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.