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Demystifying graduate applications: admissions process

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

The graduate admissions process can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate - particularly if you haven’t had the opportunity to connect with a mentor during your undergraduate studies. How and why candidates are selected by graduate programs is part of the “hidden curriculum” of academia - the collection of unwritten rules, unspoken expectations, and unofficial norms of the cultural context in which higher learning is situated (Boston University, Teaching the Hidden Curriculum). In the spirit of transparency, I thought I might provide some insights from my time on admissions committees that I hope will help you craft the strongest possible application!

  1. Graduate programs often provide clear minimum requirements to be considered for admission. These may include a cutoff GPA, the completion of an undergraduate thesis or research project, or specific course requirements. These requirements typically reflect the traits that the admissions committee believes best predict student success. They also typically align well with the criteria used to adjudicate graduate scholarship applications. Thus, these requirements ensure that the admitted class of students are highly likely to complete the program (a very important metric for the program), and well positioned to obtain external funding (very important to potential graduate advisors).

  2. While meeting these requirements may ensure you are eligible for graduate study in your program of choice, this is typically insufficient to secure a place in the program. Admission is typically conditional on finding a faculty member who is interested in supervising your graduate work. In many cases, applications of eligible students are circulated to faculty members, who may choose to schedule interviews and make offers of admission. However, many students (and likely a majority of those who are ultimately accepted into the program) will have engaged their intended faculty advisor well in advance of the application deadline. This has a number of advantages:

    1. Applications can be costly - reaching out early allows faculty members to specify whether they are recruiting in an area of research that interests you in the coming year, and whether your application would be competitive.

    2. Many faculty members recruit through a number of graduate programs - reaching out early will allow them to guide you to the most appropriate program.

    3. Eligibility decisions may be affected by whether an applicant has reached out to potential advisors, and whether those advisors have expressed an interest in taking on the student.

  3. In some cases failing to meet the minimum requirements described above will mean immediate exclusion from the application pool. However, you may have a reasonable explanation for failing to meet one or more of these requirements that could rescue your application (e.g., a family commitment that resulted in an uncharacteristic dip in your GPA). Many admissions committees have evolved to be sensitive to applicants’ individual experiences; however they can only evaluate your application based on the information you have provided. Thus, be sure to include explanations of extenuating circumstances in your applicant statement and, if possible, have letter writers provide supporting evidence that a particular part of your application may not reflect your true potential.

  4. Speaking of letter writers, ensure your referees are selected and prepared in a way that best supports your application package. Admissions committees often treat these letters as an endorsement of your potential to be successful in their graduate program. When selecting your letter writers, ensure they are willing/able to write a strong letter in support of your application (ask this explicitly). If they agree, provide them with the information they need to help provide evidence of research potential that may not yet be captured on your CV (e.g., manuscripts nearing submission, conference presentations on the horizon, leadership demonstrated within the lab/classroom). While some programs may specify that they require academic letters of reference, if you feel that someone other than a faculty member might better positioned to comment on your suitability for graduate work (e.g., a clinical supervisor, leadership at a non-profit, copy editor, etc.) reach out to the program admin to see if that letter could be included in place of or in addition to an academic appraisal.

  5. Admissions committees typically comprise faculty members who may have little knowledge about academic norms outside of their field of study. If you are switching fields of study (e.g., an engineering student applying to a neuroscience graduate program), take extra care to put your accomplishments in context. If you’ve recently published in a top tier journal in a narrow discipline, point that out. If your discipline treats conference proceedings as equivalent to published manuscripts, point that out too. Give the committee the evidence they need to argue that you have been successful, and will continue that success in their program (again, this is something referees can highlight in their letters to corroborate).

In my experience, admissions committees are focused on ensuring students entering their program will be successful and productive members of the research community. My hope is that this peek behind the curtain of the graduate admissions process will help you approach the applications process from the strongest possible position.


  1. Admissions requirements are designed to optimize student success

  2. Most successful applicants connect with advisors prior to even applying

  3. Admissions committees can only evaluate based on the information you provide

  4. You can/should advise letter writers on how they can best support your application

  5. Ensure admissions committees understand how success is captured in your field

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