Getting Into Graduate School Made Tougher by the Recession

Growing application numbers force more colleges to reject qualified students.


It's the small, white envelope that graduate school applicants fear the most. It has the official school letterhead in the upper-left corner and contains a single sheet of thrice-folded white paper. Applicants needn't read past the opening few words of the letter inside to get the message; "Despite" or "We regret" signals what comes next. It's the dreaded rejection letter, and an increasing number of graduate school applicants are receiving them. They have the economy to thank for their woes. Nearly 5 million workers in the United States were part of mass layoffs in 2008 and 2009 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the unemployment rate continues to hover above 10 percent. Such dismal figures are causing some to try to ride out the storm in the relative safety of graduate school.

While this seems to be a wise strategy, it's one that millions of recent graduates and laid-off workers have followed. Though the trend isn't universal, many graduate schools across the country have seen application levels significantly jump over the past two years. And while some schools can accommodate the rise by accepting more students, many are simply having to say no more often, turning away students that they would've otherwise accepted without the deluge of applications. "Typically, in a recession, students do turn to graduate school," says David Daleke, associate dean at the University Graduate School, Indiana University—Bloomington, where nonprofessional program application levels rose by nearly 10 percent at the onset of the recession. "Students choose to apply to graduate school for potential market opportunities as well as the lack of those opportunities once they finish their undergraduate work."

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At the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the application rate has more than doubled over the past four years. While Evan Bouffides, assistant dean and director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid, says that heightened marketing and recruiting efforts play a part in the jump, he claims the recession has been a key component. This year, the school received more than 1,400 applications but has no plans on increasing the number of accepted students beyond the usual 150. This equates to an acceptance rate of roughly 11 percent. Compare that to a prerecession acceptance level of about 25 percent, and many applicants who would've been admitted in flush times are now finding those small, white envelopes in their mailboxes. "I can think of hundreds of cases of people who are certainly qualified to do a strong M.B.A. program, but because of the sheer numbers we've either had to waitlist them or deny them," says Bouffides. "If we expand, it's not going to be because there are more applicants out there."

Texas Christian University has also seen a precipitous jump in the number of applications sent its way. Last year alone, the number of domestic applications at its M. J. Neeley School of Business increased 42 percent. Unlike at Olin, where the number of accepted students has remained stagnant, the Neely School has been able to admit a greater number of students than in the past. Associate Dean of Graduate Programs and Research William L. Cron says class sizes and course offerings have increased, but so did the quality of student that the school accepted, evidenced by the 24-point jump in average GMAT score of the last accepted class. The volume of applicants allowed the school to weed out the less-qualified candidates that may have been accepted in years past. "Students who would have been accepted in the past were not accepted and people who would have received scholarship offers either received less scholarship money or none," Cron says.

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What should the students who are being edged out by the increase in competition do? Admissions officials argue these students shouldn't give up, saying that they should be more vigilant in their efforts to strengthen the weakest points of their applications. Be it finding some entry-level work experience during or soon after college or retaking a graduate admittance test like the GMAT, applicants need to do more than the bare minimum to keep the rejection letters at bay in this environment. Another way to get ahead amid heightened competition is quite simple but often overlooked: Don't procrastinate. Bouffides notes that candidates should get their applications in as soon as possible. "Once your application is ready, don't wait around," he says. "There's a better chance of getting in earlier rather than later in the admissions cycle."