How Can I Get Feedback After Receiving a Generic Rejection Letter?

May 20, 2024

Dr. Vicki Johnson, a mid-age white American woman with straight brown hair and a green blouse. She is a graduate school admissions expert. The words, Ask Dr. Johnson are on the left-hand side.

Dear Dr. Johnson,

I was recently rejected from a PhD program that I interviewed for. The rejection letter sounds generic and says they cannot give feedback. I assumed that the interview meant I was in the Finalist round and very close to receiving an acceptance. I really must know what I might have done wrong in the interview, especially since this is my second time applying with no acceptance. Is there some way I can still get feedback or would asking make me look bad if I plan to apply there again? This is the closest I have gotten to an acceptance and it feels like my entire career hinges on this feedback. What can I do?

– Rejected

 

From Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I completely understand your frustration with the generic rejection letter and lack of feedback, especially after all the work you put into your application and participating in an interview. Universities give this response because they do not have the bandwidth to give individualized feedback and want to have a blanket policy for everyone who applies.

That said, it’s not impossible to get feedback. Given your goals to re-apply, you just need to be strategic.

First, do not make any assumptions about why you didn’t get an offer. You may have had an excellent interview! Keep in mind that at the PhD finalist level, they are considering more things than just the quality of your interview.

PhD programs select very small cohorts of students, on average 3-7 students, but sometimes as few as one. Small cohorts are also based on factors that are out of your control, like candidate-faculty matching, funding availability, and cohort balancing by gender, race, and other demographics.

For this reason, I recommend putting your full effort into creating strong faculty connections before applying and developing tailored applications for each program. This will give you an edge when there are several excellent candidates for one PhD spot.

To get feedback, wait until early summer, past the busy acceptance period. If you plan to re-apply to the same graduate program, reconnect with any faculty contacts you made in the program to let them know you plan to re-apply. Rather than ask for feedback, politely ask them if they have any recommendations for a stronger application in the next round (a slightly different take on asking for “feedback”, which might not be responded to).

You can also attend upcoming Info Sessions where you can approach the department Chair, faculty, or those you interviewed with. Remind them you were an interviewed Finalist in the previous round and were unsuccessful but are planning to re-apply. If they remember you, this is a great in-person opportunity to ask them for feedback. Be open to the feedback, listen carefully, and ask questions about how you can prepare a stronger application for this next round. Be sure to write down notes directly after the interaction.

[Side Note: This feedback advice applies to master’s and law school applicants as well!]

This next round, make faculty outreach in the Spring and Summer your number one priority to give yourself an edge. Faculty conversations can help you shape your dissertation proposal around their funding sources and needs, develop positive rapport, and receive tips on your application. This is an important step that I teach in-depth inside the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program for doctorate applicants.

Just remember that if you made it to an interview round, you were close to an acceptance. Don’t give up! This is a challenging and highly competitive process, but I know you can be successful. Good luck!

 

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and Director of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the creator of the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program, which helps graduate school applicants enter top graduate schools with funding awards. 


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