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I was admitted to a fully funded Ph.D. program in English for the fall of 2010. This program is ranked in the top 20. Meanwhile, I was flat-out rejected (not waitlisted or even deferred to MA programs) at some very low-ranked schools, all the way down into the 50's and 60's. On the one hand, I can understand that an adcom would resist sending out a dozen admits and getting a dozen rejections back in response, but I have trouble believing that these committee members would review an outstanding application and say, "Yes, this person has absolutely everything that we want, right down to the last detail, BUT since s/he is likely to be admitted to a better school, let's toss this one and take a lesser-qualified candidate instead."

Any thoughts? My applications to these schools were sincere, carefully considered, and well matched. I even cited a number of their professors in my writing sample to reinforce that I was in fact committed to these programs. It's also curious that ALL of my acceptances were at schools clustered in the bottom half of the top-20.

Is this system set up in such a way that an applicant is destined to a certain part of the rankings list, or is it more like Plinko?

Remember Plinko?

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Wow, that's kind of a bitchy reply. But get this: It's so nice and fun to disparage the ranking system, but the simple truth is that, if a school does not have guaranteed funding for its students

To correct the record, I was referring to having cited certain of these schools' professors in my actual writing sample, not my SoP. That is, I read their articles, built an essay around them, and cit

1) the ranking systems are pretty much meaningless. when you talk to any professor about school X's program, they know it only by the current faculty there and those individuals' reputations, not as b

1) the ranking systems are pretty much meaningless. when you talk to any professor about school X's program, they know it only by the current faculty there and those individuals' reputations, not as being "top 10" or "top 20" or "outside the top 50." the only people that pay attention to the rankings are grad students and people trying to get the alumni to donate.

2) everyone mentions 3 or 4 professors at each program in their SOPs. everyone tailors their SOP to fit specifically with whatever school they're applying to. everyone writes sincere applications. so, to that extent, nothing you did in your applications to these top 50/60 schools is unique. all the applications they received, or almost all of them, were carefully considered, thoughtfully written, and tailored to the department and the faculty within it.

3) you were rejected by those schools because they didn't have space for you, your potential advisors weren't taking on new graduate students, a different professor won the battle over whose potential advisee got "the last spot," they couldn't find funding for you, or they just didn't think your work was that interesting. you may have seen more of a "fit" in your application than they did. you might have bored them. just because "school #17" validated your potential as an academic doesn't mean schools 18-100 have to do the same.

don't over-analyze it. just be happy that you have a few acceptances to choose from.

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Wow, that's kind of a bitchy reply. But get this:

It's so nice and fun to disparage the ranking system, but the simple truth is that, if a school does not have guaranteed funding for its students, strong library facilities, good professorial resources, and an effective history of graduate placement, then that school will not rank well. In this sense, the rankings systems are indeed meaningless on a micro level (that is, saying that #13 School A is qualitatively better than #15 School B as an exclusive result of their ranking differences), but it is by all means relevant on a macro level. Number-13 School A will almost always serve its graduates' careers more effectively than #57 School C. It's silly of you to suggest that a typical graduate of, say, Brown will not have comparably higher buying power on the job market than a typical graduate of, say, Arizona State. Let's be real.

Given that information, it is indeed bizarre that a student who is admitted to virtually all of the top-20 schools s/he applied to is rejected from every single school in the 50s and 60s s/he applied to. I started this thread as a means of helping applicants feel out how to compose their applicant-school lists. If this trend is indeed real, then that information would be crucial.

It is also not the case that every applicant applies to every school sincerely, that every applicant mentions 3 or 4 professors, etc. I certainly did not quote professors from every school I applied to in my writing sample, as I did with many of these schools in the 50s and 60s. And I did not apply to every school with equal sincerity, as a number of my applications were made strictly because of the advice from my undergraduate mentors, for geographical reasons, etc., rather than a personal passion for those programs. I'm certain this is true of many people on this forum, particularly given that many of us are applying to 15 or more schools and therefore cannot devote ourselves equally to each individual application.

Meanwhile, I appreciate how you've listed out all the potential ways by which I may have been rejected. But I was indeed aware of those matters, as any moderately thoughtful person would be. I was curious if anyone had any useful information about the trend of this, as that would be valuable information for future applicants.

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2) everyone mentions 3 or 4 professors at each program in their SOPs. everyone tailors their SOP to fit specifically with whatever school they're applying to.

