TCR Grad Blog

Graduate director's blog for the Technical Communication and Rhetoric Program at Texas Tech University

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Acceptance and Rejection

Posted by Joyce on April 14, 2010

We read around 100 applications to the TCR grad program every year and we accept anywhere from 10-25%. These numbers are cold and impersonal, but there are people involved throughout the process—applicants, their employers, their recommenders, the TCR faculty, the TCR graduate assistant—and everyone has some sort of stake in this process. It’s anything but cold and impersonal, but at the core of the process, if we stop and reflect upon it, is an agreement, a demand, among all parties that an answer be given. All of the emotions, the materials, the painstaking deliberation—all demand either “accept” or “reject” (or “yes” or “no”) from this process. It’s true that there may be many other activities going on, such as excitement about research, scrutiny of grades, judgment about quality of letters, and so on—but these activities are secondary to the systemic demand for an answer.

Some time ago, the faculty was deliberating a particular applicant, and this application (like so many of our applicants) had some good things going for it, along with weak ones, as well.  We had kind of fizzled out, having begun repeating the strong and weak points several times, and it was clear that this application was, at best, marginal.  No one benefits from lingering in this gray area, so I said, “OK, sounds like it’s Reject. Let’s move on.” We all nodded and went to the next application, but only after one faculty member said, “A life is changed in that little statement.”  Yes, we nodded, but we also realize our duty to say Yes or No.

After decisions are made, we write acceptance and rejection letters.  I’ll go into the fallout that comes from acceptance letters in another blog post, but the fallout from rejections is invariably a letter or a phone call asking “Why wasn’t I accepted?”  Sometimes these exchanges are sad, sometimes accusatory, sometimes defiant.  I’ve been lectured to, cried to, pleaded with, and all I can say is that it’s not my intent to hurt applicants. I am an instrument of this request for an answer. I’ve had to send rejection letters for hundreds and hundreds of applicants and I realize that it’s simply an unpleasant situation for everyone—the applicant, me, their recommenders, and everyone they’ve told about their expectations.

I grapple with how much time to devote to explaining, to remediating, to comforting rejected applicants, and I guess it depends on how we view this process—whether I’m responsible for this rather large pool of people or not. If I’m responsible for them—as fellow human beings, as someone else’s grad student, as a future colleague, or as a grad school dropout—then I suppose I should treat this process in the same way we all want the peer review process to work and give them detailed feedback about improving their application (or article, in the case of peer review). I used to write much longer letters about why applications were rejected, but those efforts just went off into the ether for the most part and took a lot of time that I ultimately couldn’t justify. I came to see this process not as something akin to peer review, but rather a demand for an answer in the same way juries are asked to weigh the evidence and come up with a verdict. For the past few years, I’ve taken the view that my main responsibility lies not with rejected applicants, but with my students, and thus (because it’s no good waffling when delivering bad news) I explain to rejected applicants the raw facts, that they weren’t selected and that competition is fierce. In the latest round of applications, for example, we accepted only 18% of applicants.

Given these numbers, I simply can’t offer a detailed critique about why someone has been rejected.  However, I thought I could share general reasons we reject applications:

Fit—this is the biggest one, and it involves being able to visualize who the student will work with, how their scholarly goals fit within the fields of rhetoric and technical communication, and what type of experiences the students will bring with them to enhance their classmates’ experiences.  We don’t have any bias against students who have degrees in other fields (we have quite a few who were not English majors), but we do need to see how the applicant’s goals are realistic  and do-able within this faculty and this field.

Unprepared—if a student doesn’t know why they want to be in grad school, or if their letters of recommendation are weak/vague, then we always reject.

Poor Performance—from time to time, but not too often, applicants simply have a record of  coursework and scores that are below what we expect.   We never reject solely on these numerical data, but taken with the other parts of an application, they can help or hinder the overall impression of the student.

Vague Materials—it’s fairly common for to receive materials that do not provide enough solid evidence, either in personal statements or in letters of recommendation.  In effect, these would be boilerplate, “going through the motions,” kinds of applications. We always reject these applications, as we have explicitly asked for specifics.

We have a general philosophy about reading applications and this process of giving an answer.  We always start from an answer of “no,” and expect an application to persuade us to say “yes.”  It doesn’t work the other way around, i.e. that an applicant has a seat in the program unless they “blow it.”  Rejections all have this in common—they have failed to persuade us to change our decision from “no” to “yes.”

Several years ago, before I changed my policy, when someone called demanding to know why they were rejected, I would read over their materials very quickly, employing think-aloud protocol so that they could hear my thoughts as I read.  Without fail, this  kind of unfiltered evaluation came as a shock to them, either because they had been given bad advice or because they were unprepared or because they didn’t envision the rhetorical situation around these application materials.  I often summarized my thoughts along these lines:  “Your letter of intent is vague  and reads like a prose resume, not an argument for what you’re interested  in studying and what kind of scholarship you propose to undertake,” or “The letters of recommendation are weak and general,  providing little persuasive weight to your application,” or “The writing sample doesn’t reveal your scholarly abilities and it doesn’t  share with us how you think, and that’s what we’re looking for in applicants’ writing.”

For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, the application did not persuade us to say “yes,” and thus, demanded by the system to give an answer, we were compelled to say “no.”

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