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.

  • Moshe

    The issue of filtering by interest is always a tricky one, I’m not always sure that a student initially interested in X will not turn out to be really into Y once exposed to it in graduate school, especially after realizing that their chance of pursuing X are slim where they ended up going. Many time X is just something with good publicity at the moment, and people are flexible…so my gut feeling is to avoid trying to fit students with advisers before admission, and just admit the best ones. Your mileage may vary of course.

  • Nathan

    Thanks for the excellent post! I’ll be going through the process of applying for graduate schools next year and it’s great to have a little bit of insight on what the other side of admissions is like.

    -A lowly undergrad

  • Carl Brannen

    After reading the above, I’m surprised your buddies over in the math department let me into their program. It was the only school I applied to. I was 36 and out of academia for a long time. I guess the only thing I had going for me was the GRE. And maybe that I didn’t need financial support.

    I wonder if the standard of how well you put together an application has gone up over the years.

  • Count Iblis

    What is meant by GPA and GRE scores?

    In Europe we do our exams first and then apply for a Ph.D. position. When accepted, you start to work on your Ph.D. project. The first year will typically be spent by a lot of studying to get get familair with the subject, but usually there won’t be an exam or something like that.

  • andy.s

    GPA = Grade Point Average. 4.0 = A, 3.0 = B, etc.

    GRE = Graduate Record Exams. A standardized multiple choice test given to grad school applicants.

    GRE’s are given in specific fields, such as Physics. 4 years of physics come down to one stupid test.

  • GP

    I already finished writing all my applications, so I very nearly didn’t read below the fold out of fear that I had done everything wrong (too late to change it now!) but I think I did fairly well. I didn’t even mention astrology once.

  • Lee Sawyer

    At a mid-major university like mine, the criteria is much simpler: Are they breathing? We sometimes take borderline cases as well.

    More seriously, in those years when the big schools lower their admissions lines and bring in more students, smaller schools have to scrape the barrel for what’s left. Often our best applicants are one or two of our own graduates, who for whatever reasons want or need to stay in the area.

    Consequently we don’t require the GRE subject test, and are willing to admit students that need some remediation. If this sounds great (yes, this is an advertisement! Please apply!) the flip side of a mid-major school includes generally smaller assistantships, limited range of research projects, and the fact that where you did your graduate work is taken into account later when you apply for a job.

  • Sean

    Here was my take on how to get into grad school, many moons ago. Surprisingly, some people in the comments had slightly different opinions! Who knew the internet could be so cheeky?

    But it’s almost time for choosing a grad school, no?

  • Anonymous

    As a prospective Graduate Student, does it matter whether one enters a specialty subfield but wants to return to the larger field?

    For example, if one obtained a geophysics at a top tier school, would that necessarily be considered a bad thing when trying to get an appointment in physics departments?

  • Lab Lemming

    So does your grad school application not include a research proposal for PhD students? If not, then how do you align student research interests with faculty ones? Or is that what the US system’s 2 years of course work are for?

    Also, can we assume from this post that grad school admissions are done at the departmental, and not the university level?

  • Sean

    Anonymous, I think it would depend on the extent to which the specialization affected your coursework, especially for theorists. The admissions committee might be concerned if you didn’t take some of the basic upper-level undergrad physics courses. For experimentalists I’m not sure if that’s as important.

    Lab Lemming, there is a “statement of purpose,” which is not necessarily anywhere near as specific as a “research proposal” would imply. You’re not expected to know what research is worth doing. It’s helpful to have some general feeling for what you want to do — theory/experiment, and which subfield — but not more specific than that.

    And grad admissions are definitely done on the dept level.

  • More-Anonymous-Than-Usual

    The lack of predictability/uniformity for the timing of the schols’ decisions is a big potential problem, I think. I very nearly didn’t even visit one school I got into, simply because the decision arrived so late and I was already exhausted from scheduling other visits. And that ended up being the school that I eventually decided to go to! (Which would have been, in retrospect, a big loss for me—and perhaps a smallish loss for the department as well.)

  • Anonymous

    Sean: Sorry, what I said was incomplete. I am receiving a physics degree now, but I want to apply to geophysics graduate school as a certain professor I want to work with (with a lot of things in soft-condensed matter) is in the geophysics department. Will a geophysics PhD limit my options once Im out of graduate school (say, other physics departments?)

  • Sean

    Sorry, I misunderstood. That’s a much less definite question, as it involves the culture and predisposition of different fields and departments, about which I don’t know much. For example, my PhD is in astronomy, but all of my jobs have been in physics departments. But there’s no easy answer.

  • Nick Ernst

    Another worthy link from An American Physics Student In England, as it is nearly the time for decisions: University Rankings – Get Over It.

  • David Nataf

    Julianne and Sean,

    What are your attitudes to GRE scores?
    It seems to me that they would be important, as they measure cumulative undergraduate performance in a consistent manner. On the other hand, it also seems a lot of people do very well with low GRE scores, and thus I’m not sure if there’s any correlation at all.

