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I am applying to PhD programs in the US.

I am wondering if there is a default decision imposed on international applicants. This question may sound ridiculous, but, I still ask here because I have seen someone (a claimed PhD student who has been involved in graduate admission, for now I cannot recall clearly the website) on the internet said that every international applicant is assumed rejected.

What goes on in the admission committee members' heads? Specifically, is it true for international applicants that the committee member picks up an application, and says "Unless I find something good in this application I'll reject it"? (This paragraph is quoted and adapted from Willie Wong's comment below.)

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    What do you mean? There are many applicants for few positions, so most of the applicants will be rejected. – Davidmh Oct 13 '14 at 8:19
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    I don't quite understand the question. I see possible Davidmh's interpretation above, but also the following: are you asking about what goes on in the admission committee members' heads? In particular, are you asking about whether the committee member picks up an application, and says (1) "Unless I find something good in this application I'll reject it" or (2) "Unless I find something bad in this application I'll accept it"? I doubt either is the actual thing. – Willie Wong Oct 13 '14 at 8:23
  • @WillieWong: Thank you so much, I meant exactly (1). – Megadeth Oct 13 '14 at 8:43
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    "Unless I find something good in this application I'll reject it" Assuming that there are more applications than places, this is pretty much a given. Effectively it's "the applications that are accepted are the best ones". Well yes, surely that's the point? – Flyto Oct 13 '14 at 8:51
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    "Unless I find something good in this application I'll reject it" I think this is true for every application everywhere. – xLeitix Oct 13 '14 at 9:32
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It is a tremendous generalization to speak of all programs having the same default decision, or all members of an admissions committee in a program having the same default decision, or even to assume the existence of a default decision at all.

In reality, a more likely consideration an admissions committee member might use is, "Does this candidate have similar credentials and experience to successful PhD students we have admitted in the past?" (i.e., no "default" decision.)

However, if we're going to generalize and assume the existence of a default decision:

  • For programs in which there are a large number of applicants for relatively few positions, the default decision for any applicant is "reject, unless the applicant is extremely strong."
  • For programs in which there are relatively few applicants for a large number of positions, the default decision is "accept, unless there is some evidence this student is unsuitable for the program."

Programs at top-ranked departments, in fields where PhDs are in high demand, and where PhD students are generally fully funded, are more likely to fall in the first category.

Programs at lower-ranked departments, in fields where PhDs are not in high demand, and where students usually fund themselves, are more likely to fall in the second category.

The nationality of the applicant is not generally relevant in the "default" decision, barring exceptional circumstances (e.g., admissions committees in nuclear engineering at U.S. universities may reject Iranian students by default since 2012 because they will be ineligible for visas.)

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    I think this is the correct answer. I'd strongly doubt that any program would build in a bias against international applicants because doing so would be acting directly contrary to one of the department's most obvious goals, which is to recruit the strongest class of applicants they can. (I'm also skeptical of the source for this rumor. I've never heard of a PhD student being involved in admissions.) – shane Oct 13 '14 at 13:47
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Not at all true. I am from India and I do know people who have joined Stanford, Berkeley, Rice, Purdue, Maryland etc. for PhD

In fact, I myself was offered PhD in 2 universities but I didn't accept it because I wasn't offered any funding.

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The problem that international students face, applying to US institutions, is that they may come from schools that we, in the States, are unfamiliar with, and have letters from professors we don't know. The students who apply from Cambridge, Oxford, Sorbonne, IIT, etc., they get looked over very seriously. But we have no way to judge the quality of these other, less recognizable, schools. So, given this imperfect information, and the finite number of positions, we may elect to take students from second tier, but familiar, US schools, over these unfamiliar international students.

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    I can only speak for my own program, but among the international M.S. applicants to my department, most come from the same 30-40 schools year after year. So while many of these schools are not at all well known internationally, they are familiar to our admissions committee. – ff524 Oct 14 '14 at 19:07
  • In the case of an applicant from an unfamiliar school, we ask a faculty member from that country about it. (For about 99.9% of international applicants, we have a faculty member in the department who has experience with that country's higher education system) – ff524 Oct 14 '14 at 19:11

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