April 7, 2009

Thoughts on the Graduate Admissions Process

As anyone who has applied to post-secondary institutions can attest, the graduate admissions process is a trying one, and the best way to get through such a labyrinth can be open and honest lines of communication. Unfortunately, not all schools can manage that.

I have received four funded offers to PhD programs in rhetoric and composition (or some variation therein). Virginia Tech and NC State are at the top of my list, in large part because of their thorough, prompt, curteous, professional, and downright friendly communication. I get the sense from these schools that these are people I would enjoy working with and would enjoy working with me.

I cannot say the same about some of the other schools I have applied to. I have applied to 28 schools in a span of two years and have received only 6 funded offers. That leaves 22 schools that either offered me admission without an assistantship or fellowship or refused me admission at all. The vast majority of those schools have been kind and thoughtful, even if the only communication we've ever had is through form letters. A select few schools, however, have bungled what I would think would be a fairly simple process. I will share my stories from my most recent round of applications today, not because I mean to complain, but because I mean to open a conversation about how to improve a back- and often heart-breaking process.

My admittedly cursory research indicates that there is not a single definitive statement of student rights. What I can glean from various documents is that there are several basic rights: the right to information/statistics; the right to make a decision without being pressured (the linked document is intended for undergraduate students, but it talks of "high-pressure sales tactics"); the right to considerate and fair treatment.

Let me give an example of the latter two rights in action. I applied to Northeastern's graduate journalism program. They offered me admission with a full tuition scholarship. Now, that may seem nice, but for a graduate program, it is not enough. I'm extremely unlikely to accept an offer of admission without an assistantship or fellowship. So, you can imagine my surprise when I received a phone call two weeks ago from Northeastern, asking, politely I might add, whether or not I had made a decision. This may seem like an overreaction, but I was offended by the call. Virginia Tech has offered me a fellowship they've never offered anyone else. They have a very limited number of spaces in their program. And still, they have not once pressured me into making a decision. I respect that. What I do not, respect, however, is being pressured by a school that is only offering me a scholarship. So, if I make my decision sooner, they can give that scholarship to someone else?

I am, of course, making something out of nothing here. My second story is equally dramatized, but I feel that I have more of a gripe here. The University of Florida is one of the top three schools, in my estimation, of the thirteen I applied to. I really would like to go there. My close friend, M., applied there, as well. M. applied to a different part of the English department, and he received word that he was admitted almost a month ago. Of course, that worried me. Why haven't they contact me yet? I wondered obsessively.

As it turns out, they hadn't contacted me because they fail epically at basic communication. When April rolled around and I still hadn't heard the slightest word from UF, I e-mailed their graduate secretary about the status of my application. I politely waited another week and e-mailed again yesterday. So, today, I received the following message:
"We have had you on the waiting list but have now found that we will not be able to offer you admission to our program. Good luck to you in your academic future."
Now, this is couched in polite language, but the context is horribly offensive. Remember: they had not told me a single thing until now. Then, I discover that I was waitlisted and subsequently rejected without ever knowing about it. I was holding out on making a decision until I heard from UF. I e-mailed back expressing my discontent, and someone else sent me a note with a common excuse:
"We are seriously understaffed, which means we have one secretary handling about 700 applications."
Apprently they do not have any system in place to notify waitlisted candidates. Does no one see the problem here?

So, I sent them a letter expressing my problems with that system. The letter is overly dramatic, and anyone who knows me knows that this is not me. But I sent it anyway.

Thank you for the kind note. I would agree; you obviously do need to implement some kind of formal process. I am less upset by the fact that it is April 7 (you're right, I still have plenty of time to make a decision) than I am by the treatment I received. I would not be upset were my inquiries fielded in a prompt and curteous manner. I realize this in large part because you are significantly understaffed, but I had to e-mail Kathy twice in the past two weeks before receiving even the brief response I did receive.

You can imagine that it would be such a shock to me, since all the other schools I applied to have kept in contact thoroughly, promptly, and professionally. I can say for sure that a program's lines of communications speak volumes about the program itself and have played a major role in my decision-making process. I would hate for any qualified candidate to not choose Florida because of poor communication. I know that your communication with accepted candidates is likely much more streamlined; I also know, though, that how an institution treats even those who fall through the cracks, the marginalized in any bureaucratic system, in part defines that instiution.

I recognize that the process of graduate admissions is hard on everyone. I'm sure you all have had to endure mistreatment. From my vantage point, I have encountered a number of issues, including being pressured to make a decision by the end of March to attend a program that did not even offer an assistantship. I can unreservedly say, though, that being given the qualified honor of being on a waitlist to a prestigious program, then simultaneously having that honor stripped in a brief (two-sentence) e-mail, one that required what I would consider undue prodding on my part, is the bitterest pill I have had to swallow in the whole process.

Such is the plight of the waitlisted candidate, I suppose, but I do hope you will see this as a chance for improvement. That is what I intend my comments as: not as complaint, but as opportunity.


The response I received was, as I expected, tepid at best. Kenneth says,
"Thank you for your input and concerns. Difficulties aside, we are
pleased with our incoming class, and we hope you will be pleased wherever you land."
I may be expecting too much from schools. I consider myself blessed to have four funded offers. I consider myself blessed that two of those schools really, really want me, and I really, really want them. I feel like this decision will be the hardest of my life; I feel like the child befeore King Solomon, ordered to be torn in two.

Nevertheless, I know several people who have been mistreated in the admission process by even the best schools. This is never a case of bad or malicious people; rather, it is, almost always, institutional. I feel like Joel Bakan of The Corporation fame, arguing: The people are well-intentioned, but the organization itself is designed to do bad things!

Of course, all this might just be jealousy that M. got into Florida and I didn't. Would I be above such a thing? Not today, my friends, not today.

1 comment:

  1. Haha... this is the stuff of lifie magic. My favorite part is Kenneth's response to your email. That fellow does have a way with words.

    Needless to say, I'm quite happy that I didn't have to deal with PhD applications and the sure rejections I would have received this year.