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Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping

How does graduate admissions work? Who does the system work for, and who falls through its cracks? More people than ever are searching for graduate degrees, but little has been written about who gets in and why. Drawing on firsthand observations of admission committees and interviews with faculty in 10 top-ranked doctoral programs in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, education professor Julie Posselt pulls back the curtain on a process regularly conducted in secret.

Inside Graduate Admissions presents admissions from decision makers’ standpoint, including thought-provoking episodes of committees debating the process, interviewing applicants, and grappling with borderline cases. Who in the long run makes the admit list reveals as much about how professors see themselves―and every other―as it does about how they view students. Professors in these programs say that they admit on merit, but they act on different meanings of the term. Disciplinary norms shape what counts as merit, as do professors’ ideas about intelligence and their aversions to risk, conflict, ambiguity, and change. Professors also say that they are searching for diversity, but Posselt shows that their good intentions don’t translate into results. Actually, faculty weigh diversity in only a small fraction of admissions decisions. Continuously, they rely upon criteria that keep longstanding inequalities in place.

More equitable outcomes occur when admissions committees are themselves diverse and when members take a fresh look at inherited assumptions that have an effect on their judgment. To lend a hand academic departments promote transparency and accountability, Posselt closes with concrete strategies to make stronger admissions review.

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