    One cosmologist told me he didn’t care about physics GRE scores as long as the applicant made it above an “idiot-cutoff”. He said he cared about the Verbal score for (native English applicants) as it correlates with intellectuality.

    Also, I’m very surprised by the attitudes of some astronomers. I’ve asked a lot what they would recommend to a 17 year old (I’m 24, this was a thought experiment) who wants to be an astronomer. Typical answer is math, physics, CS, maybe one astronomy class. Astronomy can be taught in graduate school, etc. If this is so, why are departments then opting to offer undergraduate astronomy majors? I know at my alma matter, for example, there was no major in statistics. There was however a minor in statistics, the statisticians felt undergraduates should focus on fundamentals.

  • Ryan

    I find it odd that people apply to so many schools for grad studies. Personally I applied to three, one of which was my undergraduate university (it was safe, I already knew I liked it there).

    I applied to the other two because I honestly didn’t know which one I would prefer to attend.

    The thing is, it actually costs quite a bit of money to apply to a school, like $100 plus expresspost fees, transcript fees, etc. I probably spent ~$400 applying to three schools.

    Maybe strong students also have strong wallets, but I was accepted into all three schools I applied to and did it without too much financial hardship visited upon my part-time-job bank account.

  • David Nataf


    I applied to six schools, add in general and subject GRE tests and I spent around $1200, plus many dozens of hours of time. I would have applied to 1 or 2 more but one acceptance letter had already come in. I’ve seen 3 to 12 among my friends.

    I’m not rich and it was mostly on loan leftovers, but it’s really not a lot of money. Just the stipend between different programs has a standard deviation greater than $1200, not to mention what comes after graduate studies which is the point. It’s chosing a department, a city, a subdiscipline, et cetera. Considering how much people spend on clothes, electronics, spring break, et cetera – it’s not much.

  • Sean

    David, I think that GRE scores do matter, but their absolute importance varies wildly from school to school and department to department. They’re more important for prospective theorists than experimenters. The basic point is that you will often see two applications that are pretty similar, but one has higher GRE’s; wouldn’t you take that one?

  • David Nataf

    I’m sorry I may have misexpressed myself,
    I didn’t mean which matters more for admission,
    I meant have decent correlations been observed between physics GRE scores and graduate performance?

  • Sean

    David — I talked a bit about that here:

    Short answer: among the people who were accepted, not very much.

  • Julianne

    David — My experience agrees with Sean’s. I think the reason is that there is a huge malmquist bias. The students who get admitted in spite of lower than average physics GRE scores do so because they had some exceptional strengths in other areas, which tends to wipe out the correlation. If you were to compare the average student with a 550 on the physics GRE to a typical student with a 950, you might potentially see a difference. But, that’s not the actual experiment that we’ve run.

  • Shin


    I can’t resist asking this:

    is it true that if you don’t get admission decisions until very very late, then you’re on a “wait-list”?

    I always thought there won’t be a waitlist since the committee already takes into account the fact people won’t neccesarily come once accepted.


  • Carl Brannen

    Clearly today’s students are smarter than they were 30 years ago. Back then the best we could do on the physics GRE was 900.

  • Julianne

    Shin — If you haven’t heard, yes, you’re probably on the waitlist. We do take into account that not everyone we accept will enroll by admitting more students than we want in our entering class, but the fraction who do enroll can vary by more than factors of 2. One year we’ll get 60% of our acceptances who enroll, and other years its 15%. If it’s the latter, we’ll then move to admitting students off our waitlist. If you’re on the waitlist, it means we probably wanted to admit you at the very beginning, but couldn’t just in case it turns out to be one of those years where 60% wind up enrolling. Larger programs probably have fewer year-to-year fluctuations.

    Carl — The current max on the Physics GRE is 990, I think.

  • Super Bohr Model


    I have always wondered why the GRE counts more for theorists? As a hopeful theory student (w/ 730 GRE score, bleh) waiting to hear back from programs, this question is very interesting to me. It seems to imply that theorists should know more physics and than experimentalists, which is not at all true. Also, it seems to me that the kind of problems that are on the GRE, which use dimensional analysis, order of magnitude, and other back of the envelope tricks would be used just as much by an experimentalist as a theorist, if not more. What is the reasoning behind the idea that the GRE should count more for theorists?

  • Shin

    oh thanks a lot Julianne,

    Actually it was last year; the suspense was killing me but I wasn’t sure what’s happening.

    Now I’m very pleased to know that I made it into the waitlists of some awesome schools, haha. Well, I’m more than satisfied with where I’m right now anyways. But it feels REALLY good to know. Thanks again.

  • Hektor Bim

    Here’s some additional advice. Back when I was applying, it was much easier to get in as an experimentalist than as a theorist. Part of this is the result of indoctrination as an undergrad – most of the great physics heroes are theorists, and theorists are more likely to teach undergraduate courses. To some extent this is still true.

    If you are an experimentalist with research experience and a clear focus that is compatible with research at the university you are applying to, that will make it a lot easier.

