Ever wonder what goes on during secretive graduate school admission committee meetings? Aspiring graduate students all have one thing in common – they want to know the answer.

After dedicating months of your time to carefully curating an application, you submit it with only the hope that one day you will be granted admittance. But what truly happens behind those closed doors? How are applications assessed and decisions made? What discussions take place between graduate admission committee members? Why does one student get into a program while another doesn’t even make the cut?

To help answer these questions, we decided to share the knowledge that we gained as a graduate school admissions consultant, and while serving as a professor and faculty member on admission committees for PhDs and master’s programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University.

Here’s an insider look into 7 things every graduate school admission committee wants to keep secret.

1. Your communication and interactions with the school are tracked

Attending a campus visit, sitting on a remote info session, and interacting with alumni or current students are all interactions every graduate school admission committee not only records but also takes into consideration when evaluating an applicant’s profile. Such engagements allow admissions committees to understand an applicant’s level of interest in the school and can provide key insights into why an individual would be a good fit for the program. Moreover, these interactions also allow an applicant to gain a real-time understanding of what it’s actually like to be a student at the school and can provide valuable information regarding how their interests may be supported by the college or university’s resources. As such, engaging in campus visits and other interactions with current students or alumni can be a great way for an applicant to demonstrate their level of interest and stand out from the crowd.

Each graduate admissions committee typically takes these interactions into account, so applicants should make sure that they are well-prepared for any info sessions or campus visits to demonstrate their enthusiasm and seriousness about attending the university. Furthermore, alumni and current students can be an invaluable source of information and support throughout the application process.

When speaking to the admissions office, it is also essential to be mindful of your words and actions as poor treatment towards staff, especially those in an administrative role, may impact the outcome of your application. Do not overlook or underestimate the power of personnel answering your phone calls and emails – they can have a substantial effect on an applicant’s admittance likelihood. Such interactions often make more of an impact than one would imagine!

The graduate admissions process can be highly stressful, yet that doesn’t permit you to be rude or demanding towards anybody appointed to the admissions office – even if schools aren’t actively monitoring your interests. Therefore it’s important not just for admission purposes but also for establishing yourself in a positive light when interacting with an institution.

When conversing with administrators over the phone, remember to make a good impression. Ultimately, be sure to exude kindness; this is not only great life advice but also essential for your application reader’s perception of you.

2. Your application only has a few minutes to make an impression

The admissions committee of competitive programs must maintain a demanding reading pace while going through the regular decision applicant pool. Readers are anticipated to go through multiple applications within an hour, which is equivalent to merely minutes per application. In that limited amount of time, they need to review the student’s entire application including their standardized test scores, transcript, statement of purpose, and writing sample— all in addition to taking down notes and deciding on whether or not the candidate should be admitted.

Pause for a moment and consider this: admissions officers don’t have an inordinate amount of time to go through your materials, so it is vital to design your application thoughtfully.

It’s best to avoid submitting extra material or exceeding the word count limit requested by the school. After all, they don’t have much time to read them!

3. You must stand out from other remarkable applicants

Many applications can be labeled as simply “good” rather than exemplary. During the application review process, admission committees often develop acronyms to notify that a student was competent but nothing too remarkable.

In light of the tremendous amount of applications that the admission committee must assess, it’s imperative to consider what will make your application stand out among all the others. You don’t want to be average; you need to be special, unforgettable, and emphatically unique!

4. Admission decisions are all about building a diverse cohort, not just about your skills

Despite being incredibly talented, sometimes the school must admit other people to benefit the entire class. A student’s admission decision can always be adjusted between admitted and defer/waitlist until the admissions committee begins forming its final list. On rare occasions, members of the admissions team are lucky enough to add back in a few of their preferred students (who had been previously moved down to ‘defer’ or ‘waitlist’) during this process. The members of the admission committee have a deep commitment to helping students and sincerely look out for their interests. Ultimately, however, they must consider what is best for the school to create a diverse and vibrant incoming class.

Despite your best efforts on your application, admission is not always guaranteed. Universities must strive to build a diverse and well-rounded class of graduates; the specifics may differ from year to year or school to school, but having balance among the student body is constantly essential.

Envision a scenario where universities only admitted students with identical research interests. This would be disastrous for the institution – some departments may become obsolete, and faculty members could even lose their jobs! Fortunately, this does not take place so take into account what novel outlooks you might bring to your school’s department and incoming class.

5. Admissions Committees Hate Robots

Make sure your unique personality shines through in every aspect of the application. An admissions committee will be looking at who you are beyond just academic qualifications – they want to know if you’ll make a good classmate, contribute positively to their community and show that you’re more than just smart. Arrogance won’t get you far but wit, charm, and generosity will! Showcase why YOU should be chosen above all else for an unforgettable graduate school experience.

Your worth is much more than your GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars. You are a unique individual with many valuable qualities- like wit, interest in learning new things, and being able to relate to other people! Utilize parts of your application to showcase these softer attributes that will make you stand out from the competition.

Schools are looking for more than just high IQs; they strive to form a class of learners who will make admirable companions, teammates, leaders, and friends.

6. Show your face if you can

Interviews provide you with an unparalleled advantage. When given the chance to take part in an interview, absolutely do so – applicants who capitalize on such opportunities are more likely to be admitted into their dream school. Face-to-face meetings with prospective professors can also give your application a boost and help you gain acceptance.

An interview, campus visit, or conversation with a professor allows you to make your application come alive with more color and personality. A successful interview or conversation could be just what you need to give your application that extra boost of energy it needs in order to get into the “admitted” pile.

7. Don’t make this all about you

Before visiting the campus or meeting with a professor, it’s essential to equip yourself with thoughtfully-crafted and pertinent questions. Failing to do so is detrimental – not only does it give off an impression of laziness but also reflects poorly on your character as a prospective grad student. Therefore, make sure that you have researched any questions beforehand which cannot easily be answered by perusing online materials.

Although a sit-down with faculty members can be beneficial, it is only effective if the student has prepared and demonstrated their enthusiasm for ideas, programs, or aspects of the school. To make a lasting impression that will boost your candidacy, ensure you are well informed about what you want to say and provide details on how specifically your personality could add value to the program. Unfortunately, many faculty members have stopped granting these meetings as they feel students often do not show enough preparation ahead of time. Ultimately, make the most of both your and the faculty member’s time.

Bottom Line

Showing your interest in a certain university is essential from the moment you begin the admissions process. From writing essays to meeting with professors, make sure to take such opportunities seriously and conduct thorough research on the school itself. Ask pertinent questions that showcase how well-suited you are for their institution, as admission committees always carefully observe applicants’ behavior.

As you’ve seen, the decision-making process can be complex. Ultimately, however, graduate admission committees strive to find the most talented and creative students who will bring fresh ideas and diverse perspectives to their institutions and programs. If you feel like grad school could be right for your future, have faith in yourself— you have the power to pursue your dreams. Take the first steps by conducting research on programs that suit your interests, strengthening your application materials, and familiarizing yourself with best practices for success during the admissions process. To learn more about how we can help at The Admit Lab go check out our graduate school application services today! Together let’s make that dream a reality! Got questions? Sign up for a consultation. It’s FREE!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Dr. Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Dr. Barr spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Dr. Barr has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

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