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swarthmawr

Notes from QA with faculty member on an adcomm

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Hey, folks. I had a major meltdown this morning so my mom sat me down and gave me some insight into the admissions process now that I’ve turned my applications in. She’s a tenured English professor at a large public research university (with only MAs, no PhD program), and has served on an admissions committee a handful of times.

She walked me through the review process at her institution and what she’s gathered from peers who also review doctoral applications at other schools. She shied away from giving me too much information before I sent in my apps because she’s way too ethical and has students applying to some of the same schools as me, but now that they’re in she unloaded a bunch of useful information (which, on second thought, might be more helpful for people applying next year than those who’ve already applied).

Either way, I thought I’d share this information in case it gives others some insight into this nightmarish process, or at least assuages some of the dread that comes with waiting for decisions. As always, please take this with a mountain of salt, since its only one person’s experience and mostly hearsay since I didn’t take amazing notes when we were chatting (but I did read this post aloud to her and it has her stamp of approval). 

And of course, apologies if hearing about the process from a professor’s perspective after submitting applications might feel unhelpful/provoke further anxiety. It was comforting to me just to take the mystery out of it, but might not be to others. 

 

  • At her (small-ish) program, there are only 2 professors who read the entirety of the applications each year
    • Admissions or the college of liberal arts have some basic guidelines, and the department administrator separates out the people who don’t meet these requirements before forwarding the applications to the faculty members 
    • The adcomm faculty members still review the applications of folks who don’t meet requirements like GPA minimums, however, especially if they have supplemental letters/explanations for poor performance or test scores (mom says she wouldn’t want to miss a ‘diamond in the rough,’ lol, but she’s been listening to a lot of Hamilton lately) 
       
  • The first thing she does when reviewing an application is independently read the SOP and writing sample
    • There are some expectations for both pieces that determine whether or not the applicant is likely to be considered ‘graduate school ready,’ mostly the candidate’s reason for pursuing graduate study and their demonstrated interest in literary study
    • She says a surprising number of people say things like “I want to go to graduate school because I love reading,” which to her doesn’t show that they understand the demands and expectations of grad school, and it comes across to her like they’re unsure of what to do after undergrad so they just want to bide time
    • Even if the SOP and writing sample do not pass this initial litmus test, she and the other faculty member are expected to read the rest of the application, with the exception of applications that are to the wrong school or unreadable or clearly plagiarised etc.  
    • She and other faculty reviewers at her institution almost always place more weight on LORs than transcripts and test scores. I asked her to rank the pieces of the application from most to least important and she said the following: SOP, writing sample, LORs, transcript, test scores (pretty common knowledge already, but it was reassuring to hear that the pieces I have the most control over are the most important)
       
  • The 2 profs then independently make shortlists of applicants they want to accept, with around 10-15 more people than the average cohort size
    • They then discuss with the other reviewer, and most of the time end up with unanimous ‘rankings,’ but sometimes have to get outside readers (i.e. other faculty or trusted admin) to determine who to choose if two candidates are especially close
    • The top however-many of the list are guaranteed funding or a GTA (since their school doesn’t fund all MA students)
       
  • My mom’s colleagues at both private and public schools who do have PhD programs review applications in a similar way, she believes, and last she heard there are usually double the number of faculty on their adcomms (so, like 4 or more people looking at each application) depending on program size/number of applicants
     
  • Her institution does not recalculate GPAs, and she says most faculty are (hopefully) human enough to not put too much weight on undergraduate ‘pedigree.’ 
    • She says she approaches applicants like she would her own students, i.e. she’s generally on their side, want them to be successful candidates, and gives people the benefit of doubt when it comes to things like grades and test scores if they have adequate explanations 
    • However, really poor writing is the only thing that will automatically remove an applicant from serious consideration when she’s on an adcomm, and of course negative LORs or other similar red flags (like mostly C’s and D’s in English courses, or no academic progression/clear patterns in performance) 
       
  • She also doesn’t view older applicants negatively at all, and the only time she will really question an exceptionally large gap between undergraduate and graduate (like, over 12-15 years) is if their writing isn’t demonstrably graduate-level (and even then she said she’ll consider the possibility they might just be out of practice compared to an applicant fresh out of college who probably have more resources/proofreaders at hand)
    • She said that sometimes older applicants demonstrate a lot of maturity and seriousness because they’ve had enough time to consider their career paths— they’re often her most engaged and dedicated students
    • If a candidate is still in undergraduate but shows they clearly understand what grad school is about, this also will not be held against them 
       
