What to do if you didn't get into graduate school

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  • The pandemic led to record-breaking college applications, including graduate school.
  • Rejection can be hard to cope with, even if you’ve decided against going to grad school.
  • We outlined what to do if you want to apply again, find a different career path, or take a break.

The pandemic saw a record-breaking number of college applications. With many students wanting to switch career paths, applying to grad school can be an appealing option.

Unfortunately, the flood of 2021 applications could mean a higher chance of rejection. For example, some undergraduate colleges accepted less than a quarter of their applicants — the University of California processed over 200,000 applications for roughly 46,000 spots, according to the LA Times.

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If you were among those who didn’t get into grad school, it can be hard to know what to do next, especially during a period of so much uncertainty. Maybe you want to apply again next year, but don’t know why you got rejected in the first place. Maybe you’re considering a new career path entirely, but don’t really know where to start. Or maybe you just need a way to cope with these feelings before you can figure out your next steps. 

What to do if you didn’t get into grad school:

Be kind to yourself.

“You’ve just put immense effort — and paid a lot of money in application fees — in pursuit of a dream, and your hopes were dashed, at least temporarily,” says Dr. Devon Price, a social psychologist and author of “Laziness Does Not Exist.”

Every single year, there are dozens upon dozens of graduate school applicants who would have made amazing professors or researchers who didn’t get in for some small reason out of their control,” adds Price, emphasizing the importance of leaving space to process the anger and disappointment that comes with rejection. 

Think about what the rejection really means to you — and if you want to apply again. 

Lauren Cohen, an executive and career coach, recommends asking the following questions: “Do I even care that I didn’t get in? Can I figure out another path that I’d probably love? Would the money I’m spending on grad school have the payoff I am looking for?”

It’s also very rare for a career goal to be completely infeasible unless you’re set on going to one specific school, according to Petia Whitmore, Dean of Graduate Admissions at Babson College. Ask yourself whether you’re still interested in attending graduate school if it isn’t at your initial target school, or only if you can go to those programs. If it’s the former, you can explore other options, such as different schools or even online degrees or certificate programs. 

If you do decide to apply to grad school again, Susan F. Ford, University Director of Graduate Admission at Pace University, recommends starting with graduate admission counselors, who can help you regroup and decide what to do next.

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If you want to apply again:

Try to figure out what might’ve caused the rejection.

If possible, go straight to the source. John M. Lopes, Associate Provost and Dean of The Graduate School at Clemson University recommends reaching out to a staff or faculty representative for the program you applied to and asking how you can strengthen your application next time. Otherwise, he suggests asking a trusted professor in the field to take a look at your application and offer any guidance they have.

It’s important to apply a critical eye to every part of your application. Kari Calvario, Director of Masters Admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business suggests “examining your work experience and how it relates to your goals – are [they] properly explained and have you connected the dots to the work it might take to achieve them?” 

Lastly, you can consult the program’s class profile. “While not a rubric for admission,” Calvario says, “it can provide good insight into the academic and professional background of current students.” Once you know what’s wrong, you can begin improving your application for next time. 

Score higher on the GRE.

To really do well on the GRE, you need about 2-6 months — and 8-15 hours of work per week — to prepare, according to Stacey Koprince, Manhattan Prep’s Content and Curriculum Lead.

“Spend a week or two learning the basics about each section and problem type, then take a practice test,” Koprince says. “Use the results to diagnose your strengths and weaknesses and set up a 4-week study plan based on that data. Then repeat the cycle.” 

Koprince also warns against only studying the hardest material and ignoring the rest. The GRE and GMAT are adaptive (the better you do, the harder the questions become), so you have to earn your way to the hardest problems, and you can drop down if you make too many mistakes on lower-level problems.

If you hate the idea of studying all over again, there are plenty of flexible online resources to help, from self-paced courses to bootcamps.

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Nail your personal statement.

Your personal statement is a crucial part of your grad school application, but can be among the toughest to assess. One place to start is asking if you come across as your authentic self.

“Don’t claim to want to save the world if you can’t even show consistent volunteer experience,” Cohen says. “It sounds hokey to say be yourself but it’s really about being the best version of yourself.”

