Applying To Programs That Previously Rejected You


A reader writes in with a question about applying to graduate programs in philosophy:

I applied to several Masters programs and PhD programs in philosophy last year, and got into a Masters program. I was wondering if you and/or your readers could answer the following question for me: when it comes time for me to apply to PhD programs again, is it alright for me to reapply to the programs which I have been rejected from? Or will my application money be wasted in doing so?

You should only reapply if your qualifications have changed for the better in the meantime. Even then, if you were rejected from not just your “reach” programs but also ones that you considered safe bets, then I would suspect that even with some improvements (unless they are rather substantial improvements), you are probably not likely to gain admission to the “reach” programs from which you were previously rejected. But for the rest, given those improvements, I don’t think it’s a waste of time or money to reapply. It would be worth emphasizing in your personal statement what these recent improvements are.

Perhaps some readers have a different view, or further advice?

Torggler Door Animation front

guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
a reject
a reject
5 years ago

I’ve been told the vagaries of the process are so numerous, and the unpredictability so high, that one’s chances—simply by applying another year—can vary to a non-negligible degree year-to-year. I’ve also been told I would have been admitted the year prior, had I applied, from programs to which I was denied admission.Report

TMJ
TMJ
5 years ago

A couple years ago, I applied to and was rejected by three top philosophy programs. I took a two-year fellowship, got letters from the new (and fairly well-respected) philosophers I worked with, worked on my writing sample, presented at some conferences and got some papers under review, and then applied to these same programs again. This time around, of these three programs, I was rejected by one, waitlisted by one, and accepted by one. When I visited the two schools I was waitlisted and accepted by, they didn’t give any indication that they remembered me from the previous cycle. In fact, one philosopher didn’t even remember my application from THE CURRENT application cycle!

I think applying to the same schools again may make sense for lots of people, and if they remember you at all it may simply show tenacity and seriousness about working with the faculty at those schools.Report

Mark Alfano
5 years ago

At many schools, the composition of the grad admissions committee changes from year to year. So reapplying is almost like applying to a different school. Beyond the cost in time and money of constructing the application, I don’t see any reason not to reapply.Report

Eddy Nahmias
5 years ago

If you actually went to an MA program, then your previous record will largely be ‘wiped clean’ and PhD programs will be seeing your MA grades, letters, and writing sample, so reapplying even to your earlier ‘reach’ schools may be warranted, **depending on what your MA mentors/letter writers tell you**. Here at GSU we’ve had many students do well here such that they get into PhD programs they did not have a shot at coming out of undergrad. (If you did not go to an MA program, then Justin’s response seems right.)Report

Dale Miller
5 years ago

As I read this, the question is whether, after earning an M.A., it makes sense to reapply to Ph.D. programs which rejected you straight out of your undergrad program. I don’t teach in a graduate program, but the answer to this must be yes; after completing an M.A. you’re an entirely different prospect than you were previously. The harder question would be whether it’s worthwhile to reapply if there hasn’t been such a dramatic change in your qualifications. That would be a very long shot, I think, which I take tobe Justin’s point as well. I have heard that programs look to admit people with varied interests each year, so if you’re an ethicist it could always be that they had a lot of strong applicants in ethics last year but won’t have so many next. That might change your fortunes, but I think you’d have to assume that you were throwing your money away if you reapplied.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
5 years ago

I’m not sure that the following is sound advice: “You should only reapply if your qualifications have changed for the better in the meantime.” This assumes that the criteria for admission do not change year to year. For if the criteria were to change year to year, then even if your qualifications didn’t change, they could fail to meet the criteria for one year but not for another. And there’s some reason to think that the criteria can change year to year. For one, the make up of admissions committees can change year to year, and I know from experience serving on such committees that the criteria for admissions can change with a change in the make-up of the committee members. For another, the criteria may be comparative. That is, it may be that the applicant’s qualifications need to be in the top 10%. And since the competition can change year to year, how an applicant ranks relative to the competition can change year to year even if there is no change in the applicant’s qualifications. Of course, it’s unlikely that the competition, the make-up of the admissions committee, or the criteria that the admissions committee applies is going to change radically from one year to the next. So if your application wasn’t close to being accepted or wait-listed last year, then it’s probably unlikely that you’ll do any better if your qualifications haven’t changed. But if you came close last time, it could definitely be worthwhile to apply again.Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
Reply to  Douglas W. Portmore
5 years ago

