Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Dear Applicant

Dear Applicant,

All indications are that you will do very well in a graduate program in Science. Your academic record shows that you have worked hard for many years, did well in a range of difficult classes, and acquired the research experience that is essential preparation for graduate studies in Science. Your personal statement was well-written and focused, your grades are excellent, your GRE scores are very high, and it is clear that your reference letter writers are impressed with your intellectual abilities, motivation, and maturity. You have clearly met or exceeded all of our criteria for acceptance to the graduate program in Science at Major Research University.

We regret that we cannot offer you admission to the Department of Science this year.

Why can't we accept you, and all other qualified applicants? We can't owing to factors that have nothing to do with the quality of an applicant's academic record. For example, we have to consider how many graduate students are interested in particular fields of Science relative to the number of faculty in those fields, the number of current advisees these faculty have, and their interest in (and funding level for) advising new grad students. As it turns out, you expressed interest in a field that had the highest number of applicants this year.

In addition, our budget is being slashed and we are no longer able to provide a guaranteed financial safety net for as many students as we used to, in the event that an adviser doesn't have sufficient funding to cover a student's graduate program in its entirety. We are therefore admitting fewer students overall than usual.

To some extent, it is random bad luck that you aren't getting an offer of admission and a few others, with similar excellent records, are. That may make you feel better, or worse, but we wanted you to know that the reason you aren't being offered admission has nothing to do with your academic qualifications.

We have no way of knowing if you were serious about wanting to join our Department or whether this letter is a disappointing blow to you, but either way, we hope you are soon able to launch an interesting and successful career in Science at another university. In fact, we hope that you will do so well that you will make us regret not accepting you into our graduate program.


The Admissions Committee


Anonymous said...

Eek! Horrible flashbacks to the rejection letters I received during my grad school applications. Though, the ones I received were rarely as detailed, and usually only contained the word "No".

Arvind said...

As an international applicant, that news really is saddening. However, such a frank response from any major research university would be definitely appreciated. Unfortunately, no one ever does that. All we get is a one line mail that says "we are not able to offer you admission to our graduate program". If only the admissions people were prospective graduate applicants once...

Anonymous said...

"To some extent, it is random bad luck that you aren't getting an offer of admission and a few others, with similar excellent records, are."

True dat.

After serving on the physics admissions committee for a couple of years, I realized that the bottom 2/3 of the admits might as well have been picked by lottery.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like my department now...

Anonymous said...

If I were this student I would ask to come in and pay for the first year with my own money and just do coursework. In a year, if you have room and money for me, great, if you don't, it would be easy for me to transfer to a peer university that has money. A large part of graduate school, especially in a competitive field, is getting into a respected program.

John Vidale said...

While the letter is tactful, it is not accurate, at least for the institutions where I've worked.

Not all or even most scores, letters, and essays are impressive, even for admitted students. Acceptance or rejection has EVERYTHING to do with the quality of the applicants academic record.

Maybe this letter is only aimed at one or two applicants for each advisor each year. I'm not of the school to tell white lies for comfort.

Genomic Repairman said...

We are going through that right now where we have a lot of PI's who are trying to get renewals or are in between grants. There are a shit ton of applicants coming out to interview with only a limited number of spots available so we'll be cherry picking the best and unfortunately the rest get thrown out with the bathwater.

Female Science Professor said...

What I wrote is not a real letter that would ever be sent to a student, but it expresses some things that I wish some applicants would be told when they get a rejection letter. In our department, some years there is the basic rejection letter (sent to those who are being rejected because their academic records/applications are somehow lacking), and also a "soft reject" to those who are qualified but for various reasons can't be given an offer of admission. What I wrote in this post was a version of a "soft reject" letter, though again, IT'S NOT A REAL LETTER.

Ann said...

You dont actually have different levels of rejection letters, do you? Some schools do, and I recall the rejected students getting together and comparing rejection letters and mocking the universities which did.