To correct the record, I was referring to having cited certain of these schools' professors in my actual writing sample, not my SoP. That is, I read their articles, built an essay around them, and cited that work as a means of demonstrating my commitment to the school. True, anyone can name-drop a couple of professors in their SoP, but this was a significantly greater and more deliberate effort. Your snide dismissal of this work was based on your own erroneous reading of my post.

Edited by americana
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I do think there is quite a concern with yield rates. Yield rates contribute to the program and the school's over all rating. One factor to consider is the recent trend of people applying for more and more schools. As the economic conditions deteriorate and people, even highly qualified individuals, are concerned, and rightly so, that there won't be a spot for them at a top university, the apply to a wide array of schools to increase their chances.

So lower ranked schools are getting more and more applications from applicants that would typically be applying mostly to top tier schools, maybe with one or two lower ranked schools as a backup. If they accept a cohort only of these applicants, likely they will get a lower yield rate as these students will prefer to go to any top-ranked program they get into. So there is definitely a calculation going on whereby if it is clear to the admissions committee that this applicant will most likely be attractive to top-tier schools, they won't "waste" a spot on them. Maybe they accept some of these students but to accept a whole cohort of this type of student might result in a close to 0% yield rate which looks really terrible for them.

Anyway I think this has always been a consideration, but like I said as applicants form a safety net in a time of uncertainty by applying to more and more schools it has become a bigger concern.

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I do think there is quite a concern with yield rates. Yield rates contribute to the program and the school's over all rating. One factor to consider is the recent trend of people applying for more and more schools. As the economic conditions deteriorate and people, even highly qualified individuals, are concerned, and rightly so, that there won't be a spot for them at a top university, the apply to a wide array of schools to increase their chances.

So lower ranked schools are getting more and more applications from applicants that would typically be applying mostly to top tier schools, maybe with one or two lower ranked schools as a backup. If they accept a cohort only of these applicants, likely they will get a lower yield rate as these students will prefer to go to any top-ranked program they get into. So there is definitely a calculation going on whereby if it is clear to the admissions committee that this applicant will most likely be attractive to top-tier schools, they won't "waste" a spot on them. Maybe they accept some of these students but to accept a whole cohort of this type of student might result in a close to 0% yield rate which looks really terrible for them.

Anyway I think this has always been a consideration, but like I said as applicants form a safety net in a time of uncertainty by applying to more and more schools it has become a bigger concern.

That's always been my suspicion, as well. Besides, think of how detrimental it would be to the morale of a cohort if and when they found out that they'd all been accepted off the wait list? It would suggest not only that the entire cohort had gotten second-place consideration from the adcom, but indeed that not one originally accepted applicant had decided that the program was good enough.

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I'm not going to attempt to judge the particulars of your circumstances, but the broader implications of your observation seem entirely plausible. I think we can talk about this productively even without reference to rankings, though the way you employ them here is, to me, quite valid. It's fair to posit that although schools are aware that most of the students they admit will, one way or another, have multiple programs to choose from, many, perhaps most programs, will only admit people they feel are likely to accept - and that "likeliness to accept" could be due to any number of reasons beyond the program's ranking or prestige conceived in other ways.

I'm not going to name school names, but... I know of at least one program, competitively ranked, that has a reputation for passing "blindly" over applicants who receive multiple top-10/ivy offers, even when those applicants feel they are a strong fit. I've heard anecdotes of some admissions committees that, when faced with an applicant they (for whatever reason) suspect is sincere in their interest but not (yet) considering their school as their top choice, will either accept that student with a fellowship offer or not accept them at all - ie, the school will make an offer if they feel they can make themselves competitive with funding and a gesture of uncommon desire that the applicant choose their program. I even have heard anecdotes of the odd adcom member sneering at strong applications and dismissing them with, "he'll end up at Harvard" or the like.

I don't feel that this entirely breaks the rule of thumb that if a program considers you to be a strong fit, they will accept you. But to say this we have to think of "fit" even a bit more broadly than we have been doing. Fit isn't necessarily limited to alignment of interests, methodology, atmosphere/environment; maybe it also means, if not talent, at least preparation, ambition. A school may recognize that it is not a strong match for (what adcom members perceive to be) your ambitions and that even if you accept, it's likely that in a year or so you'll feel stifled, unsatisfied. Programs don't want dissatisfied students. Adcoms look for students who can rise to the challenges their program presents, one of which is the discourse of your peers, so it makes sense that students with comparable levels of preparation would be admitted.

Malumat's comments look spot on to me as well.

