Admissions Process

Typical admissions process

The process of how admissions committees make decisions may seem mysterious to you than it needs to be. Admissions processes vary wildly by university, but here, we give two illustrative examples of what an admissions process might look like at a top school. This information might not be directly useful for your application, but we hope will help demystify the process.

Example University 1: Area-based admissions.

This university does “Area-based admissions”, which means that each applicant is asked to specify what research area they want to work in, and admissions decisions are made by different groups based on the specified research area.

Concretely, one professor plus two graduate students are responsible for each research area. The graduate students are vetted by the admissions committee chair as having good judgment before being allowed to join the committee, and undergo a 3 hour “Admissions committee training” before being allowed to evaluate applications. Before the admissions deadline, the professor asks colleagues in same research area how many PhD students they want, to try to get a sense of how many to admit.

Each area receives, and is responsible for reviewing, about 150 applications. After the admissions deadline, each folder is read by 1 graduate student, who has the authority to reject weak applications. If the first graduate student is unsure about the decision, he might also confer with the other graduate student or with the professor. About 60% of the 150 applications are rejected at this stage, bringing the pool down to 60 applications.

Each of these applications is then carefully read by the entire group of three (professor + 2 grad students). Each committee member ranks the folders on a scale of 1-10, with a “1” meaning definite reject, “5” meaning borderline, and “10” meaning definite accept. After all the applications have been read, the average score for each application is computed using a spreadsheet. About half the folders have an average score of 5.0 or lower, and are quickly rejected without much further discussion. Of the remaining 30 applications, each one is discussed at some length by the team. Sometimes, if an applicants states in their SOP that they want to work with a particular professor, the committee also shows the folder to that professor to ask their opinion. Finally, the team decides on 12 applicants to which to extend admissions offers.

Comment: Because most committees receive a huge number of applications and accept a relatively small number, it’s fairly common for them to work in multiple “stages”, where weak applications are quickly rejected in the early stages, and the “surviving” applications are given greater scrutiny in the later stages.

Example University 2: Non area-based admissions

This University does not do area-based admissions. This means that regardless of the area you applied to, the same group of people will be evaluating your application.

This department receives about 500 applications a year, and has a committee of 15 professors reading all the applications (but no students), as well as a university staff member responsible for helping the committee.  

In the first stage, the staff member quickly looks through all the applications, and rejects all the weak applications that have (i) low GRE scores or low GPA, (ii) where the applicant is not coming from a good undergraduate school, and (iii) where the applicant does not have any publications.  An applicant is rejected only if all of (i), (ii) and (iii) hold true, and this eliminates 20% of applicants, leaving 400 applications.

Next, each of the remaining 400 applications is read by 3 randomly chosen professors in the pool of 15, over a period of two weeks.  Thus, each professor has to review 80 applications, leading to a rating on a 1 (“reject”) to 10 (“accept”) scale.   If every professors gave an application a score of 6 or lower, then it is automatically rejected.

150 applications had a rating of at least 7 or higher from at least one professor.  Each of these folders is discussed by the 3 committee members that had reviewed it.  Often, they’ll call in a 4th committee member to take a look and give another opinion, and every committee member can also see these 150 applications and inject their  opinion.  If the group is still uncertain, sometimes they’ll designate one of the professors to do a phone interview of the candidate.  Finally, each group of 3-4 professors makes a recommendation to accept or reject the application they reviewed.  

After this stage, they find that they have a total of 50 “accept” recommendations, but the department has funding to extend only 40 admissions offers. Thus the whole committee meets to discuss the 50 candidates and prune the list down to 40, and finally, an admissions offer is extended to 40 students.  

Back to Overview of the Application Process

Previous Topic: Application Materials - Standardized test scores (GRE/TOEFL) and Transcript

Next Topic: Advice for Application Process - Admissions Criteria