"Why Can't I Get Into Graduate School?"

When you want to take another shot.

Posted Aug 10, 2018

Joseph Williams, Flickr, CC 2.0
Source: Joseph Williams, Flickr, CC 2.0

This is part of a series, "Why not me?!"  Ther others are:

Why Can't I Land a Job? 

Why Can't I Get Promoted? 

Unsuccessful in Love?

Here, I offer ideas for people who tried and failed to get into an acceptable graduate program and would like to give it another try.

Many grad schools are surprisingly easy to get into, but not the designer-label ones. And alas, we live in a designer-label society. So, especially if you're looking to graduate school to enhance your career prospects, it can be worth aiming for prestigious universities, even if their professors are research-first, students-second. So you applied to Ivies, Stanford, Berkeley, etc. to no avail. You may have even wondered, How did s/he get in?

These suggestions may move your next applications onto the “accept” pile.

Curate programs. Review various programs' curriculum and specializations, and apply to the solid fits. Admissions committees give priority to applicants who would be better served at their institution than at competitors. For example, if you’re considering a Ph.D. specializing in the biological basis of cognitive functioning, you could make that case if you applied to UCLA,  University of Minnesota, Carnegie Mellon, and Kings College (London.) You might start your search for good fits by searching the Peterson’s Graduate School database or by googling your desired specialization and degree, for example, [“cognitive-behavioral’ Ph.D.]

Curate advisors. Especially in doctoral programs but also in other graduate programs, your advisor is central to your graduate school experience and subsequent employment. S/he can also be key to your admissibility—Your application essay can explain that you’ve applied to the program because you'd like to study under Professor X. You strengthen your case further if you’ve spoken with Professor X and you both agree that the program is a good fit for you and that you’d be their advisee and perhaps graduate assistant. That professor’s letter or recommendation or phone call to the admissions committee can turn a clear “reject” into a clear “accept.”

If you do want to speak with a potential advisor, review their CV, which is usually linked to from the professor’s webpage, and read an article or chapter of interest to you. Leave voicemail for the professor explaining that you’re considering applying to the program in X, are intrigued by their bio, and wondered if you might speak to see if you might be an appropriate advisee or even research assistant?” When you do speak, start by, in a minute or two, telling the story of what brought you to want to consider graduate school and this particular graduate program and potential advisor. For example,

I majored in general psychology as an undergrad and, afterwards, took a position in a crisis center. I’ve come away feeling that there is a biological component to many of the clients’ problems and subsequently have done some reading in the area including your article on X. That’s leading me to apply to PhD programs with that specialty, and to you as someone I thought I should speak with. Do you think this program is a good fit for someone like me?

Don’t over-prepare for a graduate admissions exam, for example, the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, or GMAT. Especially if this isn’t your first round of applications, you probably have already studied for the exam. Additional test prep is unlikely to justify the time and perhaps money. Wiser to spend the time taking a course, online or in-person, in your proposed area of study, or to do some reading on your own. You might also get active in an online forum in your proposed area of study.

The takeaway

Selective graduate programs reject many applicants who are deemed just a bit less desirable than admitted applicants. One or more of the suggestions above could tip the scales in your favor. 

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