Overall, unfairly or no, I have more respect for programs that admit the strongest candidates (whose interests are supported by active faculty) than for those that seem to go to great lengths to feel out a likely acceptance - it seems to me the schools that make those gambles are the ones in the best position to improve the quality of their program (not just in terms of rankings).

This is a lot of speculation on my part and not at all intended to disparage "lower ranked" programs.

I was admitted to a fully funded Ph.D. program in English for the fall of 2010. This program is ranked in the top 20. Meanwhile, I was flat-out rejected (not waitlisted or even deferred to MA programs) at some very low-ranked schools, all the way down into the 50's and 60's. On the one hand, I can understand that an adcom would resist sending out a dozen admits and getting a dozen rejections back in response, but I have trouble believing that these committee members would review an outstanding application and say, "Yes, this person has absolutely everything that we want, right down to the last detail, BUT since s/he is likely to be admitted to a better school, let's toss this one and take a lesser-qualified candidate instead."

Any thoughts? My applications to these schools were sincere, carefully considered, and well matched. I even cited a number of their professors in my writing sample to reinforce that I was in fact committed to these programs. It's also curious that ALL of my acceptances were at schools clustered in the bottom half of the top-20.

Is this system set up in such a way that an applicant is destined to a certain part of the rankings list, or is it more like Plinko?

Remember Plinko?

Edited by soxpuppet
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I was rejected by a program that I considered the worst of those I applied to. I remember wondering whether if I was accepted there but nowhere else, I would even bother attending at all. This specific program was a more general history MA - their students cannot limit themselves to one field, but must take a wider variety of classes to prepare themselves for teaching in high schools and community colleges. I want to pursue a PhD, but I figured I would apply to this program just in case I failed miserably at my other applications and thought it better to take a few years out to teach. In the end, I was accepted at every MA program except for this one, even though the others are more prestigious. I'm left to assume that they considered me unsuited to their program because my interests are very specific and my major is not History, but a certain sub-field of history. Obviously for PhDs specificity would be a less understandable reason for rejecting an applicant. However, I've come across some PhD programs that I didn't apply to because they did not offer specific enough concentrations, and I would have had to take classes in multiple fields. I don't know if it was due to coincidence, but all these universities had lower rankings (well, I don't actually know what their rankings were since I don't follow rankings, but in any case they were institutions with less amazing reputations). Perhaps some of your rejections had something to do with that.

At the end of the day, you can be glad to have your more prestigious acceptances. What does it matter if a lower-ranked program rejected you? You wouldn't have gone there anyway. Rejections can be difficult to handle, especially if you're a Lisa Simpson type and are used to constant academic praise. However, learning how to accept rejections is good for character-building and will be a valuable lesson to keep in mind when it comes time to apply for teaching positions.

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However, I've come across some PhD programs that I didn't apply to because they did not offer specific enough concentrations, and I would have had to take classes in multiple fields. I don't know if it was due to coincidence, but all these universities had lower rankings (well, I don't actually know what their rankings were since I don't follow rankings, but in any case they were institutions with less amazing reputations). Perhaps some of your rejections had something to do with that.

Maybe it's different in English as opposed to History, but almost all of the (mostly top ranked/all well regarded) programs I applied to required that your coursework over the first couple years cover a variety of general areas (ie, most require at least one class in the literature of each of 4 or 5 periods - most also have an American, theory, and/or multicultural requirement as well). To get into these programs, however, you do need to articulate pretty darn specific research interests.

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Am I the only one who feels like this process is just a crapshoot?

Okay, not just a crapshoot. Obviously good stats, a highly ranked undergraduate school, and LORs from well-known scholars help increase your odds. When you start getting into particulars, though, I think a significant part of getting an offer comes down to factors beyond our control. If you get that one Romanticist committee member evaluating your portfolio who thinks that the Analytical Writing GRE is an awesome way to evaluate your ability to succeed in grad school, you could be out of the running right away. If your application had been handed to another (say, Contemporary Americanist) member of the committee who thinks you have a revolutionary interpretation of Toni Morrison's use of capitalization, that faculty member could take your application and champion it all the way to the top in spite of your 2.5 AW score.

Similarly, you might have a fabulous project, great stats, perfect in every way... but the professor you want to work with has already been corresponding with a student and is excited about their project, so no dice for you.

It just seems like there are too many reasons a school may reject someone, so it is best not to psychoanalyse the AdCom. They may have rejected you because you are "too good," or they may have rejected you because they didn't like your project, or they may have rejected you because they really did get more qualified applicants.

