The Waiting Game: Graduate Application Purgatory

So, I’ve been gone from the blog for a while. Sorry! Things got busy and I started doing some creative writing that took precedence over the blog, but since it is acceptance/rejection season for graduate school applicants, I thought I would share my story.

I do not remember waiting for responses to my applications fondly. In fact, it was not a good time in my life. Since statistics are really no comfort in this area, my hope is that a bit of anecdotal advice might give those playing the waiting game more realistic expectations of the admissions process.

At the time I applied, my understanding was that I would hear by March whether or not I had been accepted. As I found out, this is very misleading because it suggests that there is a day in March when the school sends out all their acceptances and rejections and then waits for the chips to fall. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In January, most of the admissions committees meet and decide on their top applicants. I’m not on an admissions committee (obviously), but I know they’ve been active because I’ve already been asked to meet with a “strong candidate” who was visiting. It’s fairly safe to say most schools have a good sense of the what this year’s pool of applicants has to offer by February. Then, schools have to make a gamble on how many students to accept, knowing that some will take the offer and others will decline it.

I know of cases where this has gone wrong on the institution’s end: they admitted a reasonable number of students – figuring maybe half will accept the offer – and nearly everyone accepted. When funding is involved, this is a huge monetary blow for the school that usually results in admitting fewer applicants the next year.  To avoid this pitfall, many institutions send out acceptances in waves. Their first-choice applicants receive acceptances, and they see how many of them accept or decline before they send out the next wave of acceptances. For this reason, you may not receive a rejection until very late in the game.

Other factors you may not be aware of can also factor into your schools’ decision process. For example, my graduate institution is making a switch in the program that will hopefully lessen the time-to-dissertation for their current students. In order to allocate enough money for this, they plan to have a very small incoming class next year. So, regardless of how great of a fit your application is, you may have applied to a particular school on a tough year. This is perhaps reason not to despair and to apply again.

For me, the panic ensued when I found out through the grape vine that others had already begun hearing back from schools at the beginning of February. One friend from my undergraduate program had already received acceptances and rejections from various schools by mid-February. Granted, I applied to about half the number of schools as this one friend (something I semi-regret, but that’s another story), but I still found it unnerving that I had heard absolutely NOTHING. Not a word from any of my schools.

Then I began to hear rumors that most schools send out acceptances in February and rejections in March. There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story either. Many schools send out their first wave of acceptances in February (i.e. the students that they really want to recruit). As it neared the end of February, I had received one rejection and no acceptances. I began to despair more and more. Chances of acceptance looked dismal, and regardless, I felt that I should have heard something by now.

Finally, a glimmer of hope came while I was taking the bus home one weekend. My phone rang and I recognized the caller ID as coming from the locations of one of my schools. I did not want to pick up the phone because the bus was near-silent with the exception of the muffled sound of music coming from a few headphones, so I let it go to voicemail, barely able to contain my excitement. I told myself that I would listen to it when I got home because – just in case – if it was bad news I did not want to break down on public transportation. Nevertheless, I didn’t take my own advice and listened to the voicemail on the bus: I had been accepted to an MA program with funding! This is the point where if I was in a musical, I would break out in song and the rest of the bus would join in.

This particular school was my form of a “safety school” because it was a terminal MA program (not PhD). The real benefit of this program was that it would be a stepping stone to future PhD programs, and since I was offered funding, it wouldn’t be a significant financial burden. Now – slight digression – many people will tell you that there is no such thing as a “safety school” for PhD applications, and this is partly true. Even a school that is not highly ranked as a graduate school in your discipline will still reject you if your research interests are not a good fit. Conversely, you might get into a top-ranked school and get rejected from all the lower-ranked schools you applied to just because your research interests happened to fit with a faculty member at that school.

