It’s that time of year when social media seems flooded with hyperbolic stories of application success. Anonymous profiles brag of admission to MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. Others claim 10 out of 10 acceptances. Reddit rejoices. The church bells ring. Doves are released to the sky.
I, however, feel skeptical.
(Among the 1,000+ students I’ve worked with, I’ve only see a few get accepted everywhere. Even the once-in-a-generation geniuses get rejected from safety schools who know they will never actually enroll.)
While the truth of these claims represent something dark about our collective need for social approval, it’s not the anonymous admissions heroes who interest me much. Instead, it’s the bright, hardworking students who, for whatever reason, didn’t get the results they dreamed about.
These are the applicants I care about most. And if the volume of self-deprecating posts on /r/gradadmissions reveals anything, it’s that this population of applicants is huge.
Today, these are the applicants I want to help.
Why do I care about rejected students?
1) I used to be one. When I applied to Creative Writing MFA programs during my senior year of college, I was rejected by 7 of 8 with a single wait-list offer. Eventually, I did get accepted off that wait list (miraculously, because I was deeply immature). But by then it was too late and I was off on other adventures.
I have to admit, I felt pretty embarrassed at the time. Yet, I consider myself wildly lucky because those failures set me on a far more wondrous path than I ever could have imagined. Truthfully, getting rejected by grad schools may be the best thing that ever happened to me.
(And it may be the best thing that ever happens to you. I’ll explain shortly.)
2) Nowadays, I understand that most applicants fail for the same avoidable reason. They face the same obstacle I faced two decades ago – they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t truly understand the fierce competition they face, how the “winners” are chosen, nor the methodical strategy that the very best applicants employ. In fact, they don’t have any strategy at all.
Instead, these applicants operate under the most dangerous siren song of all: hope.
When they apply to a Georgia Tech engineering program, they know their GPA isn’t good enough. BUT…they hope for a little bit of luck.
When they apply to a master’s at Carnegie Mellon, they know they weren’t the best Computer Science student in undergrad. But still. They hope someone will see their potential.
This is not a good strategy, my friend.
Hope Dies Here
As strange as it may seem, the notions of hope and potential are perilous. By clinging to hope (the way I did), applicants trick themselves into ignoring the very real data and strategies at their disposal. It’s a form of procrastination. It also represents a kind of fear – confronting the tremendous difficulty of graduate admissions is scary. It’s hard to admit that, today, you might not be good enough.
That’s why I want you to forget about hope. Eliminate the word from your vocabulary. Instead, I’m going to give you something far more powerful. Instead, I’m going to give you the empowering belief that, starting today, you can become, step-by-step an applicant who is more than good enough.
Even if you were rejected everywhere, even if you had an undergrad GPA of 2.5, you still have a chance. A GREAT chance, in fact. But, in order to take that chance, you have to begin learning everything you don’t yet know.
Is this easy? Yes and no.
To succeed, you have to find students with credentials like yours and reverse engineer what they did. Maybe it’s a low GPA. Maybe it’s a lack of research experience. Maybe you wrote shoddy SOPs without understanding the expectations of admissions committees. Luckily, whatever your problem was, someone like you has conquered it in the past.
And that’s our goal today: to learn how to accept the past and take deliberate, well-planned steps toward the future.
My All-Time Favorite Reddit Post
In May of 2020, a genuine hero posted this thread on Reddit: Low GPA (<2.5 GPA) success story – I’m going to grad school!
Go read it.
Read it right now.
Seriously, I’ll wait.
What I love about the author is how they admitted their flaws:
“My stats on paper are mediocre at best – in undergrad I was a perpetual underperformer.”
“I didn’t have a good advisor to tell me to prioritize getting good grades or to stop taking on so much. I am also a first-generation college student on top of that, so my parents also just didn’t understand what was going on.”