Not to mention that applicants don’t necessarily know how close they were (waitlists are an indication, but one could have fallen just short of the waitlist for reasons more arbitrary than scholastic), and that supervisory vacancies can also change from year to year. Someone with a full load of students one year might have an opening or two the next. Another thing which can change from year-to-year and make a big difference is intra-program funding (e.g. for a special joint program). Maybe, for example, there’s funding for a couple of women’s studies/feminist philosophy students every few years, and one has just graduated.Report

Ben S
Ben S
5 years ago

I had a similar experience to the letter-writer (rejected from PhD, accepted to MA), and applied to some of the same schools in my second round. Here’s my anecdata point: I didn’t get into any of them. However given that you need to have some ‘reach’ schools in your list anyway, I don’t think there’s any reason not to apply to the same programs if your interests are still a good match for them. In other words, your money will probably be wasted, but it won’t be any *more* wasted than it was in your previous application.

Tangentially, one of the (I think) underappreciated bonuses of doing an MA is that you get a much better feel for the work you want to do and can target your applications to fit your interests much more effectively than you generally can do out of undergrad. You’ll be better able to show with your work and articulate in your SoP why you’d do well at the schools you retain from your first attempt, but you’ll also find that some new places come onto your radar that you may find yourself wanting as much or more. I ended up somewhere I never even considered in my first applications, but that’s very well suited to my research interests.Report

Daniel
Daniel
5 years ago

While I agree with everything Justin said, I’d just like to point out that if you reapply, the chance that your file will be read by the same person or people it was the previous year is low; in the departments with which I’m familiar, graduate admissions isn’t done by the same people each year. So it’s not as if the department will see your file and think: “we rejected this person last year, why should we accept them now?” Rather, they’ll most likely just see the file as a new one.Report

Tim O'Keefe
5 years ago

One point that has been overlooked in this discussion is that the most important ‘qualification’ for PhD (and MA) program admissions is your writing sample. We’ve had a fair number of people from GSU strike out in PhD applications one year, extensively rework their writing sample (or use an entirely new one), and do extremely well the next year, often getting into programs they had been previously rejected from.

Obviously, I don’t know what made the difference in cases of admissions to particular programs. Some of it might just be random variance. I doubt that GPA and GREs were much different at all. Letters might have been somewhat stronger if a person ended up doing excellent thesis work in the semester after initially applying. But my guess is that in such cases the biggest difference was probably the writing sample.Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
5 years ago

Just an anecdote. A friend of mine applied to several schools one year, one of which I will call school A, and didn’t get into any of them. The next year he moved into the area of school A and worked full-time. When the application was due, he just turned the exact same application to school A, not even any changes to his writing sample. He subsequently was accepted. It just goes to show how silly of a process this can be.Report

Danielle Wenner
5 years ago

I don’t think I’m adding anything new here, but I echo comments above that your mileage may vary from year to year, even with the same programs. First, you should have a stronger writing sample now, whether you’ve re-worked the original one or have a new paper. Second, you should have letters from faculty who have now seen you in graduate seminars – if you have performed well in those seminars those letters should be stronger than what you had coming out of undergrad. Third, you probably (hopefully?) have a better idea of what you want to focus on in your doctoral studies, which will help you to better tailor your application. Fourth, as others have stated, in many programs the admissions committee changes, and many programs receive so many applications each year that they are unlikely to remember you even if the committee is the same. And finally, especially for programs that admit a small number of students each year, not only will differences in your application make a difference, but so will differences in what the competition looks like.

