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Ph.D. programs admissions decisions are made without admissions professionals. Small groups of faculty members meet, department by department, to decide whom to admit. And their decisions effectively determine the future makeup of the faculty in higher education.Politicians, judges, journalists, parents and prospective students subject the admissions policies of undergraduate colleges and professional schools to considerable scrutiny, with much public debate over appropriate criteria.

A book titled Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, is out this month from Harvard University Press. Julie R. Posselt (right), the author and an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan, obtained permission from 6 highly ranked departments at three research universities to watch their reviews of candidates, and she interviewed faculty members at four others.

The faculty members she observed did not present her with a scripted and idealistic view of admissions. They were frank about things that they are unlikely to have shared in public. For instance, those who have Ph.D programs not at the very top of the rankings often talked about not wanting to offer a spot to someone they believed would go to a higher-ranked program. They didn’t want their department to be the graduate equivalent of what high school students applying to college term a safety school. Many of these departments turned down superior candidates, some of whom might have enrolled.Posselt tracks a strong focus on ratings, a priority on GRE scores that extends beyond what most department would admit (or that creators of the test would advise), and some instances of what could be seen as discrimination. White males “dominated” the admissions committees, and Posselt writes that chairs cite diversity as a value in appointing members in only two of the 10 departments she studied. There is a huge focus on GRE scores. Prestige of undergraduate program counted for a lot. But grade point average? Not so much.Grades are increasingly a lousy signal, especially at those elite places that just hand out the A’s. Admissions committee members generally assumed applicants were getting Ph.D.s for careers like theirs and are looking for signs of research potential.

The departments Posselt observed are “misusing the GRE,” and looking at scores “without context of the applicant. She urged departments to reflect on their practices, and to try to improve them and be more open about them.

Retrieved from an article by Scott Jaschik, Editor

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