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Being that I am currently awaiting offers of admission/rejections for some of my PhD applications in the US, i regularly frequent the website http://thegradcafe.com, which, if you've never heard of it, has a forum where just about any subject relevant to graduate students is being discussed, and, most importantly, maintains a database of admission/rejection dates for various programs at various schools (see http://thegradcafe.com/survey/index.php).

While discussing with other members of the forum and browsing through the database myself, I have noticed the following pattern: For many PhD programs, year after year, all the offers of admission (the ones added to the database, anyway) will be made on a single day, and then, some time later (often 2,3 weeks or even almost a month later), all the rejection notifications are made.

Of course, it should be said that this "data" is fairly unreliable, since it is all added anonymously and most likely very fragmentary, but assuming this is actually a trend, here is my question:

What is the explanation for such a long delay between offers of admission and notifications of rejection in (some) US PhD admissions?

The possible explanations I have in mind are the following:

  1. The candidates that are assuredly admitted are sent offers as soon as possible, and then the admission committee takes a lot more time to choose a few more candidates within the (probably very large) sample of not-so-surely admitted students. (This could possibly not be reflected in the Grad Cafe's database, as very few candidates could be admitted this way)
  2. Universities wait to see if some of the strong applicants will answer positively or negatively to their offers before deciding to reject other applicants (but then, why not waitlist them in the mean time).

However, I would be very interested in hearing about anyone who has been in (or knows about) an admission committee that operates like this, and the reason behind this.

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Both your reasons are in play, although the second far more so, in the math dept at my "R1" university in the U.S. That is, we make a certain number of offers to well-qualified people, expecting a certain approximate rate (perhaps 50 percent or more) of acceptance of our offers, with considerable variation. We cannot risk far too many acceptances, because of funding limits, but, at the same time, we need a fairly precise number of TAs for the following year. So after we receive some rejections from that clear-first-round bunch of offers, we can (and must) make the corresponding number of second-round offers. Inevitably the number of such is not zero, but is unpredictable, and the financial set-up is such that we do not want to risk over-committing... and under-committing for too long risks students already being informally (if not formally, since nothing is set until until April 15) committed elsewhere.

  • That's how it works in the departments I know too – Blair MacIntyre Feb 8 '15 at 16:47
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At most neuroscience (and other life sciences) Ph.D. programs, all of the offers to interview go out on one day, usually in late December. Rejections at my program don't go out until March.

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