  • Diversity of experience counts a lot in her department
    • She always tries to assess how a student might change the culture of the program
    • ‘Fit’ to her is very much about determining who may contribute to the diversity of perspectives upon which the humanities classroom thrives
    • Academic interests are important, especially if what they want to study isn’t offered in the department, but so is admitting students who can learn from one another, and from whom faculty can learn as well. This sounds cheesy, but she said its an important way to foster a well-balanced program
       
  • The last thing she said to me is that graduate admissions varies immensely from year to year (which, sort of unhelpful but I guess a harsh reality) 
    • Usually its a different set of people reviewing each year at her school, and she’s seen her own top students shut out entirely one year and then accepted nearly everywhere the next
      • Many of the most successful scholars she knows have had entirely unrelated careers before going for their doctorates, or they’ve faced the challenge of having to apply twice or even thrice before finding success
      • It really is a crapshoot, but that also means applying again and again won’t reflect poorly on you for most adcomms because it really depends on who else is applying that year 
      • (And she also said some sappy mom-stuff about this torturous experience having nothing to do with my worth as a scholar or person, but that’s not coming from her as a professor so maybe not as helpful) 

If you’ve made it this far,  I’m sorry this is so long, but my mom offered to answer any questions if anyone has any I didn’t think to ask. She didn’t know I have been on gradcafe for so long and is worried that I check it too often, but was also excited when I told her I was posting this stuff because she remembers her application days and how horrible it feels not to know. 

Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope some of this was helpful to you!  

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8 hours ago, swarthmawr said:

She and other faculty reviewers at her institution almost always place more weight on LORs than transcripts and test scores. I asked her to rank the pieces of the application from most to least important and she said the following: SOP, writing sample, LORs, transcript, test scores (pretty common knowledge already, but it was reassuring to hear that the pieces I have the most control over are the most important)

Because you applied to Rutgers, I'll just corroborate this: a professor there who has served on their adcom for many years told me last year that he is by far the most interested in the SoP and the WS, and everything else is really of lesser value to him. He said he used to place greater weight on LoRs but has relied on them increasingly less in recent years (something about "everyone is, for the most part, going to write a strong letter, so there's no real way to use them to distinguish anything"). ?

Thanks for posting!

Edited by Indecisive Poet

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2 hours ago, Indecisive Poet said:

He said he used to place greater weight on LoRs but has relied on them increasingly less in recent years (something about "everyone is, for the most part, going to write a strong letter, so there's no real way to use them to distinguish anything"). ?

 

I have heard this repeated by people in academia on 3-4 different occasions in different contexts - graduate apps, assistant professor apps, writing letters. The first time was as an undergrad professor telling our class that filling the assistant professorship had been difficult because they had about 3-4 applicants all from the same top school, all with great research, grades, experience, so they came down to analyzing whether a professor said they were "the best" or "an amazing" student until they realized this was a pointlessly close reading and they needed to rely on the other material more.

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6 hours ago, Indecisive Poet said:

Because you applied to Rutgers, I'll just corroborate this: a professor there who has served on their adcom for many years told me last year that he is by far the most interested in the SoP and the WS, and everything else is really of lesser value to him.

Thanks for this! Rutgers is one I’m worried about, too, because I didn’t send my lit score (optional for them, and mine was HORRIBLE). So I’m hoping they care little about GREs. 

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On 1/21/2019 at 2:04 PM, swarthmawr said:

Thanks for this! Rutgers is one I’m worried about, too, because I didn’t send my lit score (optional for them, and mine was HORRIBLE). So I’m hoping they care little about GREs. 

I can't speak for the adcom necessarily but this particular prof certainly does! Hopefully that's something reflected in the rest of the faculty.

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On 1/21/2019 at 10:31 AM, Matthew3957 said:

they came down to analyzing whether a professor said they were "the best" or "an amazing" student until they realized this was a pointlessly close reading and they needed to rely on the other material more.

Eek, I hope this is reflected widely in admissions decisions. I'm finishing up a program at a British university right now and I had a professor from my undergrad tell me to try to take classes with Americans since they tend to write much more enthusiastic and personal letters than Brits do – I didn't end up being presented with that opportunity, so I'm hoping I don't get written off as having not-so-good letters just because there's a differently style of LoR-writing and a different kind of student-prof relationship here.

Edited by Indecisive Poet

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