How to Respond to a Rejection

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How to Respond to a Rejection
How to Respond to a Rejection

How to Respond to a Rejection [Show summary]

Admissions guru Linda Abraham highlights four reasons that could cause a rejection and offers concrete, practical suggestions for moving forward. 

How to Respond to a Rejection [Show notes]

Some of you are unfortunately facing a fistful of dings at the moment. Some of you haven’t heard definitively. You are either in waitlist limbo, or just waiting to hear an answer, any answer, to your applications this year. But you know that rejection is still a distinct possibility. How can you respond to rejection? How should you respond to rejection? 

Normally I like to be positive and upbeat, and I will get positive and upbeat a little later, but of course, rejection is something that applicants have to deal with.And it isn’t positive or upbeat. And therefore I want to deal with it on the podcast.

But before we get to the main topic, I want to mention that one of the challenges of admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions will show you how to do both. Master this paradox and you are well on your way to Accepted. Download the free guide.

Today’s podcast episode is a solo show, and I’m going to give a little high-level encouragement and then get down to brass tacks advice on what you should do as you approach re-application if you choose to reapply.

Rejection reality  [2:16]

Let’s face it, I’m not Pollyanna: Rejection is disappointing. It’s frustrating. Maybe a little embarrassing, because you told people you were applying.

Acknowledge those negative feelings, but don’t wallow in them. Acknowledge them. You put a lot of effort into this year’s application, you spent money, you invested time, you invested emotionally in this endeavor and you’re disappointed. What can I tell you? It’s legitimate. Some of you may feel that this is the end of the road for your particular career dream. Maybe you’ve applied before, maybe you find rejection to be a terrible blow. 

Realize that rejection is disappointing. There’s no question about it. Perfectly legitimate to feel that way. It is a setback but it is not a tragedy. No one has died, no blood has been spilled, no limbs have been lost, you haven’t lost your livelihood or anything close to it.

What about my dreams and goals? [3:12]

You might respond to me and say, “But what about my dreams, my goals?!?!” I have two thoughts for you on that. 

  1. You may not need to give up your dreams and goals. You may decide to reapply. We’ll get into that and how to do that effectively later on in the podcast. You may apply to different schools or programs that are easier to get into, and that still support your goal. You may decide to achieve your goals in another way that doesn’t require a graduate degree. 

  2. Or the second thought is, you may need to modify your dreams and goals and replace them with new dreams. In other words, re-dream, instead of reapply. I can tell you that there have been many times when my husband and I seemingly hit a dead end on a dream and had to re-dream, we adjusted. And you know what happened? Things worked out better than we had ever hoped with our original dream.

For an example of an applicant who had to dream differently, please check out for the story of Andrea Benedict who had to abandon her dream of becoming a physician to become a PA instead, and absolutely loves her work and her career.

Let’s say you acknowledge that you’re rejected, there’s no question about it. What should you do? Give yourself an hour or two, maybe even a day or two, to be down and then move on. In fact, pat yourself on the back, for your effort and initiative and applying in the first place. You tried to improve your skills through education, you tried to move forward, you tried to grow and improve. That effort deserves to be acknowledged and praised and I, for one, salute you for it. 

Handling the stress of reapplying [4:48]

Some of you may believe that you just can’t handle the stress of another application process. And there are some of you for whom that is true. And if so, again, re-dream. Change your dreams so you don’t need to apply again. But I would encourage most of you to learn how to deal with stress and disappointment, so that it doesn’t stop you from striving to achieve awesome goals, goals that you can still attain. 

Most people apply to graduate school, especially the professional schools, because they are aiming at roles that are leadership positions, positions of responsibility and consequence. Anyone assuming a position of responsibility or leadership role is going to have stress. It simply goes with the job. It goes with the future. It’s not the part you may like about your future, but it’s certainly going to go with it. And there seems to be a drum beat right now in society, perhaps an outgrowth of the pandemic, that we have to do anything, everything possible to eliminate stress. We can’t eliminate it, we have to learn to deal with it. And in a limited sense, we have to choose when to have it. Sometimes we can’t control when we have it, and those usually are very unfortunate circumstances, but there are times we choose it. Skilled skiers who thrill at black diamond runs probably have the stress of wondering whether they’re going to arrive at the bottom in one piece. I personally hate the stress of doubting if I’m going to arrive on time to catch a plane or train. So, I deal with that stress by arriving early. I basically eliminate it. I just get to the airport a half hour early, and I do something else. 

