cyberwulf

What I'm looking at when I review applications

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Well, the first round of application deadlines has come and gone, and soon your applications will be in the hands of admissions committees at programs around the country. From the outside, the process likely seems pretty mysterious, so I thought I would give an overview of how I review PhD applications. 

DISCLAIMER #1: My approach does not necessarily reflect how other admissions committee members perform their reviews.

DISCLAIMER #2: This description applies to PhD applications, where the goal is to identify and rank the most promising applicants; the process is different for Masters admissions, where the goal is to figure out whether applicants meet a given standard.

- The process begins when we receive a list of applicants whose applications are ready to be reviewed (i.e., they are sufficiently "complete"). For each applicant, we typically have access to individual documents (transcript, letters, research statement, etc.) along with a combined PDF file that has all the relevant information.

- First, I get a feel for what type of applicant this is. There are five common types: domestic students coming from undergrad, domestic students attending Masters programs, international students attending US undergrads, international students attending US masters programs, and international students attending undergrad in their home country. I'll also note the institution(s) attend(ed). This sets the expectation for what I will be looking for in the application.

- Next, I'm likely to notice standardized test scores. Both are going to help me start forming my impression of your application.  Basically, I'm looking for anything concerning (e.g., a low GRE quant score) or particularly impressive (a high verbal and/or analytical writing score); if they're in the "solid" range, I don't pay much attention to specific numbers or percentiles.

- One of the things I pay closest attention to is the transcript. I'll start by doing a quick scan to get a rough sense of overall performance; then I'll look more carefully at the courses. I'll start by looking at how many math courses were taken, and how well the applicant did in them. If there are some lower grades on the transcript, I'm interested to see whether they're mostly in "heavier" courses (such as organic chemistry) or "lighter" ones. In evaluating the transcript, I very much keep in mind the institution attended; if I've never heard of a school (and I've heard of a lot of schools, through my experience in admissions), anything less than a near-perfect GPA is likely going to be an issue, and conversely, if an institution is known for grade deflation, a lower GPA might not be fatal. 

- At this point, if there is anything unusual in the transcript or the rest of the application that seems to beg for an explanation, I'll take a look at the personal statement. Otherwise, I'm unlikely to give it much more than a quick glance.

- Last come the letters of recommendation. The vast, vast majority of them are quite positive, so I am looking both for subtleties in tone ("this student was great!" vs. "this student was A-MA-ZING!") and for specific distinguishing details ("this student received the highest grade in my class, by a mile" or "within 3 months of starting to work with me, this student was operating at the level of a PhD student") that add information beyond what I already got from the transcript and test scores. I pay some attention to the academic rank and seniority of the letter writer (the statement "this is the best student I've ever worked with" means more coming from a senior full professor than a second-year assistant prof), but don't recognize most of the names so am not often "impressed" by the stature of letter writers.

- Now, it comes time to score the application. At our institution, we use a categorical scoring system with options ranging from "I strongly object to admitting this applicant" to "I strongly support admitting this applicant". In assigning the score, I keep in mind the total number of people we are likely to admit (which is determined by projected available funding, and discussed before admissions decisions are made), and I try to give "supportive" scores to about this number of applicants. I keep a mental note of applicants that I'd like to discuss with the full admissions committee, particularly if I suspect my score is likely to be substantially higher than my colleagues'.

- The last step involves the admissions committee discussing scores and ranking applicants. Our initial ranking is based on the average score assigned by committee members, and from this we can usually identify some "obvious" admits and rejects. Then, we discuss the remaining applicants and determine our final ordering. 

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When you go over the transcript, how would you assign weights to courses from different disciplines? (eg. from 1-10 scale with 10 being the most important)

1. Calculus/Linear Algebra

2. Real analysis/Measure theory

3. Other pure math courses (eg. geometry/abstract algebra)

4. Undergraduate statistics courses

5. Graduate statistics courses

6. Courses from other quantitative disciplines (eg. actuarial science/physics/chemistry/finance)

7. Electives

8. CS courses

Edited by statfan

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On 12/6/2017 at 2:01 PM, AndrewYao said:

Could you perhaps elaborate a bit more on your "given standard" of an applicant that you would admit? I would certainly appreciate it if you could also read my profile evaluation post. 

It's hard to elaborate more on that, since as noted in my post the evaluation involves balancing a number of factors. 

