The holidays are over, and so is the “honeymoon” for many grad school hopefuls.
Fortunately, I’m hearing good news from lots of clients: admissions to top schools. But I know it has been a tough year for many of you: maybe Harvard Business School gave you a precious interview invite, the interview went great, and then you got the email or letter telling you how the applicant pool was just so competitive that they can’t offer you a spot; or Columbia Business School waitlisted you and you sent them a great update letter or two and even had alums write notes of support and then, when your online-application status changed and you clicked on it excitedly, you found the status had changed in the wrong direction; or the five PhD programs you researched extensively, contacted professors at, and sent the best statements of purpose you could didn’t even offer you an interview.
These stories are all too common right now. It has been a particularly challenging year for grad school admissions, at least from what I’ve observed. Many, many well-qualified people aren’t getting those precious admission calls and letters—perhaps even more than in recent years.
But so many applicants make such bad news worse than it has to be. They begin to believe their careers, or at least their ideal visions of their careers, are over. In some extreme cases, they extend this idea to their whole lives. I know rejection is always disappointing. And I know it can delay or potentially modify a career dream. But the only way it can derail you completely is if you let it do that.
Instead, vent as much as you need to (ideally you have some willing ears—even your Accepted editor’s!), and start moving on. Here are three ways you can do that:
1. Revise your plans. Was going to b-school or any other graduate program really the only way to your dreams? Yes, for aspiring doctors and lawyers, grad school is pretty much a must. But did it have to be now? If grad school truly weren’t an option any more, what would you do? Long-term plans are important, but it’s important to grow every day, in some way, and to avoid staking your entire future on one major event (i.e., getting into graduate school). What are short-term goals you want to achieve at work and in your personal life—job-related, fitness, family, friends, hobbies, spirituality? Don’t just give lip service to these things; think them through, in part because they may be crucial to the next strategy . . .
2. Reapply to top-choice and other programs. More and more applicants these days are reapplicants—people who didn’t give up. And guess what? Reapplicants are more likely to get in than those in the general pool. Why? Usually because reapplicants represent a more dedicated, focused, “serious” group. They know they want to get into a particular school, they know why, and they (usually) know what it takes and have worked hard to achieve it. So start thinking about which programs you really want to focus on next time, and start building the application to turn a disappointing “no” into a triumphant “yes.” Also, be willing to cast a wider net if you didn’t get at least some positive results (e.g., interviews) overall.
3. Respect what you already have. “I must keep perspective,” we often say in times of adversity. But how many of us really do that? It’s unfortunately easier than ever to understand how much we have—the economy has taken away so many jobs, many countries are embroiled in military situations and/or civil unrest, and so many just lost their lives in the Haiti earthquakes. In this context, getting to apply to graduate school is truly a luxury that many have never had and never will. So if you have a job that compensates you for using key skills, be thankful for it. If you enjoy the company of your family and friends, revel in it. If you are healthy, work hard to maintain that. It’s not all about professional advancement, unless you let it all be about that.
Trust me, I’ve changed careers enough times and sacrificed a lot of money in the process, often finding myself frustrated with what seemed like closed career doors or dead ends. But by using these and other tips, I’ve continued being a fairly happy guy.
I hope they help you keep perspective, even when the news you get isn’t the news you want.
By Sachin Waikar, Ph.D., McKinsey alum and published author.