Now you might say that’s a trivial example, but you can apply it to so many different things. Is the painting that you’re working on going to be as good as you think it should be? My daughter is into baking: Are her baked goods going to turn out the way they should? That’s all stressful on a small, minimal level, but it all has to do with trying something new. And there’s a certain stress involved in that. Don’t stop yourself from experimenting, from trying new things, because you’re afraid of experiencing stress. Learn how to deal with it. 

So, whether you use meditation or music, running or art, painting or prayer, socializing or solitude, mindfulness or yoga, learn how to deal with stress. It is a part of life. Everyone has it. And it is vital that you learn how to deal with it if you aim to be a leader and a person of consequence.

Those who strive for positions of responsibility and impact have more stress than others because you aren’t doing what’s easy. But everyone has stress. Some of you choose to have it, like our skier friends, and some of you don’t. But if you’re going to have it, you might as well have it doing something you love. 

Also remember that any graduate education is a means to an end. If you have been rejected more than once, is there another way for you to achieve your professional goals, assuming that they still are your goals? If there isn’t, do you want to reapply? You might have an easier time responding to that last question at the end of this podcast. So let’s examine the four reasons for rejection and what you can do to change them. 

Four reasons for rejection

Reason 1: Not being competitive at your target programs [8:01]

The first one, you simply weren’t competitive at your target programs. That means your grades and test scores weren’t in range, you did not have the experience programs are looking for, whether it’s professional full-time work experience, which is very important to MBA programs, clinical exposure and community service in healthcare fields, some legally-relevant experience for law schools, research for PhD candidates – whatever it is, you need to have it when you apply. And maybe you didn’t have it. Well, that’s a problem. That’s the first reason you simply weren’t competitive at your target programs in terms of what they’re expecting, what they are getting and you didn’t have it.

Reason 2: Not presenting your qualifications well [8:43]

The second reason for rejection is you failed to present your qualifications well. You had the grades, you had the test score, and you had the experience, but somehow you just didn’t put it out there so well. You were competitive, but you didn’t present your qualifications effectively. Maybe you wrote a resume in prose for your personal statement or statement of purpose. Maybe you did not provide examples to support assertions and declarative statements in your essays. Maybe you provided examples with no indication of why they’re important in your essay. Perhaps you failed to show fit with a program’s values, mission and strengths. If there were multiple essays in the application, maybe you use all of them to discuss one thing, or there was just a lot of overlap and duplication. Maybe you focused on the negative in your written materials or spent the bulk of your essay criticizing and blaming others for misfortunes in your past.

Reason 3: Intense competition [9:42]

The third reason is that you were a victim of a intense competition in the field and at the schools that you applied to. This is particularly relevant for the application cycle that is ending now, or just ended depending upon the field you’re going into. It seems like most fields, healthcare, MBA, law, MPH, MD, DO experienced a significant increase in applications this cycle. Business schools reported, especially a Round 1 significant increase, medical schools were talking about a 20% or so increase in applications this cycle, and as of May 22nd, US law schools reported a 19.2% increase in applicants this cycle compared to last cycle, and a 31.2% increase in application volume. So there’s no question that you have competition, and at elite programs, you have intense competition.

For example, 49 US medical schools reported acceptance rates of under 5% last year. And the overall acceptance rate again for the year before, was in the low 40th percentile. However, I would caution you against assuming that your rejection is solely due to competition, because it’s the one factor you can’t control. Focus on the ones you can do something about, okay? Realize that this is a factor, and it could have played a role to be sure, but what you really need to think about and focus on are the factors you can control. And those are your qualifications, the schools you apply to, and your presentation.

Reason 4: Combination of factors [11:21]

The fourth possible reason is two or three of the above factors causing you rejection, not just one. If you focus exclusively on stats, you may still not get in – if poor presentation of your experience contributed to your rejection, even if you do raise your test scores or improve your competitiveness according to the numbers, or if your experience is still lacking – then you’ll still have a problem.