Best of luck!Report

PhiloScience
PhiloScience
5 years ago

I was shut out of PhD programs two years ago, went to a relatively unknown MA program, and did quite well in PhD admissions this time around, including with some of the programs that rejected me in 2014. Of the 16 programs I applied to this time around, 6 were programs that had rejected me in 2014. I was admitted to 2 of them, wait listed at two of them, and rejected by two of them. I ended up being admitted to a much better program than any of the ones I’d applied to in 2014. An MA can do wonders if you apply yourself.Report

Nicky Drake
Nicky Drake
5 years ago

From my experience, you should definitely reapply, as the process is so unpredictable you may well get in *without* any change in your qualifications.

The first time I applied I was finishing my MA. I wasn’t accepted anywhere, but was waitlisted at two programmes. At one, I was top of the waitlist; at the other, they told me they “expected” to make me an offer. Neither came through. I then finished my MA, and published two of my Honours papers, including my writing sample, in good journals. On applying again, with the same writing sample, now published in a leading ethics journal, I was flat-out rejected by the programme that had placed me at the top of the waitlist last time. I was accepted by the programme that had “expected” to make me an offer. I had one other acceptance, from a programme I hadn’t applied to the first time. So at one programme an improvement in my qualifications and publishing record saw me go from a good position to outright rejection.

Having been in touch with many people who have just been through the application processs I can’t stress enough how unpredictable and inexplicable it is. I know one person, for example, who applied to about a dozen schools and was rejected by all of them other than a PGR top-five programme. You have to be good to get into a good PhD programme; but if you don’t get into one it doesn’t mean you aren’t good, and if your advisers have confidence in you and you want to do a PhD it’s worth applying again.Report

Incoming Grad
Incoming Grad
5 years ago

A lot of the foregoing is good advice, but especially what Tim O’Keefe wrote about the writing sample seems spot on: if you had very few leads this cycle, the sample was probably too weak. Significantly rework it and you will almost certainly do better. A knock-your-socks-off writing sample can overcome most other deficiencies in an application. Consider also rethinking the strength of your references (consulting former professors on your sample and sitting in on classes somewhere for a year could help here if there’s a problem there).

Having just gone through this last application cycle, though, I do want to add that the admissions process is highly random and I would err on the side of over-applying, including to reach schools. I applied to around 20 schools and was admitted to a few top-15 programs, wait-listed at a top-20, and accepted to multiple MAs. But here’s the kicker: I was rejected by all the rest (not even wait-listed). Moreover, I was wait-listed and even outright rejected from several MA programs.

The upshot? It’s an extremely noisy process. A good application is a necessary but insufficient condition for acceptance to even lower-ranked or MA programs. Do not cap your possible success by avoid all the top schools because you think you aren’t good enough. Let someone else tell you that. Be an advocate for yourself and apply widely (and judiciously) to a range of schools for which you are a good fit. But most importantly Just do what you can to ensure that you have the best application possible (particularly focusing on the writing sample). Then try, try again.Report

Tim J.
Tim J.
5 years ago

It certainly isn’t a waste of time! I did my undergrad at an almost unheard of school and applied to 12 Masters and PhD programs, getting into 3 Masters programs. I accepted an offer from a decently reputed program and re-applied the next year to PhD programs, some of which had previously rejected me. The second time around I was accepted to quite a good program that had previously rejected me with just an undergrad. One of the things they cited as attractive in my file was that I voluntarily took an advanced logic course during my MA (they were currently having problems over their logic requirement). None of the faculty remembered my earlier application – it only came up when the secretaries happened across my previous file!

In general you can’t predict what will get you in and what won’t since it’s so department-specific. The admissions process is such a lottery (as has been pointed out by other commenters) that it is worth re-applying now that you’ve progressed in your philosophical education. The most important thing, which has also been pointed out above, is the writing sample – it is the one component that you have almost complete control over. I used a term paper from an MA course the second time around which was far superior to my earlier piece. So in short: no, it isn’t a waste of time because, as in my case, you can actually succeed on the second round.Report