Please note: this is not an official document of the English department at the University of Northern Iowa. These are my own opinions about applying to grad school. Your professors may disagree with me; you may want to check with them before you take my advice. —VG             You are allowed to download and print this document under the following conditions: (1) you may not modify any part of the document, (2) my name, institutional affiliation, and the date must be left as is, and (3) you may not charge anyone for copies of the document. —VG

The Grad School Letter Arrives ... Now What?

Vince Gotera
English Language and Literature
University of Northern Iowa

February 2006


Maybe you've gotten a positive response to your graduate school application ... or a negative one ... or something in the middle. What do you do now?

The first thing you need to know is that all graduate schools (at least in the US) subscribe to a national acceptance deadline of April 15. (In case that wasn't clear, all grad schools agree to give you until April 15 to accept or deny their offer.) Basically, this means that you can wait for all your grad schools to respond before making a decision. If you don't hear from one of your schools by, say, March 15, give that school a call — telephone rather than e-mail.

The second thing you should know is that there are four results you can expect: (1) you are accepted with funding; (2) you are accepted without funding; (3) you are placed on a waiting list; or (4) you are rejected. As far as I know, these are the four possible results; I'll waffle a little here, though; there may be other arcane categories admissions people use.

Below, I suggest what to do under the four results mentioned above. (Do read all four sections ... do not read just the one that pertains to your particular situation. There is crucial information for your decision-making in all four sections. Remember also that you will get different responses from the various grad schools to which you've applied — some will accept, some will reject, etc.)

My colleague Dr. Julie Husband, in an e-mail response to an earlier version of this article, gives the following advice overall: "Launch a public-relations campaign sometime just before decisions come out or even after you've been accepted and yet don't have funding. Now is the time to write a really intelligent letter to the graduate director asking specific, pertinent questions about the program and teaching responsibilities and also what it's like to live there. Of course, the information is important, but even more important is the impression it creates with the director, and with the admissions committee if he/she shares the letter, that you are a serious, focused, self-directed person. On a cautionary note, you don't want to badger a director with more than one information-gathering letter and seem too needy."

First, if a grad school accepts you with funding ...

Broadcast the news (as loudly as you can!) to your parents, friends, relatives, professors — any of these which apply. Stop strangers on the street and tell them. Whoa. No, not that. Just people you know. In any case, do tell the professors who wrote letters of reference for you to that grad school; they may have further advice about what to expect at that school.

Once you have calmed down, consider how many years it will take to get your degree at that grade school ... do you think you can live that many years (maybe more) where the school is located? Consider not just the pluses and minuses of the school, but also the pros and cons of the city or town where it's located, as well as the state and the region. (Ideally you should have done this before you applied there; even if you already have, it's practical to think about it again, now that the possibility of living in that place is much more real.)

Next, ask yourself if the funding you have been offered will allow you to live in that locale comfortably. For example, $25,000 will not go as far in Manhattan (NYC) as it would in Manhattan, Kansas. In New York, you would need additional employment, which would obviously eat into your study time.

Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), if you have a partner who will move with you — children, pets, plants, whatever — the two considerations above become more complex.

Is the funding you've been offered a fellowship or an assistantship? A fellowship gives you money without requiring you to work for it. Obviously, this is the best of possible worlds because there's food on your table and a roof over your head, PLUS you get to spend all your time studying. Sometimes the fellowship also has a name attached to it — say, the Vince Gotera Memorial Fellowship — that will look mighty fine on your résumé. (Hold on a moment ... ignore the "Memorial" part of that hypothetical fellowship.)

An assistantship pays you money for which you have to work. Perhaps you've been offered a research assistantship, where you will most likely work for a professor, helping to advance that professor's research, perhaps punching a clock in that professor's lab.

Another type is the teaching assistantship, where you will either help a professor teach a class or teach your own class. (At large research universities, there is also a hybrid case, where you work for a professor who gives a weekly lecture to, say, 150 students, and then you, along with five other teaching assistants, teach a "section" of maybe 25 students out of that 150, all under the supervision of the professor.)

