Academia Public Service Announcement (APSA): How Graduate Admissions Work!

As someone who knew nothing about college before stepping on a college campus, day 1, I sometimes find that things I take for granted now were completely unknown way back then. This mostly occurs when I see people on social media make comments that I shake my head at and say “Uh, that’s not how it works”. So I’ve decided to write up a few of these “Academia Public Service Announcements”. 

The first one, below, talks about how one gets into graduate school. I see a lot of comments to my seniors that go something like this:

“Oh, you met the requirements – you’ll be able to get into any program you want!”

or 

“I’m glad you chose where you want to go, they’ll take you for sure”

Both of these statements slyly imply something that isn’t true: Graduate admission is NOT like applying to college. It’s way more traumatic 😉

Here’s what I mean: The typical undergraduate admission process goes like this:

  1. Student finds college he or she is interested in, and checks admission requirements.
  2. If student meets requirements, and school is not ultra-selective (and unless you’re in the Ivys, not many are), student applies. If school is ultra selective, student must decide if the admission liklihood is worth the application hassle!
  3. Student may have a few hoops to jump through, but in the end they are offered admission.

In this scenario, the school is admitting hundreds (or thousands) of students, and unless they’re very selective, they will take anyone who meets their requirements. Schools want to take as many as possible, that’s how they get tuition dollars!

Graduate admissions tends to run like this:

  1. Student finds program he or she is interested in. Programs exist within departments – the goal here is not to find a school you want, as much as the program you need to go into a career you want to enter. So don’t tell your friend or child “Why would you want to go THERE?!?” – they didn’t pick the school, they picked the program!
  2. Student does a lot of research on that program, reading all those web pages that most glance by (i.e. faculty profiles, degree requirements, etc…). Student hopefully identifies 1-2 faculty members in that program they would want to work with. 
  3. Student applies and must meet minimum qualifications for that college or university’s graduate admissions. Assuming that they meet those, the graduate admissions group forwards their application on to the program.

This is where people often get confused: They hear that their’s (or someone they know, a son’s, daughter’s, friend’s) application has been forwarded on and assume they have some small level of acceptance – but in graduate admissions, the graduate admission group has very little power over who gets in! They simply check qualifications, gather the paperwork together, and forward it on.

It’s all about the actual program’s graduate committee and faculty – if they think the student would be a good fit (Most important), and they’re taking graduate students (Some professors skip years taking new students), then they may offer an interview to the prospective student. Remember, each program is only going to take 5-10 students a year across all faculty members in it. Their goal is NOT to take as many students as possible – especially if they have funding available – most PhD programs do not want to take people they cannot fund (i.e. give a tuition waiver / award an assistantship to)

So in reality, meeting the minimum requirements only means that they could offer you admission. But to gain admission, you must…

  • Have a strong background in specifically the areas they’re interested in. A good major and overall GPA is nice, but if you did poorly in the specific class that aligns with the research you’d be doing, there is little chance you’ll get in.
  • Have good recommendations from faculty at your current school. Typically 3 letters of recommendation are required.
  • Have good interviewing skills so that when you talk with your prospective mentor (i.e. the man or woman who will control your life in graduate school) you sound somewhat eloquent and vaguely insightful (I phrase this as such because few undergrads are super-super strong – faculty look for the potential to be excellent, but understand you’re not excellent yet!)
  • Be willing to relocate to a school that you may never have heard of if they have a good program.
  • Be lucky: It comes down to a numbers game as well. I’ve seen excellent students turned away because the assistantship lines have been reduced and the faculty member can’t fund them, and thus doesn’t want to work with an unfunded student.

So next time a friend of yours tells you they’ve been looking at grad school, wish them good luck, but hold off on any congratulations until they tell you they’ve been offered admission!

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