What To Do If You Don’t Get Into Grad School

There’s no getting around it: being rejected from grad school is the worst. You’ve spent a lot of money and time, asked for reference letters, and told everyone about your plans. Whether it’s one school that you really wanted to get in to, or all of them, the admissions denial letter represents a closed door to an opportunity you were counting on.

Common reactions

If you were denied admission to graduate school altogether, or just to the one or two schools that really mattered to you, you may have a range of reactions that are similar to the five stages of grief:

1. Denial

In the initial shock of receiving the negative news, many people experience a period of denial. During this phase, they may downplay or denigrate the importance of grad school, saying things like “I never really cared about getting in anyway. Who needs some fancy degree?” It’s a natural reaction, but it usually subsides quite quickly.

2. Depression

Some people react to bad news by taking it personally, and letting it affect their self-esteem. If you are feeling an abundance of self-doubt as a result of the admissions decision, it’s crucial to realize that just because you weren’t admitted this year doesn’t mean you won’t ever be admitted to grad school in the future, or that you are unfit to pursue your target career. There are a lot of external factors that could affect their decision that actually have nothing to do with you and your application. Try talking to others and you will find that failures in life are often the first step to success. Find that inner voice (or good friend or TED Talk) that can remind you what you are truly capable of, and keep your chin up.

If you are feeling suicidal as a result of denied admission or for any reason, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255 (veterans, press 1)—or TTY 1-800-799-4889.

3. Anger and grief

Your reaction may be to lash out at the grad school that denied your admission, or against people in your everyday life. Especially if you’re feeling the admissions decision was unfair, take some time to work through your anger constructively before phoning the admissions office and saying something you’ll regret. You can ask them why they didn’t select you but oftentimes they aren’t able to share that information. Do what you need to do to regain your balance and centeredness (for some people this might be a good night’s sleep, a jog, a cup of coffee with a friend, or a few days off from work).

4. Existential angst

If you expected to be accepted and started to adjust your life in preparation for grad school, perhaps even picking up a new sense of purpose in the process, receiving a denial letter can come as a shock. You may be left asking yourself, “What am I going to do now?” Hopefully you’ve considered the possibility of what else you would do in the coming year if grad school didn’t work out. Whether you have or haven’t, it’s a good time to switch to Plan B. Check out other programs that might have been on your B list, 

Regardless of how you’re feeling

If you find yourself having a strong reaction, give yourself time to process the bad news in healthy ways before talking with the admissions office. For example, some people have found that serving others through volunteer work can help to alleviate feelings of pain and humiliation. 

One idea is to plan and implement three good deeds—be creative, it can be as simple as buying a stranger a cup of coffee or helping a friend with a problem. By the time you’re finished with the third deed, you’ll probably be feeling somewhat better about the denied admission. If you can’t think of three, one good deed will suffice, estimable acts build self-esteem. It sounds silly, but studies have shown that reaching out, connecting, and helping others can really have an impact on your own sense of well-being. After you’ve been able to clear your head, you will be in a better position to contact the admissions office to find out why you weren’t admitted, and to move on—either by improving your candidacy in time to apply to grad school again, or by choosing another option.

In all these cases, you have two basic options: Take steps to improve your candidacy and apply again, or choose a new path to pursue (including alternatives to grad school).

You may need to work a year or two in a relevant professional field in order to get the prerequisite experience the school’s looking for; invest in a test preparation course to help you raise your standardized test scores; or earn high scores in some graduate-level classes in order to overcome a low undergraduate GPA. Get more tips on these topics in our article, “Admissions and the application”.

Postmortem on your grad school application

Finding out why your admission was denied can help you pinpoint action steps to take to re-apply in the future. If you can, muster the confidence to call your admissions counselor to seek answers. However, admissions counselors won’t always be able to share this information. If you can’t find the answer you are look for, ask if they can make suggestions as to what would strengthen your application in the future. And if all else fails, plan to apply to more than one program. This can strengthen your chances of being accepted.

In order to better understand what graduate admissions staff must weigh when deciding whom they will and will not admit, here are the common reasons that candidates are denied admission to graduate school.

A candidate:

  • Didn’t have enough leadership, professional, or volunteer experience in a relevant field
  • Had career or academic goals that didn’t align with the school’s offerings
  • Missed deadlines for submitting the application, recommendation letters, test scores, or transcripts
  • Had undergraduate grades or standardized test scores that were not competitive enough
  • Made a crucial mistake in the application (such as using the name of the wrong school in an essay)
  • Didn’t explain well enough why the school was the best fit for them at this time
  • Gave the admissions committee reason to believe they were not serious about enrolling there, if admitted
  • Applied too late and there were other more qualified candidates that were accepted in early admissions
  • Was a great candidate but they had a lot of other great candidates with similar backgrounds
  • Didn’t have a strong enough personal statement that connected their professional experience and career aspirations with the program and the school

As you can see, some of the items on the list are not aspects that you have direct control over and some you can improve if you choose to apply again (to this school or any other school) in the future. The most difficult aspect to change would be undergraduate grades—see the discussion about how to handle shortcomings in your application in our article “Admissions and the application”.

To find out why you weren’t admitted, and how to strengthen your application for future admissions bids, make an appointment to speak with your admissions counselor over the phone or in person.

Tips for a successful conversation with your admissions counselor at this point:

  • Be respectful and sincere. Treat the follow-up as if you were a calling a prospective employer for feedback as to why you were not selected for a job.
  • State your regret in not having been accepted in a professional manner
  • Be humble in listening to the rationale they offer and don’t argue back—committees, not individuals, make admissions decisions. Even if the information is difficult to swallow it can only help you in making yourself a stronger candidate, whether that’s for the next application, your professional field, or elsewhere.
  • Clarify action steps you can take in order to succeed next time
  • Send a thank you note after speaking with the admissions staff
  • Conclusion and further resources
  • Based on your meeting with the admissions staff, begin to put together your own list of things to do to strengthen your application should you choose to apply again in the future.

If you plan wisely, the manner in which you expand your experience this coming year may have a very positive impact on future grad school admissions outcomes.

Read our article on the importance of having a Plan B.