What if the Guru is Wrong About That?

A short article was recently posted on the MyGraduateSchool website, written by Dr. Laura Buffardia graduate admissions consultant for the popular magazine Psychology Today. I do not know her personally, but a cursory search on her background reveals that Dr. Buffardi received her Ph.D. in 2010, and now she has a postdoctoral research position, and a cool gig with Psychology Today. I wouldn’t be surprised if she has other impressive accomplishments and ongoing projects. She certainly offers valuable advice to students who are thinking of graduate school in Psychology. In fact, most of her advice and insight also applies to the graduate-school application and admissions process in other disciplines within the social sciences and natural sciences. If you are thinking about graduate school, you should check out the resources she has to offer, even if you are not in Psychology.

Despite my sincere advocation, I will use the rest of my commentary to refute a statement Dr. Buffardi makes in the MyGraduateSchool article. She writes:

             “GPA is consistently the most critical factor in admissions decisions.”

Like many other well-meaning consultants and advisors, Dr. Buffardi may in fact be perpetuating a popular misconception about the factors that determine acceptance or rejection by graduate programs in Psychology. Most people think the selection process should work in a way that emphasizes past academic performance, but the truth is, most Psychology graduate programs make selections in a way that bears little resemblance to common assumptions. You really have to be an insider to appreciate the way it works. Getting into graduate school and making it through does not make someone an insider to the graduate admissions process (unless they have become professors and supervise their own graduate students). It may make them insiders to what it’s like to be a graduate student or former graduate student, but as I have described in a previous post, grad students are not always a reliable source of good advice about what it takes to get into graduate school.

In a recent video-interview, which you can view on her Psychology Today site, Dr. Buffardi correctly asserts that there is a positive correlation between academic performance in undergraduate school and subsequent performance in graduate school. The best predictor of your performance in grad school is your performance as an undergraduate, and committee’s know this” It is true, in general — students who achieve higher undergraduate grades also achieve higher measures of performance in graduate school. Although this relationship exists and the people on an admissions committee probably know about it, however, this does not mean that an applicant with a 3.80 GPA has a better chance of getting into a particular Psychology graduate program than another applicant who has a GPA of only 3.50.  It sounds contradictory, but it really isn’t. It all has to do with the way most graduate programs in Psychology (within the U.S. and Canada) make their selections.

Grades are not tokens that can later be cashed in for something

Before I go on to describe my insider’s view of the graduate admissions process, I want to point out that the positive relationship between undergraduate and graduate-school performance is demonstrated by a post hoc analysis of what are, essentially, historical academic records. It is only a correlation, and it does not mean that getting higher grades will make an individual more likely to get into graduate school and succeed once there. It is necessary to have good grades if you want to get into graduate school; without them you have little chance of success. Importantly, what I really mean by good grades is good-enough — and for grades to be good-enough, they do not have to be as high as most students assume. If your grades are good enough to get into graduate school, you probably won’t significantly improve your chances of being accepted any further just by getting even higher grades. [There is one important exception to this, but it would be too much of a sidetrack to completely explain that here. Instead, I will cover it in my next post].

As long as you are achieving grades of B, B+, along with some A- and As, your grades are good enough for most graduate programs. It is wiser to focus ones preparation for graduate school on other things, where it can make a bigger difference, instead of just doing whatever it takes to get an A or A- in every class. The prevailing notion seems to be that if you get enough of the really valuable tokens (grades in the A range), you get to cash out at the end of undergraduate school and receive some type of more tangible reward in exchange; like an acceptance letter from a graduate school. It just does not work that way.

I have already written about how the graduate admissions process tends to work in Psychology graduate programs and, in fact, it is not much different from most other Master’s and Ph.D. programs within the social sciences and natural sciences. I won’t bother to repeat all the important aspects of graduate admissions here, but I’ll just make the key point that decisions about individual applicants are ultimately made by a particular faculty member who the applicant has indicated he or she would prefer to have for a graduate supervisor. To put it in even more simple terms: Psychology professors choose their own graduate students, and they usually only consider applicants who have already chosen them. In most Psychology graduate programs, admissions decisions are not made by a committee. This is true both for master’s and for Ph.D. programs in Psychology. (Psy.D. programs, and master’s programs in allied fields, such as Counseling, Social Work, and Educational Psychology, are more likely to make admissions decisions as a committee).

