Options when you don't get accepted to your first choice graduate school?
May 10, 2004 7:44 AM   Subscribe

Graduate school acceptance. Or really, not. I need some advice from all of you over-educated metafilterites. What do you do when you don't get accepted to your first choice graduate school? Besides, obviously, not attend. Have any of you had any luck with reapplying, and if so, what did you change on your application to "do the trick?" Anyone have luck with taking classes as a non-matriculated student just to get your foot in the door? Any advice is much appreciated.
posted by hummus to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
i took classes unmatriculated in a philosophy graduate program (which had initially not accepted me); got my acceptance; but had realized i didn't want the degree. i was able to enroll "at large" with the help of one of the professors in the department.

a friend of mine was not accepted three times by the School of the Art Institute; moved to Chicago, and was subsequently accepted.

in applying to highly competitive graduate schools, it helps to be known to the professors in the department. try again, it won't hurt, but i suggest you have something that shows you've been working toward the goal without their help in the interim.

of course, now graduated from law school, i realize i would have been better off if my first choice had not accepted me & i had had to go with my second choice. hindsight and all that.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:55 AM on May 10, 2004

I am sure you will get a lot of advice, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that applying to graduate school for most programs (almost all social science programs and most other small schools) is much more like applying for an apprenticeship than applying to a school to be an undergraduate. You are usually going to a school to work with one or two (or a very small number of) professors. So treat it that way. Your job is to impress those one or two professors. After all you are asking them to commit many years (5-10+) of their professional careers to you, and you want to be someone they will be excited to work with.

You need to start by calling them up and talking to them if you have not already done so. Explain that you were disappointed that you did not get in and ask them to evaluate your record. You want to also ask them about their research and how they would recommend getting additional experience over the next year to improve your chances of acceptance. Likely this will include professional papers, conference attendance, and practical experience (fieldwork, labwork, research, whatever fits the field). The goal is to become a person to them, not an anonymous applicant. I have heard of students with extremely high scores (GRE,GPA) get rejected from very good graduate programs because they did not mesh with the research interests of the professors, remained too anonymous, or had recommendations from people the professors had never heard of. I have also heard of students with very low scores get into good schools because they knew the professors well through conversations, conferences or something similar and the professors were interested in building a professional relationship.
posted by Tallguy at 8:23 AM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

Tallguy is right on. Get to know the people in the program and don't feel bashful about calling them up. The trick is to basically seem bummed that you didn't get in but NOT to have it reflect badly on the people who didn't let you in. Beefing up your professional resume [joining the Society of _________ and maybe getting elected to some teeny office or something] can not hurt. It's legit to ask people why they didn't accept you, but less legit to dicker about it, or be pesty. If they say your GREs are too low, try to raise your GREs. If you had a bad undergrad GPA, take a few night classes. If you have no professional experience, get some. Often there's just a lot of applicants and not a lot of places so there won't be a really good reason. In this case, just making yourself more stand-out-ish will be helpful next time around.

Writing articles for professional magazines in the field, even if they're not scholarly, will make you seem like someone intersted in the profession. If there are people in the program now that you share interests with [so many grad schools just list the names of their students online, or at least students in specific clubs online] email one of them, or two, and ask about the program, just pick their brains. Alumni too [you can see groups for these sorts of things on social software networks like tribe.net and orkut.com] I get frequent email from people interested in where I went to grad school and I'll usually write back with advice and information. I also happen to know the people on the admissions committee, often, so it's not a bad strategy, for those folks.

Lastly, when you re-apply, don't pretend like you didn't apply before. Just indicate why you think you're a better choice, or what you've been up to that might make the admissions folks think again.
posted by jessamyn at 8:49 AM on May 10, 2004

Try asking them how recommendations as to how to beef your CV up as already recommended, perhaps also consider asking them for recommendations for other relevant courses? I got knocked back from a PhD programme I wanted as they didn't have any spare grants but the interviewing academic recommended I apply to another school, where I got accepted with a full grant. I now work for the original interviewer.
posted by biffa at 9:01 AM on May 10, 2004

Not getting into grad school was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.
posted by agregoli at 9:11 AM on May 10, 2004

Off topic: crush-onastick, I'm going to law school in Chicago in the fall. If you don't mind me asking you a few questions, could you drop me an email (address is in my profile)? Thanks!

Okay, sorry to interrupt.
posted by jennyb at 10:54 AM on May 10, 2004

I applied to a round of choice grad schools and then did a tour of the ones that accepted me. They were all mediocre, and I decided not to go. A few years later, I had more specific ideas about what I wanted from grad school, and I applied again, this time to only the top three schools in the field (slightly different specialty than the first time). I got in all three.

I sure hope you aren't going for some kind of liberal arts master's degree, which in my personal experience was enjoyable in many ways but not likely to pay for itself in the near future.
posted by bingo at 11:27 AM on May 10, 2004

And don't pay a dime for a non-professional grad school (professional being Law, Medical, Business, Engineering). It's not worth it. Go full tuition and stipend or nothing.

On to business... tallguy and jessamyn are right that it's all about apprenticeship, and you NEED to make a personal contact with the professor you'll be working with. It worked for me, and I got into my first choice school.

Now, since you didn't get in this time around, you should maybe reevaluate your position. Which schools did you get into, and how do they compare to the first choice. Not as good? Or just terrible? Maybe it would be better to go with the second choice or third choice, or maybe not. But don't rule them out as possibilities. And don't pay a dime.

Good luck.
posted by The Michael The at 11:57 AM on May 10, 2004

Is there something about this first pick that is very important to you (eg in same town as significant other or family, etc)? Because you might find that your second choices open up possibilities you didn't think about.

