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Didn't Get Into Grad School? How to Handle Rejection

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There’s no getting around it: rejection is rough. And when it’s coming from your dream grad school, it can be particularly disappointing—especially if you didn’t prepare a backup plan. However, these moments can also be a chance for you to move forward in a clearer direction. In fact, rejection is often when we discover just how much we’re really capable of accomplishing.

Here’s what to do if you didn’t get into grad school this time around.

First things first: don’t take it personally

Rejection affects us all differently—and whether you’re sad, angry, or some combination of both, it’s important to allow yourself to feel your feelings. Just be careful not to let them lead you to behavior that you may regret. Actions taken in anger or moments of panic tend not to be the most productive, so try your best to avoid doing anything rash or impulsive. Devote some time to processing your emotions, maybe practice some mindfulness techniques, and give it a few days before expecting yourself to respond to the bad news in any productive way.

It’s also important to remember that, whatever the reason you didn’t get into grad school, it has nothing to do with your overall potential or prospects for the future. Remember that failure can be an opportunity for growth, and that some of the most successful and influential people in the world went through their own (often myriad) struggles and setbacks.

If you’re experiencing debilitating feelings of distress or despair, seek out someone to talk to—whether it’s a trusted friend, family member, or an organization like Mental Health America or Crisis Text Line.

Take time to assess why you didn’t get into grad school

When rejection happens, there’s only one thing you can say for sure: something wasn’t working. The trick is figuring out what that something was, and what you can do to fix it.

While it isn’t always the case, grad school rejections can signal that there’s room for improvement on your part—whether it’s with your application materials, academic credentials, level of experience, or choice of grad schools. For example, did you apply to many programs, or just one or two? If you’re in the latter camp, then you may not have cast a wide enough net for yourself. On the other hand, if you applied to a range of programs and weren’t admitted to many (or any) of them, there may be some steps you can take to increase your eligibility.

Here are some common reasons grad school applicants are denied admission, and what you can do to improve your odds:

  • Lack of leadership, professional, or volunteer experience. Especially with competitive schools and programs, this can be the difference between you or another candidate making the cut. If this part of your application isn’t as substantial as you’d like, you may want to take some time to gain job, internship, or volunteer experience in your area of focus.
  • Late or incomplete applications, recommendation letters, or transcripts. Admissions staff usually have no choice but to deny applications if important documents are missing or unfinished. On your next go-round, make sure to thoroughly complete and double-check your grad school application, crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s before submitting.
  • Undergraduate grades or standardized test scores. If your previous academic performance doesn’t meet a program’s standard, don’t worry! There are a few things you can do to bring up your numbers. Taking available admissions tests or enrolling in individual university classes are great ways to supplement your transcript and make you a more competitive applicant.
  • A missing or lackluster personal statement. These essays are among your only chances to connect with admissions staff on a human level and highlight your unique qualities. Be sure to give this aspect of your application a lot of time and attention, and use strategic storytelling to ensure you’re presenting yourself with the most impact.
  • Differing career or academic goals. Sometimes a given grad school wasn’t the right fit due to a misalignment between their curriculum and your stated aims. If you haven’t already, try conducting informational interviews and scheduling campus visits so you can get a better sense of each program you’re applying to before submitting your application.

Another way to find out why you weren’t admitted to a school, as well as how you can tailor your application to their specific requirements, is to reach out to their admissions staff. Ask them if they’d be willing to sit down for a phone call, have an in-person meeting, or communicate via email to go over your materials and offer feedback. Remember to be respectful of both their time and input, and be doubly mindful of actions they suggest you can take to improve your odds next time.

Consider grad school alternatives

If you didn’t get into grad school, that doesn’t mean you can’t still move forward with your education or career path. Though the rejection might sting, it is a good time to reevaluate whether graduate study is your best—or only—option. There are plenty of alternatives to explore that may be better-suited to your goals and aspirations. 

For example, taking individual college classes works both as an alternative to a full-fledged grad program, and as a way to cover prerequisites if you do decide to apply again later. There are also a number of professional development courses that may satisfy your needs, whether it’s acquiring certifications or enhancing your skill set to improve upward mobility at work.

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Rejection is never fun, but there’s no reason it can’t ultimately be productive. As long as you recognize your situation as a temporary setback and use it to strengthen any weaknesses you might have, you can come out the other side much better and more prepared for success than you were before.

Didn’t get rejected, just waitlisted? Be sure to check out our article, Waitlisted for Grad School? Here’s What to Do.