When I applied to grad programs, everyone warned me to expect rejection letters. I was told to apply everywhere, with hopes of getting in somewhere. I took this advice to heart, and applied to at least 12 different programs (foreshadowing: I don’t even remember how many schools I applied to). Most of them were doctoral programs, but a couple were also “back-up” master’s programs. At the end of the day, I received over 9 rejection letters. It was heartbreaking.
I had 3+ years of undergraduate research experience (including a paid research position), an excellent GPA, decent GRE scores (admittedly, they could have been better), and strong letters of recommendation from my professors and mentors. So what went wrong? While I had numerous strengths, my applications had one key weakness: my program of research wasn’t strong.
While I had research experience and conference presentations under my belt, I didn’t have a clear picture for what exactly I wanted to research in graduate school. A program of research is the line of research that you hope to pursue throughout graduate school, and more importantly, your career. In my applications, I tailored each letter I wrote (e.g., research and personal statements) to specific programs and professors, but sometimes my effort to match my interests and experience with certain schools or professors fell short. While tailoring each letter to specific programs and professors is good necessary, having a weak match is bad. In the end, some of the programs I applied to had research that was vaguely connected to my interests, leading to vague research and personal statements.
At the time, I applied to both experimental programs and clinical programs. I was “raised” in clinical labs, and was relatively unaware of the vast number of other fields that were out there. In reality, my interests were much more in the experimental/cognitive psychology realm. It is no surprise that the programs I got accepted into were the programs in which my interests clearly matched with a specific professor at that university. You can even tell how wide-spread my applications were based on how I wrote the first paragraph of this post, when I said I applied to at least 12 different programs. I can’t even remember how many programs I applied to (or got rejected from!), because that is how non-targeted some of my applications were.
While I think it is important to spread a wide net, it is also important to know what research you want to pursue. Apply to many programs (if you can afford it- which is an entire other topic that I hope we address someday), but make sure that each program has a clear connection to your interests. If you are motivated and interested in a topic, it will show in your research and personal statements. The same is true if you are only tangentially interested in the topic. Apply to universities based on matched interests more than ideal locations or university prestige.
To those of you who didn’t get in to grad school this year, know that you are not alone in this. Rejection letters don’t mean you have to give up on your goals. Take the time to reassess what you want to do, and figure out your application’s weak points. Get research experience, improve your personal and research statements, study for the GRE, and most importantly: don’t give up!
Written by Karly Schleicher