So you didn’t get into grad school

f you, like thousands of other bachelor’s degree holders, applied to and were rejected by a good graduate degree program, it probably injured your pride.

If you, like thousands of other bachelor’s degree holders, applied to and were rejected by a good graduate degree program, it probably injured your pride. If you, like hundreds of other bachelor’s degree holders, applied to and were rejected from many graduate school programs, it probably made you nervous. And if you were banking on attending graduate school in the fall but were rejected by every program you applied to, it probably shook up your life—or at least your life as you expected it to be.

Don’t let it get to you. There are a lot of reasons why that acceptance letter never came, and one of them is that maybe you never really wanted it. You should want graduate school the way you want your mother to beat cancer, not the way you want a parking spot when you’re running late—mean it with all of your heart and approach the application process with motivation and a willingness to sacrifice.

If graduate school seemed like the easier, less terrifying “next step” and never appealed to you for truly academic reasons, or if you were worried that you couldn’t find a good job without a graduate degree, it’s likely that your applications reflected your lack of academic interest. No faculty wants a graduate student who isn’t genuinely and obviously dedicated to academia. The ticket to getting in is convincing them that you are. Moreover, you must convince the admissions committee that you will be an asset to their school.

There are several ways to prove yourself as a student, and that is why graduate school applications have so many components. Criteria for admission are broken down below, with suggestions for improvements:

1. G.P.A.

A less-than-stellar G.P.A. will haunt you, but do not be ashamed. You earned those grades, for whatever reasons, and if your grades are decidedly your “low point” then you should focus the rest of your application on showcasing your “high points.” Understand, though, that you will need to make up for an unimpressive G.P.A. with excellent GRE scores, so take it seriously.

On the flipside, a perfect or near-perfect G.P.A. does not excuse you from disappointing GRE scores. Good grades and a bad exam score may imply that you are timely and attentive but that your advanced analytical and reasoning skills are lacking. 

2. GRE (Graduate Record Examination) Scores

The GRE is a major factor in the admissions process. If your test scores don’t impress you, why would they impress the faculty of a major university? Unless you thoroughly prepared for this exam and believe that you could not possibly earn a higher score, take it again. Treat it as a final exam for the entirety of your undergraduate experience.

There are GRE Prep courses available, but they are often expensive and somewhat unhelpful. A tutor may be a better use of your money, but a study guide and some motivation are probably your best bets. Several companies (including ETS, the company that produces and manages the GRE) publish study guides; these guides cover all the information you need to know for the exam and include practice tests. If you give yourself a few months to study and practice, you have every reason to believe that you will kick the GRE’s ass.

3. Research Experience

Plenty of applicants have little to no research experience, and this is an excellent area in which to gain a competitive advantage. Volunteer your time to assist the professor of your choice with their research project. E-mail professors you liked at your home institution, or branch out and contact faculty conducting research you are interested in at other universities. Don’t forget: They don’t owe you anything, and when someone responds to your inquiries or offers you a position, be grateful.

4. Recommendations

Recommendations are key. A university admissions office does not make acceptance decisions. The faculty of the department you are applying to makes them, and these professors would like to see good recommendations made by their colleagues. With that in mind, seek recommendations from professors in your field of study. If you have significant work or research experience, consider requesting recommendations from your managers there. Make your requests in person, and consider supplying your professors and mangers with a copy of your personal statement. Give them twice as much time as you think they need.

5. Personal Statement

This might be the most important component of your application. Your personal statement explains why you are interested in your field of study and why you are an excellent fit for the program you are applying to. This is not the place for you to explain your poor grade in MATH 256. Be positive.

Begin drafting early, as your essay should be edited several times and may help guide your recommendations. Typos are unacceptable—make certain there are none.

6. Résumé

This is not a particularly important component of your application, but it contextualizes you as an applicant and sometimes your work experience is relevant to your field. Examples include business or non-profit internships and U.S. government programs such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps and Americorps (the last of which has rolling deadlines throughout the year—a perfect opportunity for a graduate school hopeful without a plan). This is also the place for you to show off that you have held a job since you were 16 and to prove that you know what it means to work hard for what you want.

It’s not the end of the world to be rejected from graduate school. It might even be a blessing. But if you decide that graduate school is really what you want, and you’re ready to show it, prepare to dedicate one or two years of your life to improving your application and your chances of acceptance. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even get into your first-choice school. It is absolutely possible.