According to Whitmore, the key to success is introspection. “Take a hard look at who you are, the major influences in your life, the most important achievements in your career,” she says. “[Those] will become the ingredients of a strong personal story woven throughout all parts of your application.”

If this is the area you need to improve in, Cohen recommends hiring a professional or asking someone else to proofread, such as career services, a professor, or a friend.

You can also explore classes and resources to help sharpen your overall writing skills.

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Take online classes in subjects you didn’t cover in undergrad.

If you didn’t do well in undergrad coursework relevant to the program, Calvario suggests considering taking a for-credit course. Online courses and programs can help you gain some of the skills you may need to round out your application.

And if you finish a longer online program like an edX MicroMaster or Coursera MasterTrack, the certificate can double as real college credits, potentially lowering the cost of a full master’s degree (Note: rules vary by school and program).

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Look into online grad-level programs, master’s degrees, or professional certificates that offer more flexibility and possibly lower tuition costs.

While online programs aren’t the same as the on-campus experience, they can cost a lot less — especially if you can complete them at a slower pace in tandem with a part-time or full-time job. Plus, not all careers officially require a master’s degree, which means certificate programs might be a more affordable and versatile option.

As a plus, many of them have rolling applications, so you don’t necessarily have to wait to enroll.

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If you want to switch career paths:

Find out if grad school is absolutely needed for your ideal career switch.

You can start by having informal chats with professionals in your desired field, consulting counselors in your career center, and utilizing resources such as O*NET OnLine (sponsored by the US Department of Labor) and the Occupational Handbook, according to Julie Biggers, Director of Career Development at Clemson University.

If you’re able, you may also want to get in touch with a professional career coach who can help test for strengths and interests that may coincide with another field. 

Lastly, there are plenty of online courses, books, and podcasts that can help you piece together what you actually enjoy doing — and it might not involve graduate school at all.

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Take short classes to gain skills — and even certifications — to make your resume stand out.

If you’re looking to advance your career without going to grad school, platforms like edX, Coursera, FutureLearn, Udemy, Codecademy, and LinkedIn Learning all offer online courses with optional certifications to add to your resume or LinkedIn profile.

Whitmore also recommends considering enriching your extracurricular activities. “Step up your participation – from volunteer to a leader,” she says. “Seek new opportunities to contribute your time to a cause that lights you up.” 

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Look into a longer program or online degree that can help you transition jobs.

If you find that your career path requires longer schooling but you’d still rather opt out of grad school, online programs and degrees can offer greater affordability and flexibility than a traditional master’s program. 

And if you still decide to pursue a master’s down the line, programs like edX MicroMasters and Coursera MasterTracks can help you accrue real college credits that can be applied to a grad degree. (Note: Rules vary based on the program and school).

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Boost your job applications.

If you’re at the stage where you feel ready to apply to jobs, it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’re on the right track when it comes to job applications. Fortunately, there are plenty of online resources to help you fine-tune your resume, cover letter, and overall networking skills.

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If you want to take a break:

Remind yourself that grad school rejection doesn’t define you or your worth.

Unfortunately, many people face rejections from grad school — and the reasons for this can often be arbitrary. Price says that anything from having a GRE score or GPA that’s one point below the school’s acceptance threshold can be a cause for rejection — no “matter how beautifully written your cover letter is, or how much internship experience you have.”

Find support groups to help you process your feelings and even figure out next steps.

Reddit groups like the Grad Admissions subreddit can be good places to talk to (or even just read the experiences of) people in your same situation.

Price also recommends taking solace in blogs such as The Professor Is In, which validates the near-universal confusion and difficulty of the application process.

Take this as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself.

Although the pain of rejection is absolutely valid and deserves to be felt, the rejection process can also serve as a growth opportunity. Dr. Rebecca Mannis, an NYC-based learning specialist, suggests developing this through getting in touch with one’s TLC: temperament, learning profile, and context.

Each person’s temperament, learning style, and context that they bring into their personal experiences are different, and that’s exactly why an entire person can’t be defined by a single accomplishment. Some are more relaxed in temperament while others are more irritable; some learn through speaking to others while some prefer a visual explanation.

No one’s experience is one-size-fits-all, and career paths aren’t either. 

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