Article contributed by graduate-school expert Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.
The majority of graduate-school applicants have a major impediment that they do not even know they have: They don’t understand how the successful applicants are chosen. In fact, they have no idea what is really going on with their application after they submit it. Without knowing how the selection process works, it is easy to make mistakes without realizing that you are doing so.
There are several criteria in addition to grades that determine the success or failure of a graduate or professional school application. In order to take advantage of these criteria and make up for a shortcoming in grades, it is important to know what goes into your application and to understand how the selection process generally works. Once you do, some of the things you can do to improve your own chances of success will be obvious. Knowledge is power, and ignorance can be fatal. Be careful not to overestimate the accuracy of your current understanding of the selection process. Even students who are confident that they understand how their application will be evaluated are usually wrong in some important ways.
Most universities have a Faculty or a School of Graduate Studies that plays a role in the administration of certain aspects of all departmental graduate programs at that institution. Often the Faculty or School of Graduate Studies plays only a minor role in the selection process beyond establishing minimum grade requirements or some other standards that apply to all of the graduate programs. The actual selection of applicants is likely to be done by faculty members in the specific department to which you are applying. Most programs have an admissions committee (often also referred to as a selection committee) consisting of a few faculty members who meet each year after the application deadline to pore over the pile of applications.
Most programs also have a Graduate Program Director, who is also on the admissions committee. Most departments appoint their own admissions committee, and the composition of the group, as well as policies and procedures for making selections, will vary from one program to another. A general aim of most admissions committees is to provide a rating of each of the current applicants and to ultimately make the decision of who is acceptable for the program. This process usually involves ranking the applicants on the basis of their overall application package, and eliminating some of the lower ranking applicants from the competition.
In some programs, especially those in which students do not, strictly speaking, study and train under the supervision of a single faculty member, the admissions committee makes the final decision of whether to accept or reject an applicant. In most doctoral programs, and in master’s programs that have a research thesis, students do their work under the supervision of a sponsoring faculty member (a graduate supervisor). In many of these programs, the admissions committee plays a relatively minor role in deciding whether individual applicants will be accepted or rejected.
There is considerable variance among different programs in terms of just how much of the final decision-making is done by the admissions committee. One might assume from the name given to the admissions committee that their primary task is to decide who will be admitted to the program. In fact, they are usually responsible for administering departmental or university policy and implementing procedures for dealing with the entire admissions process, which involves much more than just selecting applicants. The admissions committee might have to approve a list of students who will be accepted, but in most programs they are not responsible for placing particular applicants on that list.
So, how does an applicant get placed on the accept-list? It depends somewhat on whether or not the program involves a research thesis. In most doctoral programs, and in master’s programs that have a research thesis, graduate students do their work under the supervision of a particular faculty member. For the remainder of this book, that individual faculty member who would serve as your mentor, advisor, and supervisor during your graduate studies will be referred to as the “prospective supervisor.”
To be accepted into most thesis-based graduate program, an applicant must somehow convince the prospective graduate supervisor to make a long-term commitment. The prospective supervisors are the ones who ultimately decide who is accepted and who is not! This is a very important point. It is essential to the reasoning behind much of the advice presented throughout this book.
Consider that an individual professor might have several hopeful students applying each year to do graduate studies under his or her supervision, and from among that group, he or she might choose one or two ... or perhaps none. A faculty member cannot be forced to be the graduate supervisor for any particular applicant, and in most programs, a student cannot be accepted without a consenting graduate supervisor. Generally speaking, therefore, if you are not accepted by the faculty member whom you request to have as your supervisor, you do not get in.
When you consider all that is at stake for the faculty member who would be the student’s graduate supervisor, it is not really surprising that this person get to make the call. She or he would be the one working with the student for the next few years, and this is the main reason why they are the ones who get to decide whether or not you are accepted into the program.
Many professors will still accept applicants despite a poor rating from an admissions committee. This may happen for any number of reasons. Perhaps something suggests to them that the grades or standardized-test scores do not reflect this student’s true ability or potential. Each professor uses his or her own criteria for deciding whether to sponsor individual applicants. The next subsection deals with some of those criteria and how you can take advantage of them to increase your chances of being accepted into a graduate program; there is as lot more of this in later chapters, too.