Anonymous said...

I got a soft reject this year, unofficially, from the prof. I'd applied to work with. It sounded almost exactly like the letter above. The department has been asked to reduce our admissions, you're an excellent, potentially the top choice candidate (in a certain subfield of the dept.), however we are likely not going to admit you.

I had a funding offer from another school, and this prof. was letting me know so I could make a more informed decision.

I really appreciated it.

I knew going in that the academic record and the winning personality (if I may) were only the first hurdles to getting in. Entry to most of the programs, especially those w/ funding, is understood to be dependent on things that are just plain out of my control. Such as mentioned in the letter.

Oh wells. If your academic record is strong, it seems pretty unlikely you'll hit the same story everywhere.

Female Science Professor said...

It depends on who is in charge of admissions in any given year. Why mock two rejection letter types? There are two basic reasons for rejection, so why not two types of letters?

Sunflower said...

In my dream world, rejected grad school applicants would get a review sheet that explains the decision. Maybe a little postcard with a checklist on it. Eg:

Dear [Sun Flower],
We regret that we are unable to offer you admission to FSP University. The committee reached this decision for the following reason(s):

[ ] (1) You would have been easily admitted most years, but the department/advisor you selected enrolled too many students last year, so nobody in your research area had a snowball's chance in hell.

[ ] (2) You were a strong applicant, in range to be admitted, but the advisor you selected was slightly more enthusiastic about others.

[ ] (3) You were a strong applicant, in range to be admitted, but someone on the committee just didn't like you.

[ ] (4) While your application was otherwise strong, it showed weakness in the following area(s):
[ ] (4a) Grades
[ ] (4b) Curriculum
[ ] (4c) GRE/TOEFL
[ ] (4d) Research fit
[ ] (4e) Recommendations
[ ] (4f) Maturity
[ ] (4g) Grooming habits

[ ] (5) Unfortunately, your application was weaker in several areas. We wish you luck at a school more suited to your needs.

[ ] (0) This application was incomplete, or otherwise not reviewed for administrative reasons.

Hey, if they do it for grants...an applicant can dream, right? There's a solid chance I'm reapplying next year, so I'd happily take the feedback.

Ms.PhD said...

Sunflower, that's a great idea! I suspect the "grooming habits" box would be checked more often than some might think! Although in some departments they accept 19/20 students before even inviting them to an onsite interview.

And I'd go so far as to say we should do these postcards for all kinds of applications (faculty position applications, for example). If it weren't illegal to reject someone for some of these reasons. Except we all know that it happens.

Kevin said...

We do not have the option of sending soft-reject letters, nor of sending vague acceptance letters. All our letters have to go out at once and the offer letters have to be explicit about how many $ are being offered and in what forms (TAships, research positions, fellowships, ...).

As grad director for my department, I often get queries from rejected students about what they can do to improve their chances next year. I'm always quite honest and explicit if asked, but I don't volunteer the info. In many cases, the students can substantially improve their chances by taking some course work to fill in holes in their education or doing some research work with a mentor who can talk about their research skills.

The one thing I am clear about ahad of time is that we accept very few foreign applicants: averaging less than one a year---not because the foreign applicants are weaker than the US ones, but because they are much more expensive.

Anonymous said...

I love the post today. Although clearly a joke letter, the notion of a honest and humorous response is something I'd support. I also liked that some schools send two form rejection letters...speaking of which I really liked sunflower's suggestion. There should be an option in the application where you can opt for feedback.

Anonymous said...

I've trolled here for years, many times thinking I should post. This particular article shouted at me loudly since it read pretty dang close to a rejection I received.

After spending 8+yrs in the workforce after my BS and MS, I decided to apply to PhD programs as a 'non-traditional' grad student. I figured my chances were pretty good since I had a number of good publications in my record from undergrad and masters work, along with alot of ties to research institutions and profs that thought highly of my work.

