Acceptance Letters, African American History, Applications, Dr. Jack L. Daniel, GPA, Graduate School, GRE Scores, History, Howard University, Incompetence, Lessons, MA Programs, NYU, Pitt, Rejection Letters, UC Berkeley, University of Maryland College Park, US History, UVA
It’s been a quarter-century since I had to choose my academic path post-bachelor’s degree. That statement in itself is proof that I am no longer young, seeing that I was barely smart enough at twenty-one to decide on my advanced degree path in the first place.
In the fall of ’90, I had applied to six schools to do master’s degree (and potentially PhD) work in the history field: University of Pittsburgh, UC-Berkeley, University of Maryland-College Park, Howard University, University of Virginia, and New York University. I had briefly considered law schools, but decided against a year or torts and contracts for something a bit more relevant to my interests. Beyond the master’s, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a doctorate, teach, write, work outside academia, or just find a job that enabled me to buy my first car. Such are the issues with a student too close to his former life of grinding poverty making decisions about an ill-defined path to his future. I could’ve been my eleven-year-old self applying to Humanities for middle school for the first time, almost as naive, and nearly as myopic.
My GPA at the time of my applications in October ’90 was a 3.28 (I’d reach a 3.4 by the end of the spring semester ’91), with a 3.8 as a history major, and my one GRE test had me in the 64th percentile in reading, 54th in math, and 78th in analytical. The analytical section was new and — as I sensed at the time (and would learn for sure a few years later) — the most relevant part of the GRE for anyone planning on a humanities or social sciences graduate degree. But I couldn’t convince either Berkeley or UVA of that. Berkeley rejected me in January ’91, saying that the GRE scores of their typical students were in the 80th and 90th percentiles in math and reading. UVA sent me a one-page rejection a month later. As I learned later on, my post-1900 focus on US and Black history — UVA’s main specializations were pre-1900 US and African American history — was the biggest reason for my rejection.
By March, I started to hear more positive news. NYU had accepted me into their program just before Pitt’s mid-March Spring Break, and Pitt’s acceptance followed soon after. I had been back and forth with Howard’s graduate admissions office, who had acknowledged receipt of my application packet before losing it for two months, finding it and sending it back to me because I missed one checkbox on the first page, and then losing it again in February. By the time Howard found my packet again and then accepted me, I had already moved on in my mind.
The main sticking points in most of these acceptances were around my GRE scores or what aid or fellowships I qualified for. Not one school knew what to do with my GRE analytical score, but they seemed quick to jump on my math score as cause for concern. Seriously, unless I had planned to be a statistician or engineer, why would my math score matter in earning an MA in History? Wouldn’t my ability to do broader analysis beyond numbers matter more?
As for aid and fellowships, this was where the University of Maryland became part of the story. They had also accepted me initially in March, but somehow managed to “lose” my application packet for more than a month. I say “lose,” because the admissions office and the history department at College Park lost my application just long enough for all the deadlines to grant fellowships and departmental aid to pass. Not exactly a coincidence.
Afterward, the folks at College Park contacted me to let me know that I was a “provisional status” grad student if I wanted to do my master’s work at UMD. I was “provisional” because of my GRE math score, thus making me ineligible for aid, and requiring a minimum GPA of 3.25 my first semester before being granted any aid. NYU, for its part, wanted me to sign a letter of commitment to the university and the history program before revealing to me any financial aid or fellowship options at all. Even I knew that this was ridiculous, especially after my experience with Columbia four years earlier.
This week twenty-five years ago, I began saying no. I said no to NYU’s heavy-handed slight-of-hand acceptance, and I’d say no to College Park’s deceit seventeen days later. I never actually responded to Howard at all, figuring that my packet was gathering dust bunnies in a dry-as-dust room in Founders Hall.
That left Pitt as my only choice, a place that despite its nurturing, was now lukewarm to me as a student they accepted into their master’s program. It would take a small miracle, in the form of Pitt’s assistant provost Jack Daniel, for me to have the money I needed to earn my master’s degree.
What are the lessons here? That I should’ve worked full-time for a year after graduation, taken some more courses to raise my GPA to a 3.5 and my history GPA to a 3.9? That given my interests, I should’ve also applied to schools of education for an MA in education with a focus in history? That the change to add the analytical section of the GRE was a waste of money and time? That admissions officers and departmental selection committees in the pre-Internet era were even more incompetent in 1991 than they are today?
The most important lesson for me was that grad school wasn’t completely about merit. Just because I had the grades and other achievements and intangibles didn’t mean that admissions offices and departmental committees would recognize them. People play favorites, provide aid and opportunities to some and not others equally deserving, out of spite, because of narrow-mindedness, or because of their -isms. That applying to graduate school was no safe haven, that there were folks who not only didn’t want me to success, but who would actually actively work to make sure I didn’t succeed.
That was a sobering reality. The kind of disillusionment that was the stuff of success for me over the subsequent six years.