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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Decision Time

What to expect when you hear back about your application status

‘Tis the season... for nail-biting. February and March are especially anxiety-ridden months for graduate school applicants. Why? This is the time when they generally hear back from programs about their application status. In January, applicants might feel relieved that all of their materials have been submitted by the deadlines. By now, that relief is replaced with apprehension about the outcome. So let's talk about what to expect when waiting to hear those all-important words: "accepted" or "rejected."

Think back, for a moment, to when you were applying to college. I remember hearing this tip about undergraduate admissions: receiving a small envelope means bad news and receiving a big envelope means good news. There were exceptions to this, but nonetheless it was a good rule of thumb. There is some similarly helpful lore about hearing back about graduate school admissions. Please keep in mind going forward that this information may not generalize to fields other than psychology, nor to other types of graduate programs, such as professional degrees.

First, if you find an envelope (of any size) in your snail mailbox and it is the first communication you've received from a program, it's usually bad news. Applying to graduate school in psychology is a more personalized process than applying to college or other types of graduate degree programs (e.g., law school), which have very large incoming classes. Conversely, even the largest Masters degree classes in the psychology field rarely reach 100 students. "Large" PhD program cohorts might include 8-10 students. "Normal" size PhD cohorts have just 2-4 students. With small numbers like these, programs can make personal contact with applicants -especially if you are one they want! If they decide to reject an applicant, however, this decision is usually indicated in the least personal way possible - through a letter sent via post. (Please note that later in the process, accepted candidates also receive an envelope in the mail. It contains an official acceptance letter and they likely already know that they've been, at lease unofficially, accepted when the letter arrives.)

Second, receiving a phone call from a graduate program coordinator or faculty member very often means good news. Because of this, once you've applied to graduate school, you should:

1. Check your phone! Check your voicemails! It will not look good if a faculty member calls you, leaves a message, and doesn't hear back from you quickly or at all.

2. Have a respectable voicemail greeting. If you have a cute, funny, musical, or otherwise non-traditional voicemail greeting, consider changing it. Do you want it to be the first off-paper impression that you give to your potential future professor?

3. If your phone is ringing, the caller ID is showing a number that you aren't familiar, and you cannot put your best foot forward at that moment, do NOT pick up your phone! It may very well be an important call from one of the programs to which you have applied. Wait to take the call until you can focus and you are sitting in a quiet place, preferably with notes about the program in front of you and something to write with.

4. Call back within 24 hours (or less) of receiving a message from a grad program.

Third, if you've receive an e-mail from a graduate program that you've applied to, it is difficult to predict whether it contains good or bad news about your application status. Some programs contact the candidates they are interested in by e-mail. Some send those whose applications they are rejecting a standard e-mail notification.

Finally, it's important to know that when you first hear back from a program regarding your application status, you will either hear that you have been rejected or that you have been invited to interview. Graduate programs in psychology rarely accept without first interviewing a prospective student. You may be invited to interview on the phone or, more often, on campus. Interviewing will be the focus of future posts. Until then, keep your cell phones charged and your inboxes open...

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.


About the Author

Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.