I applied to two programs, the U of MajorState perennial top 10 Science dept. and SmallIvyLike Univ typically top 25 R1 dept. U of MajorState rejected me with the 'Dear Applicant' email. SmallIvyLike accepted me and I'm now in my 3rd yr of postdoc at NationalResearchLab.

My ego was dented from the rejection letter of course. If memory serves it wasn't horrible though since I got the 'You're awesome so come to our SILU Dept.!' letter first. Basically UMS Dept just made my decision easier, since I waited to hear from them before finalizing anything.

It might've been nice to get Sunflower's postcard with #1 or #2 checked off. Maybe it was just in my head by I regretted for awhile pushing too strongly in my personal statement for a desire to work with certain professors in small old-school research subfield P. SILU didn't seem to care since they relied on dept. endowment for initial 2yrs of study. I joined SILU and quickly found a research group transitioning from subfield P to hot topic/major funding field AAA. UMS's loss IMHO.

Anonymous said...

So, does that mean when I received a very late rejection letter from a school that said i was a strong applicant and they didn't have as many spots as they wanted and that I should consider reapplying the next year, that was real? Like, I should feel at least good that it was a close call?

I never knew :)

If they rejected me to that school based on my GRE's, which is what I suspect, then I will hold that grudge forever.

Hope said...

A friend of mine was rejected from her top choice school in engineering. This program gets an *insane* number of applicants, so I’m quite certain that many qualified candidates have to be turned down due to lack of space. My friend’s qualifications left nothing to be desired; in fact, one of her classmates with an eerily similar record was admitted the year before.

The rejection letter that she got was very brief – about 5 sentences. She showed it to me: there were three grammatical errors and it was signed by a secretary! After everything that they asked her to submit, including a hefty application fee, I think she deserved better. Maybe someone could have proofread it and the signature of one of the Admissions Committee members could have been electronically affixed to it? Keep in mind that this was the letter that this very famous department in this very famous school sent to the *majority* of its applicants that year.

@John V: I worked in Harvard’s admissions office briefly. Every year, at least a couple of extremely talented, promising young adults commit suicide because Harvard rejects them. I agree that one shouldn’t lie to applicants in order to spare their feelings, but more often than not, people will take things personally and overlook the random component. FSP’s letter would certainly be accurate for a number of highly competitive schools – and more humane.

yolio said...

I have to say that I have greatly appreciated the more tactful and/or soft rejection letters that I have received over the years. In this age of the web, I usually have figured out that I didn't make the cut long before the rejection letter arrives. This means that the letter only really has value to me if it includes some kind of feedback. Most application involve a lot of work. It really is nice to know how your package is being received. We aren't psychic here.

Anonymous said...

But I am note getting a rejection letter. Waiting is killing me.

Anonymous said...

I received a few rejection letters last year, when I was applying for grad school. One, was plain rejection with no explanation whatsoever. Second one gave an explanation saying that in the list of applicants according to academic achievements I just missed the mark. Then for the last one, apparently my stupid automated test score was not good enough. In my defence, the questions had so many variables that there was no straight answer anyway...and they have asked for just a one word answer!

Still, I got onto a great program that I am loving, I think, right now.

Anonymous said...

how smart/dumb is it to fund your own PhD education? Considering that you have to do a postdoc anyway. For example, the person who said to pay for the first year....

I would say, never pay a penny...it is not worth it.

Agree or disagree?

Anonymous said...

A first hurdle to would be Chinese spies.

Anonymous said...

I agree that, considering how much it costs to apply to some grad programs, a semi-personalized letter is not too much to ask for. I received a generic rejection email yesterday, which was obviously sent to every single person who was not admitted. Considering the many hours I spent writing my personal statement and editing my writing sample, and all the money I spent on the application fee, the international postage costs for my supplemental materials, and the cost of the GRE, I think I deserve a less generic rejection. The fact that an outrageous number of people applied this year is no excuse - considering these people have all paid the $100+ application fee, I think the department should be able to employ enough people to perform basic tasks like answering the phone or emails (it took me over a month to receive the answer to a question I had about a glitch in the online application system), updating the supplemental materials sections on the online applications, and sending the applicant a somewhat personal response. Using our names in the letter instead of "applicant" would be a good start.

