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The Admission Committee Process

Previously: Filling out and Submitting your Applications

By Dr. Elizabeth Bowman, Assistant Director, Graduate Programs in Biomedical Sciences, Vanderbilt University

The admissions committee process is an opaque one. While the way committees approach the review process is entirely out of your hands, it can be helpful to know what goes on behind the scenes. This article highlights the admissions committee process and what that process means for you.

When I applied to graduate programs, I hit submit to then be left eagerly waiting to hear from the institution. I asked myself a lot of questions: Do they know I’ve just submitted my application? Who is going to see it? Do they know how much time and effort I poured into this? What parts of the application will be read? How do I know whether I’ve sent all of the appropriate information? It felt like I was sending my effort into an abyss only to learn the result of my application without fully understanding the process. Here, I will describe how the admissions process is generally handled after submission and explain how committees consider your application.

To start, many programs take note of applications and sort them in batches rather than individually. These may be small batches throughout the application season, checking new applications every week or so. This approach is often referred to as rolling admission if the applications are also reviewed throughout the season. Alternatively, applications may be sorted and reviewed in one big batch after the application deadline has passed. Thus, your application may sit unreviewed for some weeks or months after you hit the submit button.

Some programs in the country receive too many applications to review each aspect meaningfully, so many programs follow a triage during the review process. For example, some programs have minimum criteria, such as GPA or experience cutoffs, that must be reached for the committee to review an application fully. Not every program has cutoffs, but you should make sure you are aware of any thresholds that a program might have so you will only apply to programs where your application will be reviewed.

After applications are sorted, they are then shared with the admissions committee. Committees are largely composed of faculty from the program who teach graduate and undergraduate students, manage their research program, write grants to maintain their lab funding, and squeeze other administrative responsibilities into their packed schedules. Given their busy schedules, the individuals who serve on these committees decide on a reviewed application fairly quickly. During the review, the committee is comparing your application to the dozens or hundreds of other applications they are reading. Thus, each application does not necessarily stand on its own merit but rather in comparison to the whole pool and only the best advance to the next step. Your task is to stand out.

If your application makes it to the committee, it will likely be read in depth by at least three faculty members. Some committee members may put a really strong emphasis on the academics, some may focus most on previous research, and others may pay more attention to your journey and motivations for pursuing graduate school. Highlight your strengths and the experiences that are driving your desire to attend graduate school so they are noticed by the committee. When the admissions committee meets to discuss the application reviews, most applications are discussed relatively quickly. If there is a consensus among reviewers, the details of the application are often not discussed in detail. However, if there are conflicting reviews, then the committee will often review the application as a group at a meeting and make a decision there.

So what does this process mean for you? First, take the time to inquire about what the committee considers important before preparing your application. Second, if your application makes it to the committee, a decision on your submitted application will be made after several faculty review it in depth, so your effort and care in assembling the application will be noticed. Finally, as much as the process may be perceived as unpredictable, admissions decisions are made with careful consideration, so take the time to detail your experiences and intentions.

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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