You have to address multiple issues so let’s get to work and discuss what you need to do to address those. 

Before I get into that, I just want to give you a warning – one move that’s highly unlikely to change the outcome is reapplying with the exact same application that you submitted last time. It didn’t work before, and there is no reason to think it will work this time. Furthermore, if you apply with the same application, you will fail to show growth. Presumably you’ve been doing something this past year and schools are going to want to see what you’ve been doing and how you’ve been spending your time and how you’ve been growing and leading and contributing or improving your grades or getting a better test score.

How should the reasons for your rejection dictate your response? [12:31]  

When you analyze the reasons for your rejection, those contributing factors should also dictate your response to rejection. So let’s go back over the reasons and see what you can do to change the outcome. 

You weren’t competitive at your target programs. In terms of academics, you weren’t competitive so that could be low grades or low test scores. In terms of low grades, can you take courses and show that today and in your field of interest you can do well. The courses could be extension courses, online courses, postbac programs especially in healthcare, perhaps a relevant master’s degree where you do really, really well. Show them that today, you know how to perform academically. For more on this topic I suggest that you look at, where I did a whole podcast on five A’s for your low GPA and five things that you can do. 

If you have low test scores, you have to ask yourself, can you improve your test prep? Can you improve your test score, which presumably is related to the test prep? Do you have more time to invest? Can you change from self study, to a class, from a class to a tutor, from self-study to a tutor — whatever will be effective for you. If lack of that required or desirable experience is a problem for you, can you get the experience that your target schools like to see? Whether it’s clinical exposure in the healthcare field, full-time work experience in business, something relevant to law for law school?  

Would you be competitive with current stats at other programs that support your goals? In other words, let’s say you aim to get into schools with acceptance rates of 10%. With schools that have acceptance rates of 20, 30, 40, 50%, depending upon the field that you’re going into, are there some of them that would still support your goal? Are your test score and your grades much more competitive at those programs than at the ones you applied to? That’s another way to address a gap between your qualifications and the typical qualifications of someone who’s admitted to your target schools.

In terms of a weak or flawed presentation of your qualifications, I gave a few examples, here are some more: maybe your writing was sloppy or unclear, maybe you didn’t address the essay prompt clearly, maybe your resume and activity descriptions focused much more on responsibilities and tasks that you completed, as opposed to achievements and contributions and where you really shined. Maybe you failed to show fit with the specific schools you were applying to. Did you look up their mission? Did you look up their values and their criteria? Through your application and interview, did you show fit? Did you ask your recommenders to perhaps try and steer the recommendations towards those criteria? Any or all of these application errors mean that you did not do a great job of presenting yourself to the school. And if others did a better job and were otherwise qualified, they made it in and you didn’t You need to improve your presentation. 

Now, if you’re a victim of intense competition in your field and at the schools you applied to, this is one factor again as I mentioned earlier that you can’t change. I suggest that you focus on it the least, except to the extent that maybe you adjust your school choices. It frequently is a factor in combination with number one and number two. It’s rarely a factor on its own. If you feel that it played a role, you should focus more on presentation and choose to apply to programs where you are more competitive. 

How to choose between various next steps? [16:14]

We’ve gone through the list and all the steps you can take, now what if there are several things that you can do? Well, on one hand, that’s the good news, because you have steps you can take to change the outcome. It’s much more difficult if you don’t know what to do. You have your work cut out for you. If you really have a lot of things that you need to do, perhaps postpone reapplying by a year or more so that you can boost your qualifications, improve the presentation of your qualifications, and also consider applying to a few programs where your chances of acceptance are higher. 

So if you were rejected this cycle, recognize that you have options. Don’t focus on the disappointment, focus on your destination.

First decide if you want to continue pursuing the goal that motivated you to apply in the first place. Or do you want to, as I said earlier, re-dream? If you choose to continue pursuing your original goal, think about various ways to achieve it. And if you decide that graduate education is the best or only route forward, consider the ways that you can improve your application and the outcome of your application. 

But whether you choose to re-dream or reapply, congratulate yourself on the effort and keep looking forward. 

Listen to the podcast interview!

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