What I Learned from my 12 Grad School Rejections

So I received my twelfth Ph.D. application decision today, and it was again a resounding REJECT. And with that, the admissions season officially closes for me, and the score is 100%.

For a major part of the last few months, I looked on in happiness and a little envy as people went to town about their dream admits. My profile wasn’t much worse than theirs, either. Relatively good test scores, a couple of publications, 9+ grade point, and stellar recommendations — I was pretty sure I’d get in to at least my safety school.

But that was not to be.

Don’t read this hoping to gain insights into the US grad school admissions; there are several tools for those things. Instead, I’ll tell you a story of how anticipation turned into disappointment, and then to peace.

PART 1. February. Chasing mirages.

The first few rejects arrived in the first week of February, just as winter was waning.

Carnegie Mellon. Stanford. Washington. Cornell.

I had been overtly ambitious applying to these schools, but then didn’t we all fill IITB CSE as our numero uno preference during JEE counseling? Anyway, the rejections were anything but surprising, although I did get a sound reality check. I’d been chasing mirages, and it was only expected that I would get lost in the desert. The mails were generic, and spoke highly about how they were unfortunate that they could not offer me admission.

“As a result, many strong candidates must be turned down,” the mail from Stanford said.

Yeah, right!

PART 2. March. Dusk and darkness.

Now that the dream schools had pronounced their verdict, it was time to move on to the more realistic options.

UT Austin. Columbia. UIUC. Maryland.

I had been rigorously following the GradCafe forums everyday, sometimes multiple times a day. Around this time, people had started receiving admits from the top schools, and each day that passed without a decision got my nerves tingling in anxiety.

The rejections were spread over the entire month. It was almost as if each decision came with some buffer time in which I could brace myself for the next one. Even so, it was still a heartbreaking chore to flag the mail, open my spreadsheet and highlight the row in glaring Red. The sprightly spring of March was in stark contrast to the autumn I was feeling.

PART 3. April and May. Acceptance.

I do not swear by the concepts of destiny or faith, and as an atheist I have trouble accepting the idea that whatever happens, happens for the good. It would be very arrogant on my part if I started claiming that “luck” had anything to do with my rejections. I have no qualms accepting that my profile wasn’t just strong enough for a Ph.D. application.

The final few rejections caused barely a flutter.

NYU. Johns Hopkins. North Carolina. USC.

For the last 22 years of my life, I hadn’t really seen failure. There had been tiny blemishes, but overall it had been a pretty smooth ride.

Realizing that I would not be going abroad for higher studies as I had planned, at least not this year, was my first foray into life. It has not broken me, and sometimes I wonder whether I should be more disappointed on this account.

Being humble in victory is an admirable quality. But it takes a man to be gracious in defeat.

I hoped to become a better researcher by getting accepted to one of the 12 schools. Instead, I’ve become a better person by getting all rejects.

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