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Current grad students: how many tries did it take?


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Hey all. I am nearly a year out of undergrad and this is my 2nd round of applications. Last year I applied to 11 programs and was accepted to 1 with minimal funding, so I did not attend. This year I applied to 6 programs, and so far I've gotten 3 rejections and 1 alternate list decision from my top choice PhD program. I'm not hopeful that grad school is gonna happen this round, either. Although I graduated SCL, one of my profs/recommendors thinks that my GRE scores may be part of the reason why I've gotten such rotten luck (I took the GRE in Fall 2015 and got 139Q(literally bubble-raced it)/150V/4.5W). I know they're horrible, but...honestly I just don't think that I have the aptitude for tests. Even with the ACT, my highest score was a 23, and that was when I was actually taking math courses. Currently I'd say that my math level is below that of a middle schooler.

So, as I may very well be applying for the 3rd time this fall, I'm just curious how many times it took you to get into your current program. Is it "normal" to take a few tries to get in? I get that PhD programs are crazy competitive and I'm not trying to beat myself up about it, but it's hard not to.

Edited by Peanut
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I applied twice to medical school, 2 years apart after taking the MCAT twice. I didn't get in twice. I went back to undergraduate and completed a second degree and now got into a decent PhD program, full stipend. If you really want it, make it happen! Don't give up. It is hard not to lose hope but if you really want it, find a way.

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2 minutes ago, Moccalatte said:

I applied twice to medical school, 2 years apart after taking the MCAT twice. I didn't get in twice. I went back to undergraduate and completed a second degree and now got into a decent PhD program, full stipend. If you really want it, make it happen! Don't give up. It is hard not to lose hope but if you really want it, find a way.

Thank you so much. Wow! I'm so glad that things worked out for you!

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3 hours ago, Peanut said:

Hey all. I am nearly a year out of undergrad and this is my 2nd round of applications. Last year I applied to 11 programs and was accepted to 1 with minimal funding, so I did not attend. This year I applied to 6 programs, and so far I've gotten 3 rejections and 1 alternate list decision from my top choice PhD program. I'm not hopeful that grad school is gonna happen this round, either. Although I graduated SCL, one of my profs/recommendors thinks that my GRE scores may be part of the reason why I've gotten such rotten luck (I took the GRE in Fall 2015 and got 139Q(literally bubble-raced it)/150V/4.5W). I know they're horrible, but...honestly I just don't think that I have the aptitude for tests. Even with the ACT, my highest score was a 23, and that was when I was actually taking math courses. Currently I'd say that my math level is below that of a middle schooler.

So, as I may very well be applying for the 3rd time this fall, I'm just curious how many times it took you to get into your current program. Is it "normal" to take a few tries to get in? I get that PhD programs are crazy competitive and I'm not trying to beat myself up about it, but it's hard not to.

Hi Peanut. If it is the GRE dragging you down, I would recommend taking it again and focusing your sole attention on the verbal. My undergrad advisor told me that the only thing she cares about in admissions, when it comes to the GRE, is the verbal portion. Of course, she is only one voice, but I had similar quant. and writing scores to you, although a very high verbal score, and I received some Ph.D. offers. At the same time, I doubt my offers had very little to do with my GRE and had much more to do with my SOP, very high GPA, research experience, and letters of rec., etc. These are areas to focus on improving, much more than the GRE. Have you emailed any professors/POIs from your programs and asked them how to improve your application for next round? They can give you some solid, very constructive advice about how to do this.

Best of luck!

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24 minutes ago, busybee said:

Hi Peanut. If it is the GRE dragging you down, I would recommend taking it again and focusing your sole attention on the verbal. My undergrad advisor told me that the only thing she cares about in admissions, when it comes to the GRE, is the verbal portion. Of course, she is only one voice, but I had similar quant. and writing scores to you, although a very high verbal score, and I received some Ph.D. offers. At the same time, I doubt my offers had very little to do with my GRE and had much more to do with my SOP, very high GPA, research experience, and letters of rec., etc. These are areas to focus on improving, much more than the GRE. Have you emailed any professors/POIs from your programs and asked them how to improve your application for next round? They can give you some solid, very constructive advice about how to do this.

Best of luck!

