The Admission Committee Process

By Dr. Sheila Thomas, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

From a student’s perspective, the admissions committee is the “black box” of the application process. Your application marches in; a decision comes out. But students are rarely privy to how admissions committees make their decisions. This article details the process of most admissions committees.

It’s best to remember that the admissions committee process involves multiple stages, multiple people, and multiple application criteria. The number of applications that a program receives vastly outweighs the number of spots they have open. So the early stages of the process typically involve shrinking the pool of applicants to a manageable number of applications. For some programs, this process may be an administrative one, where they simply apply a cutoff according to applicants’ GPA or GRE scores. In other cases, they may consider other elements of your application portfolio as well, but may only have time for a surface level review. Read the FAQ’s and online descriptions of the admission’s committee process for each of the programs you may apply to to get a sense of how they make decisions.

After this initial review, your application will head to the faculty on the admissions committee. The good news is that these faculty members are your future mentors and will be highly invested in the decision that they are making. The bad news is that these faculty are serving on the admissions committee in addition to all of their other usual teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities. They have a very short window of time to read and assess dozens upon dozens of applications. Individual members of a committee will rate applications or compile a short list of potential applications on the basis of a wide range of criteria, though typically your statement of purpose (see page 22), letters of recommendation (see page 26), and writing sample (see page 24) are the most important at this stage. These elements take on this importance because members of the committee are trying not only to determine your academic abilities but also your fit with their program. Very often students who have demonstrated academic excellence as undergraduates and have high GRE scores are rejected for lack of fit.

From this pool of applications, which is typically only a fraction of the total applications the program received, the committees will choose a set of applicants for admissions. At this point, committees will often take into consideration factors that seem to have nothing to do with the pure merit of your application. If your discipline has multiple subfields, they will be looking for a balance between those subfields in the cohort they accept. They will be considering the overall makeup of their current graduate students and may seek to address imbalances by pursuing a particular mix of incoming students. In some cases, they may decline to offer you admission because they think you will be accepted and choose to go elsewhere. It is not uncommon for a student to be rejected by their safety schools, but accepted by their dream programs.

Throughout this process, applications that present a compelling narrative about why the applicant wants to pursue a graduate degree and why the applicant is a good fit for doing so at that particular program tend to be more successful than those that do not present that narrative. Remember that they see dozens upon dozens of applications. So your narrative as told in your statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and even writing sample is your best chance of standing out.

Action Items

  1. Gather available information about the committee’s decision-making process.
  2. Focus on telling a compelling story about why you “fit.”
  3. Bear in mind that there is no way to know exactly what a committee is looking for in a given year.

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