Reblogged: observations on graduate school admissions

This post was reblogged from Rebecca VanderMeulen, an #EMchat regular. Check her out on Twitter and keep up with her blog!


One of the cool things about my job providing administrative support to a university graduate program is that I get an inside view of what happens to a student’s application.

So far this year about 200 students have applied to our program, including applicants for our first cohort at a new satellite location. The basic process is that another office on campus collects each student’s application package. Faculty members in our department review applications and offer their opinions on whether each student should get in. Then applicants are admitted, denied or put on the wait list.

Meanwhile our department is planning for the next school year. As applications trickle in, people above me are making educated estimates about how many students they can expect in the fall. I read somewhere that from the college’s point of view, this process is sort of like landing a helicopter on a needle. Our program recruiter said that sounded about right. (Last month she got a university award for generally being awesome at her job. She seems to know what she’s doing.)

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far about the application process:

Regarding rolling admissions

When I was applying to colleges my senior year of high school, I thought “rolling admissions” meant “no specific deadline so you can send your application whenever you get around to it.”

Good thing none of the schools I wanted to go to had a rolling admissions policy.

Our program has “priority deadlines.” As it says on our website,

We will continue to process applications after these due dates but early applicants have a greater chance of admission. You are encouraged to apply early and have all required documents (recommendations, transcripts from all schools attended) submitted as early as possible.

While I started my job after all the priority deadlines had passed, I noticed that most applicants had learned where they stood. And like every other academic program, we have space for a finite number of students. Applications that show up after the priority deadline are still looked at, but those applicants might hear that we just don’t have room. This could be the case even if a fantastic application comes in – although I’m sure denying admission to a stellar student is a bit painful.

So send your application as soon as you can.

Tell us if you’re coming. Please!

The average college campus might look quiet over the summer, but there’s a lot happening behind the scenes. I think my busiest week so far was right after spring classes ended.

Graduate programs have a lot of work to prepare for incoming students. For one thing, students need to take classes, and they’d prefer if these classes weren’t too big. Each class needs to meet in a classroom. (One of the first things I learned here is that our university has a whole department dedicated to figuring out which events will take place in which room at which time.) Plus, each student needs an advisor. We have to figure out which faculty members will advise which students, and we have to make sure no advisor has more students than she can effectively work with. And since these are social work students, internships in the field are a major piece of the program. Our department has a staff member whose job is to coordinate the process of placing students in their internships. She’s also great at what she does. And I assure you that she’s very busy.

What does this mean for admissions?

Our recruiter regularly gives me names of applicants who’ve been accepted to our program but haven’t fully committed. Maybe they’ve paid their enrollment deposits but haven’t signed up for classes. Maybe they’ve gotten acceptance letters and never contacted us again. In any case I have to email and call them to ask whether we can expect to see them in the fall. I leave a lot of voice mails.

We really need to know who’s coming. Maybe one person’s decision to join our program means we need to open another section of a class. Maybe it means we have to hire an adjunct faculty member so you’re not sitting in a classroom with 30 other students.

So if you’ve definitely decided to go somewhere else for grad school, let us know. We want you to be successful and we won’t take it personally.

Wow, grad students are focused.

This spring I was working at a college fair as an admissions volunteer for my alma mater. A financial aid representative from another college told me the essential difference between high school seniors and graduate students: “Grad students know what they want.”

Whenever I have a chance I ask students in our program what they’d like to do after they graduate. They have precise goals and articulate well how they came to seek careers in social work. Their future clients are in good hands.