That's a good idea! I haven't emailed any POI's about my apps. Last year I did contact one person at a PhD program that I got rejected by about my app, and I never got a response. Usually they give a reason that's along the lines of "not enough spots." I applied to that same program this year and I got rejected again, although I was told that I was among the top 30% of applicants :( It was a top program. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA and I have research experience. It's hard to tell if my GRE scores could be holding me back or if it's just bad luck. I mean, Idk why a top program would consider me with my GRE scores because my scores would definitely be lower than most applicants.' I heard that some programs don't even LOOK at applications if GRE scores are below 300 (or whatever number they set). I really don't wanna retake the GRE to get a few more Verbal points. If I retook it it's not like I'd go from a 150 to a 160 or whatever unless I got a tutor or something.

Edited by Peanut
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Many students take two tries. Not many people take three tries, though, perhaps because not a lot of people have the strength of heart to give it a third try if they've already been rejected for two application seasons. Most students also apply to several different levels of programs. If you do apply for a third time, don't just aim for top programs. Apply to a few selective programs that you really like, a few decent programs with high acceptance rates, and a few lesser known programs that have faculty that meet your interests but which may not be at a top-tier school. Contact faculty beforehand to talk about research interests and get any questions and concerns answered. Getting some work experience also helps, even if it's not in a related field. Also, what's your subfield? I can imagine that getting some experience working in foreign countries (and learning another language) could be of some help if you intend to do field work in a different country.

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11 minutes ago, ThousandsHardships said:

Many students take two tries. Not many people take three tries, though, perhaps because not a lot of people have the strength of heart to give it a third try if they've already been rejected for two application seasons. Most students also apply to several different levels of programs. If you do apply for a third time, don't just aim for top programs. Apply to a few selective programs that you really like, a few decent programs with high acceptance rates, and a few lesser known programs that have faculty that meet your interests but which may not be at a top-tier school. Contact faculty beforehand to talk about research interests and get any questions and concerns answered. Getting some work experience also helps, even if it's not in a related field. Also, what's your subfield? I can imagine that getting some experience working in foreign countries (and learning another language) could be of some help if you intend to do field work in a different country.

Aren't all PhD programs hard to get into though? That's what I was told as an undergrad.

My subfield is cultural/environmental/nutritional anthro. I'm currently teaching English in China. My second major in undergrad was modern languages where I studied Spanish and French. In undergrad I studied abroad for one semester on a field-based program in Costa Rica and I also attended an ethnographic field school in Jamaica.

 

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2 hours ago, Peanut said:

Aren't all PhD programs hard to get into though? That's what I was told as an undergrad.

My subfield is cultural/environmental/nutritional anthro. I'm currently teaching English in China. My second major in undergrad was modern languages where I studied Spanish and French. In undergrad I studied abroad for one semester on a field-based program in Costa Rica and I also attended an ethnographic field school in Jamaica.

 

They are all competitive...but I know people who've gotten into as many as 5/6 schools they applied to (not in anthro though). So envious of them!! :(

You sound like you're really well-prepared. Did you have professors look over your statements (ideally ones that have been on admissions committees in the past)? Have you tried asking about what your recommenders wrote about you? Sometimes recommenders can hurt you without even them knowing it. If their recommendation looks like it got all its information from your CV, then it could quite possibly work against you even if the comments are all glowing. Statements can also be hard to grasp - the right balance between the general and specific, etc. These are areas that really can make it or break it for a qualified candidate, much more so than the GRE.

Edited by ThousandsHardships
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8 minutes ago, ThousandsHardships said:

They are all competitive...but I know people who've gotten into as many as 5/6 schools they applied to (not in anthro though). I'm so envious of them right now!! :(

You sound like you're really well-prepared. Did you have professors look over your statements (ideally ones that have been on admissions committees in the past)? Have you tried asking about what your recommenders wrote about you? Sometimes recommenders can hurt you without even them knowing it. If their recommendation looks like it got all its information from your CV, then it could quite possibly work against you even if the comments are all glowing. Statements can also be hard to grasp - the right balance between the general and specific, etc. These are areas that really can make it or break it for a qualified candidate, much more so than the GRE.

Profs did look over my statements both last year and this year. I went to a liberal arts school, so no admissions committees there, but maybe my recommenders sat in on meetings as PhD students? Idk. I have not asked my recommenders about what they wrote, but I trust that they all wrote positive letters. They didn't say anything otherwise. However, last year one of my recommenders (who I did not ask again this cycle) wrote caveats in hers about her thinking that I should take time off between undergrad and grad.

