Did you know that two thirds of all grad applicants have zero chance at admission? True story. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s not the universities’ fault. It’s the fault of the teeming hordes of students who send inappropriate applications each year. In every applicant pool there are grad school rock stars (just a few), a portion whose results come down to pure luck, qualified students who make naïve mistakes, and then a giant crowd of automatic rejects.
The funny thing is, some rock stars don’t even know how amazing they are, and many automatic rejects are wildly overconfident. I want you to be different. I want you to make a realistic assessment of your candidacy. I want you to understand exactly why so many students get crap results, and do the exact opposite of what they do.
It may not guarantee you get admitted, but it will guarantee that you’re not an automatic rejection.
Let’s figure out how.
The 4 Types of Grad Applicants
If you take the time to scour social media (instead of blindly asking Redditors to “chance me!”), you’ll find no shortage of helpful posts written by admissions committee members. In the better ones1,2, you’ll find great insight about the kinds of applicants you’ll compete against.
After reading dozens of these posts and articles, I’ve confirmed my own observation about the hundreds of students who send me SOPs every year: there are 4 distinct kinds.
- Rock Stars – These guys are the walking miracles who seem to squeeze thirty hours out of every day. They first-author papers. They win Rhodes Scholarships. They earn 4.0s at Stanford or Duke, invent fusion reactors in their dorm rooms, and even when they’re bad writers, their SOPs brim with unique accomplishment. I see only 1 or 2 of these every year (across all academic fields), and they get accepted nearly everywhere they apply.
- True Scholars – This is what everyone hopes to be. These students have 1-2 years of research experience or meaningful internships/careers. Their grades are solid. They have great LORs. They could probably succeed anywhere they apply, if given the chance. But that’s the question – will they be given the chance? These represent about one third of all applicants, and they tend to get accepted to 2-3 schools.
- Good Students, Bad Planners – These guys are certainly qualified for grad school, but they shoot themselves in the foot. For whatever reason, they apply to schools that just aren’t feasible options. If PhD hopefuls, they apply to schools with no professors who conduct research in their field. If master’s wannabes, they might only apply to top-5 programs, or highlight their focus on plant physiology without realizing this Envi Sci program specializes in soil science. These represent another third of applicants (and a portion of international applicants who simply aren’t familiar with US schools). If lucky, they get into 1 program.
- Automatic Rejects – These guys are frustrating. They’re clueless and naïve, but usually very cheerful! They represent an entire third of all applicants. They usually wait till the last minute to apply, and sometimes forget whole parts of the application. If you write an autobiography essay, you’re in this group. If you mention mental health issues in your SOP, you’re in this group. If you have a 2.9 GPA and apply to Harvard, you’re in this group. These guys get rejected everywhere, and they constitute 100% of the Redditors who post every spring saying: “10/10 rejects tell me why please.” They always, always, always write bad SOPs.
How Admissions Works for Each Type
- Rock Stars
Rock Stars, obviously, don’t have to worry…though they sometimes worry more than anyone else. Many are Type-A turboautists who brim with confidence and genius. Others have Impostor’s Syndrome, and this anxiety is the very thing which drives them to maniacal lengths of competition – they’ll do anything not to fail (subtle difference). In either case, they’re whip smart, creative, apparently superhuman, and they live their lives in such a torrid way that success is guaranteed. When grad programs see such applicants, they accept them immediately.
For the PhD hopefuls, there’s never any question of fit, because Rock Stars never apply to programs where they don’t fit perfectly. (Or, in some cases, they fit everywhere…a mythical occurrence I saw once in a girl who was admitted to 19/20 programs.)
For master’s hopefuls, there are really no questions at all. Universities employ teams of administrators (“poorly paid sales people”) who’s job it is to track down these students and lure them with merit scholarships.
- True Scholars
It’s heartbreaking how grad departments have to haggle over these students, because admission has almost nothing to do with the students themselves. Instead, it has everything to do with the incidental needs of the program.
Imagine a grad program receives 100 applications for 10 open spots. They’ll accept 14, because they know a few will enroll elsewhere. 66 applicants are automatically rejected, and 2 are automatically accepted. That leaves 31 applications….and only 12 open spots.
Every single one of these students could succeed in this program, but the timing just isn’t right for most.
For PhD hopefuls, their target PIs might not have room for an advisee this year. Or an associate professor might need to load up on extra students as he chases tenure, and chooses two somewhat lesser applicants who fit his research specialty. The process of elimination doesn’t reflect the students’ potential – it reflects the professors’ needs that year.
For Master’s hopefuls, they might ask for financial assistance when the program is under an unexpected budget crunch (thanks Covid). Or, the department might have diversity directives. Perhaps they haven’t enrolled any Hispanic students or veterans in the last two cycles, and prioritize this in the “holistic” review process. In each case, great students get rejected because there’s just not space enough for everyone. It’s not at all a reflection of their potential, and they’ll never know how close they were.
