I'm asking out of curiosity / because I think the answer may be of general interest:

A bit of context: When I applied to PhD programs, I had degrees from two institutions. One (let's call it "A") is more selective and trains students a little more in depth than the other (which we'll call "B"), but doesn't really have a great international reputation (being very teaching-focused).

During interviews abroad, it felt like I was considered as a "serious" applicant because I studied in the other institution, B, which is much more famous because of its research programs, but actually didn't contribute as much to my training. Clearly, nobody had ever heard of institution A. During one of my interviews, an interviewer even saw my grades from university A, where grading is very strict, and asked me: "do you think your grades are good enough to go to [our prestigious university]?". In a live interview, I had the opportunity to explain these grades, but what about the other programs that did not invite me for interviews? I can't help but think that this kind of misunderstanding may have played a bigger role than it should have.

Fortunately I joined the program that I wanted the most. But I started wondering: what if I had only studied in institution A?

So here's the question: Those of you who, at some point, were part of selection commitees (for college, grad school etc.), how did you evaluate candidates who studied in small, foreign and/or unknown universities/high schools, as opposed to big, local, well-known universities/high schools?

In particular, how did you take into account :

  • Different grading standards - in institution A, the equivalent of a 70% was considered an unusually good grade, whereas in some prestigious universities, an A or a B is quite normal; that difference does not always appear on transcripts.
  • Different curriculum structures - some universities may require that students in their first/second years take classes that do not seem very relevant for certain grad school applications
  • Different opportunities to perform research - this time in university B, a students would only perform research once at the end of their masters, so significant undergrad research experience is unusual and would require a lot of extra commitment
  • Different prestige - the "best university of the country" may not be as famous as MIT or Harvard, depending on the country. For example are you familiar with the best university in, say, Kazakhstan (no offense meant, Kazakhstani friends)? Would you "trust" a degree more if it came from a more famous institution?
  • Different academic culture - Europeans, for example, do not typically have a long list of "dean's list", "undergaduate award for (XXX)" etc.; it's simply not a thing there, so even exceptional students just don't have these. Writing SOPs is also not common in certain countries, so students are not trained to "modestly praise themselves" and might seem a little clumsy when they try to do so.
  • Anything else?

Have you ever faced this kind of issues when evaluating candidates? Did you at any point take extra steps to make sure this kind of differences would not penalize international applicants?

Edit: this question is not entirely similar to other questions like "How handicapped am I in graduate admissions if I graduated from a lower tier university?". Indeed, this question focuses on applications within a single country, with a priori homogeneous definitions of what a "good" university is, with known grading standards... Answers to this question clearly assume that it is possible to define "good" and "bad" grades by looking at a transcript, for example. My questions challenges the notion that the application documents (SOP, GPA etc) are meaningful, because unless a commitee member knows the high school / university of origin of an applicant, they really have no way to tell whether grades are good or not, because standards are not uniform.

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    In effect disagreeing with the premises of the question, I make a comment rather than an "answer". The issues/distinctions you mention are not very significant in my appraisal of applicants for mathematics grad study in my U.S. R1 university. We know that things vary around the world. What the admissions committee cares about is future potential. Obedience, conformity, GPA, etc., are not at all the most positive indicators. And, in the U.S., I don't care at all whether someone made the Dean's list, or whatever undergrad honors... These are relatively childish things. – paul garrett Dec 6 '18 at 1:22
  • @ PaulGarrett Could you elaborate? I do agree that there may more than that, but I can't put a name on it. What are rational things that can motivate a decision, assuming that grades, SOPs, classes taken, research experience..., all that stuff, is unimportant? Is it more than just a gut feeling / "I like this guy" kind of thing? How does one reliably see potential in an applicant when one has no indicator of what their past history really means - having no reliable standard of comparison? Is there absolutely no pre-screening based on grades at, say, Harvard college admissions? – Mowgli Dec 6 '18 at 1:36

I work in a European institute and we get a fair number of applicants from Middle and East Asian countries for PhD positions. It became obvious rather quickly that grades, curriculum, prestige etc. are basically incomparable. In fact, we only took these into account when we know the country of origin very well.

Instead, we put quite some weight on individual skillsets, what undergraduate research project applicants had done, whether their studies fit well with what we are doing, and letters of recommendation.

In other words, we do not take anything on your list into account, with the sole exception of the opportunity to do research: if a candidate hasn't done any independent research and we do not know how to interpret their grades etcetera, then we do not have enough information to make an informed decision. These candidates could be really good but we're unfortunately not in a position to determine that.

This works because we typically know pretty well what kind of students we are looking for; we are not selecting for the US-type Masters-PhD structure, these students immediately start with their PhD projects.

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An effective process should involve a diverse group of faculty who are called upon to evaluate candidates for admission.

You are correct that academic and research opportunities and standards vary widely among institutions. For any academic department that admits graduate students there should be many faculty who share the load of evaluating candidates. Different members should be knowledgeable about institutions in different regions or countries, and can reach out to colleagues if they find a promising candidate from an obscure school. Some debate or agreement then needs to be reached among the various evaluators about who is above the bar for admission.

The challenges you describe are exactly why evaluating a candidate's potential can be hard. Some departments do a bad job evaluating. Some letter writers do a bad job explaining what the applicant has done, what rigor they have trained under, and to what group they are comparing the applicant.

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