Edited by Peanut
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3 hours ago, Peanut said:

Profs did look over my statements both last year and this year. I went to a liberal arts school, so no admissions committees there, but maybe my recommenders sat in on meetings as PhD students? Idk. I have not asked my recommenders about what they wrote, but I trust that they all wrote positive letters. They didn't say anything otherwise. However, last year one of my recommenders (who I did not ask again this cycle) wrote caveats in hers about her thinking that I should take time off between undergrad and grad.

No, even if they sat in on meetings, students are by law not allowed to look at the records of other students, so they will not have participated in the decision-making process. But they did go to grad school themselves and so are aware of that process. But do maybe seek out some advice from people who have sat on other admissions committees. Most profs I've talked to say that the top mistakes people make in their applications are 1) expressing their interest using vague clichés, 2) using too many personal anecdotes and not giving enough talk about your actual research and experience.

As for recommendations, many don't even realize it when they're writing poor letters. My own former adviser gave me a sample letter that he wrote for someone else to use as a guide when I had to write one for my own student. His was a very good example of a positive letter that basically regurgitates someone's resume - it added no info to the application and showed that he didn't actually know the student very well. Therefore it would be considered a poor letter. Some other examples would be ones that I've helped people translate in the past. I've seen some letters (especially for international applicants) that say that oh, this person is a team player, a great person, hardworking student, etc. Those are also poor letters - unless they can give specific examples to back up those claims.

Basically, make sure that your recommenders are able to show that they know you well and believe that you will succeed based on very specific examples that show your traits as a person, as a student, as a researcher, and as a teacher. Also make sure that your recommenders' priorities match those of your intended program. I can't tell you how many times I've had a former professor in France tell me "Oh you'll get into PhD programs - your French is impeccable." I'm applying to literature PhD programs. I won't get in anywhere if all a recommender can say is that I can write with proper grammar.

Edited by ThousandsHardships
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2010 - graduated from UC Davis. Didn't do too well but oh well.
2011 - applied to 5 schools. Rejected by 5 schools.
2012 - applied to 5 schools again. Rejected by 5 schools again.
2013-15 - too homeless/broke/unemployed to bother
2016 - did ok on GRE.
2017 - third try, got admitted to two schools and waitlisted on two others.

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6 hours ago, dumbunny said:

2010 - graduated from UC Davis. Didn't do too well but oh well.
2011 - applied to 5 schools. Rejected by 5 schools.
2012 - applied to 5 schools again. Rejected by 5 schools again.
2013-15 - too homeless/broke/unemployed to bother
2016 - did ok on GRE.
2017 - third try, got admitted to two schools and waitlisted on two others.

My timeline is similar-ish...

2009-applied to 6 medical schools. Rejected by all schools.

2010 retook MCAT.

2011-applied to 6 lower ranking medical school. Rejected from all 6.

2012-2014-worked as clinical research assistant and contemplated what to do with my life...

2014-went back to undergrad for chemical engineering.

2016-took GRE, did ok. Applied to 7 graduate school in Chemical Engineering.

2017- accepted to 2 PhD programs fully funded, and one MS. Waitlised for one school.

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18 hours ago, ThousandsHardships said:

No, even if they sat in on meetings, students are by law not allowed to look at the records of other students, so they will not have participated in the decision-making process. But they did go to grad school themselves and so are aware of that process. But do maybe seek out some advice from people who have sat on other admissions committees. Most profs I've talked to say that the top mistakes people make in their applications are 1) expressing their interest using vague clichés, 2) using too many personal anecdotes and not giving enough talk about your actual research and experience.

As for recommendations, many don't even realize it when they're writing poor letters. My own former adviser gave me a sample letter that he wrote for someone else to use as a guide when I had to write one for my own student. His was a very good example of a positive letter that basically regurgitates someone's resume - it added no info to the application and showed that he didn't actually know the student very well. Therefore it would be considered a poor letter. Some other examples would be ones that I've helped people translate in the past. I've seen some letters (especially for international applicants) that say that oh, this person is a team player, a great person, hardworking student, etc. Those are also poor letters - unless they can give specific examples to back up those claims.