I went with my second choice school beause they offered me funding (The Michael The is so right - never go to non-professional graduate school, at least in North America, without funding, because you won't be able to pay loans back), and it wasn't actually in the country that I wanted to study in (my significant other is in Europe). But I've actually been extremely lucky and found an amazing advisor.

If you are reapplying, the advice to contact the person you would hope to work with is very good. I did this for the school I am presently at, and it helped me focus my application and think about what I was applying to do here. My applications were specifically tailored to each program and professor I applied to, and that seemed to work well.

I don't know what field(s) you are looking at, but it seems to me that applications essays and writing samples matter more in humanities and social science than GRE and GPA (both of which tend to just act as minimums). Asking a professor (if you are lucky enough to have access to one) to look over your application essay and writing sample is also a good idea, even if they are in a different field.

Also, don't forget about schools which may be middle tier in prestige but actually have excellent programs. What matters in the end is what you do with it - and there are plenty of unemployed Ivy League PhDs (I've been reading the Invisible Adjunct lately, and as a beginning humanties PhD student I am now throughly depressed).
posted by jb at 1:12 PM on May 10, 2004

To add a little to what some of the other people have said, THE most important question to ask when evaluating a graduate program is what percentage of former students (graduates plus drop outs) are working in their chosen profession. You should ask this for the program as a whole and for the professor(s) you want to work with, since they can differ greatly. You also want to find out where the recent graduates are working (is it where you want to go? i.e. academia, private contracting, etc). If a program does not freely offer this information, cross it off your list. You will be amazed at how much programs differ in this respect. Some are disturbingly close to 0% while others are much higher.

So also keep in mind the other questions such as funding and institutional reputation, but I would advise anyone looking toward graduate school to keep the question above as the foremost question in your mind. After all there is no reason to commit yourself to x years of hard work and poverty if it doesn't get you where you want to go. And never forget that most graduate programs are really just apprenticeships, so you need to calibrate your expectations, preparation, and questions with this in mind.
posted by Tallguy at 1:28 PM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the input everyone. A few more details: I'm applying for a Master's in Scientific Computing (joint degree between math and comp sci department). I'm fairly limited to where I can go, since I'm over 30 and live with my SO. Also, nyc doesn't have a huge group of schools that offer a program like this.
I don't think gres were a problem (you really can't do much better than a 790 on the math section). At any rate, I think the suggestions about talking to the professors are great; I had been thinking the same thing but I was hesitant to try it because I didn't want to seem "pesky." I'm starting to realize that I need to get over that feeling -- quickly.
Thanks for all of the input, and keep it coming -- you all are being extremely beneficial.
posted by hummus at 2:09 PM on May 10, 2004

"pesky" is all about how you approach it.

i (as well as my friend who eventually was accepted at AIC) approached both the program and the professors with "this is what i think i'd like to. this is what i understand i need to study. does this fit your department? who would you suggest i talk to? may i come talk to you about how you got where you did in your career?"

a professor could then decide how much effort to put into answering me. i chose to believe i was not bothering anyone willing to make time for me to come chat at the office.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:26 PM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

A Masters degree falls about half-way between a PhD program and an undergraduate program in terms of your involvement with the faculty. It is not quite like an apprenticeship, but it is not as impersonal as an undergraduate degree. Likely admissions is a bit "automated" depending on the size of the program, meaning that from year to year the students that are admitted have certain traits (test scores, recommendations, experience). You should definitely ask what those are and how you match up. And no matter what, your chances for admission go up the more you talk with professors and work to make yourself less anonymous. This is especially true if you are significantly older than the average students in their program.

Also, what are your goals once you have your degree? Many shops that hire programmers consider 2 years work experience to be roughly equivalent to 2 years spent in a graduate program. So you might as well earn money getting those 2 years done with.
posted by Tallguy at 6:27 PM on May 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'm applying for a Master's in Scientific Computing (joint degree between math and comp sci department). I'm fairly limited to where I can go, since I'm over 30 and live with my SO. Also, nyc doesn't have a huge group of schools that offer a program like this.

Ouch. You'll be similarly constrained after grad school, right? May I gently suggest spending an afternoon reading The Invisible Adjunct archives? Although the discussion tended to be from those working or studying in the humanities, much of the comments related to grad school and employability are relevant to any of the non-professional disciplines.

It's hard to read such blunt criticisms (as jb noted, it can be outright depressing at times), but depending on what you want to achieve, there may well be better, cheaper, more fulfilling ways to pursue those goals than in graduate school. You've gotten lots of good advice about how to make yourself a more desireable candidate, but you and your SO may also find it helpful to weigh present and future sacrifices against the expected rewards.

By the way, if you do decide to take classes without being formally enrolled in the degree program, do discuss your plans thoroughly in advance with the program's transfer advisor. None of the grad schools I looked at were willing to accept more than 8 semester units (i.e 2 classes) in transfer, a few were quite rigid about no transfer units at all. The program may require the units acquired while "unclassified" to be transferred after your acceptance, even though it's the exact same class(es) taken by the classified grads, so if you're not careful you could end up losing units you paid full price for and/or even re-taking classes. The other reason to have that chat early is that in some programs, taking their classes without an acceptance letter could backfire if they're one of those that feel very strongly that their program is so intense/elite/specialized/unique that any deviation from their standard operating procedure diminishes the quality of the experience. The transfer advisor can help you evaluate whether your activity would be perceived as impressively devoted or hopelessly defiant.

Good luck!
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:30 PM on May 10, 2004

« Older Does anyone know of any good websites to explain...   |   How do you pronounce the name of the composer Erik... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.