A Look Inside the Graduate Admissions Committee
Contrary to popular opinion, graduate school admissions is not just a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" decision-making process. Many subjective factors come into play throughout the admissions cycle
How Does the Admissions Process Work?
The process works differently at each school and program, but certain things remain roughly the same. A group will make an initial review of the applications, making a first cut by separating possible acceptances from clear rejections. At this stage, there are several reasons for rejection. The application might not be complete, the grades or GRE scores well below the program's standards, the applicant seriously lacks preparation for the program, or the recommendations are clearly negative.
The remaining applications are reviewed in more detail. In some programs, the applicants are divided among the committee members and each group settles on its favorite candidates. When the committee reconvenes, the favorites are presented to the group and the committee makes its final choices. Each committee member reviews each application before decisions are made. Some programs circulate applications for review as they become complete and then meet to make the final decisions.
During the later stages of the selection process, admission becomes more detailed and subjective. In creative programs, where your portfolio is the major consideration, the subjectivity is obvious. But even in academic programs, it's not always possible to admit every applicant with good numbers, recommendations, and relevant experience.
At this final stage, your contacts with the department come into play. A visit, your interview, the professors you've spoken with, can tilt the balance in your favor. If you've impressed a faculty member who really wants to work with you, you'll have gained an advocate on the committee. Your personal statement and stated interest can also weigh heavily here. It can help dispel any weaknesses in your application, and it can point out how you are an excellent fit with the program.
The committee will end up with a final decision with a list of applicants who will be offered spots in the program. They will also maintain a second tier of applicants who will be offered admission if people in the first round of acceptances turn down the offer.
The Potential Verdicts
Congratulations, you're in! But read the letter carefully. The committee may recommend or in some cases, require, that you complete some preparatory course work to ensure that your skills meet their standards.
At the top schools, there are far more qualified applicants than there are spaces in the class. Even though you were rejected, you can reapply at a later date. If you are intent on reapplying, the onus is on you to demonstrate that you're a better candidate now than you were previously. This may involve improving your GRE score, taking additional courses, gaining substantive new experience, or writing better essays.
Hold Over Until Next Decision Period
Sometimes the admissions committee isn't comfortable making a decision by the scheduled reply date. Perhaps you're right on the borderline and the committee wants to see how you stack up with the next group of applicants. In this case, all you can do is wait.
Schools use the waiting list to manage class size. The good news is that you wouldn't be on the list if you were not considered a strong candidate. The bad news is that there is no way to know with certainty whether you'll be accepted. Be aware, though, that schools do tend to look kindly upon wait-listed candidates who reapply in a subsequent year.
Request for an Interview
Schools where an interview is not required may request one before they make their final decision. Your application may have raised some specific issues that you can address in an interview or perhaps the committee feels your essays did not give them a sufficiently complete picture to render a decision. Look at this as a positive opportunity to strengthen your case.