Grad School Admissions Criteria

Prospective graduate students will often ask what they should to do to feasibly maximize their chances of acceptance with respect to graduate school admissions, or what sorts of things admissions committees look for when deciding who to admit or reject, or what they should focus on in undergrad if they want to go to grad school. I’ve never served on such a committee and have no real experience or expertise making these sorts of decisions, but I am a grad student, and so have been through the process once myself. I’ve also read a fair number of posts similar to this one, observed several admissions cycles, played a small role in some faculty job searches, which are sorta similar, and spoken to other grad students about applications. Additionally, I’d already written the below in a comment to someone elsewhere and reckoned it easy enough to repost here. Feel free to comment with disagreement — this is all, just, like, my opinion, man.

If I had to rank admissions criteria for science PhDs in approximate order of importance (though see note below; also, this is most applicable to my my own field — evolutionary biology, with a focus on computational/statsy methods/theory — and so other fields may differ), I’d say:

  1. Someone going up to bat for you — i.e. your future PI, who you contacted with a “prospective graduate student” email several months ago (*see note at the end), and with whom you’ve had several involved conversations re: your research interests and compatibility (unless your school strictly does rotations in your first year, or something. Still, I think it’s a good idea to contact some plausible PIs and make your name known, as well as to vet them for your own purposes). Related: your undergrad PI was a super famous or well connected researcher and asked a favor of their friend at the institution receiving your app (and/or wrote you an absurdly glowing recommendation)
  2. Your measurable research output/history — i.e. what papers you’ve published, what conference talks/posters you’ve given, the contents of your GitHub profile, what kaggle competitions (or other competitions based directly on research/analysis performance) you’ve done well in, what REUs you’ve worked on, relevant projects from work, etc.
  3. Personal fit; aka in your interactions with your prospective grad school (e.g. if your school interviewed), were you an unfriendly asshole? I’ve seen some people get rejected despite having great academic credentials by being jerks to the admissions committee. Hell, not even jerks, just lacking social graces in informal contexts (e.g. talking too much about themselves and not inquiring as to the opinions of others). As a PhD student you’ll be junior colleague to your committee for 3-10 years, so don’t be unpleasant. Also relevant: letters of rec w/ respect to how nice you are to work with or whether others should best keep away
  4. Generic research ability that can’t be attested to by the above. Also relevant: letters of rec w/ respect to how studious or hardworking you are in classes or in research projects, even if they didn’t produce any measurable output (if you were observed to be a diligent researcher and this was commented upon, it could still count for something)
  5. Awards and honors you’ve received (though depending on the award, this can potentially catapult you to the top of the YES pile; e.g., if you bring in a really prestigious or selective fellowship that comes with lotsa $$$, it can make you much more desirable, both because it helps to pay your way, so you represent a lesser gamble, and because of its signaling potential — you’ve already been evaluated and approved by others in the recent past)
  6. Grades and GRE scores — they can break you if you’re middling in the above (i.e. you don’t exceed expectations w/ respect to the other criteria and have a
  7. Unpublished or unevaluated projects, essays, coursework, etc. Personal Statements can go here too if you’re really good at selling yourself beyond your own actual merits. Some places request additional writing samples, or if you did some big analysis for a blog or something that can go here too, I’d say
  8. Prestige of your undergraduate institution/letter of rec writers. Study at a fancy institution with fancy researchers? That’ll help, but isn’t hugely independently of other factors IMO
  9. Your level of interest in whatever field you’re going into as measured by stuff like outreach, club participation, etc. Have you volunteered a few hundred hours at your local wildlife rehab center and are now shooting to become a wildlife research ecologist? Super!
  10. Other ECs that are not related but evince good character traits or are interesting; e.g. on the CV I submitted I had an “other” section where I mentioned multilingual fluency, my decent outdoors/travel experience (and leading/coordinating lotsa outdoorsy group trips), which was relevant because my field (paleoanthropology) tends to involve lotsa fieldwork in foreign countries. Something similar could also apply to fields like ecology, geology, zoology, botany, archaeology, etc. Ideally whatever you include would be relate well to research ability, but you can still aim to take advantage of halo effects by pretending to be a really nifty person
  11. Hardships, diversity, etc. though I’m not too sure how important this is, implicitly or explicitly. It probably varies a lot. This would largely come out in your personal statement, I’d imagine

That said, a lot of these are heavily interrelated. If you go to a school really strong in your major, you’ll probably have a better advisor, do more interesting and productive research projects, and get fancier awards, which will all serve to better entice a prospective PI to go up to bat for you. And the above are more my take on “how much of the variation in admissions decisions is attributable to variation in each criterion” than a ranking of “importance” per se (e.g. if you’re a superstar researcher with tons of high impact pubs, dozens of awards, a perfect GPA/GRE, etc., but when you go visit the school you’re mean to everybody, you won’t get in. But typically people aren’t mean, so it’s relatively not as impactful. Likewise, I think pretty much everyone’ll have a solid personal statement, so unless yours is AMAZING or AWFUL it won’t make much of a difference one way or another — it’s a measure with low ability to discriminate). And as mentioned, these are just my superficial impressions and should not be taken as gospel. What’s relevant and important might vary a lot person-to-person, committee-to-committee, program-to-program, dept-to-dept, and institution-to-institution.

I also think GRE/GPA are more important when applying to external fellowships, like the NSF-GRF, DOE SCGF/CSGF, FORD, Hertz, NDSEG, SMART, PDSOROS, GEM, etc. etc. etc., since the people evaluating those need to make snappier decisions.

(header image source)

*this is something that should get your foot in the door and ideally escalate to a dozen or so emails, visit (esp. if the program doesn’t interview), or skype conversation where you can signal genuine interest and basic competence. Their general form should, I think, look something like:

Hi Dr. Whoever,

I saw on your website that you were looking for new students (or, if I looked and didn’t see that, wanted to inquire as to whether you were accepting PhD students at this time).

I’m a 4th year undergrad/M.S. student/clown/industry employee at [your institution or company] with interests in [fields that they work in] and [methods that they work on]. Specifically, I’m fascinated by the prospect of [decent project description that will complement their own work]. I’ve done a bit of [relevant stuff], which I published/presented on in the nebulous recent past. Your work in [their paper] and [their other paper] brushes up against this, especially [something that shows that you actually read and mostly understood their papers].

I’m interested in applying to [their institution and program] and would love to have the opportunity to chat with you about the possibility of us working together. I’ve attached my [super fabulous] CV below, if you’re interested.

Thanks!
[your name]

Don’t ramble on too long, since your audience is doubtless very busy, but include enough information to pique their interest and attention.

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