I can't really say that I have put these ten in order of awfulness as each can lead to its own particular disaster. Often they are combined to achieve the full effect of total rejection. This list is by no means all encompassing, but these are some very common pitfalls.
Adam's Top Ten Ways of Screwing Up Your Graduate School Applications
1. TIME MISMANAGEMENT
There is nothing like serious time mismanagement to trash your chances. Trying to get too much into too little time is an excellent way to produce lousy application components. OK, you are thinking, I have XX(insert number) of days (hope it is not hours) before my applications are due, so what, Adam, should I do? Simple suggestion: Spend the 10-30 minutes required to make a schedule for yourself. Be realistic and see what is actually feasible to get done by the deadlines. You may have to make some hard choices, but hey, life is filled with those.
The reality is that most writing is never done. If you asked a bunch of published authors, many would tell you that they want to rewrite or at least amend their books. I have worked with clients who sacrifice the simple need to generate effective content with the mistaken desire to make it perfect, which often results in the previous problem, time mismanagement, as well as mistaken expectations about what creating a masterpiece will have on the admissions committee. For me, I look for "doneness," not perfection. Perfection is unattainable, but really effective essays that reveal your goals, personality, strengths, and passions does not require perfection. Mostly that requires clarity of purpose and sufficient understanding of the audience that you are trying to convince to admit you. Your writing need not be artistically elegant, but it must be easy to understand, believable, and convince the admissions reader that you have fit with the program.
3. NO LEARNING CURVE: Working on Multiple Applications at the Same Time
One of the things that I tell any prospective client is that I only work on one application at a time because doing so results in a natural learning curve, which generates both better content in subsequent applications and also great speed. I have encountered applicants who worked on multiple applications at once, which tended to result in them needing to reinvent the wheel because they did have a process that allowed them to learn from their own essays. I see this problem often when I review essays for clients who are asking me for a ding analysis as part of their reapplication process. Another reason to work on one application at time is that it allows you focus on a single "advertising campaign." Especially with MBA application essay sets you need to think about the whole message being conveyed and this is much easier to do if you are focused on one school at a time.
4. CONFUSING GRADUATE SCHOOL APPLICATION ESSAYS WITH REALITY
I tell my clients that I am not part of the reality based community, I am part of the "get admitted to graduate school" community. These are not the same thing. The essays you are writing are mere documents designed to obtain admission. They serve no other core function. If you take pleasure in your essays, that is lovely. If they truly reflect your passions and goals, that is great, especially if that helps you to be convincing in an admissions interview. That said, all the essays (and other application components) have to be is a viable and believable representation of you, which is to say, "the map (the application) is not the territory (you in reality)." Some people get confused with this and engage in such a heartfelt process of self-evaluation that they lose focus. Sometimes this results in essays that while truthful, fail completely as documents that should be designed to generate a specific zero sum outcome.
5. BEING A LYING SCUMBAG
While I am not part of the reality based community, I am not telling you to engage in implausible deception. The moment your reader does not believe you, you are dead. You are selling something, yourself, and nobody wants to buy something from a lying scumbag. The point is to come across as completely plausible both in terms of your past experience and future goals. Admissions officers have bullshit detectors of various degrees of effectiveness. The more prestigious the program, the better calibrated their bullshit detector will be. Which is to say, since Stanford GSB is the hardest US MBA program to get into, you need to be a particularly convincing liar to get admitted there. As it is easier to get into HBS, you can assume the number of liars is actually higher as well. Personally, I think honesty or at least something very close to it, is the best policy.
6. DISCLOSING MORE THAN YOU NEED TO
However disclosing more than you need to, while honest, is also a problem. Confessions are best made to priests, your close friends, your diary, readers of your future autobiography, and/or your therapist, so be careful about what you state. This might take the form of discussing something really embarrassing as a failure, telling a story about your love life, or including the transcript for part-time program that you did not do so well in because you were too busy with your work. Only report those facts to admissions that you need to report and/or are in your interest to report. PLEASE NOTE: If you have committed a crime and the record has not been expunged and you know you will be subject to a criminal background check, don't lie, but do explain the situation.
7. NOT KNOWING ABOUT THE PROGRAM YOU ARE APPLYING TO
If you don't know about the program, establishing fit will be difficult. If you are applying to No Name School of Business or No Name Law School or the No Name School of International Relations, this should not be a problem, but if you are applying to a program that is competitive to enter you better be well informed about the program. The level of required information varies greatly, but at a minimum, you must be able to demonstrate why a particular school actually suits your professional, personal, and/or academic objectives.
8. FORGETTING TO CHANGE THE SCHOOL NAME
Every year I save a few clients from this most basic of errors. The first thing to do when cannibalizing your essay for a new school is to change the school name. For some reason the folks at Chicago Booth don't like it when they are mistaken for Kellogg and the reverse is also true. God help if you make this mistake with Columbia Business School.
9. NOT TAKING APPLICATION FORMS SERIOUSLY
The application form is an actual part of the admissions process. If you fill it out at the last minute, do a sloppy job, provide incomplete information, provide inaccurate information, or fail to include really positive information, you will be hurting yourself for no good reason. I suggest taking these forms seriously. Some schools, like HBS, have very short application forms with very limited space, while others, like LBS, provide a huge amount of space to write about your past. Whatever kind of application form you encounter, use it to your advantage. For my only analysis of an application form, see here. (I hope to update this very soon, but if my clients keep bothering me, that will not be possible, so don't hold your breath).
10. SUCCUMBING TO NOISE: Listening to Too Many People
At a certain point, whatever advice you get, you need to make it actionable. Talk to three different people, get three different opinions. Ask an MBA from Stanford (Class of 2000) about how to approach your HBS essays, get one answer. Ask your sister, who is attending HBS now, get another. Talk to an admissions consultant, get a third opinion. Read some BBS or blog (even this one), and become even more confused. At a certain point this all becomes noise. You are the author of your fate, so ultimately you need to go with what works best for you. The more opinions you take in, the harder it will be to integrate them. I have seen applicants become paralyzed by this. To get them to act, I don't tell them they need to accept my perspective, but I do tell them they need to accept what they think will work best for them. For more about mentors and consultants, see here.
Reading about reapplication is also a good way to avoid becoming one. So I suggest taking a look at this and/or this.
BEST OF LUCK!