With teaching assistantships, an important factor you'll need to weigh is the teaching load. Would you teach 2-2 (that is, two classes each semester)? If the load is 2-1 or 1-2 (one class one semester and two classes the other semester), you'll get more of your own studying done. Be careful of any teaching load greater than 2-2 ... it would be practically impossible to finish your graduate degree under those conditions.

Sometimes the grad school will offer you a mixed package: maybe a one-year fellowship coupled with a four-year assistantship. With this kind of package, you need to consider how long students have taken to finish their degrees in that program at that school. If the average is seven years, let's say, how will you manage after the five-year package is done? Does the program offer extensions? Are there related programs in which you can do research? Or teach? For example, if you are in an English PhD program, could you teach for American Studies? Ethnic Studies? Work in a writing lab? Etc.

(This would be a good time to follow Dr. Husband's advice above: send a focused inquiry letter to the person who signed your acceptance letter, probably the department's graduate director.)

While you ponder all of this, wait for your second acceptance, and your third one, etc. Then compare these factors among the schools — location, cost of living, fellowship vs. assistantship, research vs. teaching (and teaching load), and of course the quality and specializations of each grad program as well as who teaches there.

Before you decide, you should know that you can "play" the schools against each other. Maybe your top choice (let's say Stanford) has not offered you as good a package as your second choice (University of California, Berkeley). Call (don't e-mail) the graduate director of your prospective department at Stanford (or whoever signed your letter of acceptance) and tell her what Berkeley offered you. She'll call you back in a day or two and let you know what Stanford's counter-offer is. If Stanford decides to stick with the original offer, you will have lost nothing; since that offer will still stand you can nevertheless go to Stanford despite a less attractive funding package.

Another thing to consider is when to accept. If you make a firm decision early (for example, you decide you like Stanford best despite any offer from Berkeley or Harvard or Duke, blah blah), then go ahead and accept before April 15. This will ensure that funding offered to you by Berkeley, Harvard, or Duke will be passed down to other applicants in time for them to make a decision before April 15.

But if you are wavering at all in your decision(s), take as much time as you need ... as long as you accept by April 15. When you do accept, remember to contact all the other schools, also by April 15, to advise them you have accepted elsewhere.

Now, let's say you accept an offer. Then the next day you get a later, better offer from another school. You are legally and morally bound to go to the school you accepted. You cannot accept the later offer. Therefore, before you officially accept anywhere, make sure you've got all your offers and counter-offers (if any) "on the table."

Some people may disagree with me on this point. "I'll write the dissenting opinion," said Dr. Husband, in the e-mail mentioned above. "Yes, you should wait to hear from all schools before accepting an offer. If you violate this rule, much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth is in order. However, this is your life. Apologize, say your Hail Mary's, and take the best offer [even after you've accepted somewhere else]. Unlike a job search, in the graduate school admissions process the graduate director will simply move on to the next name on the list and, likely, that person will be only too happy to hear he/she has been bumped up from the waiting list."

This is an ethical point that you'll have to sort out for yourself, but Dr. Husband's reminder that "this is your life" is a crucial factor.

Second, if you are accepted without funding ...

Again, tell everyone you know about your good news, especially the professor(s) who wrote a letter to that school for you. Being accepted is definitely a major success, even without funding.

After spreading the good news, call the person who signed your acceptance letter (again, telephone only, no e-mail! or, as Dr. Husband suggests, write a focused letter) and ask what you can do to secure funding. It may be that the letter contains an error and the school in fact meant to offer funding. Howzat for a happy ending?

The more realistic result, however, is that you may find out the school has fellowships or assistantships for which you can still apply. If this is so, make sure to get all the pertinent info (usually given in detail somewhere on the school's webpages).

At the very least, you'll leave a good impression with that director of graduate study (or whatever position she holds) that you are a person with initiative and commitment. (I say all this, of course, at the risk of annoying graduate directors everywhere since my suggestion will increase their phone traffic. But don't worry about that — it's part of their job!)