Yet, it’s what this student did AFTER leaving undergrad that really makes the story amazing. Like many first-generation college students, they approached their work with maturity and tenacity. Instead of placing hope in the tiny chance that someone might see their potential, they placed their hope in their own ability to work, work, work.
Over a few years of adjacent employment, the applicant acquired genuine, undeniable research skills. Through day-to-day effort, they built relationships with the PIs in whose labs they worked every day (and who fought on their behalf). Through it all, they received undeniably mean rejections, but still soldiered on.
Then, finally, the program in which OP worked took a look at their application, and basically said: “Listen, you’re not yet PhD material, but you’ve proven yourself to us, so we’re admitting you to the MS program and you can transition to the PhD in two years when you’re ready.”
Remember, this applicant had an undergrad GPA less than 2.5. Yet, here OP was, on the PhD track at an R1 university.
I don’t know what you might call that, but to me, it’s a blazing success.
This Story Isn’t Rare
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen and worked with students who tell similar stories. A former student left undergrad with a 2.7 GPA, worked in a university lab for two years, then was admitted to the same university’s Top-5 PhD program. (Beating out applicants with incredible credentials.)
Another former student piled up Data Science rejections during senior year. Then, he worked an entry-level job, attended DS bootcamps at night, took some grad-level coursework part-time, and taught programming to government employees on the weekends. Two years later, he submitted a beautiful SOP and was admitted everywhere he applied.
(Yes, he was one of those rare cases.)
In each of these cases, the applicant didn’t dwell on their failures. They didn’t wallow in the limiting belief that they weren’t good enough. They didn’t spill their lamentations in the grimy puddles of social media. Nor did they walk away believing that only 4.0 superstars with first-author papers get admitted to graduate school.
Instead, they took deliberate, active steps toward becoming better versions of themselves.
Reverse Engineer Your Success
This is the secret that I learned early in my professional career. After reading hundreds of “essays that worked.” After interviewing dozens and dozens of successful applicants. After pouring over piles of public data from the nation’s universities, I realized that we can indeed reverse engineer what successful students do, and take steps toward becoming those students ourselves.
Easy. Just ask.
Graduate programs will literally tell you what they’re looking for (if you ask politely). Call. Visit. Join webinars. Start early, when everyone else is procrastinating. Give them your profile and they’ll tell you right away whether you’re good enough. If you’re not, they’ll tell you what to do to improve.
It’s not about being “good enough for admission.” Just as with our Reddit hero above, it’s about whether you’re really, truly ready to handle the work!
Your CV looks great, but you need more math skills?
“Everything looks good,” they’ll say. “But you’re probably going to need to take Discrete Math part-time to be competitive.”
“Thanks!” you reply. Then get back to work.
Don’t post on social media asking for advice from anonymous goons (like me). That’s just another delaying tactic, another manifestation of ill-fated hope. Instead, go straight to the source. Be proactive.
You might even consider talking to you old professors, the ones who wrote your recommendation letters. Don’t be ashamed. Tell them what happened, and ask:
“What would you suggest I do to become more competitive? What weaknesses do I need to fix?”
Trust me, they’ll appreciate your honesty and return it in kind.
What Does This Have To Do With Me Getting Rejected Today?
Not much, I admit. I’m afraid I can’t help eliminate the pain of being rejected. It sucks. I know. But as I mentioned earlier, you can choose to let today be the best or worst day of your life. You can choose to be angry and walk away thinking that the world is unfair and that no one gave you a chance. Or, you can be honest, scour your weaknesses, learn from them, and find a way to eliminate them.
In the end, that’s what all successful applicants do. Some just do it earlier than others.
Find inspiration in the many rejected applicants before you who turned it around and became raving successes. As one noble Redditor commented on this luminous post six years ago:
“If you want to go to grad school, make this your freakin QUEST! Don’t let anyone tell you can’t. Start small, set realistic goals and just remember that people who have more to overcome have better stories to tell when they reach their goals!”