It’s all about the research

It is important to understand the motives psychology professors have for accepting new graduate students. Every professor is an individual, and each will therefore have his or her own set of personal criteria and methods for reaching decisions about whether or not to accept a new grad student. But despite the individual variations, there is a certain common interest shared by most university psychology professors, which is also the most important motive most of them have for taking on a new grad student. A vast majority of university psychology professors do research, and they supervise graduate students because doing so is necessary in order to accomplish their research goals. In simple terms: Most psychology professors accept a new grad student only if the following four conditions are met:

1) the professor currently has a need for additional research trainees in order to carry out the research agenda over the next few years.

2) there is evidence that this particular student will be a better researcher than the others who have also applied to work with this professor.

3) there are no reasons to suspect that the student will have any significant problems with the academic or clinical-training aspects of the program.

4) there are no reasons to suspect that the student has any kind of personality or character flaw, or interpersonal inadequacies, that could make it unpleasant to work with them for a few years, or that would spoil the environment for the other students who are part of the professor’s research team.

What do the insiders think about GPA and GRE scores?

Most university professors who have been involved in selecting and supervising graduate students will tell you that they don’t usually care much whether a particular applicant has a GPA in the B+ range (say, in the low 3s on the common GPA scale that goes from 0.00 to 4.00, or they have a GPA that is more like A- (mid 3s), or even close to A (upper 3s – 4.00). (By the way, not all universities use this grading scale, and there are a surprising number of different scales in use, but this is the most common one and I think most readers of this blog are at least vaguely familiar with it).

The reason why most psychology professors do not care about the particular GPAs of their potential graduate students is because it is not relevant to the primary motivation for supervising graduate students. Grades are not usually a major consideration in admissions decisions because grades have little to do with the applicant’s potential as a researcher, and they usually have almost no relevance to determining whether or not the student will be a pleasant person to supervise. As I mentioned above, the most important thing for a professor is that their graduate students contribute to the operation and development of the professor’s research program, and the second most important thing is that the student is not a pain-in-the-ass to supervise.

Dr. Buffardi claims that an applicant’s GPA and GRE scores are the most influential factor in determining whether they are accepted or rejected, followed by letters of recommendation, the personal statement, and past experience. She has it backwards. The letters, personal statement, and previous research experience are much more influential in the eyes of most professors, especially those who have more than a few years experience at selecting and supervising graduate students. GPA and GRE scores receive significantly less consideration — as long as they are good enough.

[ Read a letter from a psychology student who graduated with a B+ average and was accepted into a master’s program at Cambridge University, as well as at one of the most prestigious professional psychology graduate programs in the U.S. ]

GRE scores are becoming less and less important in recent years. As part of a trend that began more than a decade ago, many graduate schools no longer require applicants to submit GRE scores. This trend seems to be more prevalent in Canada, but it is also happening in the U.S.  This trend toward a diminishing role for standardized exam scores is exemplified by the Psychology graduate programs at my university — Concordia University.

About 12 years ago, we decided that we would no longer require applicants to submit GRE scores. By “we”, I mean the all the fulltime faculty members in our department who supervise graduate students voted on whether we should drop the requirement or retain it (basically, all 40+ of us supervise graduate students). Most applicants to our graduate programs still submit GRE scores, and there is no problem with that, but none of them have to submit GRE scores. Why did we get rid of the requirement? The same reason that dozens of other Psychology graduate programs have made the same move: Because a huge majority of the faculty members in our department do not believe GRE scores are useful when it comes to discriminating between applicants who are likely to be good graduate students and those with less promise. I can’t remember if it was just a huge majority of us, or whether the vote against the GRE requirement was unanimous. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that no one made an argument in favor of keeping the requirement.

Let’s put this in perspective to show that it wasn’t just a strange decision by a small group of idiosyncratic psychologists at some small university. Concordia University has a large Psychology department, with over 40 tenured professors along with a few more-junior faculty members who are on the track to a tenured position. We offer four different graduate programs — master’s and Ph.D. programs in both clinical psychology and nonclinical (ie., experimental and research) psychology. Our programs are CPA and APA accredited, so there is nothing unusual about how we do things in our graduate programs. I would wager that in the Psychology departments that still require applicants to submit GRE scores, a large proportion of the faculty members don’t really use GRE scores to decide whether or not to accept a particular applicant.