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Alright, and to clarify - this absolutely DOES NOT mean that I think tons of people get in who do not deserve to get in. It is the opposite - so many of us are just so qualified, that tons of people who deserve to get in are rejected ;)

Except for me. I am still in shock that I got in anywhere, and convinced that someone accidentally sent me the acceptance email and will be calling next week to apologize and rescind their offer.

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Am I the only one who feels like this process is just a crapshoot?

Okay, not just a crapshoot. Obviously good stats, a highly ranked undergraduate school, and LORs from well-known scholars help increase your odds. When you start getting into particulars, though, I think a significant part of getting an offer comes down to factors beyond our control. If you get that one Romanticist committee member evaluating your portfolio who thinks that the Analytical Writing GRE is an awesome way to evaluate your ability to succeed in grad school, you could be out of the running right away. If your application had been handed to another (say, Contemporary Americanist) member of the committee who thinks you have a revolutionary interpretation of Toni Morrison's use of capitalization, that faculty member could take your application and champion it all the way to the top in spite of your 2.5 AW score.

Similarly, you might have a fabulous project, great stats, perfect in every way... but the professor you want to work with has already been corresponding with a student and is excited about their project, so no dice for you.

It just seems like there are too many reasons a school may reject someone, so it is best not to psychoanalyse the AdCom. They may have rejected you because you are "too good," or they may have rejected you because they didn't like your project, or they may have rejected you because they really did get more qualified applicants.

See, this was the point of my question. I also think that there's a huge amount of luck to this process, but I find it curious that my acceptances came bunched into one spot on the rankings ladder, and that I tend to see very similar results all across this forum. It's quite rare to see a person accepted to both Brown and Arizona State (for example). So while luck may be a massive factor, there does seem to be an identifiable pattern. I'm sorry that my remarks have motivated so many people to press the little red "ME NO LIKE" button under my comments, but please recognize that this is a legitimate issue for current and future applicants.

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Maybe it's different in English as opposed to History, but almost all of the (mostly top ranked/all well regarded) programs I applied to required that your coursework over the first couple years cover a variety of general areas (ie, most require at least one class in the literature of each of 4 or 5 periods - most also have an American, theory, and/or multicultural requirement as well). To get into these programs, however, you do need to articulate pretty darn specific research interests.

Most, perhaps, but not all. The program I'll be attending, for example, has no distribution requirements. But yes, no matter what, Ph.D. programs are going to be looking for people who already have pretty good direction and focus.

I am amazed at how little my results correlated to the US News rankings. I applied to 3 top-10 schools, and was waitlisted at one; 4 ranked 10-20 and got into 2 (one was initially a waitlist); 2 ranked 20-30 and got into both; 3 lower than 30 and was rejected from 2 of the three (and the one I was admitted to is particularly devoted to my subfield). So there's not much of a discernible pattern there. But then, when I consider my own "fit" list that I made beforehand, there are definitely correlations, and my admits/waitlists are grouped at the top of that more personalized list (though there are of course exceptions).

My conclusion based on my personal experience is that all you hear about the importance of "fit" is true. I don't think Santa Cruz rejected me because I was "too good," but because it was too nontraditional of a program for me, and they probably picked up on that. Even "lower-ranked" programs get an extremely high volumes of applications, and they are all going to have varying definitions of what constitutes "fit." You're probably right that there is some hedging of bets to yield higher matriculation rates, but I suspect that's less common than we're suggesting here. But I also like what soxpuppet says about fit not being just about fit with research interests, but also with the sort of preparation, and the sort of goals, the applicant seems to have. But a straight-up "She's clearly really great; let's reject her before she can reject us" seems out of line with the nuances (and caprices) of the admissions process.

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I, too, am going to pass on responding to the OPs particular circumstance. However, my understanding is similar to soxpuppet. My mentors who are in the know say there is an element of "will this person accept" during the consideration phase. This is even more true as funding gets tighter. My most "in the know" mentor has said, explicitly, that he could tell that a candidate was really gunning for Harvard instead of his own top 10-but-not-harvard program so he didn't feel badly about passing the candidate over.

I thought I was being very realistic about my application's chances when I chose schools across the spectrum. I bypassed most Ivies for a variety of reasons but one of them was me being realistic about my numbers. Yet, I got into the schools I considered reaches and got horrible offers or outright rejections from the lower tier schools on my list. I got the definite impression from one of those reach programs that admitted me that they thought they were in competition with Harvard and Columbia for my affections. LOL I think that was part of their decision process. It was very interesting, certainly.

