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Why do you think you're admitted?

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"Holistic" - they say, always. What do they mean by a holistic review? To all the people who received their acceptance letters - why do you think you were admitted?

You must be good at all areas: GPA, TOEFL, GRE, SOP, LOR, CV but....... really. What do you think your strength was? Did you have a gut feeling that you'll be admitted?

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My GRE score was not impressive, so I think what brought be over the edge was my SOPs. I work as a writing tutor/teacher and got a whole lot of feedback from coworkers and such so I felt really really confident submitting them. I think without that I wouldn’t have gotten into as many programs as I have. I also think that at least 2/3 of my LORs were very strong (didn’t read either of them so can’t say for sure). One of them was a professor I did research with and another was a professor that I recruited to do a training at my workplace (it’s kind of difficult to explain I a few words but basically I used that professor as a link between my major and a seemingly-unrelated job). So yeah, I thought my GRE was going to tank my app but I think the written portions really helped me out. 

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Posted (edited)

"Holistic" can be defined as an emphasis on the whole person, not just select pieces that make up the whole person. If a college has holistic admissions, the school's admissions officers consider the whole applicant, not just empirical data like one's GPA or SAT scores.

Edited by Mansi@30

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I feel like I was much more competitive than I would've been straight from undergrad because I have a solid 6 years of work experience in my field. Those experiences really helped me explain my "why" for pursuing the PhD in my personal statement. Good letters of recommendation helped a lot because my undergrad GPA wasn't amazing and my quant GRE score was pretty rough compared to my verbal and writing. I have a feeling that some schools definitely were more focused on the GRE, which knocked me out of the running but thankfully I was still able to land somewhere! 

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I think I had done a lot with the resources that I had. Even though I went to a tiny almost open-admissions undergrad, as a first-gen college student I accomplished a lot *for my background/opportunities.*

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I’ve been told it was my perfect research fit, and the fact that I demonstrated my abilities by doing my own research project. 

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Quality letters of rec, SOP, writing sample (perhaps due to topic or potentiality of a direction, I didn't think it was my best writing though)

Didn't do well in the GRE's at all. 

Acceptance from top dept/program at Ivy

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If I had to guess I'd say research experience. I wrote about 3 separate projects in my SOP. At least 2 interviewers said something like "you seem to have a lot of research experience" at the beginning of their interviews, and one specifically mentioned single cell seq as "pretty advanced for an undergrad". However, when I got acceptance calls nothing specific was mentioned except things like "everyone was impressed".

As for LORs, mine were likely helpful but not sure to what extent. I joined my undergrad lab when it was started, so my (very young) PI knows me extremely well and must have written a fantastic letter. The other 2 letters are probably on the scale of "pretty good" and "very generic", respectively. (I had some troubles with the third letter writer, and later an interviewer informed me that this particular letter was "very short"...)

Someone in my lab is on the adcom of her program, and says mostly people just want to know that (1) you are truly interested in and knowledgeable about the field, (2) you know what research looks like and have what it takes (demonstrated by research experience and how you explain what you did/want to do), and (3) you are a normal human being (mostly assessed during interviews).

For your last question: I knew that for programs rich enough to consider a fair amount of international students, I should be competitive enough to get in somewhere, though I've been pleasantly surprised with the offers I ended up with. My expectation was based on my college roommate's experience, who applied a year before me in a closely related field, and knowing her well gave me something to measure myself against.

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Posted (edited)

I've done shockingly well this cycle so I thought I'd weigh in.

1) Really well-revised and thought out SOPs. I luckily had written SOP-like applications for various scholarships and such during undergrad so I had a baseline of what (I think) admissions committees for these types of things want to see - I also think of myself as a pretty decent writer, which doesn't hurt. As a result, I think I presented a cohesive story of my previous research experience and how it relates to the kind of stuff I want to do in grad school. I also sent my first drafts to my current and former PI and got some revisions and suggestions from them that helped finesse the details a bit more.

2) Strong LORs. I had what I think were four really strong (and a bit strategic) LORs: A- My current (post-grad) PI, B-my former (undergrad) PI, C-a professor/mentor that I TAed a class with multiple times, and D- the person who runs the undergrad research program at my undergrad. A and B could speak specifically to the research experiences I described in my SOP, C could speak to my demonstrated interest in education/teaching, and D could speak both to my involvement in the program and give more detail on some of the events/awards I described only briefly in my resume. This is all assumptions about what they actually wrote, but I specifically met with each of them to chat about what kinds of programs I was applying to and what I hoped their specific letter would lend to my application.

3) Experience. I took two years off after undergrad to get more research experience in a different but related lab which I think made me a much stronger candidate. I was involved in several education/mentorship/outreach type programs during undergrad. I also applied to and received multiple awards/scholarships and attended/presented my work at a few conferences. I don't have any published papers. My GREs were very mediocre and my GPA was not stellar but fine. 

I put experience third because while all this is of course important to get into a good PhD program, experience doesn't mean much if you don't know how to talk about it and sell your story to admissions committees. Pretty much everyone applying has experience, and plenty of people have awards/presentations/papers to boot - but, especially in science, a lot of people don't know how to frame their experience in a cohesive and convincing manner that makes you memorable to the people reading hundreds of applications.

Edited by DevoLevo

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I applied to programs right out of undergrad, and one of my letters of rec happens to be an alumnus from the one school I was accepted to (so far). While the school is an amazing fit and top 15 program for the field I am studying, I think my advisor is the reason I got in. I am personally worried that this connection was the determining factor, and I'm delighted I was accepted, but I don't want it to be the only reason I got in. Oh well I guess.

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11 hours ago, humanpinata said:

I applied to programs right out of undergrad, and one of my letters of rec happens to be an alumnus from the one school I was accepted to (so far). While the school is an amazing fit and top 15 program for the field I am studying, I think my advisor is the reason I got in. I am personally worried that this connection was the determining factor, and I'm delighted I was accepted, but I don't want it to be the only reason I got in. Oh well I guess.

Don't worry, it couldn't have been the only reason you got in. Sure it must have helped but they must have looked at your whole application. So don't undermine yourself and be confident and proud! After all that hard work, you deserve it!

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For me, it must have been my SOP and LORs. My SOP was pretty darned good, if I must say so myself. And all of my recommenders knew me quite well.

My GPA was less than stellar, although I had a decent GRE score. And I am straight out of undergrad with very little experience. 

The good news is during your application period, you have a slight control of the two, so everyone still has a shot!

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Guest najo

Definitely my CV and LORs. My GPA is fine, but certainly not so astounding that it's the defining factor. My SOPs certainly could have been better, too, honestly. 

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Strong LORs stemming from my experiences doing undergraduate research (2/3) and doing six months of field work after undergrad (1/3). I think they spoke to my flexibility and dedication to doing a good job. Then during this gap year, I've been able to find the words to better articulate what motivates me to keep going. These things made me a strong applicant.

Now I think I was actually admitted to one place because I was connected with a younger researcher who's wanting to put PhD students in his lab and not just post-docs and undergrads. So you know, networking and timing are important. The other place, I think we happened to connect pretty deeply on the core questions we want to address in the field and it also happened to be his turn to get students. So timing again.

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