How to Handle Graduate School Denials

Rejected applicants should ask for feedback, act professionally, and not take the decision personally.

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Asking for feedback can help applicants turn a rejection into an acceptance letter down the road.
Asking for feedback can help applicants turn a rejection into an acceptance letter down the road.

Being denied is never easy. It can feel like a real slap in the face after all the time and work you have put into your graduate school applications. If you are extremely upset, do not react by phone or in writing right away; give it a few days. As you reflect, consider the following advice.

1. Don't take it personally: Remember, under most circumstances the admissions committee is faced with a very difficult task: choosing a limited enrollment number from among a very large applicant pool. These individuals are doing their best in a very difficult situation.

2. Write a thank-you note: Remember to write and thank the person who signed your notification letter for taking the time to review your application.

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3. Make sure nothing was missed: If you believe something was overlooked, call and ask about it—kindly. Ask if your most recent test score was received or if a recent transcript is in your file. You may want to verify that all of your recommendation letters were received.

If you sent a cover letter and it contained some very important information, check to be sure it was included when your application was read. On occasion, something may have been overlooked and if so, most admissions committees will provide another complete evaluation.

If they are unwilling to do so, or worse yet, are unwilling to take another look at that part of your application, perhaps you are getting additional information about whether this is really the right institution and program for you.

4. Ask if additional information could help: It never hurts to ask if more information from you could result in a second look.

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5. Keep in mind that admissions committees make mistakes: On rare occasions, a decision to admit is accidentally entered as a denial. All admissions offices have several checks in place to ensure that the proper decision is communicated to the applicant.

However, in my time as a dean of admissions, letters of denial were mistakenly sent to a few applicants. It would not hurt to check this out—kindly, not in an accusatory way.

6. Request feedback and honor what you are told: Some admissions personnel will offer feedback for denied applicants in person, over the phone, or in writing. If they do, ask for this feedback. Do not argue when you receive the feedback. Make sure you understand what was communicated, and be sure to thank the person.

7. Consider reapplying: Ask about the process by which you could apply again. If you've asked for feedback, think about how you could use that insight in your next application.

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8. Practice patience and professionalism: If you want to send a positive message to the admissions committee, the opportunity is now. A mature, thoughtful attitude makes a huge and positive impression.

9. Remember the disappointment is temporary: This is a setback, not a final blow. You will succeed, even though the path right now is not as you planned.

I completely empathize with those who are denied admission. My first application to the doctoral program on the top of my list was denied. I was extremely disappointed and somewhat angry. I waited a few days, and then called the admissions office.

I learned my most recent standardized test score was not in my file, and I was told that an assessment of my academic skills did not come across in my letters of recommendation. The admissions office granted my request to send the updated test score and provide another recommendation letter—and one month later, I was accepted. I was even awarded one full year of coursework toward the completion of my residency requirement.

I realize this may not be the outcome every time—but you never know.