This is a special community wiki 'canonical' question that aggregates advice on a frequently-asked question. See this meta discussion. Please feel free to edit this question to improve it.

When applying to a PhD program in the US, how will applications be evaluated? If an applicant is weak in a particular area, is it possible to offset that by being strong in a different area? How can an applicant estimate the probability that they will get into a PhD program at School X?

This question and its answers assume some basic familiarity with how the graduate admissions process works in the US; for information about this, please see this canonical answer.

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    Book on this topic insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/06/… Commented Jun 13, 2021 at 11:39
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    Q: I asked a very specific question about my profile; why was my post closed as a duplicate of this vague question? A: Sorry, we cannot accurately predict your odds of admission from your "statistics" (see the first part of the below answer for an explanation) and providing individualized advice is not our role in any case. Rather, we have consolidated our advice to this one page. If you can "boil down" your question to something of more general interest (e.g., "how does X affect my odds"), consider editing your question to ask this boiled down version instead.
    – cag51
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 17:08

3 Answers 3


Please feel free to edit the answer to improve it.

Can I get into school X with my {grades, test scores, research profile, personal story, etc.}?

There is no formula by which we can turn your "statistics" into a probability of admission. Things vary from (sub)field to (sub)field, school to school, year to year, and person to person. If you posted a question asking us to evaluate your profile and your question was closed as a duplicate of this post, this is why. We appreciate that even a "rough," buyer-beware formula would be very useful to applicants, but we are simply unable to provide one. Nonetheless, we hope the information contained in this answer will be useful to you.

How do programs decide who to accept?

Generally, PhD programs in the US have many more applicants than they can accept. The number of positions is limited by finances (a department can only afford a limited number of RAs and TAs), space and resources (students often need offices and access to equipment), and the ability to supervise the students (there is a limit to the number of PhD students a faculty member can effectively supervise). The admissions committee must decide which of the qualified applicants are most likely to be successful researchers while taking departmental needs into consideration. These needs include things like the start-up package for Professor X including a funded PhD student and a particular resource being already at capacity.

The admissions committee bases its decision on a number of pieces of information including GPA (Grade Point Average), GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) scores, statement of purpose, references, interviews, and, for international students, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores. Again, there is no formula (e.g., 6×GPA + 1×GRE + 2×references + publications) by which applicants are ranked, but some universities and/or departments set minimum requirements (e.g., GPA over 3.0 or a TOEFL over 85). The admissions committee looks at the entire application to make an informed judgment. This means that being strong in one area can, and does, offset being weak in another area.

How are GPAs evaluated? Can I get in if I have low grades? Do I have a chance if I didn't major in the subject I want to pursue?

When admissions committees consider the GPA, they are considering a number of factors including the grades: the strength of the school and major, the types of classes, and trends. An applicant who did poorly in first-year general electives will be looked at very differently from a student who did poorly in advanced specialized classes. The major is not nearly as important as the relevant classes. For example, an engineering department might look more favourably on a math major who took and did well on, engineering and applied-math electives than an engineering major who took humanities electives. As with everything in the admissions process, the admissions committee is trying to judge the potential for research success.

A low GPA can be offset by a strong research record highlighted in the SOP and letters of reference. The SOP and letters of reference can also be used to make the admissions committee aware of any extenuating circumstances that may have lead to the low GPA. Similarly, the SOP and letters of reference can be used to address how your major and background prepare you for research in the field that you are applying to. Strong GRE scores can also help offset a low GPA, and a strong GRE subject test can compensate for mismatches between majors. The best way to offset a low GPA or a mismatch in the area of specialization is to consider enrolling in a terminal master’s degree and getting a good GPA in difficult classes.

An excellent way of improving a low GPA is by taking a senior thesis course, which is almost always available. Not only is this a proven way of building close ties with one or more faculty members (who will supervise you in your thesis) and getting those strong, personalized recommendations, but it could lead to a publication, or at the very least, a technical report published by the department. In terms of grades, getting a good grade on the senior thesis course is usually not difficult (especially since you’re not evaluated on an exam performance), assuming you put in the effort.

It is also important to think honestly about why certain grades are low, and what you would do differently in graduate school. Learning from failure is a crucial skill (see, e.g., Dweck’s research on growth mindset, as well as her widely-read book). In fact, almost all academics have been rejected by some of the programs, fellowships, grants, and journals that they have applied for or submitted to, and many have even failed classes. Finding constructive ways to deal with negative feedback, rejection, and failure is crucial in academia.

Examine why you struggled or what went wrong and how you can address a problem like that in the future. How have you developed the knowledge and skills that would have helped you then? Depending on the kinds of problems you faced and the extent of their impact on your record, they may not be appropriate to mention in your SOP and through your recommenders’ letters, but the steps you take to address them might tell their own story. (For example, perhaps you failed a class but then did research with a professor of the same subject, or perhaps you had a rocky college record because you were immature or bad at planning, but you have now worked for five years in a responsible position at a lab.)

