Before we get into ways to cope and determine your next steps, I want to say that I’m sorry you didn’t get into grad school.
To start with, it’s okay to feel upset, disappointed, and really any other emotion. While they’re an inevitable part of life, rejections hurt! Plus, grad school applications are long, complex, and exhausting. After months of effort, it can not only be disappointing and demoralizing but also confusing to get rejections in response to your applications. If you worked hard for it and you were already envisioning yourself attending the school, the rejection will hurt.
While we don’t recommend wallowing for days, it can be helpful to acknowledge that you’re sad about the rejection and take a break before you decide if you’d like to re-apply. Then – after a bit of wallowing – it’s time to build yourself back up and determine what’s next. Below we’ve outlined some of the steps we’ve seen work well for students (and ourselves) in the past – as they determine if they want to re-apply and – if they do – get started on the application process!
Put things in perspective
If I were you, I would try my best to put a positive spin on what many might deem “dream-crushing.” Why? Because graduate schools will still be there next year and the year after that. Not even the Mayans could stop them from admitting new students. The truth is, you pick yourself up and keep going. There are plenty of motivational posters (of the variety your middle school had), to remind you to work hard, not give up, keep your chin up, etc. Get past the cheese and pick one to make your motivator.
If you’re truly interested in how to get into grad school, then the learnings from this failure will make you more prepared come the next admissions cycle. Think of it this way: you have insight into what kind of candidate doesn’t get accepted, and you’ve now got 8-10 months to make yourself the kind of candidate that gets in!
I’d start by trying to remember that rejections are extremely common. Remember that space is limited and not everyone who is qualified gets in every time. Even the founder of Google Sergey Brin got rejected from MIT before applying to and graduating from Stanford University!
A grad school evaluation process looks at dozens of factors of thousands of applicants and tries to decide the ‘ideal fit’ for their program in a matter of minutes. It is not the most perfect process. So remind yourself that rejection from your dream school is not a judgment over your self-worth, hard work, or intelligence. It is necessary to stay focused on your larger goal and ensure you keep working towards it – with or without a graduate degree.
Moreover, rejections can sometimes be a chance to find clarity and move forward more certain and focused on your next steps.
Then, start think about what’s next
Once you have (if you’re like me) cried over your rejection and understood that it could happen to anyone, the next thing to do is pause and think about what it means to you. Carve out an hour to do a bit of self-introspection and try to answer the following questions:
- Do I actually care that I didn’t get in, or is it just my ego that’s hurt?
- Is grad school the correct path for me or can I achieve my career goals through other paths that I’d probably enjoy more?
- Can the time, effort, and money needed to get into my dream school be better invested somewhere else?
One note on introspection – it doesn’t have to be done in front of your computer! Sitting at your favorite coffee shop, going on a walk, or meditating are all great ways to reflect.
This introspection will force you to think about what the rejection really means to you and if you care enough to reapply next year or not. If you are still determined to give it one more shot, remind yourself that this rejection simply means that you need more experience or time to succeed in your mission and move on to the next step.
(If you decide to re-apply) Determine how you can improve your application
Once you have decided to reapply in the next cycle, the first and most important step is to understand where you could improve your application next year. There could be lots of different reasons – and it might be helpful to discuss with a few friends or mentors to see where you could improve.
While late or incomplete applications, missing recommendation letters, or low test scores are common reasons for rejection, sometimes intricate aspects of a student’s profile like ‘lack of leadership or volunteer experience’ or ‘a lackluster Personal Statement’ could be what’s holding you back.
Look at every part of your application in terms of both substance and style. Think about not only the content you have written and the skills you have highlighted, but also the way you present the information or the stories you choose to share.
Another important aspect is to examine your work experience and how it relates to your goals. Have your aspirations and career goals been properly explained in your application? Sometimes connecting the dots between your past experience and future career goals is the thing that makes or breaks the application!
Also – we commonly get asked if it’s okay to re-apply, and if you’ll be penalized for doing so. I want to say, once and for all, no! Any negative connotation against reapplying is completely misleading. If anything, the admissions team appreciates dedication and rigor. What they hate is looking at the same candidate with the same characteristics year after year. So make sure to work on your application, strengthen your shortcomings and genuinely enhance your profile before reapplying.
Go straight to the source
While you should absolutely do your own review, the best way to understand what led to a rejection is to follow up with an admissions officer at the school you applied to. It’s not always possible – schools have different policies on this – but it’s worth asking about!
Be professional and humble about how you request the admission team for personalized feedback. Start with a thank you note for reviewing your application and follow it up with a gentle request for what could be improved next time. Ask if they might be willing to schedule a quick phone call or share feedback via email. I also recommend reiterating your excitement for the school and your desire to re-apply as a stronger applicant.
Remember to be respectful of their time and input. Whether it is feedback regarding this year’s mistakes or steps to follow next year, the advice from the admissions team can significantly improve your chances for acceptance next year. Plus – it may be noted in your file that they spoke with you!
Try all avenues available
Irrespective of whether you hear back from the admissions team or not, it’s helpful to look for additional feedback. Start with faculty from the school and see if they would take the time to go through your application and share their personal advice. While it could be helpful to go back to your mentors or friends who helped you draft your original application, it is critical to look for fresh perspectives, as well.
Sometimes even studying the program’s admitted class profile can be helpful (here’s an example from UC Berkeley’s MBA program). It provides good insight into the kind of academic and professional experience that the admissions team found worthy of admission. If you see lots of admitted candidates with similar backgrounds, you’ll know that you’ll likely need to make your application unique and compelling in order to stand out.
Was it my test score?
You might also be asking yourself the all-too-common question: how much of a factor was my test score?
Believe it or not, a perfect score will not get you into your dream school; though an abysmal score can hurt your chances of getting into a school that should be within your reach (considering your GPA, experience, letters of rec., etc.).
So if you received an okay score on the GRE, for example, let’s say 152 on both sections, it may not be the GRE that is holding you back. There could very well be other omissions—or sub-par standings—in your record that could have influenced the admission board’s decision. That being said, improving your GRE score could help to make up for these other components – which may be more set in stone, like an undergrad GPA.
On the other hand, if you scored in the low 140’s, then your GRE score could very well have been a factor. If you think you are in this group, do not lose heart. You can improve your score (I routinely see Magoosh students increase their scores by 16 points). And by extension, you can improve your chances in getting accepted the second time around.
But I don’t just want to give you a pep talk and a pat on the back. Increasing even by 10-points will mean you not only have to work harder, but you have to work smarter. When you are reapplying, you usually have the benefit of time on your side. Use that time and work hard to improve your score!
Remember – you can never know for sure
Grad school applications evaluate more than just you. The admissions team analyzes the school’s strengths and weaknesses, the preferences of the faculty, the size and diversity of the cohort they form as well as often the funding available.
Sometimes when you get rejected, it has nothing to do with you. So while it is important to do your analysis, talk to different professionals and try to identify 2-3 elements you want to improve before you re-apply, it is also important to realize that there is an element of luck involved in the process. Your job is to put your best put forward based on the information you have.
Start working with a fresh perspective
In addition to gathering information from various sources and having a sense of how you can further strengthen your profile, it’s equally important to have a fresh perspective on the application process itself. Can you view yourself as a brand new applicant, rather than bringing in feelings of rejection from your previous time applying?
Additionally, think about how you’ll manage stress during the application process. You’re going to go through it again. How can you make it feel more manageable and more positive this time around?
Best of luck as you navigate your next steps — it’s admirable to think of re-applying and you are just about guaranteed to have a better, more positive experience the second time around!