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I was rejected from all of my top choice schools and am still waiting to hear back from my other schools. The top two being Southern Methodist University and Baylor University. Honestly, I feel horrid about myself and know that my GRE Subject (Math) exam was terrible, but know that everything else about my application was very strong.

My advisor has told me that I should retake the exams and apply again which makes me take a year off of school. I graduate May 2019 with my Masters in math so I would apply again in Fall 2019 and hear back Spring 2020.

I am wanting advice on how I should view these rejections because at the moment I am extremely sad about it. Additionally, how do schools view students reapplying after a rejection?

  • Actually SMU and Baylor are fine universities. – Buffy Feb 13 '19 at 23:04
  • FWIW, I was in the exact same situation last year as you are in now. I'm sure many others have been there as well. The thing that sucks about applying to highly competitive programs is there are way more qualified applicants than there is space for. It doesn't mean you weren't good enough. – Collin Feb 15 '19 at 21:25
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First things first: don't feel bad. I was among the top three students in my country and I still got rejected by all the top schools I applied to for undergraduate study. It's a great big world out there with lots of highly intelligent, highly motivated students with excellent applications, and it's only going to get more competitive the higher up you go in academia.

Second: now is not the time to worry about what you might have done differently because it'll just make you feel worse. But in six months' time, if you're still unaffiliated and want to apply again, then would be a good time to read the paragraph below.

Remember that you can't just apply to top schools. You could easily be rejected everywhere. You should also apply to schools which you are confident you'll be accepted in, as well as schools which are 50-50. Then, come decision time, you'll at least be able to go somewhere and not have a gap year to fill. "Somewhere" might not be as good as "dream school", but it's still better than "nowhere".

Third: what to do next is the most pressing thing to figure out. Doing nothing is not ideal - that makes you a burden to your caregivers. If money is at all a concern for you, I advocate getting a job. You might not be able to commit for very long (although you can delay grad school for two years or more too) but you still might be able find a temporary job. Working has many great advantages that can change your perception of grad school completely. At the very least, you'll be on a more solid footing financially when you attend.

If money isn't a concern to you, and you're dead set on doing PhD studies, then you can use the intervening year to learn more mathematics. For example you could stay put at your current institution for a year taking extra masters-level courses that you didn't take because of time constraints. You could do an extra research project with your current supervisor. You could look up the job requirements for jobs you want to do, and take the year to self-study those. You can do all these while preparing for another attempt at the Math GRE. You could even take the gap year to travel the world, which like getting a job will be a transformative experience that will teach you things you cannot learn at a university. See this related question for more suggestions.

In short, getting admitted to a PhD program isn't everything. Shake of the disappointment of having been rejected at all your top choices and you'll find there're lots of things you can do, not all of which might be related to studying but will nonetheless lead to personal growth.

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Rejection is an opportunity to improve yourself. I suggest the following steps:

  1. Give a time to accept your current situation
  2. Analyse the weakest points in your application
  3. Make a plan to improve your application, talk to other people (grad students, professors, etc.) when possible!
  4. Apply again

Reapplying is not a bad thing as long as you are able to show your ability to overcome difficulties.

All the best in future applications!

  • 3
    Actually, it probably isn't the application that needs to be improved, but some lack in your background that needs to be rectified if possible. – Buffy Feb 13 '19 at 23:06

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