Take grad schools for instance. Their acceptance rate is 8%, or seems to be so. Basically, suppose you have 100 randomly selected across the USA grad school applicants. 50 don't know what to do with their lives, so really the acceptance rate goes up to 16%. Then the other 25 will be out for unusual circumstances, so roughly, there is a 33% chance, or 1 in 3 chance of getting in. (yes, even my numbers are a bit skewed, but reasonably better)

So is grad school really that hard to get into (If you are on top of your game)?

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    # applied = entire pop. you're missing the mark. – Jossie Sep 21 '13 at 14:19
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    It could be very hard to get into graduate school, even if you are on top of your game, if you have difficulty working with others or a narcissistic personality. Hypothetically speaking, I mean. – Joe Hass Sep 21 '13 at 17:25
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    Where are you getting these numbers? Are you asking about admission at one particular department (say, statistics at MIT), or admission to grad school in general? Is your sample population all undergraduates, all applicants to all graduate programs (in some field), or all applications to one particular graduate program? – JeffE Sep 21 '13 at 22:18
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    @Jossie I don't understand your response. Perhaps you could give a little more detail to make it clearer what you really mean. – earthling Sep 22 '13 at 2:11

Acceptance rates are nearly meaningless as isolated numbers, for exactly the reason you describe. They are averaged over the entire applicant pool, and therefore they imply very little about any particular applicant's chances.

If you are trying to estimate your own chances of admission, then you need more information. If you attend a school that regularly sends students to a given university, then you can form a decent estimate based on feedback from faculty and comparisons with your peers. Otherwise it's harder to predict. At top grad schools, it really depends a lot on what your recommenders say, how seriously the admissions committee takes their letters, etc. You may have a faculty mentor who can help you arrive at a good estimate, but you'll get at most a crude approximation from grades, GRE scores, counting REU publications, etc.

So is grad school really that hard to get into (If you are on top of your game)?

For people who are genuinely on top of their game and have made sensible decisions about where to apply (based on their accomplishments), getting into grad school is not that hard. They might not be admitted to their dream schools, but they'll be admitted somewhere reasonable. On the other hand, thinking you're on top of your game doesn't imply that you are.

This makes it difficult to give universally applicable advice. Some applicants should stop stressing out and have faith that it will work out OK in the end, while others need to start worrying and rethinking their plans. We end up back in the same situation as with admission rate statistics: it all depends on your personal circumstances.


You are missing a fundamental aspect of probability theory. The acceptance rate tells me what the chances are that if I randomly select an application, from all the applications to my program, that it will belong to a student that gets accepted. What you are interested in is more like the probability that an applicant applying to a randomly selected school gets accepted. The two probabilities are NOT the same. Going back to your question

So is grad school really that hard to get into (If you are on top of your game)?

If you are talking about getting into a top graduate program with funding, then the answer is still "yes". Top grad schools only accept students at the top of their games and they always have more applications than spots.

  • Your first paragraph is wrong; I am interested in your former assumption. – Jossie Sep 21 '13 at 16:22

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