Jones said...

As a grad student who is currently feeling rather uneasy about his applications, that letter makes me nervous...very nervous.

Female Science Professor said...

I agree that rejection letters could at least have your name instead of "applicant", just as a basic courtesy.

Even so, the application fees typically don't go to the departments and the people who spend all the actual time organizing, reading, and discussing the applications. The people sending you the non-personalized rejection letter have devoted a huge amount of time to the admissions process, so you can at least be sure that your application received due consideration.

Ann said...

I recall 2 classmates comparing their rejection letters from a famous university, one said "There were applicants this year more qualified than you", the other "there were *many* applicants this year who were more qualified than you". They found this letter comparison hilarious and, year later, still do.

Was it really useful to put in the *many* for some of the applicants?

Anonymous said...

when your application is never read by any professor, you deserve your application fee back.

Anonymous said...

"To some extent, it is random bad luck that you aren't getting an offer of admission and a few others, with similar excellent records, are."

So basically, sometimes it's just a crapshoot. Across the board, a crapshoot. I have had the illustrious luck of applying to PhD programs twice (after having left first program due to LOTS of problems with the environment).

First time, my (subject) GRE score was meh, but everything else was great. Applied to lots of schools, got offers at schools I thought were reaches, got rejected from schools that were "safety" schools. Oh, and before most of those offers/rejections, I had been waitlisted at at least half of my schools.

Second time, my (subject) GRE score was only somewhat better, but had an MS, awesome grades and recommendations, and more research under my belt. By all accounts, I was a better student. Applied to fewer schools, though they mostly overlapped with previous list. My only outright reject was from one of the few schools I got into the first time. I had been outright rejected last time at a school that now offered fellowships and lovely other things. And I got waitlisted, AGAIN.

So, in my view, CRAPSHOOT. Apply where you'd like to get in, regardless. Sometimes you might get through the cracks, sometimes you'll get a ridiculous rejection, but it's small numbers whatever you do, so who knows?

FSP, Thanks for letting it be known that sometimes the best students for a program can be rejected for various reasons.

Unknown said...

Wow. I...am more glad than ever that I got accepted into the program I really wanted. And I'm actually kind of glad that my graduate program isn't funded, so while I'm up to my ears in student loans, I'm not getting rejected because the school can't pay for me, either.

Anonymous said...

I have never received a grad school rejection letter, having applied to and been accepted to only one. But I find it very interesting that students are being entirely rejected from FSP's program this year due to budget restrictions. On the one hand, it's wonderful that her dept cares about the full educational costs of the students you admit. On the other hand, my program doesn't and most of us scrape together funding, often by TAing our way through 50% of our time (while writing grants and applying for fellowships to fund us and our research for latter parts of our education). This approach may result in longer time to graduation, but I'm a great teacher now, I have experience grant-writing, and we have continual cohorts of students going through.

I don't know what's going to happen now that the budget keeps getting cut and they will probably be eliminating more and more TAships.

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Dan said...

I definitely got one of those soft rejections... it was accompanied by a "this comes late because we held your application in case space appeared." Aggravating that I hadn't heard anything from them, but a nice salve to the ego.
Also got one of those "not a good fit" letters, which to be honest I had to agree with.
Contrast with "Big Name No Rank U" which waited until after the reply deadline to follow up on the administrative state of my app, then sent me a rejection after I said I was no longer interested.

Chasingmyowntail said...

You're right, funding plays a huge factor in the sciences. I am a 4th year grad. student (science) and I see many rotation students not accepted into labs due to lack of funding. I strongly encourage students to come in with outside funding. I arrived with the NSF fellowship and it made my first year a little less hectic.