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I've read statements with meaning similar to this: "We received an extremely strong pool of applications this year, therefore..." in several of my decision letters from US grad schools in math this year. Is this a generic statement that is used while declining admission to soften the blow or is there something specific about this year that makes this statement true for many of the US grad schools? If there is, then what is the reason for that(covid?) and is there a reason to believe that admissions will get more or less competitive for the next academic year?

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    The number of people applying to graduate schools is a function of a variety of factors, not least of which is the job market prospects of seniors in college. Given Covid was unexpected, the impacts of Covid on all kinds of things are fairly unpredictable.
    – Jon Custer
    May 24, 2023 at 14:02
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    The quantity and quality of applicants may vary from year to year but I expect "received an extremely strong pool of applicants this year" to be true every year for any mildly competitive graduate program. May 24, 2023 at 21:29

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It is a generic statement used when declining admission to soften the blow.

That said, admissions tends to be fairly stochastic, so yes, admissions next year will be both more and less competitive. You can't know which will apply to each particular program, so the best way to optimize your odds of acceptance if you didn't make it in this application cycle are to 1) Apply broadly to programs that have a range of acceptance thresholds, and 2) Do whatever you can in the coming months to improve your application. Research opportunities and training relevant to your field, but also improving the content of your application itself by having people you trust who are familiar with graduate admissions (professors, ideally) review your application and suggest ways that you might present yourself optimally.

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    @ZSMJ Better to ask people connected to you like a professor at your current/previous institution: it's not the job of this other person to help you with your application.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 27, 2023 at 14:21
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Unfortunately this is most probably a generic statement, which does not make it less true. Funding at almost all grad schools is usually short and not all candidates who would deserve funding very well receive it. I would doubt that covid positively influenced the quality of applicants.

Assuming you received a negative response, I would strongly advise to take the reviewers' comments seriously and then try again next year. Sometimes things work out even with only minimally edited applications.

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    And, given that most (good) graduate programs get many more applicants than places, the results are down to small signal statistics in any given year. It would not be unusual to have years where they could not take every "can't miss" candidate that would have been accepted in previous years.
    – Jon Custer
    May 24, 2023 at 19:46
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This is a risk-management response used by all major corporate institutions

To augment the other answers here, let me give the realist (cynic?) view:

Because of the existence of various employment laws and anti-discrimination laws, modern HR departments are trained/conditioned to avoid giving applicants any substantive feedback on the strengths, weaknesses or quality of their application. They know that any information they give can be used against them in complaints and litigation, so they avoid giving any response of substance. This is essentially a risk-management method, which is frustrating for unsuccessful applicants but protective for the institution.

"We received an extremely strong pool of applications this year..." is a stock-response that has developed over the last several decades in virtually all major corporate firms, and modern corporatised universities are no different. This response allows the institution to give a reason for non-success without making any substantive statement in relation to the quality of your application or the relative merits of particular parts of different applications. The advantage from the institution's point of view (and disadvantage from the applicant's point of view) is that this gives you no information and your non-success remains a mystery. In particular, it allows the institution to retain complete latitude in its explanation for your non-success in the event of a subsequent complaint or legal case.

I have personally attempted to break through this wall on one occasion where I applied for an academic position and was unsuccessful. I usually wouldn't bother because I know the risk-management method at issue here, but in this particular case it was a position I was particularly well-aligned to and I really wanted to know what aspects of my application were letting me down that I could improve for the future. I went so far as to arrange a meeting with the contact person to get feedback on my application and it was like talking to a robot --- no matter how much I pressed for specifics or advice for future improvements, back came the stock non-answers that HR staff and managers are conditioned to give. Welcome to the corporatised future.

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    I just think this answer ascribes too much intent to individuals' choices to employ this verbiage. You're right it's a non-response, but in my experience it's deployed for social rather than "corporate" or legal reasons. The reason for failure is, practically speaking, that the supply/demand situation is terrible for laborers at all levels of academia. The stock response is a euphemism for that.
    – user137975
    May 27, 2023 at 3:07

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