Monday, May 24, 2010

Insight on Admissions: An Introduction

This past school year, I had the chance to serve on my department’s graduate admissions committee. I was able to see the admissions process from the other side and maybe understand the madness a little bit better. Over the next couple weeks, I’d like to share with you a few of the things I learned from that experience in a series of posts I’ll presumptuously call “Insight on Admissions”. If you have specific questions please put them in the comments and I’ll try to either answer them there or in a following post.


Let me start by telling you a little about my assignment and my department. I am a third-year PhD student in the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) department and the University of Colorado at Boulder, otherwise known by it’s reversed initials - CU. The APS department at CU is home to 22 tenured or tenure-track faculty, 2 senior instructors, 4 research faculty, roughly 25 post-docs, and currently 43 grad students. Additionally, there are three on-campus research institutes affiliated with our department, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), JILA, and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA), which employ roughly 200 non-faculty scientists, engineers, and support staff with whom many of our grad students work as either research assistants or colleagues. You can see a reasonably up-to-date departmental directory here if you want to know more.

Our department is unusually broad. We cover topics that in other universities fall into geology, atmospheric sciences, astronomy, physics, and applied math departments. That means we have people working on everything from the ionosphere to martian craters to the interior of black holes (seriously). As such a broad department, we admit people with a variety of backgrounds, although those with physics degrees tend to be the majority.

Our department also has a somewhat unique level of student involvement in departmental governance. Graduate students serve with faculty on the committees that handle admissions, comprehensive exams, faculty hires, and so forth. While I cannot say the the students on these committees are regarded as equal with the faculty members, at least we have seats at the table and can, through simply being there and voicing our views, influence the way the department functions.

So for the 2009-2010 school year I was a member of the admissions committee. The committee was made up of 4 faculty members and 4 post-comps (our lingo for “Doctoral Candidate”) graduate students. As one of the students I was in on all the meetings, read the applications, helped make admissions decisions, arraigned the prospective student weekends, and generally was up to my elbows in the sausage-making process that is graduate admissions.


  1. Well I'm excited to read about this Nick. That's great you are able to serve on such committees. (I think.)

    The three questions I want answered are:

    1. How much weight is really applied on each things: GRE, GPA, Letters of Recommendation, name of school coming from, etc...

    2. Are there any hilarious applications you have come across that you could share in an appropriately autonomous way.

    3. How big is the dart board your department uses? :)

  2. Joe,

    I plan to do posts on those three topics, including #3. If you think there is some totally objective, quantitative method for admissions you clearly haven't thought about the subject very long. On some level, there is an inevitable subjective element and in my view random is probably more fair than someone who subjectively prefers liberal arts schools or people that play ultimate frisbee.

  3. I would like to know about how well, in general, undergrad programs are preparing students for graduate school and has it improved over time? I guess what I really want to know is if America is really getting dumber. Can you tell at the highest levels of academia?

  4. Stan,

    I guess I should let Nick answer since this is his post but I will tell you my experience:

    1. It is my experience that Americans don't have as good "textbook knowledge". We haven't been forced to memorize as many equations verbatim or been drilled on as many problems over and over as other countries do. Therefore, we don't do as well on tests and don't look as smart from a textbook knowledge standpoint.

    2. It is my experience that Americans have fostered a culture where innovation or thinking outside the box is of a higher value. It's all about the innovator not the memorizer who is prised in American culture.

    Therefore, I believe you will find US scientists are still leading the pack in innovative advancements of science. Though don't get me wrong, I am grossly generalizing and many foreigners do incredibly new and innovative work. (But I don't think we are being outdone by them.)

  5. "On some level, there is an inevitable subjective element and in my view random is probably more fair than someone who subjectively prefers liberal arts schools or people that play ultimate frisbee."

    This is how I view most of it. I have two categories for getting into graduate school.
    1. You're a genius. You have 4.0 GPA, 800 GRE, and published 10 papers as an undergrad, have 4 very strong letters of recommendation indicating you are the best student the world has ever seen. In this scenario you are admitted on merits alone.
    2. You get really lucky! You have less than stellar GPA, GRE, and your letters are just pretty good. In this scenario your application happens to have made the "cut" (i.e. not laughably rejected) and your application made it to the eyeballs of either a professor or some committee member who happened to like what he/she saw.

    I know that I personally was the latter!

  6. I will add that in my second scenario, you may get into a great school, or just a mediocre school, or no school at all. If you're really lucky you somehow wiggled into a great school.

    But I have seen really smart people not be admitted to top schools, and I have seen not-so-brilliant people get admitted to MIT. I think for most of us it is a crap shoot!

  7. Stan and Joe,

    I generally agree with Joe but let me add in one more caveat. Graduate programs in physics at top-tier research institutions are getting a very elite group of students. For example, in my incoming cohort of 9 American students, only 3 of us attended public high schools and 8 of us have both parents with at least a Bachelors degree. These are a very select group. I think the US education system is doing just fine with the top 5% of Americans. It's the bottom 50% that seem to be the focus of concern.

  8. jmb275,

    I'll talk in my next post about the quantifiable part of making admissions decisions, but for now let me say that in my experience the random component of admissions is really quite small, maybe 10%. If I made a ranking of the applicants, you do the same independently, and we then compare the variation in positions from my list to yours, we would probably find that no one is more than a few spots up or down. Where the random component comes in is somewhere you have to make a binary decision - admitted or not. Random factors then come into play for the applicants straddling the line between in and out.


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