- Bad Planners & Automatic Rejects
In fact, both of these types are automatic rejects, even though the bad planners are otherwise pretty good students.
A large portion of these bad planners make the mistake of caring about geography. Perhaps they live in the suburbs of Boston, and only apply to Boston-area schools because they want to stay close to their spouse. Unfortunately, if they’re PhD applicants, and no local professors work in their hopeful research field…well, sorry, there’s no point in reading their applications further. (PhDs must be willing to travel…for the entirety of their career.)
Or perhaps they’re a math/statistics student who applies to MIT’s Master of Business Analytics, ignoring that it’s more of an “MBA lite” that doesn’t at all match their SOP or career goals. In each case, these students get the same results as the jokers who write autobiography essays and forget to send their CVs.
In many schools, admissions readers/professors will spend no more than 2-5 minutes in their initial sort of each application. After a quick glance at CV, rec letters, and SOPs, they’ll put them in Good, Okay, or Bad piles.
The jokers who write SOPs celebrating the school’s “world-famous faculty and cutting-edge labs” go straight to the “Bad” pile. Unfortunately, so do the Bad Planners, who didn’t take the time to research the program and figure out that’s it not right for them.
How to Avoid Automatic Rejection
The Rock Stars and True Scholars don’t need to worry. They’re already doing everything right, and even the True Scholars with the worst kind of luck will still earn admission to 1-3 programs.
The Automatic Rejects, too, don’t need to worry. These chuckleheads never read my blog anyway – at least not until after they get 10/10 rejections. Most of the time, they can save themselves a year’s worth of trouble and application fees by spending twenty minutes reading the SOP Starter Kit (for Master’s or PhDs) and Kisses of Death.
The Bad Planners, however…these guys can be saved. They’re good students, after all. They just need to be a little more thorough in their preliminary research.
If you’re a student with pretty solid GPA, and you’re applying to schools that feel like they might be out of your reach, and you’re hoping, hoping, hoping someone will notice you…you’re a Bad Planner, and this is what you need to do:
Reach Out to Each School Immediately!
Whether you’re a PhD or Master’s applicant, you need to spend a few months learning everything you possibly can about each school. Yes, you should scour Google. Yes, you should read professors’ papers and spend thirty minutes studying Student Profiles and Career Outcomes on department websites.
But also…save yourself some time!
The schools and the people who work for them will tell you almost everything you need to know. Go straight to the source. If you’re a PhD applicant, you need to contact potential PIs long before you apply. (You should know this already, but apparently a third of all applicants don’t.) If you’re a Master’s applicant, you need to sign up for every webinar. Talk to department admins and present your profile. They’ll tell you if you’re competitive or politely point you in another direction. This is their job, after all. They literally get paid to find the best prospective students and provide information to those who aren’t quite ready.
Virtually all Bad Planners skip these necessary steps. Many do so out of latent anxiety. They’re introverts afraid to talk to people. They suspect they aren’t really qualified, and instead of confirming this, they shotgun-spray applications and hope something will work.
It doesn’t work.
The key to submitting a compelling application (and writing a persuasive SOP) is knowing exactly how and why you’ll fit into a grad program’s unique goals. As Prof. Philip Guo at UCSD tells us, a grad application is a request for someone to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, and years of mentorship time, in your career. That’s a big ask! You can try to ascertain their prerogatives by studying the department website, and sure, this works sometimes. But it takes a lot of time. It’s a lot more effective to talk to another real human being and figure out exactly what they’re looking for.
If you’re what they’re looking for…awesome. With a little luck, you’ll get in somewhere.
If you’re not, well…you’re out the $75 application fee.
It really is a shame that so many students apply each year without realizing they have zero chance of admission. Personally, I think this is a fault of our undergrad institutions. They don’t do a great job of teaching us what’s expected of grad applicants. They don’t teach us how incredibly stressful PhD programs are, nor how to write Master’s SOPs that show maturity and professionalism.
Imagine a school that offers a weeklong seminar to all of its hopeful grad applicants. Imagine it walked you through amazing examples of SOPs, taught you the average GREs or GPAs at top-5, top-10, and top-20 schools, and let current grad students explain what their daily lives are like.
How great would that be?
Unfortunately, few schools do this in a robust way (UC schools are an exception). Instead, we’re left to nervously email professors ourselves and sign up for a dozen webinars, trying to glean as much information as we can.
It’s a tough process, I admit. But it’s necessary if you want to be a True Scholar, and not an Automatic Reject.
I hope you’ll start this process right away. It won’t guarantee you get admitted, but it will guarantee that when a professor glances at your application, she won’t slide you into the “Bad” pile. At the very least, she’ll say:
“Hey, this one really did his research. Well done.”
- I was the chair of the admissions committee. Here’s the real dope.
- A Five-Minute Guide to PhD Applications
- AMA: member of grad admissions committee
- IAMA Graduate School Admissions Coordinator. AMA about getting into graduate schools
- I’m a PhD student on a grad admissions committee at an Ivy League university AMAA