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.)

  • 7
    What do you mean? There are many applicants for few positions, so most of the applicants will be rejected.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 13, 2014 at 8:19
  • 1
    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. Oct 13, 2014 at 8:23
  • @WillieWong: Thank you so much, I meant exactly (1).
    – Yes
    Oct 13, 2014 at 8:43
  • 5
    "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, 2014 at 8:51
  • 14
    "Unless I find something good in this application I'll reject it" I think this is true for every application everywhere.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 13, 2014 at 9:32

4 Answers 4


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.)

  • 2
    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.)
    – user10636
    Oct 13, 2014 at 13:47
  • @shane: At some institutions, e.g. many public universities, international students are subject to different funding rules, which may limit the number that can be offered admission with funding. This could, in effect, act as a "bias" against international students. Mar 30, 2020 at 21:47
  • @NateEldredge Thanks for the additional info! I wasn't aware of that! Do you know if these rules are internal rules of the university, or are they somehow coming from a state or federal government funding source?
    – user10636
    Jul 30, 2020 at 14:11
  • @shane: In the cases I'm familiar with, it's a combination of state and internal rules. Students who are residents of the state have their tuition subsidized by the state in some direct or indirect form; the student's stipend doesn't change, but the university gets compensated. Domestic students from another state can establish residency after a year or so, thus making them eligible for the subsidy, and the university will typically require them to do this, so the hit is not too bad. But international students never become eligible. Jul 31, 2020 at 1:30
  • @shane: So the university then sets its own internal policies as to how to admit international students, and how many, in order to keep its costs / revenues under control. Jul 31, 2020 at 1:33

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.


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.

  • 1
    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, 2014 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, 2014 at 19:11

This is an absurd claim! I am an international student who has got acceptance from 5 US Ph.D. programs. I have my friends who are doing their Ph.D. in top US schools. There are lots of international students in all the US universities! Don't listen to that guy, make a good profile and apply. Good luck.

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