I'm not going to attempt to judge the particulars of your circumstances, but the broader implications of your observation seem entirely plausible. I think we can talk about this productively even without reference to rankings, though the way you employ them here is, to me, quite valid. It's fair to posit that although schools are aware that most of the students they admit will, one way or another, have multiple programs to choose from, many, perhaps most programs, will only admit people they feel are likely to accept - and that "likeliness to accept" could be due to any number of reasons beyond the program's ranking or prestige conceived in other ways.

I'm not going to name school names, but... I know of at least one program, competitively ranked, that has a reputation for passing "blindly" over applicants who receive multiple top-10/ivy offers, even when those applicants feel they are a strong fit. I've heard anecdotes of some admissions committees that, when faced with an applicant they (for whatever reason) suspect is sincere in their interest but not (yet) considering their school as their top choice, will either accept that student with a fellowship offer or not accept them at all - ie, the school will make an offer if they feel they can make themselves competitive with funding and a gesture of uncommon desire that the applicant choose their program. I even have heard anecdotes of the odd adcom member sneering at strong applications and dismissing them with, "he'll end up at Harvard" or the like.

I don't feel that this entirely breaks the rule of thumb that if a program considers you to be a strong fit, they will accept you. But to say this we have to think of "fit" even a bit more broadly than we have been doing. Fit isn't necessarily limited to alignment of interests, methodology, atmosphere/environment; maybe it also means, if not talent, at least preparation, ambition. A school may recognize that it is not a strong match for (what adcom members perceive to be) your ambitions and that even if you accept, it's likely that in a year or so you'll feel stifled, unsatisfied. Programs don't want dissatisfied students. Adcoms look for students who can rise to the challenges their program presents, one of which is the discourse of your peers, so it makes sense that students with comparable levels of preparation would be admitted.

Malumat's comments look spot on to me as well.

Overall, unfairly or no, I have more respect for programs that admit the strongest candidates (whose interests are supported by active faculty) than for those that seem to go to great lengths to feel out a likely acceptance - it seems to me the schools that make those gambles are the ones in the best position to improve the quality of their program (not just in terms of rankings).

This is a lot of speculation on my part and not at all intended to disparage "lower ranked" programs.

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See, this was the point of my question. I also think that there's a huge amount of luck to this process, but I find it curious that my acceptances came bunched into one spot on the rankings ladder, and that I tend to see very similar results all across this forum. It's quite rare to see a person accepted to both Brown and Arizona State (for example). So while luck may be a massive factor, there does seem to be an identifiable pattern. I'm sorry that my remarks have motivated so many people to press the little red "ME NO LIKE" button under my comments, but please recognize that this is a legitimate issue for current and future applicants.

the rankings are meaningless. example: the USNWR ranks harvard as the #9 school for latin american history. they don't have a latin american history program. they have one person on their faculty, who for all i know may be a very talented scholar but who has zero name recognition in the field. they don't take on latin americanist masters students because they never offer seminars for that field. the small handful of latin americanists there received their MAs elsewhere and are attending harvard to work with that lone professor in particular. how is that a top 10 program? these rankings are based in large part on surveys of professors. to formulate the subfield rankings, they don't just survey the professors of that subfield; they ask every prof in the profession. the many historians that don't know anything about latin american history but know that harvard's supposed to be good at everything put the school into their top 10. the profs that do know a bit ("professor X is great and he's at school Y") don't necessarily know enough to realize that professor X moved to a different school half a decade ago. they don't keep up with the field enough to know which professors moved or retired, so their rankings are often based on former reputations that may or may not still hold true.

here is my advice for future and current applicants: THE RANKINGS DON'T MATTER. leave the confines of this website and no one talks about rankings. you look for the best academics in your field. you find out where they're teaching and (if they're young) where they went to school. those are the places you apply to.

noticing a pattern based on biased data is not evidence of a causal relationship. if the rankings actually reflected the quality of the faculty and the placement rates of graduate students, then you might have something. but they don't. i also don't understand how this thread is supposed to "help" future applicants. to me, it came off like you wanted someone to validate your rejections from lower-ranked schools based on you being too good, rather than programs which are beneath you somehow deeming you unworthy.

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I'm really not sure why this thread has become such a battleground for giving posters "+1" and "-1" marks... come on, guys! If you want to join in the discussion, can we, perhaps, use words?

