I got a denial to a PhD application I sent. The mail basically stated that they had picked another candidate and wished me luck.

I am doing my master in a German university and I applied to another department in the same university

Is it usual to ask the reasons of denial?. Would it even make sense?. If it is something like e.g. low GPA, there is pretty much nothing I can do to change that. If however it is something like "your motivation letter was too long" or something like that I guess it is salvageable.

  • Often is not even anything specific. They could have had 4 applicants, all very good but just one is better. May 7, 2015 at 13:55
  • One thing I think the answers below aren't focusing on that might be worth doing so: the fact that this is at the university you are doing your masters at. I would think that would be a bit different, because you would have some personal relationships (even if it's not in that department, your professors may know the professors in that department) and so could be more receptive to "What can I do to improve my application". I don't feel like I can answer the question myself, but it would be interesting to see an answer focused on that part of things.
    – Joe
    May 7, 2015 at 15:18

6 Answers 6


You can certainly try asking, but I expect you won't get a useful answer. In the cases I'm familiar with (mathematics departments in the U.S.), you aren't likely to get any official answer beyond "no comment". This isn't because the department is being unhelpful or deliberately withholding information they could reasonably share. Instead, it's because offering useful feedback is really hard.

Rejected applicants sometimes imagine that the rejection may have been due to some identifiable flaw they could fix, but in my experience this is rarely the case. Most rejections are based on an overall evaluation, rather than isolated flaws. Even if a single problem derailed the application, there might have been other issues that were never identified because discussion stopped when the application died. Nobody wastes times on hypotheticals like "Would the candidate have been admitted if it weren't for this problem?", since the committee is eager to move on to the more contentious cases. So even if the committee can point to a specific problem, they generally can't predict that fixing it would lead to admission. It's not particularly useful or encouraging to be told "Here's a serious problem with your application, but don't assume you'll get in if you fix it. We haven't even considered that question, so who knows?" (Plus there are legal issues: you don't want to be sued by someone who is told their application was rejected for a specific reason and then discovers that you admitted another applicant with the same issue. You might have had an excellent reason - perhaps the rest of the other application was magnificent - but it could still look like a pretext for discrimination. It's safest not to offer any explanation that oversimplifies the full decision making process.)

These cases with isolated flaws are really not typical. Instead, most feedback would fall into two categories: "Your application just wasn't good enough overall for us to even consider you" or "Your application was good and you made the short list, but you were outcompeted by people with even stronger applications". The first sort of feedback adds insult to injury, and it's wise to avoid making enemies among the applicants you reject. The second sort of feedback is also not constructive, since there's usually no good way to convey to the applicant how the final comparison was made. The evaluation process consisted of multiple readers, perhaps with differing opinions, followed by a committee discussion that compared the application with the competition. Confidential letters of recommendation played a major role, and in any case the process was lengthy and involved enough that it's difficult to summarize it usefully.

For comparison, U.S. National Science Foundation review panels provide applicants with copies of the written reviews and ratings of their proposals, together with a brief summary of the panel discussion. This is about as much transparency as one could reasonably hope for, but it rarely leaves rejected applicants with a clear idea of how to improve their future proposals. In many cases they don't even have a good understanding of why they didn't make it (beyond "some other proposals were even more compelling").


Our department receives requests for feedback from rejected candidates fairly regularly, so yes it is quite typical. However, my university operates an institution-wide policy that no feedback will be given to unsuccessful applicants. I appreciate that this is not helpful, but (1) providing feedback to the (many) unsuccessful candidates would impose a large additional administrative burden, and (2) some candidates who bear a grudge would invariably use any feedback provided in legal proceedings against their rejection.

So, in short: it can't hurt to ask, but be prepared for the distinct possibility that your request might be refused. In the first instance, it is advisable to write to an admissions administrator rather than a faculty member.

  • Its interesting that this is a university-wide policy. I cannot speak to other departments, but I know faculty in my graduate program (in psychology) have provided brief feedback when its been requested by unsuccessful applicants. In rare cases where the interviewing student raised significant red flags regarding inappropriate behavior, there has even been discussion of our program contacting their undergraduate mentor or letter writers.
    – user30295
    May 6, 2015 at 22:53
  • I understand the legal issue, and I understand that admissions committee are already processing tons of applications, but frankly, with the application fees that university require to even apply and the amount of time and effort it takes would be kind of nice to implement some kind of pipeline for that kind of feedback, maybe with that feedback being very brief and formulated in a way that does not say directly "this is why we rejected you", but still.
    – arkhy
    Mar 3, 2018 at 5:23

Most departments only have a few spots available with quite a bit of competition; in the majority of rejections, the answer is just that you weren't in their top n applications, not that you did something wrong.


The institution may have a feedback process that you can apply to. In many cases there are just too many applications to be able to offer or give feedback on. Depending on the country you live in you might also be able to use Freedom of Information legislation, but the process can be quite onerous. Could you get a friend in a graduate program to have a read of your application and give you some recommendations?

  • I actually wrote my application with the help of a current PhD student (who's about to graduate and is someone I consider a "good" scientist, i.e. several publications), and also with my current master thesis advisor, who is also someone with a lot of experience.
    – Keine
    May 6, 2015 at 9:22
  • 8
    Even if a Freedom of Information request is an option legally, I suspect it would really annoy the people at the institution that turned you down, which is not good if you have any intention of reapplying. There's also no guarantee it would yield any useful information. May 6, 2015 at 13:59

If you're applying for a "free-standing" PhD position, then it is very unlikely that you will receive any feedback whatsoever, as such searches are tantamount to job searches. In general, candidates are not given feedback for why they are turned down for such positions, and I would expect such policies to apply to PhD candidates as well.

  • What do you mean with "freestanding"?
    – Keine
    May 6, 2015 at 17:02
  • 2
    A single position not connected with a "program" that centrally screens applications for an entire department.
    – aeismail
    May 6, 2015 at 20:36

I once got rejected from a with-a-stipend Masters' program (not exactly the same, granted), without a clear reason being given. Eventually I "heard it through the grapevine" that the department ran out of money on start-of-year stipendiaries and couldn't afford accepting the mid-years - but nobody would ever tell me that on paper (= officially).

So, even if they would be willing to let you know, they might not be willing to let you know officially. Sniffing might be in order...

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