Thoughts on the graduate admissions process


Theodore A. Corcovilos


November 6, 2018

The DAMOP session on graduate admissions was enlightening and disheartening. Best practices are not being followed by schools or by students. I’ll discuss a little of what I learned here.

This post is long, long overdue. I beg forgiveness, dear reader, as real life took precedence for a couple of months. And then procrastination set in, and then…. Anyway, because graduate school application season is near, it seemed appropriate to finish the ideas here and push them out to the world.

The DAMOP session on graduate admissions last summer was enlightening and disheartening. Best practices are not being followed by schools or by students. I’ll discuss a little of what I learned here, and some things that have come to mind in as I’ve had a chance to process some of what I learned.

The session itself was held back on Wednesday, May 30, and was titled “Rethinking Graduate Admissions.” Here are the abstracts. The presenters were


I won’t do a play-by-play of the session, but I do feel it is important to share what I perceived as the key points of the session. I think that everyone in attendance recognized that physics in the US is still a dominantly white-cis-hetero-male culture, and that diversifying the field will benefit us all. The overarching problem is that we have few concrete ideas as a community for accomplishing this. First, although this wasn’t the topic of the session, we must police ourselves and remove those who harass and discriminate against women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ individuals so that physics builds a more welcoming environment.

Many of us bemoan the “leaky pipeline” that causes women and minorities to lose interest in physics as they go from children to teenagers to college students to graduate students to professionals, but there are some places where we’ve drilled the holes into the pipeline ourselves. This set of talks made it clear that the graduate admissions process is one. (And it seems likely that these same faults apply to undergraduate recruiting as well.)

The GRE is flawed, or at least it doesn’t do what we think it does.

Miller discussed two major flaws with relying on the Physics GRE for admissions decisions. First, despite the best efforts of the exam designers, the test scores are biased against underrepresented minorities. This doesn’t appear to be a problem with the questions on the exam, but rather the testing process itself. The standardized testing environment causes added stress to minorities (e.g. stereotype threat), causing them to do more poorly than their ability would predict. According to Miller, this causes significantly lower Physics GRE scores. Data show that the most affected groups are African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. White women see a smaller, but still significant effect, and intersectionality (belonging to more than one minority group) compounds the decrease.

As a result of the testing bias, when graduate admissions committees use cutoffs (minimum percentile scores or minimum raw scores) to exclude applicants, as many as 75% of underrepresented applicants are automatically excluded. At least a third of physics PhD programs use these cutoffs,1 with many others using “soft” cutoffs (whatever that means) or otherwise making the GRE physics exam a major component in admissions decisions.

It’s easy to demonize departments for doing this, but the task they have is daunting. They have to whittle down perhaps hundreds of applications into a few dozen for closer consideration. Using test scores is easy, and it is easy to mistakenly believe that the tests are objective. However, it clearly doesn’t work as intended. Increasingly, schools are dropping the GRE Physics requirement (14% according to a recent survey2).

Nor can ETS, the company that administers the test, be solely to blame. In their own score interpretation guide, they warn against using cutoffs for exactly the reasons above:3

The GRE Board believes that GRE scores should never be the sole basis for an admissions decision and that it is inadvisable to reject an applicant solely on the basis of GRE scores. A cutoff score below which every applicant is categorically rejected without consideration of any other information should not be used.

This brings me to Miller’s second point: the GRE Physics exam does not predict success in graduate school. He showed data showing nearly zero correlation between GRE Physics scores and grad school GPA. There is an acknowledged survivor’s bias in the data – students who weren’t admitted into grad school were obviously missing from the data – but the trend is concerning and puts the use of test scores for admissions further into doubt. Among the variables that Miller discussed, undergraduate GPA was the best predictor of success, but even that correlation was weak (r = 0.3 is what I put in my notes).

What Miller advocates for is a holistic admissions process,4 and given the data above, it seems clear to me that this is imperative. However, I’m still struggling with what it means for those of us who teach undergraduates. The depressing truth is that the students still need to do well on the GRE Physics exam to be admitted to most schools. The one bright spot is that more and more graduate schools are using holistic evaluations. I feel I should steer students towards those schools, but there is no comprehensive list that I know of. Some institutions are part of the APS Inclusive Graduate Education Network (IGEN), so this may be a good starting place. If you know of other schools, please let me know.

Faculty and students view admissions standards differently

The talks by Potvin and Cochran both addressed the topic of perceptions of graduate admissions. Potvin presented some survey data5 and Cochran presented some interview results6 of students from underrepresented groups.

The most important criteria for graduate admissions, according to the survey of admissions chairs7 are

  1. Undergraduate GPA in physics and math
  2. Letters of recommendation (emphasis added)
  3. Courses taken and GRE Physics score (tied)

The least important factors are the proximity/familiarity of the undergraduate department to the admissions committee, GRE general scores (GRE general math is too easy for physics students and GRE written is less relevant), and student conference presentations. The problem is that students seem more concerned with things like the reputation of their undergraduate institutions and research output. This can cause good students to miss out because they have spent their energy on things that are uninteresting to admissions committees.


The key thing that I’ve learned is that there are huge gaps between

  • What graduate admissions committees are trying to do,
  • What graduate admissions committees are actually doing, and
  • What prospective students think graduate admissions committees are doing.

It really is a mess. From my point of view as an advisor to undergraduates, I think my best approach is to be very conservative in my advice to students. First, that means educating them on the process and reminding myself to take nothing for granted. Also, I must (1) assume the worst practices from graduate admissions and (2) push my students to schools with better admissions criteria. I think the latter is important, not just for increasing the chances of my students being accepted, but also because the schools that are cognizant of their admissions process are also more likely to be proactive towards the general wellbeing of their students with regards to things like mental health, work-life balance, and sexual harassment/discrimination. While we’re all waiting for the physics community to fix its graduate admissions problems, I need to at least protect my own students.

I’d love to hear any observations or advice on this.