So just what do admissions committees look for? Their goal is to identify applicants who will become important researchers and leaders in their field. In other words, admissions committees try to select the most promising students. What's a promising student? One who has the ability to become an excellent graduate student and professional.
The Ideal Grad Student
The ideal graduate student is gifted, eager to learn, and highly motivated. He or she can work independently and take direction, supervision, and constructive criticism without becoming upset or overly sensitive. Faculty look for students who are hard workers, want to work closely with faculty, are responsible and easy to work with, and who are a good fit to the program. The best graduate students complete the program on time, with distinction - and excel in the professional world to make graduate faculty proud. Of course, these are ideals. Most graduate students have some of these characteristics, but nearly no one will have all, so don't fear.
Criteria Weighed by Admissions Committees
Now that you know the ideal to which graduate faculty strive in selecting new graduate students, let's look at how faculty weigh the various criteria for admission. Unfortunately there is no simple answer; each graduate admissions committee is a bit different, but generally speaking, the following criteria are important to most admissions committees:
- Undergraduate GPA (especially the last two years of college)
- Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores
- Recommendation letters
- Personal statement
Grade Point Average (GPA)
Grades are important not as a sign of intelligence, but instead grades are a long term indicator of how well you perform your job as student. They reflect your motivation and your ability to do consistently good or bad work. Not all grades are the same, though. Admissions committees understand that applicants' grade point averages often cannot be compared meaningfully. Grades can differ among universities - an A at one university may be a B+ at another. Also grades differ among professors in the same university. Admissions committees try to take these things into account when examining applicants' GPAs. They also look at the courses taken: a B in Advanced Statistics may be worth more than an A in Introduction to Social Problems. In other words, they consider the context of the GPA: where was it obtained and of what courses is it comprised? In many cases, it's better to have a lower GPA composed of solid challenging courses than a high GPA based on easy courses like "Basket Weaving for Beginners" and the like.
Clearly, applicants' grade point averages are difficult to compare. This is where Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores come in. Whereas grade point averages are not standardized (there are enormous differences in how professors within a department, university, or country grade student work), the GRE is. Your GRE scores provide information about how you rank among your peers (that's why it's important to do your best!). Although GRE scores are standardized, departments don't weigh them in a standardized way. How a department or admissions committee evaluates GRE scores varies - some use them as cutoffs to eliminate applicants, some use them as criteria for research assistantships and other forms of funding, some look to GRE scores to offset weak GPAs, and some admissions committees will overlook poor GRE scores if applicants demonstrate significant strengths in other areas.
Letters of Recommendation
Usually admissions committees begin the evaluation process by considering GPA and GRE score (or those of other standardized tests). These quantitative measures only tell a small part of an applicant's story. Letters of recommendation provide context within which to consider an applicant's numerical scores. Therefore it's important that the faculty who write your letters of recommendation know you well so that they can discuss the person behind the GPA and GRE scores. Generally speaking, letters written by professors known to committee members tend to carry more weight than those written by "unknowns." Letters written by well-known people in the field, if they signify that they know you well and think highly of you, can be very helpful in moving your application towards the top of the list.
The personal statement, also known as the admissions essay, statement of purpose, and personal goal statement, is your chance to introduce yourself, speak directly to the admissions committee, and provide information that doesn't appear elsewhere in your application. Faculty read personal statements very closely because they reveal lots of information about applicants. Your essay is an indicator of your writing ability, motivation, ability to express yourself, maturity, passion for the field, and judgment. Admissions committees read essays with the intent to learn more about applicants, to determine if they have the qualities and attitudes needed for success, and to weed out applicants who don't fit the program.