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I've had a promising Skype interview with a great professor from a top-level university in US. Our research interests are closely related and he encouraged me to apply BUT he says that all decisions are finally made by admission committee there.

The question is "Is a professor in such a high-level university able to affect admission committee if he really wants a student?" or "Does admission committee decision-making process become easier if a professor really wants an applicant?"

The main point is the difference between my transcript (which is a real catastrophe!) and my research background which is pretty good so the professor's decision might be different from admission committee.

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Being on the graduate committee of my department, if a professor sends us a note that they'd like to have a student admitted and state that they will take on their adviser role, we will only not admit that student if there are any red flags in the file. Most other considerations (including GPA) are not all that important any more at that point.

The reason for this is that what you get to see about a student from their application file is really just a very inexact science. You get transcripts that don't say very much about the standards in each of the classes a student took, letters of recommendation that sound the same for almost all students, and statements of purpose that most of the time are pretty generic as well. In my assessment of files, GRE scores and the statement of purpose often carry most of the weight, but I am fully aware of the fact that GRE scores poorly correlate with success in graduate programs. In other words, if I can get a personal opinion from one of my colleagues stating that they're excited to work with a student, then that is worth a whole lot and it will carry the day unless there are obvious reasons in the file of a student to reject the application.

  • Thank you @Wolfgang :) That was the answer I was looking for specially as we work almost in the same field. – Kasra Manshaei Mar 29 '15 at 13:48
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    I should also note that statements of purpose that identify possible thesis advisers and, in the best case, discuss prior conversations with them, are the most helpful. So you should definitely state your conversation with that professor somewhere in your application documents -- just to make sure that the issue is not forgotten if that professor happens to forget telling the graduate committee about your discussions. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 30 '15 at 2:03
  • Great point @Wolfgang! I'll definitely do that. Thanks a lot :) – Kasra Manshaei Mar 30 '15 at 6:21
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    To back this answer up (as if it needs it), I've always heard that having a professor who wants you to come work for them is the single best thing you can do to improve your chances of getting admitted. – David Z Mar 30 '15 at 11:17
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    Sure, if you can get an internship, and you do well, that would almost guarantee admission. But, as I'm sure you know, internships are not common in the US and nobody I know actually takes internship students -- although I and many others I know get a few dozens requests for internships per year. So getting an internship might actually be a higher hurdle than getting admitted to the graduate program :-) – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 17 '15 at 1:05
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The conventions for how graduate admissions decisions take place vary greatly from field to field. In some fields where graduate students do apply to a broad program rather than to work in a particular lab, individual faculty may have relatively small influence on the decisions of the admissions committee. The admissions committee in these cases may simply look for the students with the most promising records. In other fields, where graduate students apply to work in a particular lab, admissions committees are often aiming to recruit students whose research interests are well matched to those of faculty members in the department. In these cases, the faculty member in question often has a great deal of influence.

Of course, there is also variation from university to university even within the same discipline, though this may not be as great as the between-discipline variation.

All of that said, individual faculty may be limited in their ability to get a student admitted for any number of reasons. Often a PhD program has number of slots but a large number of faculty looking to recruit students. In these cases, support of a faculty member may be necessary but not sufficient for admission.

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Others are providing a reasonable answer to the question you asked (how does admissions work?), but I wonder if the question you meant to ask is "How should I interpret that professor's comment? Does this mean I'm very likely to be admitted?"

I'll help you interpret the professor's comment. The answer is... it's very hard to read anything into that comment. It could mean anything from "That professor is very excited about working with you and plans to advocate for your admitted (so you're likely to be admitted) but he wants you to know he can't make any guarantees" to "The professor feels that you are within the plausible range of someone who might be seriously considered for admission, so he is encouraging you to apply" to "The professor suspects admission might not be a slam-dunk or might be a long shot, but for politeness or other reasons doesn't want to come out and say that, so he is giving a veiled warning by noting that the admissions committee makes all decisions" to "The professor has no interest in working with you or advocating for your acceptance but there's no harm in encouraging you to apply", or anything in between.

The bottom line is that if you are interested in studying at that school, I definitely recommend that you apply. The one sure way to guarantee that you won't be admitted, is to not apply. So, do apply.

But don't read too much into the professor's comments. You should not interpret this as a statement about your chances of admission. Actually, at this point you shouldn't really speculate about your chances of admission -- it's not very constructive. If it's not going to change anything you do, it's not worth worrying about. And there are many factors that go into this that you can't predict.

The procedures followed by the admissions committee don't really change my remarks above. Yes, in many fields, if the professor wants to advocate for your acceptance, the admissions committee will probably go along with that (barring any serious red flags). But even admissions works that way at that school, this doesn't mean that the professor is necessarily going to advocate for your acceptance. All he said is that he encourages you to apply -- a generic statement that many professors will routinely make to anyone who expresses interest, and certainly not a promise that he is going to advocate for your acceptance.

Bottom line: Again, there's not much point to speculating about how likely you are to be admitted. It's unlikely anyone can give you an answer to that without much more detailed information -- and it's not a useful or constructive thing to worry about. There are so many considerations that can affect whether you are admitted, which don't necessarily have anything to do with you. My advice is, apply to a reasonable set of places that you would love to study at and you have a reasonable chance to be admitted to, and then just wait and see what happens. Don't get yourself too caught up in speculating what might or might not happen.

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As others have said, the specifics of the situation will vary from field to field and from one university to another.

At one of my graduate schools, applicants to the department selected an advisor and their applications where read exclusively the potential advisor who had complete control.

In my current department, decisions are made entirely by the graduate admission committee but these decisions will always involve asking faculty about their preferences. Of course, if I want a student and am likely to work with them, I can email my colleagues on the committee and attempt to influence the decision. This influence is real and can help at every stage of the process but there may be situations where it simply not enough to overcome departmental or funding limitations or other major red flags in a student's application. This influence can also vary by context within a department! For example, if I am able to fund a student entirely from a grant or other external funds, my influence is stronger.

So: Yes, professors can affect an admission committee's decisions if he really wants a student? and, yes, the admission committee's decision-making process is easier if a professor really wants an applicant This influence has limits and it does not mean you're in, but it is real.

Because the situation depends so much by context, you should trust the professor you're talking to give you a good sense of how much influence they have. It sounds like they believe it is largely out of his or her control. On the one hand, they may be trying to manage expectations for you, but it likely also reflects a real limitation in their ability to affect the outcome.

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