There were three major factors that could have inhibited my pursuit of the Ph.D.: highly selective admissions processes, cost, and rigor of the Ph.D..
I knew long before I applied that elite programs are highly selective due to funding limitations and high standards. At times I wondered whether I would be able to stand out enough to be selected. My response was to do my part—to work as hard as I could reasonably work—to make myself a desirable candidate for admission. I maintained an excellent GPA, prepared intensely for the GRE, gained teaching experience, involved myself in the Society of Biblical Literature (an important professional organization in my field), and sought out references who could speak to my academic and professional abilities and work ethic. I decided that, while the application and selection process was not totally within my control (you cannot make them pick you), I would foster my own drive to work hard and excel in an attempt to accomplish what was in my own control.
Another factor was cost. I knew that, without tuition funding and stipendiary support, I would not be able to afford pursuit of the Ph.D., nor is it advised in my field to take out loans at this level. Fortunately, most elite programs are fully funded, including a stipend that helps cover living expenses (and unfortunately, this means those programs have even more competitive admission, as I already noted). I decided to apply only to fully funded, widely respected programs so that, if admitted, I would be able to afford a Ph.D. program. And, again, I worked hard to make myself the best applicant I could be.
Finally, I knew that the Ph.D. is a rigorous degree. At times I worried that I would not be cut out for this level of work. Interestingly, these worries tend to manifest themselves not only among aspiring students but also among current Ph.D. students, something we refer to as “imposter syndrome.” At any rate, I listened to and trusted faculty mentors who told me I was, indeed, able to complete a Ph.D.; I listened to my own inner voice that told me to keep at it and to give it my best. And, again, I worked hard.