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Re-Applying to Graduate School: If At First You Don’t Succeed – Try, Try Again

Re-Applying to Graduate School: If At First You Don’t Succeed – Try, Try Again

If at first you don’t succeed, Should You Reapply to Graduate School Next Year?

This is a very nervous time of year. Around America -and, indeed, around the world- anxious eyes glance at their email accounts every few seconds, waiting to see if the school of their dreams has sent them a golden ticket to spend the upcoming years at their school or if, 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 glumly lament the schools that accepted them were not of the quality that they had hoped. Others, those unlucky few, will receive not a single acceptance letter. This blog post is for you.

Once you have taken the appropriate time to complain, curse, drink and cast voodoo hexes on the folks at the Harvard Admissions Office, you will be faced with a difficult decision: do I apply again next year?

Before I offer some advice, let me offer this bit of personal perspective. I am currently a Ph.D. student at Yale University’s History Department. If you will forgive my pridefulness, 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. Perhaps. After all, I received admission and full funding from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford. But, four years before I applied to these same schools, and did not get a single admission. Had I become smarter in the intervening years? No, probably not. Had my grades and test scores improved? In fact, they had not. I did not even take the GRE again; I relied on my old test results. Here are some lessons that 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 that I learned is that admissions is a fickle thing. Consider once again my own application to graduate schools. If you place any stock in rankings, you will see that I got into the #1, #2, #3, #4, #6 and #7 ranked programs in my discipline. BUT, I also got rejected by NYU, Michigan, University of Washington and Vanderbilt. Of these, only Michigan was ranked (#5). On its face, this may not make much sense, but for reasons that are perhaps impossible to decipher, schools have their own things that they look for, and for some of them I did not fit.

There is an enormous industry geared towards getting people into schools, but the fact is that you can really only do so much. There is always an element of chance and randomness to admissions. In fact, you might apply to the same programs two years in a row with the exact same application, and get 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 into School X, they are lying to you. Of course, there are things that you can do to improve your chances, but in the end, there is still an element of randomness to it.

Second, in the years after my applications got summarily rejected by every top school I applied to, I learned more about the process. For example, in my first round of applications, I did not bother to try to create a relationship with professors at the schools to which I was applying. I did not take as much care and time with my essays as I should have, and I did not talk explicitly with my recommenders about the theme and approach that I wanted my application package to have. I also did not spend enough time really making my writing sample perfect. These were all enormous mistakes. In a highly competitive program like Yale’s, the admissions committee is looking for reasons to eliminate a candidate. A few mistakes on a writing sample will do that. Also, not having a professor with whom you have already spoken who will speak up for your application will also hurt you. On my second go-around, I did all of these things correctly, and I more or less knew which schools I was getting into before I received the good news emails.

Third, in the intervening years, I made myself a stronger candidate. To be honest, after I got rejected from all of the graduate schools, I did not put much thought into reapplying. I falsely assumed that their rejection was a personal one, as though the school had said, “Brian we don’t want YOU.” Remember, a school really only rejects an application. If you bring it better and harder next time, you will perhaps fare better in the process. So, I went off to law school, had a series of interesting jobs, and became a better writer. So, next time around, when admissions looked at my resume, it was much more robust and compelling.

So, let us return 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 put yourself through that again? Here are the four things that you should consider.

One, what can you do between now and when you apply again to improve your resume? Are there jobs that you can get that will make your application more compelling? For example, if you are applying to science Ph.D. programs or medical schools, it would make sense to buttress your scientific bona fides by working in a research lab for a while. If you are applying for Political Science programs, volunteer for a campaign, work at a think tank, or take some other position that will show your commitment to a cause or subject and, incidentally, provide you with stories, successes and insight that you can put into your personal statement.

If test scores were an issue, do you think that you can improve them? If grades are an issue, can you enroll in a local college, take germane classes and raise your GPA? This process takes 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 of 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 application? Note, this is very different than 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 will not. You neglect your personal statement, letters of recommendation and, if applicable, writing sample at your own peril. I will go into this further in future posts, but for now suffice it to say that an application needs to present a consistent and clear set of themes about who you are, what you will bring to the program and why they should admit you. So, if you did not spend hours and hours sweating over every word, semicolon and footnote in your writing sample, you can probably make it better. If you did not work hard to make sure that your writing sample and personal statement work in conjunction to tell the admissions committee who you are personally and intellectually, then you can probably do better.

If you have not done so 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 as them to tell you what they see is the problem. Putting pride of authorship aside, ask yourself, “how can I make these better?” If you feel that you can do better, this is something to consider.

Three, you should 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 test for the 11th time. I felt profoundly sad for 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 did not pursue other options that might have put his family into a better position. There is a fine line between persistent and the quixotic pursuit of a dream that just won’t happen. If the costs of doing this over are just too high in terms of job, money, romantic life, family life or personal life, then perhaps it is time to set this dream aside, at least for now.

Four, and very much related to the above point, is that you need to really think about how badly you want it. If you just know, skin to marrow, that you are meant to pursue a graduate education, then you probably owe yourself at least one more real attempt. An excellent application might take 5-6 months to put together, it could require hundreds of hours perfecting your testing techniques, and it might even cost you a lot of money using services like EssayEdge.com or Gurufi.com to make your personal statement and writing sample perfect.

All these years later, I am glad that I applied again. I waited a few years to do it, but in the interim I became a better candidate and got 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 get into the program of your dreams. So, my final piece of advice is that if you don’t think it is worth it to apply again, then best of 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’ll have to fight for, and you’ll have to earn it.