So we're getting to that time of the year again. Some of you have probably started schools sites nearly daily to see if their applications are available. Most of you (I hope) have already written your first few drafts of your SOP and have your LOR's planned. The rest of you still have time, so don't worry yet, but these are things that you should definitely be thinking about now.
So, right around this time of year we seem to get a glut of questions about the application. While we all try to respond in a timely manner, I thought I would try to coalesce all of the information that I have learned, either on here or in real life, into one master process post. The point of this is not to talk about the process from your side, I've already done a few posts on things like that and you can look through my back catalog to find info on timing and what I think you should be doing. Rather this post is meant to provide you with some explanation of the black box of admission committees.
First a disclaimer, I am not on an admissions committee. I do not understand all of the idiosyncrasies of their decisions. The fact that two applicants can look almost identical on paper and still one gets moved forward while the other trashed, makes no sense to me. This post is meant to combine all I have gathered from years on this forum with personal experience. Each school is different in their approach and while all schools have general trends, every one will be slightly different. This post is meant as an overview. As always, your particular mileage will vary. With that in mind, I present to you Xanthus's Understanding of the Path to Acceptance!
You've submitted your application, what happens next? My understanding is that the committee takes all the applications randomly sorts them into piles of 20, rolls a 20 sided die for each pile and reads that application. The rest are disposed of.
No what normally happens, in my understanding, is that either the graduate school, or in some cases the department, collects all of the applications. They sit on a shelf/in a folder until the deadline has been reached. Some schools will take a cursory glance at the material so as to not be so overloaded when the deadline comes, but I get the impression that this is rare, although a lot of schools probably intend to do this, life gets in the way.
If the cursory glance happens, the school is looking for specific cut-offs, either in numbers (GMAT and GPA) or LOR writers. If the threshold is met, the application is passed on, otherwise it is trashed/stored in a file for later use (as all rejection letters say). If the school waits for the deadline, the same thing happens. This process allows the school to decrease the hundreds of applications down a little (or a lot depending on the school and their cut-offs). The goal for this step is to cull the field. I hear that not all schools do this, though. Some schools look at everyone's application, but I can't give you specifics as to which schools these are.
Either way once this step is complete (or not), the applications are passed throughout the department. Some schools have specific faculty who look at the applications, some schools have all faculty do it, some even have students do it, but this is rare. Whatever the case, everyone who has a group of applications will read them, fairly quickly. It can reasonably be expected that each reader will spend somewhere between 30 seconds and 90 seconds on each application on this step. My point? You spent months crafting your manifesto of an SOP, only to be read for 30 seconds at your top choice, in the grand scheme of things, do your best, but submit when you're ready.
The faculty uses this read to place applications into three piles.
1. Trash, sorry you're not getting accepted this year.
2. Read further. Something about the application stood out, but other parts were sub-par. Definitely worth taking another look. 50% or more of these will get trashed before going further.
3. Send to the rest of the faculty. These applications are good enough to move forward to views by the rest of the faculty.
Once the read further pile has been decided upon, the ones not trashed are combined with those in pile 3. This pile is sent to the rest of the faculty. At this point all the faculty look over the applications that are now part of the official consideration set (this number changes from school to school, but generally I assume that this is something like 20 applications). Of these applications the faculty decide to interview a subset of them, after debate and discussion. For the sake of argument we'll say they interview 10 of the 20 from the initial consideration set. So, quick recap, the school receives around 300 applications. 20-30 are given consideration and 10 are interviewed.
The reading is generally done during Christmas break and discussions happen in the first week back (mid-January). Schools start sending out interview invites around this time, give or take 3 weeks. After interviews where the faculty take a bunch of notes and make decisions about how you'll fit in with the department research stream and culture, another debate happens. If you made a good impression and have some faculty pulling for you, you'll get an offer. This depends on year and department need, but generally it's something like 1.6 offers made for every available spot. The school, correctly, assumes that not everyone who gets an offer will accept it, so they want to ensure that they fill up their slots. This generally happens mid-February through mid-March. If, however, all of the interviews weren't great and the faculty aren't particularly stoked about any of them, they'll move down their list to interview more from that consideration set.
If no one accepts the schools offer they have two choices. First they could decide to not bring on anyone in that year. If it's late enough and they didn't love any other candidates this will happen. Second they could decide to interview more off of their waiting list and if they like one they'll accept them.
Either way by May, they'll generally be set with their incoming class. Very few moves happen in the summer, but it's not impossible. For those of you who did not get accepted, letters will trickle in sometime between January and the end of time, with some never showing up. Whether right or wrong, schools don't seem to follow any moral code on letting people know they weren't accepted.
Before I end this there are two HUGE caveats. First a lot of departments are looking for specific roles to be filled. Perhaps a faculty member is looking to add a new student. With this in mind if your research interests don't fit with the openings, you probably won't be accepted. While your application may still be looked at, your chances are pretty small (of course at top schools they accept people for every discipline). This is not something that you can know going in, for the most part unless you have a contact at the school, so don't stress about it. And you can always justify your rejection as they weren't accepting your discipline this year.
Second, if you or your LOR writers know someone at the school, your application process is different. Basically what this gets you is almost a straight shot into the top 20 consideration set. It normally means that you might get an interview as well, but that is not guaranteed. This is also why you'll see some interviews for schools in December or early January, at least that is my guess. The point is that you should use as many people and connections as you can. But keep in mind that this does not guarantee you a spot. You also need to fit in with their research and write a good application.
Alright so that is my take on how a bill becomes a law, or rather how a field of applications goes from hundreds to 5 acceptances. If you disagree, please feel free to comment below. If you really disagree please see my disclaimer above.