    If you want to do string theory, like far too many other people who applied in the 90s, it will be easier if you say you want to particle physics experiment. They always need bodies to build detectors and do data analysis, and they may fund you over the first summer while you study for the candidacy exam. Their standards are typically lower as well, from a purely supply-demand angle.

    In general, if you decide to apply in something that is less popular with the cool kids but has an established presence at the universities you are applying to, then you will have a better chance.

    Super Bohr Model – you’re in trouble at the top twenty programs with that GRE score unless you have something else going for you.

    Getting in is fairly arbitrary, and there is low correlation with GRE scores and undergraduate grades with later physics success if one is above a fairly low level. So don’t worry too much either way, once you get into a decent program, how you got there doesn’t matter.

  • Ryan

    The funny thing is, that GRE scores for Canadian students in Canada really don’t matter at all, all the universities say that they really like them, but in generally the application information forms are lying. In general nobody does them unless they are applying to the states.

    I am currently doing an Msc in physics (in Canada Msc -> Phd is the normal route, I am told it is different in the states) at a well respected Canadian university and didn’t bother writing the GRE. Granted, I had no ambition to go to the states so I just saved myself some time and a ton of money.

    The official line was that good GRE scores can help you a lot if your marks suck and your reference letters are mediocre, but other than that, concentrate on your marks in your final year, rather than studying for the GRE.

  • Super Bohr Model

    That’s an interesting comment Hektor Bim, since I’ve already been admitted to one top twenty program with my GRE score. UCSB’s (not the school I was admitted to) avg GRE is 770, they are top twenty, I’m a domestic student, so I fail to see how a 730 is “trouble.” Sure maybe for the top five, but top twenty? Methinks you are exaggerating a wee bit.

  • Jason

    Nice post Julianne ! It raises some interesting questions:

    1. Are the students tracked after admission? Do you know that your admissions criteria correspond to sucessful students? In an astro program with low statistics this wouldn’t be as useful as a big physics department.

    2. What is the leading reason the job is still managed by the faculty? Time is a serious issue in the admission process. I can’t help but think that the earlier stages of selection could be handled by a seasoned admissions vetran whose full-time job is understanding which applicants have the best fortunes in grad school. They could even handle some of the tracking mentioned in part 1.

  • Jordan

    I didn’t see anything in your post about filtering based on the undergraduate institution. Does that mean that students from *any* (accredited?) school will make it past your first cut if the numbers are good enough?

  • Noel

    I am applying to geophysics programs, which should have similarity to astronomy/physics programs (I see someone already mentioned geophysics). My question is, what happens at the visiting step? You mentioned briefly that the department holds visiting days. I know that each visiting student costs the department a few hundred dollars, usually. Is this paid for with application fees, or by the department?

    Also, I think it is strange that some schools I applied to asked applicant to visit BEFORE deciding who to admit, while others (as you described ) admit first, then invite to visit. I went on one of those before you’re admitted visits, and it was a nail-biting experience because you feel that they are watching everything you do and judging. On the other hand, they admitted me and I did like it there.

    Also, perhaps a strange question. Say a student (call him/her X) visits, and you really like him/her, and want to add X to your research group. You try to recruit X to your department, but in the end X decides to go somewhere else. A year later, you see X presenting at a conference. Would you hold a grudge?

  • ts

    I think one thing that went unmentioned in Julianne’s post is the different sets of standards used for domestic and foreign applicants. It is frequently mentioned that foreign students do significantly better in something like subject GRE, simply because the educational systems in their home countries tend to teach more stuff early. That makes it necessary to prepare different admission standards for domestic and foreign students.

    Most U.S. physics programs except a dozen in the top most tier do not function without the presence of foreign grad students; I’m not sure this would actually be true, but I have a feeling that the lower tier programs won’t have enough willing domestic grad students in physics to maintain the infrastructure (TAs, RAs, etc.), if they cut off the labor supplies from foreign countries. I am curious how much those top-tier programs “favor” domestic students in this sense. Do they simply employ a quota and get the best from different pools?

    (Just to avoid potential misunderstanding, I’m not saying foreign students are better than domestic ones at all.)

  • Lab Lemming

    Just outta curiosity, do the archives have posts on the selection process for faculty, post-docs, or technical staff? I found this for faculty, but nothing for the others in the archive.

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  • Santiago Joaquin

    I’ve a questiin… I have a scholarship from my goverment for my PhD Study that contains tuition and fees, typical room and board, books and personal expenses and all other educational expenses. Does this have any influence on the committee’s decision?

  • Julianne

    Santiago — The fellowship information can certainly help your application. The number of students we admit is limited by finances, rather than by our ability to successfully educate and mentor them. Every year we turn down close to a dozen students who would have done well in our program, but who we can’t admit because we can’t commit to funding them. Having an independent fellowship like a Fullbright means that we can ignore that limitation in your particular case. So yes, it’s helpful. It may not make much of a difference in a few of the very well funded private universities, but for public universities it could tip the balance in your favor.


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