I'm trying to imagine I'm someone else, a grocer, an aerialist, a young viola player who travels.  Billy Collins

How One Ph. D. Admissions Committee Chooses Students

By Kathleen Diffley
University of Iowa

Some years ago, I used to make my way through a Virginia campus that was intricate enough to get you lost: there were winding roads, hidden buildings, competing vehicles, and no maps. Fortunately, there was a guy whose only job was to direct traffic, and he took his job seriously. Each car that came in he fussed over, waved his hands, and then sent it on left or right with sweeping certainty. The volume of traffic never seemed to matter, any more than it ought to matter to those of us who direct graduate admissions committees. But to professors who urge strong students toward the gates of graduate school or to students who wish to apply, it must sometimes feel like the paths inside are too winding and the standards too hidden, the competition too keen and the maps nowhere to be found. So I would like to suggest how admissions directors and their committees can make such sweeping decisions about who will be admitted and who will not, and how, at the University of Iowa, we have kept writing rather than numerical scores central to the admissions process, even when faced with an increasing number of applicants.

At Iowa, where I am now Director of Graduate Studies and was until recently Director of Graduate Admissions, some 318 applicants tooled up to the gate this past year in 1995, down from a high of 416 in 1992. Over the past five years, there have annually been between 300 and 400 applications to the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in literary studies. These figures do not include the applicant pool for the M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing, a growing program in the art of the essay. Nor do they include the volleys of applications to the Writers Workshop, which operates its own fiefdom on the floor above us in the English-Philosophy Building and soon its own entire house. Of the hundreds of applicants we do nonetheless review, we admit roughly 10%. It may help to know that Iowa makes no distinction on the basis of degree goal, mostly because there is no separate track for M.A. students in literary studies. Nor does the Admissions Committee make any distinction on the basis of requested aid, which reveals less a singular focus on academic merit than a singular recognition that everyone eventually requests aid because of what it represents: departmental recognition, teaching experience, or the chance to work closely with faculty on their research. Iowa does welcome M.A.s from other institutions, but has increasingly provided less of a home for M.A. applicants than many other schools. Over the last three years, there have been no M.A. students in the department's entering Ph.D class, no doubt because M.A. students are no longer funded. If you don't pay them, evidently, they won't come.

Students still apply to the M.A. program, however, and their applications become part of the larger admissions pool. For the committee every year, there are five areas to assess in each file and thus five things of which prospective applicants should be aware. In the order of their importance, they are: the writing sample, GRE scores (largely because they come next in the application form), GPA(s) with transcripts, letters of recommendation, and statement of purpose.

At Iowa, the writing sample still accounts for at least half of the admissions decision. That submission works best as a single 20-25 page essay that is researched, lucid, and ambitious. It is increasingly difficult to be admitted to most doctoral programs with yet another close reading of Moby-Dick or The Tempest, not only because the profession has changed over the past five years, but because applicants have changed and so have the numbers in which they apply. Too applicants many submit wonderfully lucid and clearly venturesome essays that cannot rightly be set aside Too applicants many [sic] submit wonderfully lucid and clearly venturesome essays that cannot rightly be set aside—so many, in fact, that the basic admissions question has shifted at Iowa over five short years. Where committee members used to ask "Will this applicant do well in this program?" they now ask "Will this applicant do better than two or three hundred other applicants?" That's the bad news; the good news is that students who know they are aiming for substantial research papers can now make sure they complete such work, which could well make teaching advanced undergraduate courses and even early graduate courses more invigorating.

