To answer the question posed, I reached out to some of my contacts at graduate schools as I wanted to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. They were pretty consistent in their response.
If a student does not tailor a personal statement to the particular program, the program questions how much the applicant wants to join their graduate program. For example, if the personal statement is just general and does not talk about how the student’s interest aligns with faculty expertise (by naming specific faculty), it is not clear if the student has spent time researching the program. This was by far and away the most common mistake that my contacts pointed out.
Secondarily, a few contacts mentioned grades. If a student has a bad semester or two in terms of GPA and does not explain it in the application, the graduate program may be concerned that the student will not do well in their program. If a student has a difficult semester that results in a GPA drop, they should explain what happened in the application somewhere so that the reviewers will feel more confident in admitting that student.
Maureen Tobin is senior associate director for graduate school and career advising at the Career Development Office.