demanding experience. Successful applicants must have the motivation to succeed and the perseverance to carry through even when obstacles
Applicants should choose their
letter of recommendation authors carefully. “Letters of rec- ommendation should be from professors or other individuals who have been involved in the student’s education and re- search activities … they should NOT be from relatives or em- ployees.” Participants suggested that “letters of recommenda- tion from odd sources such as ministers or family friends and letters of recommendation from faculty members who did not know the applicant well” are KODs. Other inappropriate— and therefore damaging—authors included “therapists,” “travel agents,” “parents,” “boyfriend[s] or girlfriend[s],” “family friends,” and “the applicant.” Letters of recommenda- tion should come from people who can truthfully describe the applicant’s work habits and potential as a graduate student (Buskist & Sherburne, 1996).
Teaching of Psychology