Okay, let’s get overly dramatic for a moment. It occurs to me that a truly infintesimal proportion of interactions in admissions end positively.
First we, the potential students, send off applications. Most of the schools I’ve talked to receive several hundred applications, and send off around a dozen acceptances. Sometime in February, Professors sit down and write happy, personalized e-mails to a chosen few. A little later, thousands and thousands of automated rejections—like the one I received from Michigan—go out, notifying us that we are good, but not quite good enough. We wish you well.
And yet, with so much demand for spots and so few opportunities open, the handful that do manage to get in usually get more than one offer. My haul has been modest: I’ve met people who were admitted to—and are planning on visiting—as many as nine schools. All the top institutions pull out all the stops to show us how genuinely interested they are in our work, and why they would be so thrilled to have us join them. They introduce us to professors, students, and staff. We form relationships and make promises of attending, foolishly believing that somehow, we will manage to do a PhD at all nine schools.
Reality will set in sometime around April 15th, when the tables turn and all the rejectors become rejectees. No matter how I slice it, I know that next month I will have to send lots of e-mails to new friends I’ve met–be they current students or other admits–letting them know that I won’t be coming and that—realistically—our relationship is off. I will tell professors who did what is so rare in this world—showing genuine interest in another human being’s development—that I didn’t quite mean it when I said that I would “love to work with them.” And, one potential path of my, which I’ve spent at the very least a few days imagining as my future, will be closed off.
And all this for one happy e-mail sent to a single school, saying “Yes.” Finally, a perfect match—and then we can start the process of sorting ourselves out again, as some of us get NSF grants and university fellowships and tenure track positions and high profile publications, and others get told that we are just not quite up to snuff. All this in the name of a better, kinder society.
It’s just rejections, all the way down.