The Graduate School Application Process: A Glimpse Behind the Scenes

Stephanie Small - July 2013


You’ve shed blood, sweat and tears over your graduate school application until you’re convinced you come across as an irresistible candidate – or at least an interesting one.  But what’s actually going on in the minds of those mysterious titans of fate: the graduate school admissions officers? What does the admissions process look like, and how in the world do they choose one applicant over another? While each graduate school admissions department has its own particular protocols, certain aspects are common to all. And admissions committees themselves are the first to admit that the admissions process is both art and science, concrete and intangible.

Submission Deadlines:

Early application deadlines often attract superior candidates as well as applicants who want to clarify that this school is their top choice. Admissions committees know this and often enroll heavily from the early decision round. If you think your application stands up against the best of the best, early decision might be a good choice for you. However, if given a choice between an early deadline and the regular deadline, more “average” candidates may do well to avoid competing with the top contenders and wait to throw their hat in the ring a bit later. And a special note for procrastinators: applicants to rolling admissions who submit their paperwork on the later side run the risk of missing a slot.

Initial Screening:

Many schools have a GPA or GRE score marker below which they will not admit. In the first round of application review, those in this category may be immediately rejected. Many schools also have certain cultural markers that raise red flags during the application process, such as advanced age, poor or odd recommendations, or extended periods of unemployment. This is most common with top and second-tier schools. 

Application Review by Individual Officers:

Every school does this differently. For the most part, in smaller schools, admissions officers (or “directors”) are assigned applicants by graduate program (assuming the school houses more than one). Larger schools, or schools that house only one type of program, assign applicants by region. After reading, individual officers generally assign applications a numerical value based on the quality of the applicant’s personal statements, letters of recommendation, GPA, and standardized test scores. Some schools also rate work experience and extra-curricular activities. Not all of these components are rated equally. In addition, some graduate admissions programs assign a second or even third reader to each application. Having more than one person rate an application can increase inter-rater reliability, preventing a certain group from having higher scores simply because their reader generally scores higher.


Interview protocol varies greatly among graduate schools. Some require it; some don’t; some offer it by invitation only. In general, for schools that do offer them, applicants that make the cut from the first round are invited for an on-campus or Skype interview. The interviewer assigns a numerical rating to the applicant based on the interview process, assigning scores to qualities that the school seeks in its students. These might include “leadership potential” for a business school or “analytical thinking” for a law school.

Although applicants often shudder at the prospect of the graduate school admissions interview, it’s actually a fantastic way to express aspects of your character that may not come across on paper. Attributes such as poise, articulation, confidence, professionalism, and a quick wit go a very long way in impressing admissions officers. In addition, the interview is a chance for both you and admissions to determine if there’s a “fit”. Do your values, interests, and aspirations match those of the graduate program to which you’re applying? Will you bring complementary experience, or diversity? Admissions officers consider all of these less tangible aspects when determining which applicants to accept.

Application Review by Committee: Generally, the committee meets regularly so that the admissions officers can present their top choices. In a well-functioning admissions committee, members trust one another’s judgment, but may offer questions or debate a point if their opinions are in serious conflict. Applicants approved at the time of the committee meeting are offered places in the following academic year’s class.

Truly, the admissions process is unpredictable. Every year across the globe, thousands of qualified applicants are disappointed to receive rejection emails, particularly if applying to top-tier schools where the rate of acceptance can be less than 5%! So give it your best shot and let your true personality and qualifications emerge via your application. In the end, if you’re not accepted, just remember that there are usually far more applicants than available spaces. But if you are…congratulations! You’ve mastered the mysterious equation that leads to graduate school acceptance.


Learn More About Applying to Graduate School



Publishing Rights: You may republish this article in you website, newsletter, or book, on the condition that you agree to leave the article, authors signature, and all links completely intact.

Find Schools