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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Coping with graduate school rejections during a pandemic

Do not let denial define you

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As a 2021 college graduate, my past year has been consumed with graduate school preparations and the ominous shadow of letters of acceptance (or rejections). Not only has it been a test of academic excellence but also patience, perseverance and optimism. Most of the professors I have consulted kindly reminded me to keep my expectations low in light of the global pandemic, which has had a serious impact on university admissions. 

The pandemic has been unavoidable in my application process, much like every other student who has applied to further education like graduate school or law school. 

On the bright side, the prospect of spending hundreds of hours on GRE prep was no longer a worry of mine, since some schools decided to waive the standard test scores requirement due to the unavailability of tests during the pandemic. 

However, the reduction of available programs to apply to has put myself and many others in an unfortunate situation. Some programs either suspended Fall 2021 admissions entirely or restricted the admitted students to a much smaller number. With the unclear financial situation looming for a graduate like myself, I was forced to adjust my goals from pursuing a doctoral program to applying to master’s programs with minimal financial aid.

When applying to academic programs, it is important to prepare for both the best and worst possibilities. I read tons of books, checked out a long list of TED Talks and listened to almost every motivational podcast I could about coping with rejection—that is, being rejected by all the programs I applied to. 

It was excruciating to wait for the results. I refreshed the Grad Café—a website where graduate school applicants post their application results— every chance I got. I had already created a rebuild-my-life-after-a-major-setback plan. I set a goal to process failure and get back to normal life within 10 days. I really hoped my plan would never be activated.

The time had finally come when I got my first rejection letter from the University of Texas at Austin on January 25. When I saw the red-colored “Denied” pop up on my screen, I did not feel upset as I expected to, but instead, relieved that I did not have to feel so anxious about the prospect of rejection. 

However, throughout processing my denied application, I came up with a few suggestions to help soothe any other Gator graduates experiencing the bitter taste of rejection from graduate schools this season. 

Let your emotions out

My relief lasted for a few minutes until a tidal wave of disappointment washed over me. I closed my laptop and let out a big sigh. I knew that I would cry for a while, so I grabbed a box of tissues in front of me, put on my headphones and found a Spotify playlist called ‘sad music for crying hours and depressing times.’ I needed some alone time with my frustration. Only by immersing myself in tears would I alleviate negative feelings. I allowed myself to question everything: my hard work, my choice to pursue an education in the United States and even my self-worth. But crying gave me time to process my emotions and come to terms with my reality. So even though you may want to bottle your emotions and move on, don’t. Give yourself time to feel, it’ll help in the long run. 

Reach out for help, even if it is fictional

After consoling myself through tears, I started to binge-watch Modern Family, a reasonable choice for an international student who was unable to have family support at the moment. Modern Family had served as a comforting ‘second’ family in my time away from home, offering me an escape from my worries. I ran into an episode in the show where a goofy character on the show named Phil mistakenly said, “When life gives you lemonade, make lemons.”

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I giggled before I realized the coincidence of Phil’s quote and my own situation. At the moment, my metaphorical lemonade was so bitter that I wanted to return it and ask for my money back. But I couldn’t, and after comforting myself through my favorite show, that lemonade was becoming increasingly more tolerable. So, surround yourself with love and support, whether it be through family, friends, or your favorite show, and I promise you will start to feel better. 

Create space for positive thoughts

After consulting my ‘second family,’ I needed further distractions. I picked up Giovanni’s Room, a 1950s novel by James Baldwin. It was the perfect book: not too serious, nor too lighthearted. The pages had turned yellow over the years and the typefaces were considered old-fashioned. The underlying theme of emotional escape seemed to mirror my predicament. 

However, the topic of sexual orientation within the book once being avant-garde, but now common discourse in today’s age reassured me. It was proof that things could change. More specifically, it was proof that I could change and my path did not abruptly end with that rejection letter. In order to reach that point, you have to put yourself in a mindset to allow positive thoughts to manifest. 

Take some advice 

The best advice I could have been given to cope with my graduate school rejection came from Supreme Court Justice John Roberts’ commencement speech at his son’s ceremony. 

He addressed a string of bad wishes to the graduates, one among which struck me most, “I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.” 

It was the first time that a commencement speech went beyond some dull cliché and drove into my heart. Maybe this was the bad luck I needed to be conscious of the role of chance in my life. Sometimes, you must look beyond your own preconceived notions and take advice from others on your situation.  

I finally came to a revelation. Throughout my self-care process, I drastically shortened my 10-day recovery schedule to a relatively simple overnight affair. When I woke up in the morning, the red “denied” button reappeared in my vision—except this time it did not trigger any negative emotions. If anything, it made it even clearer that one word does not determine who I am or invalidate my achievements throughout my academic career. 

(P.S. 12 hours after I finished the first draft of this column, I was accepted to the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Life has a way of creating completely unexpected events, I guess.)

Ying Zhang is a fourth-year advertising major at the University of Florida. She is graduating this spring and will be pursuing a master’s degree in public health.


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