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January 22, 2016

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Behind closed doors at universities throughout the country, admissions committees are poring over thousands of applications to graduate degree programs, making decisions that will determine the next generation of higher education leaders, politicians, lawyers, journalists and other professionals. 

What exactly that admissions process looks like is largely kept in the dark. But after spending two years in the field, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan Julie Posselt is pulling back the curtain in her new book, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping. 

Posselt was granted unprecedented access to admissions rooms at three universities -- two public and one private -- under the condition of total anonymity. She spent two years in field, working with a total of ten departments that spanned the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. 

Interview Highlights

On what graduate admissions committees look like:

It’s definitely not admissions professionals [as in the undergraduate level]. The committees that I observed, like the faculty of a lot of elite colleges and universities, were mostly male and mostly white. Only about 3 percent of those in my sample were US-born professors of color, and about 30 percent were female.

On how graduate admissions committees move through applications:

In the initial stages, the committees were largely relying on GRE scores and college grades. They would try to contextualize those college grades by prestige of the university the student had attended and toughness of the classes the students had taken. At this initial stage it was all about academics, but after that it was very idiosyncratic. 

In the second round of review, the committees would give full close readings of the letters of recommendation, personal statements, writing samples, and -- in some cases -- would really dig into the details to try to read between the lines, to infer intelligence, to see what a student might grow into as a scholar. Overall they would try to identify not only the people who they thought would be most successful as students, but also people whom they might like to have within their departments, and who could grow to become the next rising scholars for their discipline. In the second round of review I was really amused that several departments named something they called ‘jerk factor.’ They were trying to avoid students who they thought might be adding jerk factor to their departments by reviewing letters of recommendation and leaning on interviews with prospective students.

On consideration of race and class in admissions decisions:

I was actually very surprised about how rarely race came up. In general, when it did, professors were talking about race as one factor that’s related to diversity but diversity was just one factor among many when they were judging their short-list. So race was considered in the way that Ruth Bader Ginsburg described it was being considered in the undergraduate admissions process: as “a factor of a factor of a factor.” Race is not driving graduate admissions decisions.

On tips to prospective graduate school applicants:

You can probably work your way into the top 25 percent of applicants by having good academics, great letters of recommendation and some research experience. But beyond that it’s a really idiosyncratic process that’s beyond the applicants’ control; at that point it depends a lot on who’s on the committee, who else has applied, what the committee is looking for in a particular year and what kind of balance it's trying to achieve in that particular department.

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