In grad school admissions, whom you know still matters a lot

June 27, 2018

A new study of top PhD programs finds “networks of trust” remain strong

By Siel Ju

Image via Flickr user Kelle Connolly/Licensed under Flickr Creative Commons

How can you get into a top graduate school program? Good grades and GRE scores help, but the prestige of your recommenders or undergraduate institution might end up being the ultimate clincher.

So finds Julie Posselt, a Pullias Center researcher and assistant professor of higher education at the USC Rossier School of Education, in a new study of highly ranked PhD programs published in The Review of Higher Education.

Posselt found that admissions committees favored applicants whose letters of recommendation came from people the committee members knew, either personally or by reputation. Committees also favored applicants who went to a “familiar” undergraduate institution—either because of the prestige of the institution or the success of its alumni.

Knowing—and respecting—the applicant’s recommender or institutional affiliation inspired trust in admissions committee members. And because the committee members tended to trust whom and what they already knew, they ended up making admissions decisions based on those personal biases.

“If we aren’t self-critical about our first instincts to trust, we’re likely to exacerbate inequalities,” said Posselt. “Smaller shares of Black and Latino students attend the selective undergraduate institutions that form trust networks—and are likely getting weeded out despite similarly high grades and so forth as other candidates.”

For the study, Posselt looked at the PhD admissions cycle in 10 doctoral programs at three well-known research universities with highly ranked doctoral programs, conducting 86 interviews with the admissions committee members.

What makes admissions committees rely so heavily on familiar names? “A sense of trust enables faculty to overcome the ambiguities of decision-making,”  Posselt explained. “Many applicants already have high grades and scores, so faculty cannot distinguish based on those factors. Prestige and name recognition end up playing a big role.”

This practice means applicants who already have more social capital—through the prestige of their undergraduate degrees or their access to recommenders with renown in their fields—get an additional boost in graduate admissions decisions. And students with degrees from colleges that aren’t as well known, and letters from professors who are less than famous, may get overlooked.

That all ends up perpetuating the status quo, with admissions committees continuously accepting more students from the same institutions recommended by the same professors—even when the PhD program or university at large may be actively working on diversity and equity initiatives.

Posselt recommends that institutions overcome these biases by, first, making clear these implicit biases in admissions, so that admissions committee members can begin working to counteract them.

She also recommends institutions study their own admissions histories and data, asking some tough questions: “Are they enrolling students from liberal arts colleges? From minority-serving institutions? How many of their admitted students started in community colleges?” Putting hard numbers to these questions could also help reduce biases and stereotypes.

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