StrangeLight, no one who knows anything in English uses USNWR rankings to talk about subfield. BUT it's a good bet that the top 20 programs (in English) generally will be more likely to attract strong students and will tend to have strengths across a broad array of subfields, a decent funding structure, a manageable and diverse teaching load, and will offer as good of a chance as you're going to get of landing a job at an R1 or SLAC (if that's what you want). Maybe it's entirely different on the History board, but no one here looks to USNWR to see which school is strong for American lit, Early Modern, or Theory. We've also had quite a few discussions on this forum about how to consider rankings in the most useful way when evaluating schools. Most of us admittedly, but not ignorantly, attend to them more than we should. But I would argue that the most useful move would be to learn more about what, if anything, they indicate rather than dismissing that data entirely. I'm automatically skeptical of any move that asserts a particular feature should simply not be evaluated.

the rankings are meaningless. example: the USNWR ranks harvard as the #9 school for latin american history. they don't have a latin american history program. they have one person on their faculty, who for all i know may be a very talented scholar but who has zero name recognition in the field. they don't take on latin americanist masters students because they never offer seminars for that field. the small handful of latin americanists there received their MAs elsewhere and are attending harvard to work with that lone professor in particular. how is that a top 10 program? these rankings are based in large part on surveys of professors. to formulate the subfield rankings, they don't just survey the professors of that subfield; they ask every prof in the profession. the many historians that don't know anything about latin american history but know that harvard's supposed to be good at everything put the school into their top 10. the profs that do know a bit ("professor X is great and he's at school Y") don't necessarily know enough to realize that professor X moved to a different school half a decade ago. they don't keep up with the field enough to know which professors moved or retired, so their rankings are often based on former reputations that may or may not still hold true.

here is my advice for future and current applicants: THE RANKINGS DON'T MATTER. leave the confines of this website and no one talks about rankings. you look for the best academics in your field. you find out where they're teaching and (if they're young) where they went to school. those are the places you apply to.

noticing a pattern based on biased data is not evidence of a causal relationship. if the rankings actually reflected the quality of the faculty and the placement rates of graduate students, then you might have something. but they don't. i also don't understand how this thread is supposed to "help" future applicants. to me, it came off like you wanted someone to validate your rejections from lower-ranked schools based on you being too good, rather than programs which are beneath you somehow deeming you unworthy.

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Rankings might not matter or be truly indicative of a program's quality, but it can't be denied that some programs are undeniably better than others. Sure, there is the whole question of fit and sub-field strength, and it is definitely possible for a lesser-known program to be a better choice for an applicant than, say, Harvard. But when you look at it in terms of groups of programs instead of individual ones, I think it is possible to categorize programs on a loose ranking system of one's own. In that case, it's likely that one's own rankings (taking personal factors into account) will correspond loosely with the "official" rankings put out by USNWR and others. There might be some great programs out there whose rankings are undeservedly low. However, that doesn't mean that all the programs on the rankings list are equal, or that collectively the top 10 programs are of equal merit to the 40-50 programs. Americana and others are talking about broad trends that correspond to a number of programs they have applied to, not individual programs which may simply stray from the pattern.

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StrangeLight, no one who knows anything in English uses USNWR rankings to talk about subfield. BUT it's a good bet that the top 20 programs (in English) generally will be more likely to attract strong students and will tend to have strengths across a broad array of subfields, a decent funding structure, a manageable and diverse teaching load, and will offer as good of a chance as you're going to get of landing a job at an R1 or SLAC (if that's what you want). Maybe it's entirely different on the History board, but no one here looks to USNWR to see which school is strong for American lit, Early Modern, or Theory. We've also had quite a few discussions on this forum about how to consider rankings in the most useful way when evaluating schools. Most of us admittedly, but not ignorantly, attend to them more than we should. But I would argue that the most useful move would be to learn more about what, if anything, they indicate rather than dismissing that data entirely. I'm automatically skeptical of any move that asserts a particular feature should simply not be evaluated.

This. I found the USNWR rankings useful because it provided a list of schools that were well regarded generally. I went to the website of each English department listed and made a subjective decision on which programs were best for my intended research and field of interest. These decisions were made on the name recognition of specific faculty members in my field and the number of professors who were at least tangentially interested in what I wanted to do. Of course, I also went to my advisors and mentors at my undergrad institution for their opinions but especially in those early stages of the process, having a list of schools was helpful to somewhat narrow down what seems like an endless pool of English Ph.D programs. With that being said, I agree that the rankings don't matter and those rankings by subfield matter even less.