How are GRE scores evaluated? How bad is it if I did poorly on the GREs? Can a good GRE score save an otherwise weak application?

First, we should distinguish two things.

  • The general GRE is like the SAT you took in high school: it contains a math section (very easy; these are literally middle school math problems), a verbal section (much harder), and a writing section.
  • Some subjects (math, physics, etc.) offer, and some schools require, a subject GRE exam. These are short undergraduate-level questions. Note that the math subject GRE includes abstract math (e.g., abstract algebra, number theory, real analysis) and is therefore unlikely to be appropriate for non-math majors, even those with a strong background in "computational" math.

There are a number of limitations to both GREs in terms of predicting research success, but this is the only standardized metric admissions committees have access to. The weight given to the different sections of the GRE and the subject tests can vary substantially among departments. For example, in STEM subjects, near-perfect math scores on the general GRE are not at all unusual, while near-perfect verbal scores are very unusual. That said, it is unlikely that a super-high score on the general GRE will have much impact, though a strong score on the subject GRE may have some impact (if your field has a subject GRE).

A low GRE score can be offset by a strong research record highlighted in the SOP and letters of reference. The SOP and letters of reference can also be used to make the admissions committee aware of any extenuating circumstances that may have led to the low GRE scores. A strong GPA can also help offset low GRE scores.

A particularly effective way to offset a low GRE is to retake the GRE. In many regions of the world, the GRE General Test is offered year-round via computerized administration at a testing center, and your scores are given to you immediately upon completion. Upon receiving a lower-than-expected GRE score, you can, and should, immediately register for another GRE exam and begin preparing. Because of the short turn-around time, any preparation you did for the previous GRE should allow you to prepare much more quickly this time.

You are technically permitted to take the GRE General Test once every three weeks, or five times a year. However, repeat testings are detrimental to your schedule, morale, and finances, so it might be best to keep taking the test only until you receive a satisfactory score that you feel will represent your target school's applicant criteria, not until you receive the best score you believe is possible for you. In particular, improving your GRE scores is a time-consuming and tedious endeavor, so you should carefully consider whether there are other areas that may be a better use of your energies.

Once you have received the score you are satisfied with, the ETS offers a service to allow you to selectively determine which scores you provide to schools you are applying to, called ScoreSelect. This way, you can present your best cumulative score to the applications committee without being concerned about an older test, or one where extenuating circumstances made you perform worse than expected.

After test day, you can send additional score reports for a fee, and select from these options for each report you'd like to send:

  • Most Recent option — Send your scores from your most recent test administration

  • All option — Send your scores from all test administrations in the last five years

  • Any option — Send your scores from one OR as many test administrations as you like from the last five years

You will select by specific test dates, so your scores are all from the same testing session.

This applies to both general and subject GREs:

The ScoreSelect option is available for both the GRE® revised General Test and GRE® Subject Tests, and can be used by anyone with reportable scores from the last five years.

Again, the GRE (particularly the General GRE) is a ‘filter’, nothing more. In many cases, even applicants with low GREs will be considered and not automatically discarded. Most top admissions panels do not accept one candidate over another simply based on GRE. Some grad schools don’t even require candidates to submit GREs.

In some fields, the Subject GRE is given significantly more weight than the General GRE, and so a low Subject Test score can be more harmful to a borderline application. Since the Subject Test is usually offered twice in the fall (September and October), it can be to your advantage to register for both sittings. This way, you can mitigate a poor showing on the September sitting by a stronger showing on the October sitting; and if the September sitting yields a satisfactory score, you can simply cancel your registration for the October sitting. This tactic can also be used for the General GRE in those regions of the world where computerized testing is not available.

How are Statements of Purpose evaluated? What should I say (and avoid saying) in my statement of purpose?

Make sure you understand the conventions and expectations around statements of purpose in your field. Talk to professors in the field you trust -- and consider searching our archives, we have lots of historical questions about statements of purpose that maybe useful.

Note that your SOP is a professional document that should explain your goals in pursuing a PhD. The SOP is not the document where you should get too personal. Don’t waste too many words discussing your childhood, or random thoughts you've had, or your theory of life. It's fine to state interests and hobbies and unrelated accomplishments, but make every word as objective (and verifiable) as you can. This is generally true, but especially so for STEM programs. Academics are impressed by crisp, concise writing.

