Pre-Mortem Your Admissions Dreams: Avoiding Application Missteps

Rob Humbracht

Ever been told, “Shoot for the moon, and you’ll end up among the stars?” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this idea, usually from parents, encouraging their child to go big. You can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket, right?

There are huge downsides to this approach in admissions: 1) it sucks to be repeatedly rejected, but much more critically: 2) by focusing on unrealistic options, you distract your focus from the more realistic ones.

I’m writing today to double-down on my dose of realism by suggesting you imagine, in advance, how your application process might go wrong. It’s called doing a pre-mortem, a term coined by psychologist Gary Klein, which involves considering negative outcomes and working backward to find ways to prevent them.

Think about the application process like immunizing yourself against common diseases. You’re not shooting for the moon; you’re figuring out the pathogens most likely to ruin your trip and inoculating yourself against the worst of the effects.

When designing your application process plan, don’t just apply blindly. You need to consider what might go wrong.

In no particular order, the following are the biggest mistakes I see students make in the application process (whether to medical school or other graduate programs; students applying to college have their own issues primarily because they’re younger and less mature):

  1. Assuming they’ll be less busy in the future than they are today. The fancy term for this is “temporal discounting.” The flawed thought pattern goes like this: “once I’m done with my semester, I’ll totally have time to do x, y, z.” In truth, you won’t ever have as much time as you think. As a result, your applications suffer.
  2. Applying to the wrong schools. Maybe you apply to out-of-state schools that don’t take out-of-state students, or maybe you just overshoot in your reach.  Either way, you end up focusing on schools that won’t realistically accept you.
  3. Procrastination. I once had a poster called “The Procrastinator’s Creed” on my dorm wall, so I empathize. But if you know you’re prone to procrastination, you absolutely MUST do whatever it takes to hold yourself accountable.
  4. Avoiding talking about a weakness. You hate, hate, hate talking about it, but admissions officers will be staring at the same weakness you know you have.  You may as well give your side of the story. For example, if you got bad grades for a year, admissions officers will notice, so you probably should explain what happened and what you learned from the situation.
  5. Over-focusing on a weakness. On the flip side, explaining away a weakness is a reason NOT to reject you. You also need to provide reasons to accept you.  Don’t spend half your personal statement talking about what you learned from the bad grades.  That’s taking too much precious application real estate focused on something OTHER than your strengths.
  6. Bungling the writing process. Whether it’s getting too many second opinions or letting others (like ChatGPT) overwhelm your voice, the point of application essays is for you to be distinctive. You MUST figure out a process that works for you, whether that’s hiring an essay editor or finding someone who will edit your work. ChatGPT can play a role, but given that it’s the new normal for writing help, you’re not making yourself stand out by using it.
  7. Failing to make a plan for their gap year and beyond. Many people applying to graduate school are done with classes and are finding ways to spend their application year that range from uninspired to bucket-list-worthy. Most, though, make the assumption that it’s going to just be one year, so they don’t put the time and energy into choosing their year with the preciousness that it deserves. This is the last free year of your life! And you’re just going to default into, say, getting a meaningless master’s degree? Students with strong gap years will have more interesting stories during interviews and can send needle-moving update letters to their programs.

Okay, search your soul. Which of the above mistakes are most likely to happen to you? How could you make a plan to avoid the worst of those outcomes? Could you make a plan that’s more realistic about your time commitments? Could you research schools methodically? Own up to your weaknesses? You get the point, and the solution should not be a single sentence. Make yourself a plan, and make it count.

The real way that you get to the moon is the same way that NASA did: by making a detailed plan, and by working toward that plan methodically.

Download Application Pre-Mortem Worksheet

- Rob

Rob Humbracht is founder and CEO of Passport Admissions and lead author of The Savvy PreMed. He is also CEO at ReelDx and Co-founder of HEAL Clinical Education Network. FOLLOW HIM ON LINKEDIN.