For what it's worth for the original subject of this thread, I'll admit to being fairly successful this application season and if we wanted to pretend this was some kind of sport I guess I went 8-2. I didn't end up applying to any school that was below the arbitrary cutoff of the USNWR rankings in its printed iteration for a Ph.D but I did apply to a lower ranked school for an MA as a backup and they seemed just as excited about my work as any of those top 20 schools so I don't really know how to respond to your inquiry. Are you really being honest about the fit for those schools that rejected you? Was it just as good for those programs as it was for those that were higher ranked?

I was also going to say something else in regards to the OP's apparent bewilderment at people's negative reaction to the pompous tone of his posts but... I guess that says enough for now.

Edited by diehtc0ke
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Interesting topic. But is this really a "legitimate issue" for applicants? You do quality research on programs, consider your odds, try to be confident, hope for acceptances and what happens, happens. Your responses are indications of how well you researched programs, provided fitting applications, and whether that school can fulfill your needs as a student as you contribute to whatever environment they seek to maintain. If you can get into top schools you'd be excited to attend, does it matter if you don't get into less prestigious programs? I think this is more of a curiosity than a concern.

I think the bottom line is, don't apply to programs you have little interest in attending. It could turn out to be a complete waste of time and energy for yourself, people who help you apply, and admissions committees, whether they admit you or not. If your research shows you have the stats for big name programs you care about, skip applying to lesser-ranked programs unless you have a compelling reason -- enough of a compelling reason that you'd still consider attending one, even if you're accepted to big-name schools. This way, you'll save yourself time and application fees, as well as your recommenders and admissions committees' time.

If your thought process is, "Oh, I got into [top-ranked school], but not [low-ranked school], that's weird," and not, "Darn it, I really liked that school!" that's a good indication you didn't need to apply to said low-ranked school. I don't mean just a bruised ego, but real remorse over losing that option.

Regarding the curiosity: Some applications ask you what other schools you've applied to. Maybe you filled that in?

Despite being thoughtful in your applications, it could still be possible to read between the lines and know you had other aspirations. This is not a consideration to be taken lightly. You may respect a low-ranked school enough to apply, but it may be someone else's perfect fit. Your back-up schools may be other applicants' dream schools.

I'm sure you meant well, but you can't expect something like that not to come across to an admissions committee.

In my own application process, I started off considering about six schools of various ranking. In the end, I only applied to the two schools -- that happen to be prestigious -- that I would honestly consider attending.

But I'm not about to start speculating whether I would have been accepted to lesser-ranked programs. I may have been rejected. I have not automatically earned or deserve a spot at any school, and every admissions process has different considerations. Of course I would have only submit thoughtful personal statements and writing samples. That -- and getting into top-ranked schools -- doesn't mean I'm in every program's target audience or their ideal match.

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the rankings are meaningless. example: the USNWR ranks harvard as the #9 school for latin american history. they don't have a latin american history program. they have one person on their faculty, who for all i know may be a very talented scholar but who has zero name recognition in the field. they don't take on latin americanist masters students because they never offer seminars for that field. the small handful of latin americanists there received their MAs elsewhere and are attending harvard to work with that lone professor in particular. how is that a top 10 program? these rankings are based in large part on surveys of professors. to formulate the subfield rankings, they don't just survey the professors of that subfield; they ask every prof in the profession. the many historians that don't know anything about latin american history but know that harvard's supposed to be good at everything put the school into their top 10. the profs that do know a bit ("professor X is great and he's at school Y") don't necessarily know enough to realize that professor X moved to a different school half a decade ago. they don't keep up with the field enough to know which professors moved or retired, so their rankings are often based on former reputations that may or may not still hold true.

here is my advice for future and current applicants: THE RANKINGS DON'T MATTER. leave the confines of this website and no one talks about rankings. you look for the best academics in your field. you find out where they're teaching and (if they're young) where they went to school. those are the places you apply to.

noticing a pattern based on biased data is not evidence of a causal relationship. if the rankings actually reflected the quality of the faculty and the placement rates of graduate students, then you might have something. but they don't. i also don't understand how this thread is supposed to "help" future applicants. to me, it came off like you wanted someone to validate your rejections from lower-ranked schools based on you being too good, rather than programs which are beneath you somehow deeming you unworthy.

The rankings don't strike me as "meaningless." They do have meaning. The question at hand is the degree to which they have meaning.

