Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies (Pt. II)

In this post I’d like to briefly discuss the admissions process for PhD programs. Not every school or even every department uses this process, but something similar probably goes on. This will also give some insight into my comment in the previous post that the departmental situation and other factors outside of one’s control are the some of the largest factors determining admission into PhD programs. I’m tempted to go so far as to say that admissions into PhD programs, for the reasons I’m about to explain, have less to do with the candidate’s merit than admissions into master’s programs do (although such a statement is a bit hyperbolic).

Most admissions committees are made up of subcommittees. When applications come in (usually about 120 or so for about 10 slots), there is an initial weeding which eliminates all the incomplete applications as well as those which don’t meet basic standards (perhaps the GRE or TOEFL score is extremely low). I’ve heard that a third to half of all applications get tossed at this point. 

The remaining applications are divided according to subcommittees which will vary according to department–perhaps philosophy of religion, religion and culture, etc. or American religion, NT, Hebrew Bible, etc. Those applications circulate through the subcommittee until a “ranking” is arrived at. In other words they list the applicants in order from 1 to whatever, with 1 being the most desirable. 

The subcommittee chairs then meet together as the admissions committee, each with their rankings (although only the top 3 candidates from each subcommittee are contenders at this point). Let’s say that there are 6 subcommittees and 10 admissions offers that will be made total (in actuality they may make 1 or 2 more offers than spots since 1 or 2 people will decline the offer). How do they decide who those 10 students will be?

This is where I’d like to explain why the “departmental situation” is such a determining factor. There are a number of things that could happen here. They could take the top applicant from each subcommittee, and then the remaining 4 could be decided by things such as which subcommittees got the extra students last year (if it was NT the last 2 years in a row then they only get 1 student this year), what direction the department wants to expand (perhaps Buddhism is a new emphasis), if your would-be advisor got a student last year (tenured faculty average about 3 currently enrolled students), if the subcommittee chair is aggressive, if the subcommittee chair is not aggressive (perhaps none of the remaining students on the list would be his so he doesn’t feel the need to go to bat for them), maybe a new faculty member has been promised a student, etc.

Coming out on the top of a subcommittee’s list may be more under your power (more next time on the statement of purpose, etc.), but many of these other factors lay further outside of your control.

So, what are the take aways from this post?

1) You need someone on the faculty to claim you and go to bat for you. Besides you feeling it necessary that you be admitted, your would be advisor must also feel it necessary to mentor you as a student. 

2) Cast your net wide. One way to compensate for these factors which are outside of your control is to apply to multiple programs to increase your odds of admission.

3) Don’t take rejection personally. Being rejected from the “top” programs doesn’t mean that you’re not a top quality student.

I should probably also link over to part I.

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