The SOP is also your chance to explain negative experiences, such as poor grades, letters, or lack of research experience. This is a tricky balance. It is important to candidly and directly address your weaknesses: it looks very out of touch if you write an aggressive SOP but never mention your awful grades, for example. At the same time, the SOP is not the place to do a lengthy post-mortem on your failures. You should tell a very simple, clear narrative: "I had personal and medical problems during my junior year, but my performance during the other three years was very strong." If you want to give a concise reason ("my father died"), you may, but don't overdo it.

The SOP is also your chance to show that your application to this program is well-motivated. If you have already spoken to a professor and there is mutual interest in working together, you should definitely mention it here. If you are deeply familiar with a professor's work -- or have deep experience in the same niche area as a particular professor -- this is a great time to mention it.

If you are not a native English speaker, you should consider hiring a professional editor to help you with your essay. If you have poor writing skills generally, this will be a major problem even beyond your GRE, so you should consider ways to build these skills.

How are Letters of Reference evaluated? What does a good one look like? What should I do if I can't procure strong letters?

You’ll want at least one very strong reference for a top-ten program and in many cases two strong letters (three is actually quite a stretch). As noted above, doing a senior thesis is a great way to secure a letter of recommendation. Try also to aim for at least one research internship during your undergrad. This could lead to a second strong letter from a researcher in your area. Letters from industry don’t usually have the same appeal for academics, though if you have a strong background in industry, a letter from a senior research scientist at your company may be appropriate.

Ideally, a strong letter will describe your accomplishments, complement the rest of your application, and state high confidence in your ability to complete a strong PhD and have a successful career.

Most applications require three letters of reference, so you absolutely must secure these letters; there is no way to proceed without three. In the worst case, these letters could simply say "Student took my class and got a B"; this is a very weak letter that will not help your application at all, but it will at least allow you to complete your application. Alternatively, you could pursue additional research or coursework experiences so that you can get a PhD.

Will I have to do an interview? How are interviews evaluated?

Most STEM positions (physics, math) do not require an interview.

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If required, how are TOEFL scores evaluated? How much does it hurt if I have a poor score on the TOEFL?

TOEFLs are extremely important. Generally, schools have minimum TOEFL scores, and these minimums can be rather high. If your score is low, you should improve your English and retake the test; there are unlikely to be many options otherwise; taking a student whose English isn’t good enough can be a huge headache. Some schools in the US will do phone/Skype interviews with prospective international students to get a sense of their English (regardless of their TOEFL score).

Meeting the minimum requirements

Every university/department handles the stated minimum requirements differently. Sometimes a hard threshold is used such that if an application fails to meet all the minimum requirements, it will not be considered at all. Other times, the threshold is soft, and applications that do not meet all (or some) of the minimum requirements will still be considered. If you do not meet the minimum, only the department you are applying to can tell you if you are eligible to apply.

How does it affect things if I have a master's degree? If I don't have a strong application now, will a master's degree help?

If you have a poor undergraduate record, getting a master's degree might make sense. Good performance during a master's might make up for poor performance during undergraduate. On the other hand, master's degrees rarely provide funding and often require the student to pay tuition. Further, some doctoral programs prefer or require that students join right out of undergraduate. So, you will need to determine whether pursuing a master's makes sense given your goals. The other option is to take another year of undergraduate to retake coursework/exams and pursue research opportunities.

If you do decide to pursue a master's degree, some tips are to: pursue a research-based masters (not coursework-based), find an advisor who will be able to write you a strong letter of recommendation, and carefully address your experience during your own statement of purpose.

How does it affect things if I started (but didn't finish) a Ph.D. somewhere else?

Sometimes, everything goes right and it is still necessary to transfer graduate schools. Programs understand this and will give your application the corresponding consideration. In this case, a letter of recommendation from your advisor will be very helpful -- and in some cases, your advisor can even proactively help to secure your position through networking.

If you have a poor record during graduate school, it can be very difficult to transfer graduate schools. As reported here, you must report your experience at the other graduate school; concealing your attendance could end your career. Beyond that, most of the advice above applies; however, it is even more important to craft a clear narrative that explains what went wrong and why things will be better at the new institution. You should definitely consider schools that are (generally speaking) less competitive than the school you are leaving.

