What made you think that Rohanps' letter-writer lied to him/her, and could you suggest tips on how future applicants can avoid this situation?
I have been involved in admissions for more than 5 years. Applications have become more competitive over time but at nothing near the rate Rohanps implies. Things have not changes so much that someone who got into Stanford 5 years ago would now be shut out of the top 20.
Kaysa isn't wrong that your own advisors may want to be encouraging about your admissions prospects; also, the people you ask for letters are probably those who you believe have the most positive assessment of your abilities. But the lesson to learn is that different professors have different preferences over graduate student profiles. Rohanps's professors might have actually preferred Rohanps to the student from five years before, but as evidenced by admissions outcomes, other professors felt differently. That should be motivation to apply broadly and include safety schools.
I applied in 2015 and this year. While I ofcourse had a better application with phd level courses I had a pretty big stain in my application (failing prelims will always make applying again extremely difficult).
Even then, I was accepted with funding (and fellowships) to schools that had, in 2015, only been waitlisted to. Even with the big X in my application, I was still able to get accepted to comparable (and some will say subjectively better) school than I am now.
From my personal experience it didn't really seem any more competative given I had better results than before. I can also support from my own application that getting of the waitlist was much harder. In 2015 almost all the schools who waitlisted me ended up asking if I wanted (an unfunded) offer. This year, I received many more waitlists but not one accepted me of the waitlist - all said that their first round outstanding offers had been accepted at a larger rate than prior years.
My general understanding has been that T20 programs have been reducing class sizes to be able to better fund matriculated students and reduce attrition rates over the last 2-3 years. For example, if Chicago Econ reduced the incoming cohort size to 20 from 40 in the last 2 years that alone would translate into tougher admission standards for the T10.
Here are the number of first year students in the top 20 programs each Fall.
2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 454 426 449 450 441
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