I have been applying to PhD programs for the past 2+ years and keep getting rejected. I have pretty good degrees that I worked hard for from good universities (not the top unis).

For the past year I’ve been doing everything I could think of to improve my CV; working for free as a research assistant at a research institute, publishing, attending seminars and conferences, etc.

I always thought that all applicants were treated equally and were judged only by their grades, personal statement and CV. However, I just got my 15th rejection letter, and the university was “kind” enough to tell me that I was rejected because I didn’t meet their entry requirements, specifically, that the universities where I did my Bsc and MSc don’t have a good enough reputation for my application to be considered.

I have been told by academics in the past that potential PhD candidates aren’t judged using this criterion. So my question is, are Phd applications one of those things where people are told that everyone has an equal opportunity while the reality is wildly different? Because I would like to know if I’m wasting my time applying and putting myself through all this stress unnecessarily.

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    I work at a perfectly reputable university - probably slightly above average among all universities in the US. Most straight A students from my department would fail out of a top 50 graduate program, though there are exceptions - and we do say in our recommendation letters who those exceptions are. Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 22:56
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    To be honest, your experience surprises me unless you are only applying to the top few universities or your previous university has some problematic reputation such as a predatory for-profit institution or one that values some form of orthodoxy over true education.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 22:57
  • @Alexander Woo I have seen my letters of recommendation they’re pretty good, so I don’t think my ability or potential ability is the issue.
    – Sule
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 23:02
  • @Buffy my experience surprises me too; that’s why I’m thinking there’s something I’m missing, because I don’t think it should be this hard... and I have been applying to all types of universities from top unis to mid level ranking unis to what you may call bottom of the barrel institutions and still nothing. Both my undergraduate and master’s universities are mid level and have a pretty good reputation but aren’t elite by any means... so I’m left scratching my head.
    – Sule
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 23:07
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    Perhaps you were just given an excuse rather than the real reason. Someone who wanted to reject you but didn't want to think very hard about why.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 4, 2019 at 23:13

3 Answers 3


I always thought that all applicants were treated equally and were judged only by their grades, personal statement and CV.

Applicants from different universities are not treated equally (at least not by my department's selection committee).

Your grades are looked at as a baseline (to filter out obvious rejections or single out interesting cases), and then a discussion goes on about the rest of it (CV, statements, references and research experience). You are missing two key parts (which you refer to in your comments but not in the question body): reference letters, and publication record. You say that you have read your reference letters: have you read all of them? It could be that you are experiencing selection bias - the referees who are comfortable with you reading their letters are ones who generally like you. In addition, nowadays top schools (in computer science at least) may reject your application if you haven't had at least one decent publication.

I have been told by academics in the past that potential PhD candidates aren’t judged using this criterion.

This must have been a misunderstanding.

The institution the conferred your degree absolutely matters. There is a huge difference between how a top 5% student from a top university and one who hails from a less renowned university is perceived.

This cuts both ways - good universities may produce inadequate graduates, and less reputable ones can produce excellent students. The institution is just a signal of your likelihood to succeed in your PhD.


Sure, it matters. After all, the other schools did a selection process.

That said, I do think it is very normal for grad schools to reach out to people from various backgrounds. Provided the applicants show top test scores and grades, it's not that hard to get into grad schools. I used to even see a preference for liberal arts school graduates (at an R1 grad program) because the kids hadn't seen as much of the downside of the R1 life, yet.

It does sound strange to be getting rejected by 15 schools. I would suspect low grades and scores--you did not describe them.

Also you don't tell us the field, which makes it hard to interpret. Knowing the country helpful also. Even among schools, there will be different practices. But do you think all fields/countries are same and we can give all encompassing answers?

I think if you didn't get into any first go round, I wouldn't go applying over in subsequent seasons. Move on to real jobs. Don't spend your time fluttering around trying to rack up more bullets for grad school. But put your efforts into a normal career.

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    -1. Answers should not require clarification from the asker (that's for comments), and I do not think you have enough information to conclude that OP should give up on grad school altogether -- that is a highly personal choice that depends on OP's career goals.
    – cag51
    Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 17:44

You leave out your academic discipline, which may guide towards better answers. Also, the 'gap' between your current and prospective schools. However:

I think you may be overlooking another factor: the authors of your letters of recommendation.

If your grades/scores are sufficiently high, then this is clearly not what is failing you. Now, school reputation is a factor (mostly only tacitly, but there may be exceptions), but your letter of recommendation is possibly even more so.

The standing of the author of your letters matters a great deal - so you want a bigwig, if you can. Then, academics have several ways of signalling to their peers if the candidate really has their blessing or not (although, to the untrained eye, all of these letters look pretty glowing). After 15 rejections, should you be looking to another writer? Also, you could consider applying to non-US institutions (again, subject-dependent); the world outside the US offers wonderful institutions, many certainly less hung-up about the prestige of the sending institution. Good luck!

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