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passage on adcomms from Getting What You Came For

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I thought you guys would be interested in this passage from Getting What You Came For, which is an older (mid-90s) book about going to grad school. It's from a member of the graduate admissions committee in the English department at Stanford University talking about the process they go through. Because of its age, I wouldn't advise you to see it was necessarily what Stanford does now, but as a general description of how adcomms work it fits what I've heard from lots of profs. Just some food for thought.



First we divide the 600 applications into 12 stacks of 50 applications and give each stack to a different two-person team for evaluation. Each of a team's two reviewers read all 50 applications and independently rates each one as deserving either a 1, 2, or 3. If both reviewers rate your application as a 1, you get passed on to the next level, but if they give it two 2s or 3s, you're out of contention. If your application gets a split decision with both a 1 and a 2, then the director of admissions takes a look at the application and decides whether or not you make the cut. The process whittles the initial 600 down to approximately 90.

Next, we hold a meeting of all 24 committee members, which lasts two and a half days, at 8 hours per day. It's brutal. During the first day, each team presents a briefing on their top 3 or 4 candidates, explaining why each candidate is good enough to be admitted. At this point we are trying desperately to eliminate people, to whittle the 90 applications down to 35; so any blemish means "Out they go." For example, if the presenting team says, "This student wants to study Wordsworth and has submitted a paper he's written," then our resident Wordsworth scholar says, "Let me look at that." He skims a couple of pages and says, "This is crap, this is totally unoriginal." So that guy's out. Or, about another application, someone else will say, "Let me look at that one." After they've read a few lines they say, "My God, this is a male chauvinist." And he's out. 

Basically, because the process is so political, the student has the luck of the draw. You don't know what types of people are on the committee or who will take a special interest in your application. That's why one person may get a huge fellowship at Cornell and be rejected by Johns Hopkins.

By the second day, everyone is exhausted. We're down to about 35 applications, strewn all over the tables and chairs. We have some sandwiches delivered, and take an hour to eat while we look over all 35 applications. This gives you roughly two minutes to review each application, between bites of your sandwich. When we reconvene, we vote on each application in order to cut the 35 finalists to approximately 18 winners. Because we base our votes on only a couple minutes' review of each application, plus whatever we can remember about the presentations from the previous day, the voting can be pretty uninformed. The students would be terrified if they knew the degree of change involved, although it's better than throwing darts. 

We only have about 12 fellowships to offer, but we make 18 offers because we assume that at least 6 of our 18 will turn us down. An additional 15 or so are put on the waiting list. Because our top 10 choices are also likely to be top 10 choices at other institutions, we only expect maybe 3 of these to accept our offer. The fact that our top choices are also the top choices at other schools is one of the things that make us confident that our selection method works fairly well, despite appearing haphazard.

Edited by ComeBackZinc
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Although it's good to get an honest answer, and of course there will never be enough time to look over every applicant in detail, this made me feel a bit queasy. I'm glad that in my field, professors can often get more say if they like a student from pre-application phone/skype/email conversations.


I also noticed that there was no interview portion of the committee's decision. I think that makes a big difference at the end, especially where it gets more "political". Though, you could also say that the interview is "political".


In the end, it's good to keep this in mind. Many great applicants have not been accepted, simply because they lost the luck of the draw and situations were too "political". Or maybe they got rated a 2, but had extenuating circumstances that would have been noticed if the adcomm had just a few more minutes to read each application. So, not every rejection is personal, and there is definitely hope to try again for many of us that don't make it through the first season.

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This just makes everything scarier. I guess we just have to hope to 1. be the best, and 2. be lucky.

I know it doesn't always work this way, and different universities use different methods, but it's still discouraging to know that they may not even look at your application after all the work you put into it.

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One of the things I like a lot about that book is that it is resolutely anti-romanticism in academia, which I've found to be a real problem for a lot of people; they romanticize the university system so they have a hard time dealing with the inevitable disappointments. But I don't intend to post this in a purely or deeply pessimistic sense. In large part, I think the takeaway is first to forgive yourself if you don't get into that one program, because there is just such variability in readers on adcomms. Relatedly, cast your nets wide both in the sense of applying to a good number of schools (the author of the book advocates 10 as a sensible number) but also emotionally. Don't get overly attached to one department! 


Also, I agree with this person in the sense that the system has a lot of randomness and arbitrariness in it, but still tends to produce fairly just results in aggregate. I think an individual rejection or acceptance can be a genuine crapshoot, but that if you apply to a decent number of schools, you should hope to find that your luck breaks out even. I also think that you can trust that several acceptances from good programs are an indication that you have what adcomms want. (Not necessarily the same thing as an "objective" notion of academic value!) On the downside, I think if you strike out at many departments over a few separate application seasons, it's likely that you do not have an academic resume that projects the kind of things adcomms are looking for in the field right now.


It's natural for all of us to have a somewhat self-defensive attitude towards our own success or failure in this process. If you got into your top programs, you want to believe that the system is fair. If you didn't, you want to believe that the system is flawed. The reality is probably in the middle. More than anything, I hope people try to maximize their chances for success, but also that they don't get bound up in thinking that any particular acceptance or rejection is somehow indicative of their value as people or as intellects. Sorry to speechify. 

Edited by ComeBackZinc
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