And I do not require validation. I have a fellowship to a fantastic program in a beautiful part of the world. This was never about my personal circumstances. I'm simply trying to unravel the application process, just as the rest of us are doing. I can't say I appreciate your personal attacks nor your presumptions about my character.

But maybe people behave differently in your discipline?

Edited by americana
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If your thought process is, "Oh, I got into [top-ranked school], but not [low-ranked school], that's weird," and not, "Darn it, I really liked that school!" that's a good indication you didn't need to apply to said low-ranked school. I don't mean just a bruised ego, but real remorse over losing that option.

That's an excellent way of putting it. The only thing I'd add is that it IS often very difficult, as a naive applicant, to evaluate fit before you've been accepted to a program, visited, etc. - it's especially difficult to tell whether you'd be happy at a certain department when all you have to go on is what you can learn from the internet, the professors' books, and, perhaps, a couple of email exchanges. I had the least remorse about getting rejected by the two highest ranked programs I applied to because I realized in the ensuing months that they were not as strong a fit as I had originally thought. A couple of other schools I applied to because something about them excited me and they looked like a good fit on paper, but I wasn't sure that they were great options until I had emailed professors and visited. A couple of the schools I was initially very excited about the prospect of attending disappointed in areas such as funding that were new developments I couldn't have known about in advance. So I wouldn't discourage applicants from applying broadly, but genuine enthusiasm for each program is certainly a must.

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I'm a "her," not a "his."

I'm sorry I've offended you. I'm really just trying to answer a question.

I'm not offended--I'm not one of the people who knocked your posts down. I do apologize for my careless use of the male pronoun. I should have known better.

Perhaps it's that I'm growing weary in debating the validity and truth-making ability of these rankings. It's been brought up more than once (framed by much less personal circumstances) and, in my mind, the horse is dead. We've all agreed that the rankings have very little to really say, if anything at all, and the level of self-importance that can be found in your original and subsequent posts has clearly rubbed people the wrong way (again, I'm not personally offended but I can see how others would be). Given this process and how random it can seem, I just remain unconviced that coming up with an answer to your question (which seems to be pushing for people to know exactly how to gauge the strength of their application package and apply it to the proper tier of graduate schools, whatever that may be) is a fruitful exercise for future applicants. The tried and true advice of applying to a number of schools that range in selectivity and prestige seems to hold fairly solidly despite your experience in this process. I'd much rather engage in this discussion that has arisen out of people tip-toeing around your personal situation.

Edited by diehtc0ke
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For what it's worth, I didn't perceive the OP's original post as being pompous, it was more a matter of curiosity, and an invitation to discuss an aspect of the admissions process, that is: Adcoms taking into consideration the applicant's likelihood to be accepted at a "better" school and therefore decline an offer of admission. The question of whether these schools are actually better or not in a particular subfield etc is somewhat irrelevant as many people, whether for a "good" reason or not, would prefer to attend a top 10 than a 50-60 and so these preferences are taken into account.

It is a legitimate topic of discussion. Does this really occur and to what degree? Is it occurring more often in the context of a worsening economy? Will it/ should it affect applicants' considerations about where to apply? Are these not valid questions?

I don't see anywhere a reason to think that she needed some kind of comfort or explanation about not being accepted into a school... was she being pompous merely by indicating that she was an excellent candidate who was accepted to highly ranked programs?

Edited by Malumat
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For what it's worth, I didn't perceive the OP's original post as being pompous, it was more a matter of curiosity, and an invitation to discuss an aspect of the admissions process, that is: Adcoms taking into consideration the applicant's likelihood to be accepted at a "better" school and therefore decline an offer of admission. The question of whether these schools are actually better or not in a particular subfield etc is somewhat irrelevant as many people, whether for a "good" reason or not, would prefer to attend a top 10 than a 50-60 and so these preferences are taken into account.

It is a legitimate topic of discussion. Does this really occur and to what degree? Is it occurring more often in the context of a worsening economy? Will it/ should it affect applicants' considerations about where to apply? Are these not valid questions?

I don't see anywhere a reason to think that she needed some kind of comfort or explanation about not being accepted into a school... was she being pompous merely by indicating that she was an excellent candidate who was accepted to highly ranked programs?

The original post wasn't pompous and the question is valid. I think that subsequent posts were unnecessarily self-congratulatory and the framing of the question was problematic in both its specificity and tone (as if those programs that rejected her were so clearly beneath her anyway). There are plenty of people on this board that were "excellent candidates" and "accepted to highly ranked programs" but they've been much more modest about it.

Edited by diehtc0ke
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