If you’re not successful at first, should you apply to graduate school again next year?
This is a very nervous time of year. Across the United States – and indeed, around the world – eager eyes scan their email accounts every few seconds, waiting to see if the school of their dreams has sent them a golden ticket to spend the next few years at their school. or yes, something else. They cruelly send you that dreaded “sorry to inform you …” email.
Some people will have the wonderful problem of choosing between two or more stellar schools, others will happily settle for a good school, and still others will sadly regret that the schools that accepted them were not of the quality they expected. Others, those unfortunate few, will not receive a single acceptance letter. This blog post is for you.
Once you’ve taken the proper time to complain, curse, drink, and cast voodoo spells at the folks at the Harvard Admissions Office, you’ll be faced with a tough decision: Should I apply again next year?
Before offering any advice, let me offer you this little personal perspective. I am currently a Ph.D. student in the History Department at Yale University. If you will forgive my pride, I will tell you that this is the best history program in the country and it is in one of the best and most competitive universities in the world. This could lead you to believe that I was a perfect candidate. Maybe. After all, I received full admission and funding from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford. But, four years earlier, I applied to these same schools and did not get a single admission. Had I gotten smarter in the intervening years? No, probably not. Have my grades and test scores improved? In fact, they hadn’t. I didn’t even take the GRE again; I trusted the results of my previous tests. Here are some lessons I learned from this experience that can help you think through this difficult decision to apply again.
The first and most important lesson I learned is that admissions are fickle. Consider once again my own application for graduate schools. If you put any stocks in the ratings, you will see that I entered the # 1, # 2, # 3, # 4, # 6, and # 7 rated shows in my discipline. BUT, I was also turned down by NYU, Michigan, University of Washington, and Vanderbilt. Of these, only Michigan ranked (# 5). At first glance this may not make a lot of sense, but for reasons perhaps impossible to decipher, schools have their own things they look for, and for some of them it just didn’t fit.
There is a huge industry geared towards getting people into schools, but the fact is, there really is only so much that can be done. There is always an element of chance and randomness in admissions. In fact, you can apply to the same programs two years in a row with the exact same application and be admitted one year and rejected another year. In other words, if someone tells you that they know exactly how admissions works and that they can get you to School X, they are lying to you. Of course, there are things you can do to improve your chances, but in the end, there is still an element of randomness.
Second, in the years after my applications were summarily rejected by all the major schools I applied to, I learned more about the process. For example, in my first round of applications, I didn’t bother trying to build a relationship with the teachers at the schools I was applying to. I didn’t put as much time and care into my essays as I should have, and I didn’t explicitly speak to my recommenders about the topic and focus I wanted my app package to have. I also didn’t spend enough time making my writing sample perfect. All of these were huge mistakes. In a highly competitive program like Yale’s, the admissions committee looks for reasons to eliminate a candidate. Some mistakes in a writing sample will do that. Also, not having a teacher you’ve already spoken with who comes out in favor of your application will also hurt you. On my second round, I did all of these things correctly and knew more or less which schools I was signing up for before I got the good news emails.
Third, in the intervening years, I became a stronger candidate. To be honest, after I got turned down from every graduate school, I didn’t think much about reapplying. I falsely assumed his rejection was personal, as if the school had said, “Brian, we don’t want YOU.” Remember, a school really only rejects one application. If you do it better and harder next time, you may do better in the process. So, I went to law school, had a number of interesting jobs, and became a better writer. So the next time when admissions reviewed my resume, it was much more robust and compelling.
So let’s get back to your own dilemma. You have an inbox full of rejections, and let’s be honest, it hurts to be rejected. Do you want to go through that again? Here are the four things to consider.
One, what can you do between now and when you reapply to enhance your resume? Are there jobs you can get that will make your app more attractive? For example, if you are applying to doctoral programs of science or medical schools, it would make sense to bolster your scientific bona fides by working in a research lab for a time. If you are applying for Political Science programs, volunteer for a campaign, work in an expert group, or take some other position that demonstrates your commitment to a cause or issue and, incidentally, provides you with stories, successes, and insights that you can put in your personal statement.
If test scores were a problem, do you think you can improve them? If grades are an issue, can you enroll at a local college, take relevant classes, and increase your GPA? This process requires an honest evaluation on your part. Talk to people in admissions if necessary and ask what they want or are looking for. To be honest, some of the things you will need to do may take longer than the 9-10 months you have before the next admissions cycle.
Two, what can you do to improve your application? Keep in mind that this is very different from your resume. Too many applicants make the mistake that having good grades, good test scores, and a good resume will get them to the school of their choice. For many schools, it will be; for many, it will not be. Disregard your personal statement, letters of recommendation, and, if applicable, sample writing at your own risk. I’m going to dig into this in future posts, but for now it’s enough to say that an app needs to present a consistent and clear set of topics about who you are, what you’ll bring to the show, and why they should support you. So, if you didn’t spend hours and hours sweating with every word, semicolon, and footnote in your writing sample, you can probably improve it. If you didn’t work hard to make sure your writing sample and personal statement work together to tell the admissions committee who you are personally and intellectually, then you can probably do better.
If you haven’t already, take your personal statement and writing sample (and all other relevant documents) and show them to a few trusted advisors, mentors, and friends, and like them, they’ll tell you what they see is the problem. Pride in authorship aside, ask yourself, “How can I improve them?” If you feel like you can do better, this is something to consider.
Three, you must factor in the personal costs of continuing to pursue this dream. While studying for the bar exam, I met a man who was taking the exam for the eleventh time. I was deeply saddened by this man, but I thought, “dude, I don’t think you’re destined to be a lawyer.” He had a family at home and although he tried and tried to become a lawyer, he did not seek other options that might have put his family in a better position. There is a fine line between persistent persecution and the quixotic of a dream that just won’t happen. If the costs of doing this again are too high in terms of work, money, romantic life, family life, or personal life, then perhaps it is time to put this dream aside, at least for now.
Fourth, and closely related to the previous point, you need to really think about how much you want it. If you just know, skin to bone, that you are destined to pursue a graduate education, then you probably owe at least one more real attempt. A great app can take 5-6 months to put together, could require hundreds of hours to perfect your testing techniques, and could even cost you a lot of money to use services like EssayEdge.com or Gurufi.com to make your perfect personal statement and writing sample.
All these years later, I am glad I applied again. I waited a few years to do it, but in the meantime I became a better candidate and had better results. I know what it feels like to have your dreams shattered by a rejection letter … or six. But I also know how wonderful it feels to enter your dream program. So my last piece of advice is that if you feel that it is not worth reapplying, I wish you the best of luck. Find your passion and live it. On the other hand, if you want to get into the school of your dreams, you will have to fight and you will have to earn it.