I wonder how random the graduate admission process is in the United States. I am mostly interested in the fields of computer science, and PhD programs (i.e., not Master programs).

One way to quantify it would be following a similar methodology as in this study (mirror), which showed that half the papers appearing at NIPS would be rejected if the review process were rerun. Of course it may not be flawless, but might give some decent approximations.

I am looking for referenced numbers, not guesses.

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    As candidates tend to to apply at multiple schools of the same level (5-10 I'd say at least), and the same people tend to get in or not in, it's probably not very random: a very specific student profile is preferred somewhat consistently across professors at different schools. This seems very similar to the quoted experiment; but I doubt you'll find actual numbers from some such experiment. – gnometorule Mar 21 '16 at 16:57
  • @gnometorule Good point, yes the experiment could be on student side (probably easier to get the data there). – Franck Dernoncourt Mar 21 '16 at 16:59
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    I guess this is very similar to many conferences where the number of papers that can be accepted is much smaller than the number of submitted papers: the outstanding papers usually make it, the crappy papers are weeded out pretty reliably, and for all the good-but-not-outstanding papers in between the choice is influenced by a multitude of factors (and becomes somewhat random). – CrepusculeWithNellie Mar 21 '16 at 21:18
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    In general, the sheer number of applications reviewed by admissions committee members in some departments will inevitably lead to decision fatigue. – ff524 Mar 22 '16 at 2:48
  • @ff524 I recall having read some similar studies, but I don't recall such a high variation. Impressive. – Franck Dernoncourt Mar 22 '16 at 2:58

There is without a doubt some randomness in the process, but I find your question impossible to answer. In the question, you implicitly assume that the "quality" of an application is a well-defined concept that could be used to replicate an experiment.

But this isn't the case. The only way you could do this is by submitting N "equally good" applications to the same graduate programs in the same year, and expect the same outcome for all. But this is clearly not a workable concept. Rather, different graduate programs may look for different candidates (for example because they have different areas of strength), and possibly may want to balance areas in successive years. In other words, the "quality" of an application is a concept that can only be measured against the current needs of individual graduate programs. You can't repeat the experiment at a different place or different time and expect the same outcome.

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    Actually, people do that type of experiment when researching discrimination in hiring and other markets. In addition, this is not an answer. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 '16 at 22:26
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    It's true that one can make these sorts of experiments in a controlled setting using test subjects. What I wanted to point out is that to do it in the real world, using actual graduate school admissions committees is going to be exceptionally complicated and unreliable. One can say that this doesn't answer the original question, but it may shed light on why there is not likely going to be a lot of factual data. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 22 '16 at 2:56

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