Monday, September 23, 2019

Applicants to Grad School are too good. Here is why this might be a problem.

Sitting around with three faculty we had the following conversation

ALICE: When I applied to grad school in 1980 they saw a strong math major (that is, I had good grades in hard math courses) but very little programming or any sort of computer science. That kind of person would NOT be admitted today since there are plenty of strong math majors who ALSO have the Comp Sci chops.

BOB: When I applied to grad school I was a comp sci major but my grades were not that good- A's in system courses, B's and even some C's in math. But I did a Security project that lead to a paper that got into a (minor) systems workshop. Two of my letters bragged a lot about that. (How do I know that? Don't ask.) So I got into grad school in 1989. That kind of person would NOT be admitted today since there are plenty of people who have papers in minor conferences whose grades ARE good in stuff other than their area.

CAROL: In 1975 I was an English major at Harvard. The summer between my junior and senior year I took a programming course over the summer and did very well and liked it. I then took some math. Then I worked in industry at a computer scientist for 5 years. Then I applied to grad school and they liked my unusual background. Plus I did well on the GRE's. Letters from my boss at work helped me, I don't think they would count letters from industry now. They took a chance on me, and it paid off (I got a PhD) but I don't think they would let someone like me in now since they don't have to take a chance. They can admit people who have done research, have solid backgrounds, and hence are not taking a chance. The irony is that some of those don't finish anyway.

1) Are Alice, Bob, and Carol right that they wouldn't be admitted to grad school now? I think they are with a caveat- they might end up in a lower tier grad school then they did end up in. Also, Alice and Bob I am more certain would not end up in the top tier grad schools they did since they can be compared DIRECTLY to other applicants,
where as Carol might be more orthogonal.

2) I have a sense (backed up my no data) that we are accepting fewer unusual cases than we used to (not just UMCP but across the country) because too many of the applicants are the standard very-good-on-paper applicants. Even the on-paper is not quite fair- they ARE very good for real.

3) Assume we are taking less unusual cases. Is that bad? I think so as people with different backgrounds (Carol especially) add to the diversity of trains of thought in a program, and that is surely a good thing. If EVERY students is a strong comp sci major who has done some research, there is a blandness to that.

4) What to do about this? First off, determine if this is really a problem. If it is then perhaps when looking at grad school applicants have some sensitivity to this issue.

5) For grad school admissions I am speculating. For REU admissions (I have run an REU program for the last 7 years and do all of the admissions myself) I can speak with more experience. The students who apply have gotten better over time and this IS cause for celebration; however, it has made taking unusual cases harder.


  1. This strikes me as a view that is very skewed by how highly ranked your theory group (and CS department generally) is. I think lower-ranked theory groups, or even strong ones but in lower-ranked departments, still take more "unusual" cases. It may be that even the "unusual" cases are better/more-standardly-prepared than some of the cases you described from 30+ years ago, but plenty are still unusual. I think Alice+some CS chops, or Bob, or Carol could all still be admitted to PhDs today at good schools, but maybe not top-10 or top-15 (or whatever high tier they were admitted to in the 80s - I'm guessing even higher, like top-5).

    1. Good point--- it is likely that what is really happening is people who used to get into a top 10 school now get into a school in the 11-20 range.

      While Alice, Bob and Carol are fictional they are based on real people.
      Alice got into Harvard. She would NOT get into Harvard today but may well get into a fine school lower down in the rankings.

      Bob and Carol got into UMCP and UIUC. I doubt they would today.

  2. Being faculty in a research-intensive CS department and having been involved in grad admissions for the past 10 years, what you suggest feels very familiar. My impression is that the more elite a program is, the more risk averse it is in its admissions. Like Harvard has famously said about its undergrad admissions, elite CS departments can fill their slots several times over with applicants who are stellar in conventionally recognizable ways. I very much agree that this strategy is a boring and short-sighted one, and likely to miss enormous opportunities for innovative thinking.

    1. based on the first comment this may be good for schools in
      the second tier-- they will get the unusual cases.

  3. The idea of monopolizing access to top tier schools
    via the usual risk averse scheme (which in itself is flawed),
    is not just crippling, but fosters an unnecessary class hierarchy in an era that marks democratizing of everything.

    There needs to be a way to democratize access to top tier institutions at both graduate level and undergraduate level for
    the unusual candidates; and I don't mean, via trivialized online access of sorts.

    The most demoralizing thing about a good student with great potential who has unusual background, is, to end up in an environment that is second tier.

    Revisiting this post, I come to realize how ludicrous the
    labels first tier, second tier are: somewhat reminiscent of
    "first class citizen" and second class citizens.

  4. Last year I read/watched(can't remember which) an interview with Fields medalist Curtis McMullen, who described his undergraduate experience prior to being admitted to Harvard for grad school in 1980. Maybe he was just being modest, but it didn't sound as though he'd get anywhere near Harvard these days.

  5. I think that a very strong math student who doesn't have a lot of CS as an undergrad, that is, someone like ALICE, still has a decent shot at a top 10 place - at least for us. There are a good number of strong undergrad "liberal arts" institutions that don't even offer much CS - though that is starting to change - and we certainly take those students very seriously since they didn't even have a chance to get the background.

    There are many kinds of undergrad research - its ubiquity means that there is a lot that doesn't show much - but it can be hard to get in without having any exposure to it. This is a huge change from 20+ years ago. While we would have possibly considered students with near 4.0 grades and a bunch of "A in my class" letters from a good large institution to be enough, that on its own doesn't cut it any more.

    Strong research can trump grades. Even with research, not all grades are equal. For theory I'd worry about B's in Math far more than B's in Systems/Architecture courses.