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Re-Applying to Graduate School: If At First You Don’t Succeed – Try, Try Again
If at first you are unsuccessful, Should You Reapply to Graduate School Next Year?
This is a very nervous time of year. All around America – and, indeed, around the world – anxious eyes check 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, rather, more. cruelly, they send you that dreaded “we regret 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 others will sadly lament that the schools that accepted them were not of the quality they had hoped for. Others, those unlucky few, will not receive a single acceptance letter. This blog post is for you.
After you’ve taken the appropriate amount of time to complain, curse, drink, and throw voodoo hexes at the people at the Harvard Admissions Office, you’ll be faced with a difficult decision: do I apply again next year?
Before I offer any advice, let me offer this bit of personal perspective. I am currently a Ph.D. student at Yale University’s History Department. If you’ll excuse my pride, I will say that this is the best History program in the country, and is at one of the best and most competitive universities in the world. This might lead you to believe that I was a perfect candidate. Maybe. After all, I received admission and full funding from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford. But, four years ago I applied to these same schools, and did not receive a single admission. Have I gotten wiser in the intervening years? No, probably not. Have my grades and test scores improved? In fact, they had not. I didn’t even take the GRE again; I trusted my old test results. Here are some lessons I learned from this experience that may help you as you think about this difficult choice of whether to apply again.
The first and most important lesson I learned is that admissions are a fickle thing. Consider again my own application to graduate schools. If you put any stock in rankings, you will see that I entered the #1, #2, #3, #4, #6 and #7 ranked programs in my discipline. BUT, I was also rejected from NYU, Michigan, University of Washington and Vanderbilt. Of those, only Michigan was ranked (#5). On the face of it, this might not make a lot of sense, but for reasons that may be impossible to decipher, schools have their own things they look for, and for some of them I wasn’t a good fit.
There is a huge industry geared towards getting people into schools, but the fact is, you can really only do so much. There is always an element of randomness and chance to admissions. In fact, you might apply to the same programs two years in a row with the exact same application, and be accepted 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 into School X, they are lying to you. Of course, there are things you can do to improve your chances, but ultimately, there is still an element of chance.
Second, in the years since my applications were summarily rejected by every top school 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 professors at the schools I applied to. I didn’t take as much care and time with my essays as I should have, and I didn’t talk explicitly with my recommenders about the topic and approach I wanted my application package to have. I also haven’t spent enough time really getting my writing type perfect. These were all huge mistakes. In a highly competitive program like Yale’s, the admissions committee looks for reasons to remove an applicant. A few mistakes on penmanship will do that. Not having a professor you’ve already talked to who will talk about your application will also hurt you. On my second go around, I did all of these things right, and I more or less knew which schools I was getting into before I got the good news emails.
Third, in the intervening years, I have made myself a stronger candidate. To be honest, after getting rejected from all the graduate schools, I didn’t give much thought to reapplying. I mistakenly assumed their rejection was personal, as if the school had said, “Brian we don’t want YOU.” Remember, a school is really just rejecting an application. If you bring it harder and harder next time, you might do better in the process. So, I went to law school, had a series of interesting jobs, and became a better writer. So, next time admissions looked at my resume, it was much more robust and convincing.
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 you should consider.
One, what can you do between now and when you apply again to improve your resume? Are there jobs you can get that will make your application more compelling? For example, if you are applying for a scientific Ph.D. programs or medical schools, it would make sense to build up your scientific confidence by working in a research lab for a while. If you’re applying for Political Science programs, volunteer for a campaign, work at a think tank, or take another position that will demonstrate your commitment to an issue or topic and, by the way, provide 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 in a local college, take general classes and raise your GPA? This process requires some honest assessment on your part. Talk to people in admissions if necessary and ask them what they want or are looking for. To be honest, some 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? Note, this is very different from your resume. Too many applicants make the mistake that having good grades, good test scores, and a nice resume will get them into whatever school they choose. For many schools, it will be; for many, it won’t be. You disregard your personal statement, letters of recommendation and, if applicable, a writing sample at your own risk. I will go into more detail on this in future posts, but for now suffice it to say that an application should present a consistent and clear set of themes about who you are, what you will bring to the program and why they should accept you. So, if you haven’t spent hours and hours sweating over every word, semicolon, and footnote in your handwriting, you can probably improve it. If you haven’t worked hard to make sure your writing style 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 done so, take your personal statement and writing sample (and all other relevant documents) and show them to some trusted advisors, mentors and friends and have them tell you what they see is the problem. Putting pride of authorship aside, ask yourself, “how can I improve these?” If you feel you can do better, this is something to consider.
Three, you should consider the personal costs of continuing to pursue this dream. While studying for the Bar Exam, I met a man who was taking the test for the 11th time. I felt deeply saddened by this man, but I thought to myself: “friend, I don’t think you were meant to be a lawyer.” He had a family at home, and while he tried and tried to become a lawyer he didn’t pursue other options that might have put his family in a better position. There is a fine line between persistence and the quixotic pursuit of a dream that just won’t happen. If the costs of doing this are too high in terms of work, money, romantic life, family life or personal life, then it may be time to put this dream aside, at least for now.
Four, and very related to the point above, is that you have to really think about how bad you want it. If you just know, skin to marrow, that you are meant to pursue graduate education, then you probably owe yourself at least one more real try. A great application might take 5-6 months to put together, it might require hundreds of hours to perfect your test-taking techniques, and it might even cost you a lot of money to use services like EssayEdge.com or Gurufi.com to make your personal statement and writing sample. perfect
All these years later, I’m glad I applied again. I waited a few years to do it, but in the meantime I became a better candidate and got better results. I know how it feels to have your dreams shattered by a rejection letter…or six. But I also know how amazing it is to get into the program of your dreams. So, my final advice is that if you don’t think it’s worth applying again, then good luck to you. 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 for, and you will have to earn it.
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