Collecting Applicant Information
Gathering evidence to form a holistic view of the applicant
Are you collecting sufficient information — and the right information — to determine which applicants are best suited for your program? Designing an admissions process that requests and considers multiple pieces of evidence about knowledge, skills and attributes can be effective in helping you select a qualified and diverse class. It also helps ensure your process is fair to applicants.
COLLECT: At a glance
- Determine the evidence needed from applicants to evaluate their knowledge, skills and attributes.
- Ensure that the application explicitly requests the desired information and that the information can be easily found on the program website.
- Collect comparable information from all applicants.
Determine desired evidence
While the evidence submitted in an application package may never give a full picture, being explicit about what evidence is expected in each component of the application and being aware of the benefits and limitations of each can help keep the process as equitable as possible.
The evidence needed should be broad in scope, drawing from:
- Standardized assessments, such as the GRE® General Test, which assesses reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills.
- Undergraduate overall GPA, major GPA and coursework. Together, these pieces of information can offer insights about the rigor of previous coursework, knowledge acquired in a field, and the applicant’s performance in coursework relevant to the intended program of study.
- Statement of Purpose, which applicants can use to communicate their research, academic and professional interests, as well as a résumé or CV, through which they can demonstrate experience in those areas.
- Personal attributes documentation, such as the personal statement, letters of recommendation, interviews, leadership experience and community involvement. These components of the application can indicate an applicant's interests, the conscientiousness needed to produce quality research, and the grit to overcome obstacles — all of which may be indicators of program completion.
When all of the information provided is considered and weighted appropriately, faculty committees can identify applicants that effectively meet program and institution goals. This process is inherently fairer to the applicant.
Explicitly request desired information
It’s important to identify where the desired evidence is explicitly requested in the application and revise prompts that are less explicit to be as clear about expectations as possible. For example, in seeking insight about an applicant’s grit, you may expect to find signs in the personal statement that this person has the motivation to keep moving forward despite the hurdles encountered in life. It’s essential then, to ensure that in the application, the personal statement prompt clearly requests that applicants provide evidence of that attribute. It’s also essential for the instructions to be found easily on the program website, and for the language used to be absolutely clear and explicit, especially for international and first-generation college applicants. Some programs ask current students to review and provide feedback about the clarity of the application, and then refine the application based on that feedback.
It’s equally important to identify which components are unrelated to evaluating the desired attribute. For example, the faculty committee should not use the personal statement to conclude that an applicant does not have grit, if the instructions for writing the personal statement did not explicitly request that applicants show evidence of that characteristic.
Collect comparable information
Faculty committees can only have comparable information about applicants if all components of the application are required of everyone (versus optional). All of the documents used as evidence for personal attributes should explicitly request the same information:
- Résumés – Provide the categories of information sought, e.g, education, work experience, internships, publications, research experience, leadership experience, community service. Specify whether the candidate should include all work experience or only experience relevant to the intended field of study. Note that requesting all work experience might be the better option, as understanding the full breadth of a person’s work experience can give you more information about personal attributes and circumstances.
- Letters of Recommendation – Request the attributes that letter writers should address, as well as specific examples where the attribute was evidenced. Consider using a form to establish some consistency in responses. See examples and tips from American University School of International Service, Valdosta State University Graduate School and Memorial University School of Graduate Studies. These, and examples and tips provided in the following bullets, can possibly serve as templates to customize to a program’s specific needs.
- Statement of Purpose – Help applicants understand why the statement is important and what information should be included. Cornell University Graduate School, Northeastern University Graduate Programs, Carnegie Mellon University Global Communication Center and Drexel University LeBow College of Business provide examples and tips.
- Personal Statements – Provide specific prompts to be addressed. See examples and tips from the University of California at Berkeley Graduate Division, Wayne State University Graduate School, Purdue Online Writing Lab and MIT’s Broad Institute*.
The need for comparable information applies to collecting standardized test scores, as well. A standardized test serves a unique role in the admissions process because it is the only measure that is objective and standard across all applicants, allowing for fair and direct comparisons among applicants. Most standardized tests, like the GRE® General Test and GRE® Subject Tests, are validated through research, follow rigorous fairness processes and adhere to professional standards established by the American Educational Research Association, National Council on Measurement in Education and the American Psychological Association. GRE® General Test scores provide not only solid information about an applicant’s reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills, but can serve as a “gut check,” or balance, for more subjective components of the application package, helping to mitigate biases in the review process. This is especially helpful in cases in which:
- Two applicants seem equally qualified. Standardized test scores can serve as a check for undergraduate GPA.
- Applicants’ undergraduate performance, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t reflect their current potential for graduate study.
- Applicants’ undergraduate institutions are unknown.
- Applicants are from countries with different education and grading systems.
GRE® validity research, test taker performance and other information related to the GRE General Test and GRE® Subject Tests can be found on the ETS website, www.ets.org/gre/institutions.
Evidence of essential skills
Being aware of the purpose, benefits and limitations of each component of the application can help you ensure you collect the right evidence to make informed decisions. Explore how.
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