Another thing you may find out (if your acceptance letter doesn't already say it) is that this particular grad school's custom is to watch their rookie grads to see if they will survive the first year before offering any funding. Schools do this so they can make sure their grad students will finish the degree. Knowing this may help you understand why another school gave you funding but this school didn't.

Begin to look for fellowships and scholarships that may help pay for studying at that grad school. Ideally, you will have already done some of this work earlier — try <> and other scholarship information sources (google "fellowships" and "scholarships"). The difference now is that you can seek out fellowships and scholarships specific to the state or region of the grad school.

If you get accepted without funding by more than one school, compare the quality and specialties of the grad programs (and of course, the professors) as well as the locales of the grad schools and the cost of living in those places. Not to mention the potential sources of funding associated with each grad school and region.

Keep in mind, also, that a grad school that accepted you without funding may yet offer you money. Note: this may happen pretty close to (or after) April 15. As prospective students deny offers by that school, the money offered to those applicants trickles down to those who were not offered any funding originally.

When you get this new offer with funding, you may have already accepted an offer (without funding) from a different school. The new funding offer will give you grounds to shift schools. Simply contact the graduate director of the school you've accepted and explain that a late funding offer has been extended by another school. Respectfully ask to be released from your acceptance. Chances are quite good the school will release you. Most — probably all — programs won't want a disgruntled student in their hallowed halls. In any case, make sure you get the release in writing.

Note: this is a different ethical situation from the one described at the end of the previous section. In that scenario, we were comparing two offers with funding. In this scenario, we're comparing no funding with some funding; you are still legally bound to the first school you accept, but that school will most likely release you from that legal bind. Just be honest with all parties involved. (Again, some may disagree ... it's your call.)

Third, if you are placed on a waiting list ...

I would only tell your closest friends and relatives (and of course each professor who wrote you a letter of reference to that school). A professor who has some affiliation with that school may be able to "decode" what this means ... for example, what the likelihood is that you will be accepted eventually.

Don't feel slighted by a school placing you on a waiting list. Remember, all schools usually get many, many more graduate applications than they can accept. In many cases, this will mean that very highly qualified applicants will be "wait-listed" behind only slightly more qualified others.

Let's imagine you were competing with 499 other applicants for 15 slots. Let's say that after the top 15 applicants are selected, the school then slates 10 others in a waiting list. You are in the top 25 out of 500 — in this hypothetical example, you're in the top 5%!

Wait for letters from your other grad schools. If you end up on waiting lists at more than one school, you're doing pretty well. The more waiting lists you are on, the better your chances of getting accepted eventually. Look at it this way: given the scenario in the last paragraph, multiplied by five schools which have similar numbers, all five schools could be trying to accept the same five applicants. When those five applicants finally accept, twenty slots across those five schools will be freed up for people on waiting lists. If there were fifty people on waiting lists (again across the five schools), there will now be only thirty. If you are on more than one of those five waiting lists ... well, you get the picture.

Depending on how close you are to the top of a waiting list, you may be moved up into the acceptance "zone" before or after April 15. If you haven't heard anything by, say, April 8 (or somewhat earlier, if you can't stand the waiting), I would suggest calling (not e-mailing) the graduate director or whoever signed your waiting-list letter and find out how far you are from the top of the list. It's entirely possible that a subsequent letter of acceptance from that school went awry. Again, if there is sufficient time before April 15 (let's say it's April 1), then you might consider following Dr. Husband's advice above and write a focused letter instead of calling.

If you are near the top of the waiting list and within reasonable reach of possible acceptance, most graduate directors will tell you (though of course they will also make no promises). At the very least, you will leave a good impression with the graduate director that could help, in some small way, to get you accepted — if not this year, maybe the next.

