[initially I planned to only cover the story of my application in two parts. This plan fell through as soon as I started writing. Apologies for stringing out the conclusion, it's coming soon...]
May 2012. Basel, Switzerland. It was evening and most of the tears had dried. Simply the act of admitting that my current situation had to stop made me feel better. I resolved to take plenty of time in the upcoming long weekend to relax and stop thinking about grad school applications and my failed attempt at Fall 2012 admission. I wasn't even going to think about alternatives yet, I certainly wasn't going to settle on a firm course of action ("settle on a firm course of action = post a Facebook status or blog post on the matter) for about a week.
It was a gorgeous long Spring weekend. I sat on the balcony as the sun came up, cradling a steaming mug of coffee. As scheduled, I headed over to Prague for 2 days (pretty place, but too many tourists). As a strongly introverted person, I prefer to turn thoughts over in my own head long before I start discussing my ideas with others.
The decision wasn't one I needed to think actively about. When I came to examine my thoughts a little while later I found I'd already decided: I wanted to apply to the USA again for 2013 entry. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing exactly the way I want it.
I took a hard look at my application, identified some key weaknesses and sorted out a plan of action.
Chemistry GRE score was awful...I'm going to re-sit it.
Have two years of industrial experience...I need another academic research project.
One of my referees isn't really in the position to describe my research competencies...as above, I need another academic research project.
As an international applicant I'm a complete unknown to these universities...I'm going to have to visit them.
Here I need to divert to talk a little about fear. I had identified several things that I believed were necessary to improve my chances of admission - the thought of doing them absolutely terrified me. I'm an introverted scientist. I was terrified of approaching a Big Name Professor at a conference, introducing myself and asking for advice - even though we'd arranged the meeting via email in advance. I was terrified of dropping in to the office of one of my work bosses unannounced to ask questions about sponsorship. I was terrified of emailing Very Big Name Universities to ask if I could have a look round their Department.
Terrified...yet I did all these things anyway. Whenever I hesitated or felt myself shaking with nerves, the voice in my head aggressively demanded "Look, do you want to get into grad school or don't you? Quit stalling and do it."
More than anything else, dealing with my fears proved to be the key to improving my odds of admission.
During the summer I took a two week holiday in the Philadelphia region. In those two weeks I caught up with all my friends, did fun summery tourist stuff and visited 5 grad schools. I met with faculty, students and administrators. [Advice - grad school administrators are usually v. willing to organise a visiting day on your behalf if you say you're a prospective student. Then they do the running around the schedule meetings with Big Name Faculty who would most likely ignore your unsolicited email. On the top of that you'll probably get a free lunch thrown in too]
In early Fall I was back in the UK, enrolled as a Visiting Student at one of the top science Departments in the country. Falling outside all funding categories I took it as unpaid: not ideal, but there wasn't a better option available to me. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed those 3 months - great group, challenging project, awesome location - they did a lot to restore the professional self-esteem left battered from all the rejections.
Better-informed about the competitiveness of the US admissions system, I chose a broader range of grad schools to apply to. I kept the number of American applications the same in the second cycle (5), but I put in applications to 3 British universities at the same time and kept the option of applying to more later.
Things did not go completely according to plan. My Chemistry GRE score came back no better than the first time around. This was upsetting, but wasn't going to totally derail me: I stuck with applying to the universities I'd been in close contact with (where I'd have name-recognition on my side) and invested more in the British applications.
Soon it rolled around to December 2012.