There's no getting around it: Not getting into grad school stinks. You've spent a lot of money and time, asked for reference letters, and told everyone about your plans. Whether it's one school that you really wanted to get in to, or all of them, the admissions denial letter represents a closed door to an opportunity you were counting on.
If you were denied admission to graduate school altogether, or just to the one or two schools that really mattered to you, you may have a range of reactions:
In the initial shock of receiving the negative news, many people experience a period of denial. During this phase, they may downplay or denigrate the importance of grad school, saying things like "I never really cared about getting in anyway. Who needs some fancy degree?" It's a natural reaction, but it usually subsides quite quickly.
Some people react to bad news by taking it personally, and letting it affect their self-esteem. If you are feeling an abundance of self-doubt as a result of the admissions decision, it's crucial to realize that just because you weren't admitted this year doesn't mean you won't ever be admitted to grad school in the future, or that you are unfit to pursue your target career. Find that inner voice (or good friend) that can remind you what you are truly capable of, and keep your chin up.
If you are feeling suicidal as a result of denied admission or for any reason, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255 (veterans, press 1)—or TTY 1-800-799-4889.
Your reaction may be to lash out at the grad school that denied your admission, or against people in your everyday life. Especially if you're feeling the admissions decision was unfair, take some time to work through your anger constructively before phoning the admissions office and saying something you'll regret. Do what you need to do to regain your balance and centeredness (for some people this might be a good night's sleep, a jog, a cup of coffee with a friend, or a few days off from work).
If you expected to be accepted and started to adjust your life in preparation for grad school, perhaps even picking up a new sense of purpose in the process, receiving a denial letter can come as a shock. You may be left asking yourself, What am I going to do now? Hopefully you've considered the possibility of what else you would do in the coming year if grad school didn't work out. Whether you have or haven't, it's a good time to switch to Plan B.
If your feelings are strong, give yourself time to process the bad news in healthy ways before talking with the admissions office. For example, some people have found that serving others can help to ameliorate feelings of pain and humiliation. One idea is to plan and implement three good deeds—it sounds silly, but studies have shown that reaching out and connecting with others can really have an impact on your own sense of well-being. Be creative and thorough. By the time you're finished with the third deed, you'll probably be feeling somewhat better about the denied admission. After you've been able to clear your head, you will be in a better position to contact the admissions office to find out why you weren't admitted, and to move on—either by improving your candidacy in time to apply to grad school again, or by choosing another option.
In all these cases, you have two basic options: Take steps to improve your candidacy and apply again, or choose a new path to pursue (including alternatives to grad school).
You may need to work a year or two in a relevant professional field in order to get the prerequisite experience the school's looking for; invest in a test preparation course to help you raise your standardized test scores; or earn high scores in some graduate-level classes in order to overcome a low undergraduate GPA. Get more tips on these topics in our article, "Admissions and the application".
Finding out why your admission was denied can help you pin-point action steps to take to re-apply in the future. If you can, muster the confidence to call your admissions counselor to seek answers.
In order to better understand what graduate admissions staff must weigh when deciding whom they will and will not admit, here are the common reasons that candidates are denied admission to graduate school.
As you can see, most of the items on the list are aspects that you have direct control over and which you can improve if you choose to apply again (to this school or any other school) in the future. The most difficult aspect to change would be undergraduate grades—see the discussion about how to handle shortcomings in your application in our article "Admissions and the application".
To find out why you weren't admitted, and how to strengthen your application for future admissions bids, make an appointment to speak with your admissions counselor over the phone or in person.
Tips for a successful conversation with your admissions counselor at this point:
Based on your meeting with the admissions staff, begin to put together your own list of things to do to strengthen your application should you choose to apply again in the future.
If you plan wisely, the manner in which you expand your experience this coming year may have a very positive impact on future grad school admissions outcomes.