What Do PhD Admissions Committees Look For?

An admissions committee considers test scores and grade point average in its decision to accept a candidate.
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The PhD admissions committee is a group of faculty members entrusted with the final decision of who will be accepted to begin doctoral studies in a university department. The committee considers individual applications and bases its decision on several factors, including the strength of the candidate's academic record, standardized test scores, and potential to carry out sound research, as well as the compatibility of the candidate's goals with the resources and expertise of the department.

1 Academic Record/Test Scores

Admissions committees carefully consider a candidate's bachelor's and master's degree transcripts, looking at the coursework undertaken and the overall grade point average earned by the candidate. While some admissions committees seek candidates with strong academic records and coursework that relates to the proposed field of doctoral studies, other committees deem research-based master's degrees an advantage. In both cases, low grade point averages, particularly in courses related to the proposed field of study, will reduce a candidate's chances for admissions. Admissions committees carefully consider standardized test scores and often employ minimum thresholds, automatically eliminating candidates whose scores are too low.

2 Research Potential

The second half of doctoral degree studies involves extensive research in the form of fieldwork, investigations or laboratory experiments; accordingly, committees will look for evidence that the student will be able to meet the high standards for conducting rigorous doctoral research. Students whose applications indicate that they have completed a research master's or have undertaken academic research with a well-regarded professor will have a considerable advantage. In addition, publication of research findings in industry journals is of interest for admissions decisions.

3 Recommendations

Letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of admissions candidates are carefully considered to glean additional information regarding the candidate's likelihood to succeed in the department's program. The committee favorably regards letters from professors who have supervised the candidate's research in the past and who can vouch for the candidate's integrity and competence in choosing appropriate research methods. The committee also looks for letters that demonstrate the candidate's intellectual vitality and academic promise, rather than those emphasizing the person's teaching ability.

4 Common Goals

The admissions committee is also seeking candidates whose career goals and future plans fit best within the programs and resources offered; therefore, committee members carefully consider the candidate's personal statement or letter of intent to ensure that the background of its department members best suits the candidate's interests. The committee tries to find a match between the research interests and areas of expertise of its faculty and the candidate's proposed research goals; if the person's research falls outside of the expertise of the faculty, the application will likely be denied.

Trudie Longren began writing in 2008 for legal publications, including the "American Journal of Criminal Law." She has served as a classroom teacher and legal writing professor. Longren holds a bachelor's degree in international politics, a Juris Doctor and an LL.M. in human rights. She also speaks Spanish and French.