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Contacting department about denial


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I was wondering whether anyone knows how likely departments are to provide feedback (general, not exactly nitty-gritty) on a denied application? I was under the impression and heard through others over the years that it is not unusual for a denied student to contact the department and get an idea about why their application was not as competitive. I've reached out to a few places at the moment and only got one response (that they don't do that because of the amount of applicants they get). In my communications I always note that I am planning to re-apply (which is something I am actually toying with at the moment) and would like some general feedback but have not heard much back. Am I wrong in thinking that this is a fairly reasonable request? It seems to me that this is something that departments do (with limited info about fit or unacceptable GRE etc). I would really appreciate any info/feedback from the community. Thanks

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This is entirely up to the department. I would venture a guess that most departments would not do this for applicants, unless they were very near the top of the pool, and there was someone who was specifically arguing in their favor . There is no sense in which getting "general" feedback makes any sense, I don't even know what you mean by that. The only feedback you want from departments is specifically as it pertains to your application and how it compared to those of admitted applicants. Now, it is possible that there was one thing that clearly stood out (very low scores, glaringly bad letter, no faculty to support your interests, etc) but most likely it's not that simple. It's probably a collection of smaller things that made the application overall less impressive than others. To give you a detailed response, someone will have to re-read your application and identify exactly what made it less competitive, and I bet that's first of all not easy to do, and second of all not something that departments would necessarily want to do, because it might give up too much of the inner workings of the process. There are also external factors that they may not want to share with you, like how many other applicants applied in your specialty, how much money they have this year, who among the faculty is taking new students and how many, etc. This is not an exact science, and schools don't want to get sued. 

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It's not that unusual for a student to request it but I would say it's really unusual for a student to get useful feedback. As fuzzy said, it would require a complete re-review because these applications are not generally reviewed individually with notes taken for each applicant. The "general" feedback you might get would be something like a person looking at your summary stats and if they see GPA below the top scores, they might say "GPA was low". But this might not even be the real reason you didn't get selected (i.e. even if the GPA was higher, you might not get in). Or they might just say "The fit was not right" but that has no meaning at all (fit is important but I'm saying this feedback has no meaning).

Although I have not been on a graduate admissions committee specifically, I've now have had some experience with other selection committees and we never discuss the rejections very deeply. In some cases, the committee may only review a file for 2 minutes before deciding it's not the right fit. One example strategy is that if you have 100 applicants and 10 spots, you can have each committee member first go through each file and say "no" or "maybe" and basically only review the ones that get at least one "maybe". So, for applicants that are cut in this way, probably no discussion was ever made on this file so there would be nothing for them to say.

In addition, notes are rarely kept in these meetings and discussions. So, someone who was on the committee would have to remember what was said. However, these meetings are also very confidential so it's unlikely someone would be willing to repeat what another person said. They may be willing to give you their own thoughts about your profile but as fuzzy said, this would usually mean someone who was really championing for you and really want you to try again next year.

Finally, another reason schools won't really give detailed feedback is because they don't want the applicant pushing back or trying to appeal the decision. Most schools strongly state all decisions are final, but I've seen it on these forums and elsewhere that sometimes, if a student is told "X was not good enough", they will try to get the school to change their mind and that they were wrong about "X". 

If you truly want useful feedback, my advice is to wait until May when all schools are finished with applications. If you did not get into any school and you will reapply, then you could start contacting the schools and say you will reapply (not just "thinking of") and maybe you can get some helpful hints. But wait until you actually need the advice/feedback because you didn't get in anywhere. If you end up with an offer to another place that you will accept, then there's no reason to seek feedback. People aren't going to be willing to put in the extra time and effort unless they know they are actually helping someone.

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