As to the Graduate Record Exams, only the verbal score is evaluated at Iowa for anything except the loftiest fellowships. Over the past three years, the median score has ranged from 680 to 730. Because some committee members believe the GREs to be corrupt or at least biased or at least as sternly dogmatic as many of the students who take the test, the Admissions Committee has always looked willingly and carefully at grade point averages, with a particular eye to coursework in literature and related fields. On balance, successful applicants at Iowa have had a median gpa of somewhere between 3.68 and 3.81, often as honors students. Those with bachelor's degrees in History or Communications Studies or even Biology often intrigue the committee, but such applicants are usually admitted only with M.A.s in English and thus with some training in literary study to their credit. A scrambling freshman year or a precipitous change in majors or a true disaster in Organic Chemistry will not disqualify a student outright, even if the gpa takes a body blow. But then the application must have compensatory strength elsewhere, often in the writing sample.

Letters of recommendation can also help with unusual circumstances. Of course, letters help most, in my experience, when they assess a student's intellectual command. For example, when they say "This is the smartest person to come down the pike since God." For that reason, applicants essentially waste letters when they turn to job supervisors or residence hall masters or friends of the family who sit on the university's board. Evaluations of teaching skill are also less likely to work well. At Iowa and other schools, entering students are rarely asked to teach and, besides, many applicants can claim some teaching experience that will matter more when T.A.s kick in. If they want to get into a graduate program in English, applicants usually need letters that are intellectually lively, specifically attuned to their own performance in class, and genuinely enthusiastic about their academic promise.

On this score, the two-page statement of purpose can also make a difference. This final part of each application is often used to decide borderline cases, and sometimes half of the cases an admissions committee weighs each year can be borderline: because students have been out of school for fifteen years, because they were not undergraduate English majors, because the writing sample never catches fire. Admittedly, applicants are generally asked to respond to godawful questions about their "proposed course of study" or their "areas of research interest." Yet each year the best students manage to transcend such language; they also dodge the temptation to write a self-touting cover letter of sorts, and discover instead the voice of passionate engagement, the streak of intellectual electricity that will make even tired, midnight readers (which are generally what admissions committee members are) say "I've got to have this student in my class." One of the best such statements I have read began: "My whole life might have been different if I had been able to pronounce the letter 'n' in second grade." Amid so many other files, that sounded like mental agility.

Because there are so many other files and because all graduate admissions decisions usually need to be made between roughly mid-January and mid-March, it has been tempting to skirt these statements, indeed any writing, in favor of minimum thresholds for GRE scores and GPAs. Flag the numbers, the logic goes, and you will not have to chase down delinquent faculty readers who would rather listen to post-MLA job candidates than evaluate writing samples. At Iowa, we have opted instead to invite graduate students to be first, or peer, readers of incoming essays, a shift in practice that has allowed both faculty readers and committee members to reduce the time spent examining hundreds of applications quickly so as to more time to read a smaller number with care. About fifteen or twenty doctoral students, all with at least a year in the program and preferably with some teaching experience, volunteer to take on more than half of the writing samples that come in. Some readers can only accept five or ten essays, but most examine between ten and twenty, and no one is sent more than twenty-five. A few fields always remain uncovered and a few readers remain patchy in their insights. On the whole, however, the Admissions Committee has been able to identify both weak applicants and those who merit full review. Meanwhile, faculty readers have appreciated these initial responses to essays, and committee members can even see responses to responses heating up. In fact, not only potential students but the intellectual community already in place profits each year from this attempt to maintain the department's tradition of thoughtful review.

So long as graduate student evaluations are augmented by the director's assessment of other materials in each application, such evaluations have provided threshold votes of confidence that suggest faculty attention is warranted and further committee time would be well spent. The advantages to the strongest applicants have been striking. At Iowa, there is less threat of haste in reading all applications when the number read in toto is cut in half. We have also improved service to all applicants and to colleagues who write letters of recommendation by limiting the reminders about incomplete files to those applicants with solid credentials. Finally, we have retained the decisive significance of the writing sample, which otherwise numbers (in every sense) would almost certainly have curtailed. Working together, faculty and graduate students have insured that procedural congestion does not thwart a shared commitment to our program's future vitality or limit the fuss we still prefer to make over every student who applies.


Page last modified November 15, 2014