Christopher W. Fletcher

Sketchy [Graduate School] Admissions Process

Created: October 30, 2010
Updated: October 9, 2011

Here is a story that happened to me after my graduate  school applications went out.  I will try to share some insight at the end for educational purposes - should it ever happen to you.

One day (early Spring, 2010) I was chatting with a Berkeley faculty member about something research related.  Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, the faculty member asked me: "so, rumor has it, if you get accepted to XX university, you will accept the admissions offer."  The XX university was not Berkeley.

This kind of rocked my boat when it happened.  XX university was definitely one of my top choices (evidently, this was publicly known).  Yet, I had also applied to Berkeley, and would have been thrilled to go/stay there.  The question threw me off guard because I thought that saying "Yes, if I got into XX, I would definitely go there," would compromise my chances of getting into Berkeley.  Why would Berkeley admit me if they knew I had other plans, contingent upon admission elsewhere?  Skeptically, I responded very slowly: "No, depending on where I get in, I will evaluate all of my choices, visit each school, and decide based on what best fits my research interests and work style." Despite the situation being rather sketchy, I think that this was the right response.

Looking at this from a reader's perspective, I can understand why my paranoia might seem a bit unfounded.  (1), Berkeley didn't know if I was going to get into university XX.  (2), Berkeley didn't know, for certain, if I would go to university XX over Berkeley (given both options).  Let me try to put this into perspective.  As many of you know, faculty members are predominantly in charge of admitting graduate students.  My assumption was that faculty members across universities talked about who was applying where each year.  If that was the case, they could have the answer to (1) before me.   If they got (2) from me directly, they could [theoretically] better control their matriculation rate through rejecting me.

After this encounter, several of my peers were asked similar questions regarding their graduate school plans.   The story on the block was that Berkeley's last round of graduate admissions had yielded a low matriculation rate (apparently, admit visit day went badly) and that the department didn't want a repeat situation to happen.  In other words: stamp out the students who were 100% set to go elsewhere, as admitting those students would strictly decrease the end matriculation rate. Some of my peers were decently spooked out about this.

Side story: The rumors swimming amongst Berkeley undergrads got out of control as time went on.  At the pinnacle of all of this, the theory was that faculty traded students like baseball cards.  "If you get student X, I get student Y, etc..."  I will address my own faculty encounter at the end of this post, but let me stamp out the baseball card thing right now:  completely bogus.  There are several far-fetched reasons why faculty might want to do this (control matriculation rates, plan funding, etc).  For reasons discussed below, they don't just don't add up to something this sketchy.

Lessons learned

Since graduate applications were still out when this story went down, I dropped the topic until decisions came back.  When the letters came back, everything turned out to be fine.  If there was any potential harm to my chances through answering the faculty member incorrectly, I had dodged the bullet.

Later, I brought the situation up with several faculty from several schools in casual conversation.  One reason why the paranoia doesn't add up  is because graduate programs compete for students. Their research is driven by students.  It behooves them to have the best students.   This is absolutely priority one.  Summarily rejecting students for matriculation reasons or trading students like cards doesn't really fit into this picture.

Here is a behind the scenes tid-bit from faculty: If an admissions committee really wants a student, even if they know the student will probably not accept the offer of admission, they will probably still offer admission.  Why?  Even if a student thinks that their heart is set on some university before they hear back, there is always a chance that they will change their mind.  As it turns out, the Berkeley faculty didn't want to know their undergraduates' plans so that they could reject their undergraduates.  Instead, they wanted to know their undergraduates plans so that they had a sense of how many extra admissions offers they would have to make that year.  For example, if you are an admissions committee and know that 20% of your admit pool has a 99% chance of going elsewhere, you should probably admit another ~20% to cover the expected loss.  The danger in doing this is that too many people might decide to matriculate.  As it turns out, admitting too many people isn't that big of a deal because it is controllable.  If a department admits too many people one year, they can always compensate by admitting less the next year (this is common practice and is the source of much anxiety for those applying).  Admitting too few students, on the other hand, could be a real problem if matriculation rate hits the bucket -- again, primarily because the department's research horsepower will decrease for an entire year.

So, to students in the middle of the applying: know that admissions committees will be fighting to get you to come to their program.  In that business, there is no room for sketchy cooperation between faculty.  It just doesn't make sense from a "greed is good" perspective.