Popular Post The Realist Posted February 16, 2011 Popular Post Share Posted February 16, 2011 I've posted here before with my thoughts about choosing graduate school. Seeing how so many of you are in the middle of this supremely stressful time, agonizing over admissions and deciding where to go, I thought that I would let you all have some insight into what the process looks like from the perspective of an admissions committee member. I do this for three reasons. First, some of you could use the distraction. Second, many of you are facing the prospect of asking "why was I denied at school X" and should know how difficult this process is. Third, this is the first time that I've served on an admissions committee and I frankly was surprised at how hard this was, so now that it's all over I want to record my own thoughts. Some background: I am an associate prof at a large department that is somewhere in the 20-40 range. We're good, not great, and we place our students fairly well. We admit an average sized class for schools at our rank. We have somewhere between 30 and 40 times as many complete applications as we have spots in our program. Another 50-75 every year are incomplete (missing GRE scores, something like that). We do not hold it against you if you are missing one of your letters of recommendation, but if you are missing more than one your files goes into the incomplete pile and is not reviewed. From there, the process works like this. Every candidate who submits a complete application is given an anonymous number. We then do an initial pass through the applications to eliminate students who are simply unqualified based on test scores. The bar for this is very, very low, but if you cannot score at least a 100 on your TOEFL and a 500 on each of your GRE sections you are eliminated at the very beginning. This doesn't cut a lot of people, but it does have the benefit of eliminating students whose English or basic math skills are not up to snuff. From there, the files are divided randomly into piles, which are divided up across the members of the admissions committee without regard to subfield or anything like that. Each file is read carefully by a committee member and assigned a numerical score from 1-10. Anyone who receives a "1" at this stage is automatically forwarded to the final round. The remaining files that receive a 2-10 ranking are then given to another member of the search committee, who re-reads them and rescores them. Any file that receives a "1" in this second stage is automatically forwarded to the final round. The remaining files from this stage (meaning that they received "2" or lower on both initial reviews) are then divided up based on subfield and given to the member of the admissions committee who represents that subfield. That committee member then ranks the files a final time. Any student that receives a "1" or a "2" at this penultimate stage makes it to the final round, regardless of the earlier scores from the first two reviews. The point of doing it this way is to ensure that we give every student a fair shake. Each student receives a close read from three separate faculty members, each of whom can advance a student to the final round. We end up with around four times as many files in final round as we have available spots. Each committee member then ranks these students, and we have a big meeting where we decide who to admit and to waitlist out of this group. We then bring our proposal to the subfield representatives who are *not* on the search committee, and they have the ability to lobby for different choices from the final round (although they tend not to do this). From there, the department votes on the proposed list of admits and waitlisters. *********** So that is how the process works in terms of procedures. I suppose that all of you are probably wondering how we decide who gets one of the 1s. The answer is that it is supremely difficult to do this. We make mistakes, I am sure of it. Our goal is to find people--and this is important, so read carefully--who can successfully complete our program and secure a tenure-track job. That is the outcome that we are trying to achieve; we are not trying to admit the smartest, the most unique, or even the most interesting students (although we do want these people too!). It's possible that other departments that care less about placement are more interested in just admitting smart people, and I bet that for schools like Harvard and Princeton, that's probably true. But for us, we want students who will succeed. The challenge is that it is really difficult for us to tell what kind of applicant will be able to do this. We know that you will have to be bright, you will have to be creative, and you will have to be highly motivated. But trust me, anyone who has gone through a PhD can tell you, it's not like anything you've ever done before. Unless you already have a PhD, there's nothing that you could write in your application that will convince us that without a doubt you've got the chops. We have to make a bet based on imperfect information (and in fact, we probably are facing a game of incomplete information too, at least about your own objectives). It takes a special kind of person to do this, and I'm not certain how much we learn from pedigree, letters, grades, and test scores, but that's what we have. What I can say for sure is that even if we only based our decision on pedigree, letters, grades, and test scores, that wouldn't be enough to whittle down our choices to a manageable number. We are dealing with a massive oversupply of qualified candidates. In my first round alone, at least 20 students were Ivy League grads with 3.7+ GPAs, 700+/700+ GREs, and glowing letters. We could have populated an incoming class with these alone, yet each other admissions committee member probably had the same number of people with similar backgrounds. Then you dig deeper and you realize the number of people with incredible life experiences, great grades, great letters, and all the rest, but from other schools. Or they have great writing samples that make it clear that they know what a political science PhD is all about, even if they don't have the very best grades. Or you get a student who has worked two jobs to pay for an education at a regional state university, someone whose drive and motivation clearly signals his/her ability to bring a project to completion even if s/he does not have the best pedigree. Or someone who's at the top of her class at a top-rank Indian university. I could go on. There are simply too many of these people for us to admit all of them. So what does it come down to? At the end of the day, it's seemingly minor things like "fit," or "interest," or "promise." Most of these are beyond your control as applicant. If you don't seem to have a good idea of what graduate school is all about--many applicants, unfortunately, do not--you don't make it. If you make a big deal about how you want to work with Professor X, and Professor X is considering a move to a different department, we don't accept you. If your writing sample doesn't show that you can express yourself clearly, there is little hope for your application. If your application emphasizes grade/scores/letters/pedigree, but doesn't convince us that you have what it takes to succeed in the PhD, you're not going to be admitted. If you've gone straight through from undergrad, without the sort of life experiences that convince us that you know why you want to go to get an advanced degree, the bar is a lot higher (but not insurmountable). And these are very fine distinctions, and again, we definitely make mistakes. There are two things that you should take away from this. The first is that, at least this year, admission to my department (admittedly, not the best one) was fiercely competitive. Unbelievably so. I have never served on an admissions committee before (my department only allows tenured professors to be on this committee) but I get the impression that it's gotten much harder since I got my PhD. The second is that you should not sweat it if you don't make into the departments of your dreams. I'd say that at least 80% of the total applicants in our pool this year were plausible candidates for admission, meaning that I would have been happy to admit them. We end up making a lot of hard choices based on imperfect signals of future professional performance, and to reiterate once more, we definitely make mistakes. Nothing makes me more frustrated than when we admit a dud (it happens). I am always happy to see a student who didn't make it into our department succeed somewhere else. Best of luck to you all. Eigen, informationbomb, Tufnel and 78 others 1 80 Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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