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    The following advice is a bit dangerous: The best way to offset a low GPA...is to consider enrolling in a terminal Master's degree... In my experience, terminal degrees are terminal; they do not even pretend to prepare students for a research graduate program. In particular, at many universities, classes taken by terminal master's students are easier than the corresponding classes taken by undergraduates.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 14:59
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    @WetLabStudent Applications do not have control over their reference letters. They only have control over who writes them.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 18:59
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    I think you missed a big point, explicit research experience for STEM fields. If an undergraduate has their name on a journal article, especially if they are first author, it can compensate heavily for deficits in other areas.
    – daaxix
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 23:36
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    @JeffE It's possible that some enterprising department has tried to make money by developing a true terminal masters in math, but it's hard for me to imagine a math department bothering to create classes for masters students which are easier than the undergraduate classes. You couldn't justify the teaching expenditure. Anywhere there's a Ph.D. program, they would just take the same classes as the Ph.D. students. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 15:25
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    @BenWebster You couldn't justify the teaching expenditure. — The most practical argument for having a terminal CS masters program is that it runs a significant profit. In fact, I think it's fair to say most professional master's programs in CS would not exist if they did not bring in significantly more money from tuition than whatever they pay their instructors and TAs.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 5:52

Note that, in many of the top STEM PhD programs (I speak from a Computer Science perspective), research experience trumps everything else. So even if you have an average/slightly-below-average GPA, you can always try and compensate by (1) being extremely active in research in your last one-two years of undergrad, and hopefully getting a publication or two out (2) doing extra work (this could overlap with (1)) so that you have excellent recommendations. Finally, it is often the case that a lot of 'brilliant' students have no idea who they want to work with or what their research focus is. This is a major weakness in applications. You can always gain a competitive edge by identifying potential advisers early and initiating contact. Read the papers that come out of the group you would be interested in joining. This will enable you to objectively validate your interest in your statement when you submit the application. No adviser would trade an enthusiastic, energetic, focused candidate for someone clueless (and often arrogant, on account of merely having superior grades).

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    I think there is a lot of useful stuff in this answer. Would you consider adding some of it to the template answer. The idea behind a community wiki answer is at we all work together to make it better.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 5:24
  • Sure. I've supplemented the template answer above; hope it's useful! And good luck to everyone applying to a program this year.
    – M.Dax
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 21:35

Short answer: Admissions is similar but not quite the same at each graduate institution and thus you should follow the guidelines as outlined by each school and department you are applying to. Dates and requirements may vary, but not by much. Yes, you are correct - the general practice in U.S. schools is that if a certain aspect of your application is weak, the strong components have the capacity to "offset" the weak areas. However, this is highly contingent upon whether the graduate school requires a minimum GPA and/or GRE score, as well as what parts of the application matter most to the program you are applying for.

Elaborating on the short answer: Most U.S. undergraduate and graduate programs take on at least somewhat of a holistic approach, i.e. a focus on the overall prospective candidate, whereby one's application is considered for its overall content. For example, if your statement of purpose is very strong, it could offset a less-than-stellar GRE score. Within the U.S., it is often the case that your admissions application (as well as conditions for timely progress in your program after being admitted) have two different sets of requirements that must be followed: that of the graduate school and that of your prospective department. Therefore, when applying to schools, it is important to read up on both the graduate school and the department. The general graduate admissions application requirements might differ from your department's requirements in minute ways. For example, your application might not ask for a writing sample, but the department website states an expectation for a writing sample to be sent to the graduate coordinator's email.

Keeping in mind that each school (and program within the school) might consider applications differently because it is typically based on admission/approval from both the graduate school and the department you are applying for, many institutions not only state the application components but moreover will tell you the extent to which certain factors are weighted. Some graduate schools emphasize that they would prefer students with a GRE score of x or higher, typically with an asterisk that states that the GRE is one factor of many and students are still encouraged to apply even if they do not meet the desired score. This information is generally listed in the admissions FAQ section of the graduate school and/or department website(s). If the information is not provided, you can contact the department's graduate coordinator and/or prospective adviser on the matter.

Within the social sciences, the statement of purpose and letters of recommendation are arguably the most important components. If the program is writing intensive, it is likely that the verbal reasoning and analytical writing portions of the GRE might matter significantly more than the quantitative reasoning section. (I have also been told that some programs do not require GRE scores, but it seems this is mostly the case for Master's programs rather than Ph.D.'s.)

Again, the extent to which each component of your application matters will vary greatly amongst schools and programs, but the general rule to follow is that if your undergraduate grades/transcripts are not very good, you should excel in the other parts of your application and communicate relevant strengths to your recommenders so that they know to highlight these more positive aspects within their letters of recommendation.

On another note, thankfully many Ph.D. applications in the U.S. now reserve a section for you to explain any "blemish" on your record; this could be anything from explaining a bad grade to elaborating on a particular skill that the application did not allow you to do. Think carefully about how you would like to word the weaker parts of your application, but this section is indeed reviewed and considered. If your application does not have a place to state this, I have found that emailing the graduate coordinator works just the same, for they might be able to add a note to your file for you (just make sure to ask nicely!). Lastly, communication with prospective advisers (if applicable) is key; not only can they (potentially) vouch for your strength as a prospective candidate in ways that an application cannot, but getting to know you ahead of time could also assist them if they are from an institution whereby advisers can nominate their incoming students for awards, funding, etc.

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