What do doctoral admissions committees look for?

Last week, I was in Portland with a chance to rub elbows with some very important people–no, not anyone who is likely to attend Davos next year but Gates Millennium Scholars. These students are on an alternative-spring break week engaged in service in Oregon. Most are undergraduates, with a sprinkling of masters and doctoral students. It’s a great opportunity to see the future of the country, as well as talk a little about my college’s graduate programs. Other schools are here, as well as non-academic opportunities after graduation, such as City Year, TFA, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. I want to see several of these students at Arizona State in the future, but I am sure this cohort will have a substantial impact on the world no matter where they end up.

The students had a number of good questions for me (and others). Since my division just finished its admissions process for the summer 2015 EdD cohort, my mind is stuck on the question one undergraduate posed in the morning: “What are admissions committees looking for?” He’s asking a few years in advance, since I think he was a second or third-year undergraduate. But it’s a good question precisely because applying for graduate programs is different from applying to an undergraduate program. Graduate programs are specialized, especially doctoral degrees, and some facts may surprise applicants.

For now, I will focus on doctoral programs, at least in my experience over a few decades. In a nutshell, here are some of the issues and the pieces of evidence that faculty look at in evaluating applicants:

  • Is the program a good fit for the applicant? For our EdD program, for example, we are looking for applicants who have experience in the field, want to stay where they are in the field, and become scholar-practitioners. It is not a track to research-faculty status, and while we try to make that clear in communicating with potential applicants, someone who talks about becoming a faculty member at a research university is not likely to be admitted. We are much more likely to admit an applicant who writes in a personal statement about the challenges of practice in her or his field as potential targets of change, and where that focus and temperament is reflected in reference letters. Our PhD programs are different, and the question of program fit is more about a post-degree research orientation, interest in being a full-time student, and subject interests that match the program.
  • For PhD programs, is there a faculty advisor? This is a subset of the program-fit question. For our interdisciplinary PhD programs, it is crucial that the program faculty include one person who can advise the student at the beginning and several faculty reasonably aligned with the student’s interests. I take applicants’ firm commitments to a dissertation subject with a grain of salt, since student development in doctoral programs should change how the student looks at research and at individual questions. On the other hand, the student’s substantive areas of interest should align with a critical (if small) mass of faculty. Applicants frequently look at our list of program faculty and talk about faculty they would like to work with. For me as a reader of applications, what matters is less aspirational networking than substantive interest that truly fits the faculty active in the program.
  • Is the applicant likely to succeed in the program as it exists? Transcripts are an important indicator for doctoral students, especially at the graduate level. But not all classes are as important as one thinks: if I am looking at an undergraduate transcript from 20 years ago, and someone had to take calculus twice because he failed in the first semester of college, I am generally not going to worry about that if all other indicators are positive. On the other hand, I will look closely at the quality of writing in the personal statement and writing sample, and read reference letters for consistency and for attention to issues that are most important in the program to which the individual applied. For our EdD program, we do not require GRE scores, but we do in PhD programs, and they matter in an intangible way. Maybe it might work best to put it this way: if you want to be a highly-quantitative researcher, a very low quantitative GRE score is not going to be persuasive about your ability to finish a program with that goal. In general I am skeptical of using GRE scores in an absolute decision-making sense. My colleagues’ mileage may vary.

The specifics here are tied to the programs in my division and college, but there are parallel questions whenever admissions are limited in advanced graduate programs: Can we see evidence that the applicant will succeed? Is this a substantive match? Do all the pieces of evidence point in the same direction?