Basically, make sure that your recommenders are able to show that they know you well and believe that you will succeed based on very specific examples that show your traits as a person, as a student, as a researcher, and as a teacher. Also make sure that your recommenders' priorities match those of your intended program. I can't tell you how many times I've had a former professor in France tell me "Oh you'll get into PhD programs - your French is impeccable." I'm applying to literature PhD programs. I won't get in anywhere if all a recommender can say is that I can write with proper grammar.

My profs knew me well because I went to a school with about 1300 students and class sizes were small, so I'd assume that their letters were pretty personalized.

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I came across this article on rejections by an anthro PhD candidate who was successful this cycle, it might be helpful: 

https://qz.com/950763/how-to-get-into-graduate-school-according-to-current-phd-students/

I know it's kind of trite, but the author does lay out the basic skeleton of what one should be thinking about. Also, as many have said - your GRE only matters to the extent that it's not terrible, what's important is fit, SOP and recs - my GPA in undergrad was terrible (3.16) but an MA degree from Columbia, good recs and a strong SOP helped me get into a top program this year. And yes, sometimes, it's just really horrible, horrible luck. Good luck, and don't get down - I have a friend who got into UCLA on their third PhD apps round, and another who was rejected from everywhere in his first round but in his second round (after completing an MA) he made it to 3 top unis including Chicago and Duke. 

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6 hours ago, enfp said:

I came across this article on rejections by an anthro PhD candidate who was successful this cycle, it might be helpful: 

https://qz.com/950763/how-to-get-into-graduate-school-according-to-current-phd-students/

I know it's kind of trite, but the author does lay out the basic skeleton of what one should be thinking about. Also, as many have said - your GRE only matters to the extent that it's not terrible, what's important is fit, SOP and recs - my GPA in undergrad was terrible (3.16) but an MA degree from Columbia, good recs and a strong SOP helped me get into a top program this year. And yes, sometimes, it's just really horrible, horrible luck. Good luck, and don't get down - I have a friend who got into UCLA on their third PhD apps round, and another who was rejected from everywhere in his first round but in his second round (after completing an MA) he made it to 3 top unis including Chicago and Duke. 

I met Levi at Columbia's visit weekend!

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On 3/30/2017 at 1:20 AM, Moccalatte said:

If you really want it, make it happen! Don't give up. It is hard not to lose hope but if you really want it, find a way.

How exactly does one do that? Can you break that down a bit into digestible, replicatable pieces?

Some of us have been trying for years with decent scores and GPA. I know my problem them and now was field experience and maybe fit because my SOPs may have not been exactly the SOPs they were looking for.

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On 4/14/2017 at 10:27 PM, mutualist007 said:

How exactly does one do that? Can you break that down a bit into digestible, replicatable pieces?

Some of us have been trying for years with decent scores and GPA. I know my problem them and now was field experience and maybe fit because my SOPs may have not been exactly the SOPs they were looking for.

You stated what you think you are weak at, so make sure you strengthen those areas. 

For me it was my undergraduate degree in the humanities when I wanted to get into science, so I got a second one in the sciences. The same field I wanted to get my PhD. 

Good luck!

Edited by Moccalatte
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  • 3 weeks later...

Chances are you're already aware of this, but I've heard from people who have applied to various graduate departments across different schools that your GRE scores can be used to "weed out" students in the initial screening rounds. I can see this point making sense for departments that have received a (unexpectedly) large number of applications for a given year. 

As others have already said before: as long as your GRE score is within an "acceptable" range (obviously this varies between each department/school), they won't matter that much. A close friend of mine did much better than me in the GRE (169V/165Q/5.5W - I had a lower V score) but he got rejected from several top schools. One exception I can think of is University-wide fellowships. I was told that my GRE scores had to be within a certain range - POI however didn't specify exactly what this range was - in order to be eligible for a University-wide 5 year fellowship package (I did receive said fellowship package, starting this August).

I did an extremely crazy/stupid thing and only applied to one American graduate program - I had about 5 schools in mind once I sifted through all the information I gathered, but 2 of them couldn't offer funding for the 2017-18 admissions cycle and the other 2 turned out to be not so good research fits. Granted, I didn't panic as much as I should have because I had a fully funded PhD offer lined up here in Australia, but I really wanted to change disciplines from socio-cultural/medical anthro to a more clinical field and thought anthropology wasn't a good fit for my research interests.

In any case, I've been wanting to attend an American university for about 10 years (since I was in high school) and I'm excited to have finally achieved this goal. Keep your head up!

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