(Foreign) Grad School Admissions

(Foreign) Grad School Admissions

I know that I have been a total slacker on posting lately and for that, I apologize. While that’s a relatively minor thing to apologize for (especially to all two of my readers…), there is something that we, meaning academic-type people, should apologize for: our terrible graduate admissions policies. Obviously, I’m painting with a very large brush here but I can totally picture this exact thing happening to [new] faculty members at 100’s of places around the country this time of year. Let me paint a better picture for you.

When you’re reviewing graduate student admission applications, you’re handed a stack of folders with a bunch of stuff in them with clear instructions like “Here, rate these applicants for MSc and PhD admissions”. The typical things in the folder are: transcripts, GRE, TOEFL, resume/CV, personal statement, and letters of recommendation. From that, you have to sort between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a very frustrating task, especially for some who was going through this process only a few years ago.

Looks, there’s a part of me that wants to be totally cutthroat and say “nope” just because of some low score in this class or whatever. Or, is that a 3, an 8, or a coffee stain? Meh.  But there is a significant part of me that’s 10000% sympathetic when reading some personal statement that resonates on the “holy crap, you deserve to get in cuz of the crap you’ve been through”.

But even beyond that, I think we have a fundamental problem with how we accept students in to graduate programs. Graduate students are going to be working at the university for 4-6 years. They should be treated like employee hirings. No, I’m not saying that everyone should get a call back for the interview, but we should try harder to have a chat (over Skype) with any of the candidates that are borderline or better. I think we’re doing a disservice if we don’t. This way, we can get a much better feel for the student and what they would be like at the university if they showed up. Also, it would give a chance to directly assess key knowledge in areas they supposedly learned. For instance, I have no idea about the rankings of universities in China, nor about the good/bad departments, and have no feel for what’s taught in their classes. However, I do know that you can go to a big state school, ranked in the top 100 in the country and come away with a knowledge base that many companies want (I know, because that’s what I did). So when students are discounted because they’re not from the top X university from Y country, it’s a little frustrating.

When I applied for my PhD position, it was a full interview, including a flight over to Europe where I had meetings with people, the prof, and the students. Just like a real hiring. Then, once I got their approval, I went for formal approval from the university. Right now, we do it backwards. Departments/colleges say they want students with X profile, so that’s who gets in. But if that profile isn’t going to mesh with the faculty, there’s a problem. And right now, from my interactions with foreign students, they’re completely unaware of how this procedure works (i.e. wanting to get in to my group but not understanding that they need to get in to the department first). I can totally understand that it’s a frustrating situation for foreign students, and for that, I do apologize.

[photo credit: Link]


The percentage of grad students who get called in for interviews is much higher than the percentage of applicants for “real” jobs. This is somewhat surprising, since the interview budgets for grad school admissions are tiny. Our department had $2000 for interviewing and recruiting, and we were looking for 10–20 new students.

Of course, this varies a lot by field—computer science tends not to interview anyone before accepting them to grad school, while biology almost never accepts anyone until they’ve interviewed.

While that’s true about real jobs vs. grad students, I think I’m trying to make the argument for departments that don’t have the budget to bring in a bunch of students for final interviews. I span two departments and in one, we don’t really do it and in the other, we invite everyone that’s accepted to come for a meet’n’greet.

We have to apply a filter cutoff somewhere. And like any filter, there’s rolloff where the amplitude drops but you haven’t quite reached the “cutoff frequency” yet. I’m saying that maybe we should make a concerted effort to try and at least Skype with the candidates plus and minus 10% of that line, just to make sure we’re not discounting students because we don’t know enough about their university/program/application.

That’s a very short-sighted way of looking at the situation. My GRE scores were ~430 V, ~780 M, 5.5 W. I had a 3.6 UG GPA at a top 80-100 school in the US by most rankings. However, I was only in the top 15% of my graduating class. I think I turned out fine, so why should I immediately discount some Chinese student with a 500 V, 800 M, 3.0 W, with a 3.8 GPA and is 1st in their class because they went to some non-top 10 university in china. it’s just a totally arbitrary process (at times).

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