Importantly, I still advise all students who are planning to apply to graduate school in Psychology to write the GRE General exam, even if they happen to know the graduate program that interests them the most does not require GRE scores. This is simply because, if a student is doing things right, he or she will probably be applying to more than one program, and it is likely that at least one of those programs, if not most, will still require GRE scores. It is fallacy, however, to assume that if they want to see your GRE scores, then those scores must play an important role in the decision-making process. I admit that I sometimes check to see how an applicant did on the GRE, but only because I’m curious to see how their scores compare to my GRE scores from 25 years ago!

Do the foregoing points mean that all psychology professors will give only secondary consideration to a grad-school applicant’s GPA or GRE scores? No, it doesn’t mean that. It just reflects how the majority of psychology professors view GPAs and GRE scores. There is still much variation among individual professors, and it is still possible to find veteran professors who look to GPA and GRE scores when they make decisions about who to take on as a graduate student. The fact that there are still professors out there who care a lot about grades when they are choosing grad student does not change the fact that most do not. The lack of uniformity isn’t really surprising, when you consider that we are all allowed to make our own decisions concerning grad school applicants. New faculty members are not told how to select grad students; so understandably, we all start off doing it in a way that makes sense to us. Over time and with experience, many professors change their tactics as they discover that the criteria they used during those first few years were not reliable way to distinguish really good graduate students from average ones. Remember, most psychology professors judge how “good” a graduate student is by their research abilities and accomplishments, work ethic, and interpersonal and communication skills.

In might come as a surprise, but most psychology professors won’t pay much attention to how their grad students do in the few classes they take. Did the Ph.D. student get a B or an A in this or that graduate seminar? It really only matters to the student. By the way, one does not have to be in graduate school for long to realize that most classes are graded as simply PASS versus FAIL, and that it is rare for a graduate student to FAIL a class. Some graduate classes might involve a letter-grade evaluation (the student receives an A, A-, B+, etc), but it makes no difference to the main concerns of most professors if their grad students get Bs or As. Typically, a professor supervises graduate students because these students are essential to accomplishing the professor’s research mission. There is nothing in it for the graduate supervisor if the graduate student gets an A in some seminar, and there is also no cost to the supervisor if the student’s grade is B-.

By the way, Dr. Buffardi’s Psychology Today webpage includes an informative interview with a Psychology professor who has a lot of experience with the graduate admissions process. If you pay close attention to what this insider says, you will notice that he confirms several of the key points I have just made, including:

1) Grades and GRE scores do not trump other factors like letters of recommendation, personal statements, or the degree of ‘match’ between the student and the program. Although he states near the end of the interview, “…good grades and strong GRE scores will earn you serious consideration,” this is not the same as saying they begin with the grades and then move on to other considerations. I suspect he may also agree, if asked about it, that nearly all applicants have good grades, and most of them have strong GRE scores. Importantly, he doesn’t say anywhere that higher grades and stronger GRE scores are more likely to result in acceptance.

2) Individual faculty members make their own decisions about which applicants to accept, place on a wait-list, or reject. Only the individual faculty member knows how he or she weighs the different elements of a complete application.

3) Most individual faculty members base their decisions on their general and overall impression they have of an applicant.

There is no standard protocol according to which all graduate admissions committees operate, but the Psychology Today interview with the graduate-admissions insider gives a good picture of one common variant of the general process in Psychology departments. Note his comment about how, in years long past, he would meet with his colleagues and they would discuss individual applicants as a committee, but nowadays the decisions are left up to individual faculty members. It is not stated explicitly in the interview, but it is implied, that individual faculty members decide whom to accept and supervise based on the match between the research interests of the applicant and the faculty member’s particular area(s) of specialization… if there are no deficiencies in the applicant’s overall profile.

There are many more key aspects of the graduate admissions process that go unmentioned in the interview, but that is understandable considering there are obvious limits to how long an interview can be. As another true insider to graduate admissions in Psychology, I try to fill in those gaps with this blog, in my book, and through the seminars I conduct with undergraduate students.


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