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22 hours ago, statfan said:

When you go over the transcript, how would you assign weights to courses from different disciplines? (eg. from 1-10 scale with 10 being the most important)

1. Calculus/Linear Algebra

2. Real analysis/Measure theory

3. Other pure math courses (eg. geometry/abstract algebra)

4. Undergraduate statistics courses

5. Graduate statistics courses

6. Courses from other quantitative disciplines (eg. actuarial science/physics/chemistry/finance)

7. Electives

8. CS courses

It's hard to give numbers to these, since the importance is very context-dependent. For example, if someone has taken (and done well in) a number of advanced mathematics courses, then a B- (say) in Calc 3 or Linear Algebra isn't a big deal. On the other hand, if that's the most advanced math on your transcript, then it's much more of a concern. 

Some general rules, though:

- The real analysis grade is very important, particularly if it's your most advanced class. It's not uncommon to see students with high grades in Calc and Linear Algebra get a low grade in RA, so if you do well that will help you. 

- Other pure/advanced math courses play a similar role to analysis; so, for example, getting A's in Abstract Algebra and Topology might help you overcome a lower RA grade.

- Statistics courses outside of probability and math stat don't carry much weight, whether they're taken at the undergraduate or graduate level. The one exception is for students who are doing a Masters (or taking Masters-level courses) at a highly-ranked program.

- Non-math quantitative courses can help bolster your application if you're light on math; otherwise, they don't carry much weight.

- Electives courses generally don't matter much unless there is something very concerning there; for instance, you got low grades in all the classes that involved writing.

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Thank you for sharing these useful pieces of information. I am curious how the "faculty of interest" or "faculty consulted" listed in an application influences the reviewing process. Will an empty list of "faculty consulted" negatively influence the application, and does "faculty of interest" reduce the possibility that this application can be carefully reviewed by other faculty members?

Edited by stat18app

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Do you mean, by "faculty consulted", the extent to which the applicant has corresponded with faculty members?  It really shouldn't matter at all.  I didn't get into any of the programs where I corresponded with faculty, and the programs I was accepted to I never corresponded.

It's a good idea to have "faculty" of interest though, because it helps you make the case as to why the department is a good fit for you.

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On 07/12/2017 at 4:10 PM, cyberwulf said:

It's hard to give numbers to these, since the importance is very context-dependent. For example, if someone has taken (and done well in) a number of advanced mathematics courses, then a B- (say) in Calc 3 or Linear Algebra isn't a big deal. On the other hand, if that's the most advanced math on your transcript, then it's much more of a concern. 

Some general rules, though:

- The real analysis grade is very important, particularly if it's your most advanced class. It's not uncommon to see students with high grades in Calc and Linear Algebra get a low grade in RA, so if you do well that will help you. 

- Other pure/advanced math courses play a similar role to analysis; so, for example, getting A's in Abstract Algebra and Topology might help you overcome a lower RA grade.

- Statistics courses outside of probability and math stat don't carry much weight, whether they're taken at the undergraduate or graduate level. The one exception is for students who are doing a Masters (or taking Masters-level courses) at a highly-ranked program.

- Non-math quantitative courses can help bolster your application if you're light on math; otherwise, they don't carry much weight.

- Electives courses generally don't matter much unless there is something very concerning there; for instance, you got low grades in all the classes that involved writing.

Thank you very much, this is much more reassuring as I got mostly A+ and A's in my core math and stat courses. I have a few very low grades in finance/actuarial science though. I just done my real analyisis exam and I don't feel that I did very well. I am afraid that I may end up with high 70s or low 80s. In many Canadian universities, we do percentage grading, so that would correspond to B+ or A-  (77-79 B+ 80-84 A- 85-89A 90-100 A+). Should I take Lebesgue Integration to remedy this? Would admission committees refer to the grading scheme on transcript to interprete the percentage grade as high 70s/low 80s does not sound impressive at all.

Edited by statfan

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My undergraduate school lists both Probability Theory and Statistical Inference as Mathematical Statistics I & II. Will the committee be aware of this situation? Thank you very much.

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3 hours ago, cocod17 said:

My undergraduate school lists both Probability Theory and Statistical Inference as Mathematical Statistics I & II. Will the committee be aware of this situation? Thank you very much.

This is common.  You need probability as part of math stat, so they'll definitely understand.

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44 minutes ago, bayessays said:

This is common.  You need probability as part of math stat, so they'll definitely understand.

Thank you very much!

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