If you’re not successful at first, should you reapply to graduate school next year?
This is a very nervous time of year. Across the United States—and, indeed, around the world—anxious eyes check their email accounts every few seconds, hoping 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. cruelly, they 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 others will sadly lament that the schools that accepted them were not of the quality they expected. Others, those lucky few, will not receive a single acceptance letter. This blog post is for you.
Once you’ve taken the appropriate time to complain, curse, drink, and cast voodoo spells at the people in the Harvard Admissions Office, you’ll be faced with a tough decision: Do I apply again next year?
Before I offer some advice, let me offer a little personal perspective. I am currently a doctoral student in the Department of History at Yale University. If you’ll excuse my pride, I’ll tell you that this is the best history program in the country and it’s 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 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. Had my grades and test scores improved? In fact, they hadn’t. I didn’t even take the GRE again; I related to the results of my previous tests. Here are some lessons I learned from this experience that may help you as you think through this difficult decision to reapply.
The first and most important lesson I learned is that admissions is a fickle thing. Consider once again my own application to graduate schools. If you put any stock in the rankings, you will see that I entered the #1, #2, #3, #4, #6, and #7 ranked shows in my discipline. BUT, I was also turned down by NYU, Michigan, the University of Washington, and Vanderbilt. Of these, only Michigan ranked (#5). At first glance, this may not make much sense, but for reasons that are perhaps impossible to fathom, schools have their own things that they look for, and for some of them I just didn’t fit.
There is a huge industry geared towards getting people into schools, but the fact is that there really isn’t 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 he knows exactly how admission works and that he can get you into School X, he is lying to you. Of course, there are things you can do to improve your chances, but in the end, there’s still an element of randomness.
Second, in the years after my applications were summarily rejected by every top college 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 give my essays as much care and time as I should have, and I didn’t explicitly talk to my recommenders about the topic and focus I wanted my application 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, the admissions committee looks for reasons to eliminate a candidate. A few mistakes in a writing sample will do that. Also, not having a professor you’ve already talked to who speaks in favor of your application will also hurt you. On my second try, I did all of these things correctly, and knew more or less which schools I was getting into before I got the good news emails.
Third, in the intervening years, I became a stronger candidate. To be honest, after I got rejected from all the grad schools, I didn’t think much of reapplying. I falsely assumed that his rejection was personal, as if the school had said, “Brian, we don’t love you.” Remember, a school really only turns down an application. If you bring it better and harder next time, maybe you’ll 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 looked at my resume, it was much more solid and compelling.
So, back to your own dilemma. You have an inbox full of rejections, and let’s be honest, it hurts to get rejected. Do you want to go through that again? Here are the four things that you should consider.
One, what can you do between now and when you reapply to improve your resume? Are there jobs you can get that will make your application more attractive? For example, if you are applying to doctor of science programs or medical schools, it would make sense to bolster your scientific bona fides by working in a research lab for a while. Whether you’re applying for Political Science programs, volunteer for a campaign, work on a think tank, or take on some other position that shows your commitment to a cause or issue and, in the process, provides you with stories, successes, and insights you can put to good use. your personal statement.
If test scores were a problem, do you think you could improve them? If grades are an issue, can you enroll in a local college, take relevant classes, and increase your GPA? This process requires an honest assessment on your part. Talk to the admissions people if necessary and ask them what they want or are looking for. To be honest, some of the things you’ll 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 app? Note 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. Discard your personal statement, letters of recommendation, and, if applicable, writing sample at your own risk. I’ll delve into this in future posts, but for now suffice it to say that an app should present a consistent and clear set of themes 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 every word, semicolon, and footnote in your writing sample, you can probably improve it. If you haven’t worked 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 it to a few trusted advisors, mentors, and friends and ask them to tell you what they see as the problem. Pride of 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 take into account 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 felt deeply sad for this man, but I thought, “Dude, I don’t think he’s meant to be a lawyer.” He had a family back home, and while he tried and tried to become a lawyer, he did not 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 again are too high in terms of work, money, romantic life, family life, or personal life, then maybe it’s time to put this dream aside, at least for now.
The fourth, and closely related to the previous point, is that you need to really think about how much you want it. If you just know, through and through, that you’re destined for a postgraduate education, then you’re probably due for at least one more real try. A great app can take 5-6 months to put together, it can take hundreds of hours to perfect your testing techniques, and it can 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. .
After all these years, I’m glad I reapplied. I waited a few years to do it, but in the meantime I became a better candidate and got better results. I know what it feels like when your dreams are shattered by a rejection letter… or six. But I also know how wonderful it feels to get on the show of your dreams. So, my last piece of advice is if you feel it’s not worth reapplying, we 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.