So, needless to say, getting into any graduate at this time was a much-needed relief in this harrowing process. The one gray lining (as in the opposite of a silver lining) was that if I went through with the terminal MA program, I would have to think about reapplying for PhD programs again in a year. ONE YEAR. However, because this post is about silver linings and not gray ones, let’s say that an MA program would also be a benefit because it would give me more time to figure out whether the PhD was something I really wanted to pursue.

February came and went and I had not heard back from many other schools, except for maybe a couple rejections. All this time, I was desperately checking the “search” feature on the Grad Cafe website, which I hesitate to relate because if you do this it will drive you to insanity. This site allows people to post when they receive an acceptance or rejection from any graduate school. Never before has a device of the internet been so arbitrarily torturous to the minds of so many hopefuls. I warn you that it is a terrible thing to see twelve ecstatic people posting “OMG MY DREAM SCHOOL! Accepted w/ funding” for your #1 school while you sit at your computer screen knowing that you did not receive one of those acceptances. Ouch.

Then, one night when I was sitting at my apartment, I received a strange Evite from someone I did not know at 12:30am on March 1st (I actually went back through my horribly disorganized inbox to find this). When I opened it, it said “PhD Recruitment Event” and I had a serious WTF moment, because to my knowledge I had not been accepted to any PhD programs. (I like to think this was a hilarious miscommunication in the department that these Evites were sent out before the official admissions letters, but it was ok because this definitely indicated an ADMITTANCE).  Later that same day (if you’ll remember it was 12:30am so this was technically the same day, though within normal business hours) I received my official admittance letter, which confirmed that it was not a cruel joke. Bang the happy drums!

March is late for a first round of acceptances to go out, but in this case it did happen. If you take one thing away from this story: it’s not over until it’s over. You could receive a call from admissions mere days before the April 15th deadline to tell you that you have been taken off the waitlist. In fact, I was just talking to a friend in my cohort today who had this happen to him. He was visiting another school he had been admitted to in April when he received the call that he had been taken off the waitlist. Also, once it hits mid-March, it’s appropriate to email schools that have not gotten back to you and inquire about the status of your application. Many of the official rejection letters I received did not come in the mail until late March, but when I emailed the schools, they let me know that I had indeed been rejected. This sucks, but it’s better to know that you are for sure not on the waitlist at another school before you make your decision.

There also exists the possibility that you could get accepted to an MA program at a school for which you applied for the PhD (well, only if you don’t already have an MA). This happened to me with the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago. Generally, this is the case with schools that have a strong enough reputation that people will pay for a terminal MA. It is kind of like a courtesy admittance in the event that you are not high enough on the list to get funded, but they still think your credentials are good enough for them to accept your money. Unfortunately, this is often not a viable means of getting into that school’s PhD program down the road, though it may get you into a good program at another school.

While I will say I am extremely happy to have been accepted at my current school and I love the program here, one last bit of very disappointing news came when I was not accepted to my alma mater.  This really came as a shock to me because while I had been advised that it was generally not the best idea to get all degrees from BA to PhD from the same institution, no one ever indicated to me that I would not be given the opportunity. My initial thoughts were: many of my advisors/recommenders played influential roles on the admissions committee, so how in good conscience could they encourage me to apply to graduate school and recommend me to other schools if they did not want me in their program?

The truth is that many admissions committees right now are hyper-aware of the dismal job market and are making decisions that they feel will best-equip their students to find academic jobs. Unfortunately, having all three degrees from the same institution is rarely a “plus” on a job application. I try my hardest not to take that one personally because I know it was not a matter of whether or not my professors though I was suited for graduate school, or else their recommendations would not have gotten me into a PhD program elsewhere. Still, it was very disheartening to hear that I had not received acceptance from my alma mater. I probably cried the hardest at that one just because I was insulted.

So, here is a story of waiting and woe in Application Purgatory, and ultimate deliverance. I hope that it will give those out there playing the torturous waiting game some hope that they might still receive that acceptance letter, and even if that does not work out, that you should not take it personally and try again next year if it is your dream. Good luck to all those applying and please feel free to ask questions!

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