Have good heart. It is entirely possible for an applicant on a waiting list to not only get accepted but even offered funding in the long run. Again, remember that sometimes this can happen after April 15. Remember, too, what an achievement it is to be placed on a waiting list — it's a good omen about the likelihood that you will be accepted to grad school in another year.

Fourth, if you are rejected ...

Try to figure out why. (The professors who helped you with letters of recommendation may be able to offer some advice beyond what I offer below.)

Maybe you applied to the wrong schools. At universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley — Iowa, in creative writing — you face astronomical odds when you apply for grad school. As your favorite aunt or uncle said, "You need a fall-back school." Maybe more than one fall-back school.

Maybe you applied to too few schools. The more schools you apply to, the better your odds for getting in. Obviously, if you apply to ten grad schools at the ivy-league level, you won't necessarily increase your odds of success. But if you aim a little lower, or aim at several levels, you'll definitely do better with ten schools than with three. Remember that the acceptances are made by committees at each school ... committees made up by everyday, ordinary people. If you apply to only three schools, you don't have as many chances to impress people on these committees than if you apply to ten schools.

Maybe you need to review your applications again ... let's hope you made photocopies of them. Were there typos? Was there any sort of sloppiness? Review your statement of purpose ... does it still seem as effective to you, now several months later? (If not, see my online article on how to write a successful statement of purpose.) Consider the professors you asked to write references for you? Is there any possibility their letters were not as good as you expected? Are there other referees who may be better for future applications? (Again, see my online article on how to get great recommendations.)

Reconsider your academic record. Look at your GPA. The courses you've taken. Your GRE score(s) — if the grad school required you to take the GRE or Graduate Record Exam. (Each graduate field has its own exams at this level, for example, the LSAT or Law School Aptitude Test.) Are your GPA, coursework, and exam score(s) sufficiently strong for the schools you applied to? If not, what can you do about it? Do you think you can improve your exam score(s)? (There are exam practice and improvement books available at bookstores.) Are you in a position to take more courses, ones that make you more attractive to an admissions committee in your field? Is a second bachelor's degree a good idea ... another opportunity to raise your GPA? Or, had been applying for PhD programs, maybe go for a freestanding master's degree first? (This would give you a new blank slate for grades — a whole new GPA situation.)

Are there types of employment which might make you more attractive in future grad-school applications? Might it be possible to teach in your field before going on for a grad degree? In many cases, a graduate degree or a teaching degree may not be required to teach at a private grade school or high school. Perhaps you can conduct research or pursue other work in the public or private sector pertaining to the grad degree you're seeking. Be imaginative about your possibilities.

If you hadn't already done so when you were preparing to apply, look up acceptance rates and strategies in your specific field. Especially pertaining to the specific grad schools you are interested in. (A "how-to" article like mine is mainly generic and, in my case, slanted toward English and creative writing; look for similar sources of guidance closer to your own field.)

Don't give up. Many people take several years to get accepted into grad school. It took me three tries to get into the Master of Fine Arts program in poetry writing at Indiana University. Keep working to increase your chances to get accepted.

Here's a different tack ... maybe you applied for grad school in the wrong field? For instance (please forgive me for using an English example), let's say you were applying to a graduate degree program in literary study. Think hard about the field: maybe your real interest is in books themselves ... how about a master's in library science? Or in the "art of the book"? Or in editing? Professional writing? Think more critically about what you truly love in your field.

This is also a good time to reassess: do you really want to go to grad school? Why did you apply? Was it only because you were fearful of leaving school? Going out into the "real world," as they say? Are there other ways to achieve the personal satisfaction you were seeking by going to grad school? Maybe that graduate school rejection is actually the best thing that ever happened to you. A genuine blessing in disguise.

Fifth, ...

I don't really know what the fifth category would be, but as I said at the outset, there may be other Byzantine categories, beyond the four covered above, that I don't know about. I hope the suggestions I make above will be helpful with these other results — if in fact they exist.

At any rate, whether you've been accepted by a grad school, placed on a waiting list, or rejected, I wish you all the best.