If you are like lots of applicants in this admissions cycle, you applied to several schools last year and got rejected from all of them or most of them. So why did that happen? What are you going to do differently this year to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Any complete review of your applications from last year must be objective and assess the materials on two levels: strategy, and presentation.
The strategic perspective is important to the success of the application because, if done well, it shows the admissions committee that you are a good fit with the program. Alignment and fit are critical issues in graduate applications, whether they are PhD in marketing, MBA, or PSM programs. Underlying all the qualifications typically required in graduate applications is fit, passion, and communication. Your strategy of school selection and application positioning makes all the difference. Poor illustration of alignment can take your other great qualifications out of consideration. Poorly communicating your fit or not showing your passion in the application can also be reason for a rejection (“ding”).
Taking another perspective, you must look at the admissions materials too. Admissions committees often leave formats up to the applicant, perhaps only setting a word or page limit on the typical statement of purpose. Unfortunately, to many applicants this suggests the format doesn’t matter. Even worse, it may make the applicant thing the item is unimportant! While formats for essays are not widely variable, there are a few things you should check when doing your ding analysis.
- Are there spelling errors?
- Are there punctuation errors?
- Is there just one font used throughout?
- Are all words the same font size?
- Is your name printed on each page of the essay?
There are several other issues to consider as well, but these are too often overlooked and lead to poor presentation to what could otherwise be a good essay. They could be enough to get you denied all by themselves.
It isn’t just essays that contribute to your rejection. Sure enough that little CV or resume might have done it. Nearly all schools tell applicants to send in their existing document or the one you would use to apply for a job. This is great short advice, but it leads applicants to miss optimizing a really high potential document. As admissions director and dean, I gave this same advice to applicants through the years. It is the default advice because if the admissions office starts coaching applicants on what to include, how to say it, what the format is, etc, the results will be a loss of focus for the admissions team and uneven chances of admission for the candidates. Those that listen will have an unfair advantage over those that didn’t get the message.
Your CV / Resume should be optimized to present the most important information upfront and minimize the least immportant information. For example, when applying to a research PhD program, your thesis and past research experiences are often the most important qualification you have. Put that in a position of prominence. Your hobbies, marital status, military obligation, age and other similar information just don’t matter for admissions. Take that content off all together. This document can be tailored to the degree type you are applying to and, to some extent can be tailored to each program you are applying to.
These documents represent some of the biggest areas to determine if you did everything possible to optimize your application. After all, you wrote these and are in control of content and format both.
In the rest of the ding analysis, you have to look at references (if possible), test scores, grades, and interview experiences. Each of these has similar issues, but other than the interview, none is as much in your control as the essay or CV. if your grades are really sub par for the schools you applied to, you chose the wrong schools. If your test scores are at the bottom of published ranges, don’t expect a red carpet from the adcom. Often a student thinks they should be admitted with low test scores because they are otherwise special applicants. The rest of your application has to prove how special you are if the test scores are not competitive. Ditto for grades. Now if you have bad grades and bad test scores it would be helpful if you consider the reality that academically you weren’t a match for that school. Look somewhere else.
Disconnecting yourself from hours of work preparing your materials can be tough, but try to be objective about it. You can also call in a disassociated third party, like a test prep teacher, professor, or admissions consultant. These people will see things you have missed or thought unimportant. In the best cases, you will not only discover several factors contributing to your rejected application, but also have a strategy to fix the issues. You may be successful the second time around if you do make substantive improvements to the application, but don’t expect a different outcome if you submit the same, sub par materials.