The Other Side of Graduate Admissions

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 29, 2008 2:01 am

Now that late January is upon us, a wave of graduate school admissions letters is soon to come crashing down upon undergraduates throughout the land. The process can be immensely frustrating to a student, as one often has little idea as to what magic ingredient is determining whether one is admitted or rejected from different schools. Having been involved in graduate admissions decisions for much of the last decade, I therefore thought I’d give a summary of how it’s done at UW Astronomy, so students can get a sense of where in the process their application might potentially go astray. My take will be different from other schools and other departments whose admissions committees may emphasize different strengths, but at least it’s one data point where few are available.

Details below the fold. Enter if you dare!

  • We typically get around 100 applications, plus or minus 20, depending on the state of the economy. This number has been steadily increasing, but the number of students we admit in a given year can vary wildly, depending on our target for the size of the entering class. A few years back we wound up with an entering class of nearly twice what we were shooting for (lucky for us, because all of them were awesome), which meant that applicants for the next year’s class had the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of being admitted. Thus, sometimes schools are harder or easier to get into than you might anticipate.
  • We do not read all the files, I hate to say. The fact is that if you have a GPA that reflects predominantly B- and C-level work, without the counterbalance of a strong physics GRE score or enthusiastic letters, you are not going to be admitted. Therefore we only read files where some weighted combination of GPA, GRE, or letters suggests that the student might potentially be admitted (UPDATE: Note that “read”=”pouring over every detail of your application while taking copious notes”. Every score, letter or essay that comes in is read by someone, which is why we’re able to make sensible judgements about which files need more attention.). We actually consider a few different weighted combinations, and will read any file that pops up above some line in any of the different weighting schemes. The resulting cut usually preserves more than half of the files, so while we don’t read all the files in detail, we at least read most of them. The graduate program assistant also keeps an extra eye out for promising files which might fail any numerical criteria, to make sure that truly unusual cases don’t fall through the cracks.
  • The committee has three people, so we divide the files surviving the first cut into three piles. Each committee member reads one pile, and does an initial rating of the file. The rating flags any files that still fall below the level of admission. The remaining files (usually ~1/3 of the original applicant pool) are then read carefully by the entire committee.
  • By this point, we’ve got a very strong group of applicants to choose from, and yet we still have to winnow it down by a factor of two to three. As a starting point, all the committee members sort the remaining applicants into strict quintiles. We then merge everyone’s ranking into a single ranked list. We then discuss the entire list in great detail, focusing most of our energies on cases where there is a significant dispersion in the quintile assigned by different committee members. The dispersion usually indicates that someone on the committee noticed something in the file that others missed (“You guys missed the part where he said he wanted to study astronomy because the stars control everything we do?!?!?”), or that there’s extra information that someone on the committee had (for example, meeting the student at a conference). This process is both grueling and gratifying. It’s grueling because much of what happens at this point is splitting hairs, as we always have more strong candidates than we can admit. It’s also gratifying because (1) many of these applicants are just phenomenal and (2) we finally get to talk about all these files we’ve been absorbing for the past week or so (seriously, even with all the triage, the committee does little but read applications for a solid week).
  • Based on the discussion, we move people above and below “the line” that indicates our cutoff for immediate admission. This is by far the most painful part, as we are always forced to delay admitting people we’d admit in an instant if we could risk having an entering class of 15. We sometimes get to admit them, but usually a bit later, after we have a sense of what fraction of the first round of admits seem genuinely interested. We’ve noticed a trend of very strong students applying to way too many schools, making it extremely difficult to predict the fraction of our admits who will wind up enrolling. Back when I applied to grad school — you know, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth — we had to type our applications onto forms, which put a physical limit on how many schools you could actually apply to before carpal tunnel set in.

So, what goes into all the subjective judgment above?

  • Confidence that the student will not fail our rigorous written qualifying exam. We usually judge this based upon excellent work in physics courses, a record of actually taking a lot of physics courses (this is getting to be a real problem, as undergraduate astronomy programs proliferate), and/or strong physics GRE scores.
  • Evidence of research potential. This is usually shown by participating in one or more REU programs, with a big extra bonus point for actually publishing a paper. However, we do sometimes admit students who, while lacking direct research experience, show evidence of tremendous drive and/or creativity.
  • Evidence of actual interest in astronomy. There are a fair number of otherwise qualified applicants who don’t seem to really appreciate what they’re getting themselves into. Instead, applying to grad school seemed better than applying for a real job.
  • Evidence of a fit to the program. Particularly for students near “the line”, it helps if your interests are a decent match to the research going on here. We also look for diversity in the applicants’ interests, to avoid an entering class consisting entirely of budding cosmologists.
  • Evidence that the applicant has inspired loyalty and/or enthusiasm from at least one or two letter writers. There are students with decent grades, GRE scores, and REU experience who somehow made it through school without ever inspiring anyone to jump up and down on their behalf.
  • Evidence of maturity, leadership, drive, and/or independence. Given that we have a surfeit of applicants who are over the bar in terms of physics preparation and research experience, we give an extra nod to applicants who already seem to have their act together in other ways.

Given all the above, a frequent admissions committee comment is “I’m not sure I would have gotten in….”

UPDATE: By the way, a common refrain from anxious students waiting for admissions decisions is “WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG FOR THEM TO DECIDE?!?!?!”. If you look at the list of steps above, you’ll see that the process involves the assembly and verification of 100+ applications (each of which involves 6 separate contributing agencies — student, letter writers, transcript office, ETS), careful reading of ~10 pages of documentation for at least 50 files, coordination of schedules for at least 3 very busy faculty members over several rounds of deadlines (first triage, first reading, second reading by everyone, final meeting), coordination of the details of the offers (what financial packages are we authorized to offer, when are visiting days, etc), and THEN, finally, notification of the aforementioned anxious student. If it were as simple as noting your 950 on the physics GRE and dropping you an email, it would be a lot faster, but to do it right takes time. For a large physics department with 500 applicants and a larger admissions committee, the process will be even more involved and take significantly longer. Moreover, because of the coordination of schedules among committee members, we are often unable to predict exactly when we’ll be able to make offers. A few badly timed conferences can set back admission decisions by weeks.


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