It is critical that you understand what we have just discussed – that in many programs, a faculty member’s consent or desire to be an applicant’s graduate supervisor is the main determinant of acceptance into the program. As we will see, there is a great deal at stake for professors who decide to supervise your graduate studies, so you must keep in mind that they will decide to take you on as their student only if they think it is in their best interest to do so. They will be comparing you to other applicants who also wish to do graduate work with them. The admissions committee will generally ‘rubber-stamp’ whatever decision the prospective graduate supervisor makes.
Understand What ‘They’ Are Looking For
‘They’ refers to either the members of the admissions committee, and the applicant’s prospective graduate supervisors. As previously alluded to, the members of the admissions committee are looking to bring the most promising people into their graduate programs. Similarly, the prospective supervisor is looking to bring the most promising people into his or her own individual research program. But, these important decision-makers are also looking for more than just those applicants with the strongest academic abilities.
One of the first questions that almost any admissions committee will ask is whether the applicant’s goals and interests match the objectives and specialties of the program. It is easy to spot the applicants who didn’t do any advance research about the programs to which they are applying. Many students underestimate how specialized some graduate programs are. The reason for this specialization is because a graduate program can provide the best training only in the areas in which its own faculty members are experts. For example, one graduate program in Agriculture might be particularly strong in animal nutrition, whereas another one might specialize in plant physiology, and yet another in animal breeding and genetics. Most would have more than one area of strength. After determining that the applicant’s intentions match those of the program, the admissions committee considers other things. As usual, there will be differences among various programs and across disciplines in terms of the most important factors. Doctoral programs may be looking for evidence that the applicant has already demonstrated an ability to perform beyond the undergraduate level by earning a masters degree.
Students in some sciences, such as Biology or Chemistry and many others, have plenty of opportunities to participate in original research while they are still undergraduates. This research experience is something that graduate programs in those fields are looking for in applicants. In these fields graduate work at the master’s level focuses on the research thesis. But the same is not true in other fields. In Mathematics or Physics, for example, it takes a few years of coursework at the graduate level before students can be expected to understand the concepts necessary to participate in original research. Master’s programs in Mathematics and Physics, therefore, place more emphasis on a student’s academic record and standardized-test scores.
Above all, the people making the selection decisions want to bring only the most agreeable people, and those who will cause the least amount of trouble, into their fold. They are looking for the best people, not just the best credentials. Accordingly, much attention is typically given to clues about the applicant’s character or personality.
This can be a difficult notion for students to appreciate, for it is widely assumed that the competition for entry into graduate school is ultimately rational and fair, and therefore, that it must be based solely on objective criteria, such as grades or test scores. Of course, grades are important, but there is a great deal at stake both for the graduate program as a whole and for the faculty members who supervise graduate students. It is important to them that they admit people who possess certain other non-objective credentials and positive personality traits. It is simply naïve, however, to think of acceptance into graduate school as an entitlement that comes with achieving a certain level of academic success as a college or university undergraduate. It does not work that way.
The members of the admissions committee have a vested interest in ensuring that they only allow mature, polite, and generally agreeable people into their program. They may spend hundreds of hours in relative proximity to graduate students, so it is only reasonable that they would avoid people who are unpleasant or annoying. Character and personality will be even more important to prospective supervisors, because they know they will have a great deal of interaction with any new graduate student over the next few years.
Students also need to understand some of the things that are at stake for the prospective supervisor. Choosing the right graduate student can be a tremendous benefit to a faculty member’s career. Selecting the wrong graduate student can result in a significant impediment to progress in one’s research program, which can, in turn, slow career advancement.
Many students fail to consider something that should really be quite obvious: People will agree to supervise a graduate student only if there is something in it for them. Supervisors may be looking for evidence that you possess special qualities or skills that will help them with their own research. This is the give-and-take nature of the graduate student/supervisor relationship. Everyone has specific needs, and that includes faculty members who supervise graduate students and allow them to participate in ongoing research or other scholarly work. The graduate school applicant must determine the needs of the prospective supervisor and address them at every step of the way through the application process.
Find lots more expert advice on getting into grad school in the newly released book: Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In, 2nd edition, by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. It is the most comprehensive advisement handbook for College and University students who are considering graduate school. Whether you are still deciding if grad school is right for you, or are looking for ways to maximize your application, this book is for you. Paperback version available at Amazon & Barnes & Noble. eBook available on Kindle and for Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and most e-reading apps. Get your copy now.