Our department is awesome. But every year, I think: "why aren't we getting more awesome applicants? They could be super happy here, and we could do a great job of jump-starting their careers."

Well, this year, I am on the PhD admissions committee.

What can I do to improve the quality of our applicant pool? Of course I realize reputation is a big component, but that is a long-term game (and we are already quite well-ranked by USN≀ I don't think that's the core issue here). I'm wondering more about short-term, actionable, guerilla mercenary acts I can execute in the next few months.

If you have participated in grad admissions at your university, what (if anything) helped you get more quality applications?

For reference I'm in North America, in the sciences.


9 Answers 9


You could kill two birds with one stone and target underrepresented groups. Make connections with undergraduate student organizations of color. Invite undergrads taking junior level classes in your department to meet with your committee at a barbecue to talk about what they have found most helpful in terms of supporting their academic success. If you ask the question that way, you may get some helpful constructive feedback, without actually inviting them to kvetch.

Make sure your department has an effective community outreach program to K-12 students, and ask them to target underrepresented groups in your town or city. Word will spread.

Co-sponsor, with the engineering department, and a student organization, a showing of the film "Underwater Dreams". Better yet, invite the people involved in making the film to your showing, for a panel discussion after the movie.

Make sure your faculty members' webpages are clear and inviting.

Recruit some peer advisors and give them some online profiles. Make sure the peer advisors have a quick way to get answers from the members of your committee in case there's something they can't answer.

I don't know if women are an underrepresented group in your field, but even if they aren't, make sure you have all the features that make a department women-friendly.

With respect to the GRE comment -- I don't have an opinion about this suggestion, but at least try to come up with an admissions policy that looks at the whole person, and make that policy clear to potential applicants. A public statement along the lines of "we encourage returning students to apply" is a helpful clue to women who have taken a child rearing break.

Make sure you have an undergrad and grad student prize in your department, for example best poster, best thesis, and really celebrate the winners. Feature different student bios on your department website on a rotating basis.

Get some funding for some upper level undergrads to go along to a conference. Set up peer mentoring to make connections between students of different levels.

Make sure there are fun things for students to do together in free time, e.g. soccer or volleyball or Eurogames or whatever your department's students enjoy doing.

Really nice administrative support personnel can do a lot to make a department attractive to students. (For example, "if you have any trouble getting registered for a class you need, let me know".)

Sorry if that was a bit disorganized -- hope these ideas get you thinking.

  • 21
    Do note that attracting underrepresented students is only one thing. If they are going to succeed, they need a department that is accepting, inclusive, and supportive. It will take effort across the department to make this happen and not have an environment/community that drives out those underrepresented persons. Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 23:34
  • @user2943160 - very well said. You could turn this into a question and an answer, and they would add a lot to the site. Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 23:46
  • Welcome back, @aparente001 (+1)
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 5:18
  • 13
    Of course there's no guarantee that people from the 'underrepresented' groups are all going to be good applicants. You might get 100 'underrepresented' applicants and find that only 10 of them are of the quality you're hoping for. Also I'd be worred that targetting the 'underrepresented' groups would put off people from other groups or even the 'underrepresented' groups themselves. I know of a few people who get seriously fed up with being asked to attend science events just so people can tick boxes saying "yes, we got people from X minority here".
    – Pharap
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 23:55

I don't think eliminating GRE is helpful at all. Most good students will take the GRE.

From the perspective of someone who applied to graduate schools recently, the main things I looked for were reputation and schools I felt like I had a decent shot at. Also I looked for people I might theoretically want to research with. Another thing I liked was transparency. For example, having numbers. How much is funding, what is the acceptance rate, what are the acceptance statistics, how many graduate and in how many years, what do they end up doing, etc. The school I accepted had all of these things. They said they accepted a decent amount of people, and the ones who graduated all had jobs mostly in academia. That made me feel better about applying. Also, seeing funding information made me feel better. I could check Craigslist for apartments to see if the funding was livable.

I think interacting with individuals might be costly and difficult, but having a good website is not so bad. Make sure you have statistics, faculty profiles, etc. Make sure policies are written clearly. For example policies on quals, etc. While you're at it maybe post previous quals on the website. Make sure a few of the first year classes still have functioning webpages with homework/exams on them. Make sure the application is clearly placed and what is required is clearly written. Applying to grad school is stressful and confusing. The more clear you are the better.

Also an obvious thing is to make the cost of applying reasonable. $100+ application fees is very offputting. But then again too low and everyone regardless of interest or qualifications will apply.

  • 1
    Most good students will take the GRE — So what? The point is to make it iron-clad and public department policy not to consider GRE scores in graduate admissions decisions. Most strong CS PhD programs in the US stopped requiring GRE scores years ago.
    – JeffE
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 2:26
  • 7
    @JeffE I'm not defending the use of the GRE. I'm just saying dropping it is not going to attract better students immediately. If you want to drop it for other reasons that's another discussion.
    – user41631
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 2:30
  • 11
    Well, I was a good test taker and a strong student (straight A) but 200€ for taking the GRE plus x€ application fee is 200+x€ more than I would have paid for an application in Europe. So I think dropping the GRE requirement will attract more students from countries where GRE is not usually taken. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 5:02
  • 13
    Most good american students will take the GRE. In Europe, based on my experience, only people determined to go to the US take it.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 9:04
  • 9
    I propose a StackExchange Pareto principle: most comments and discussion will revolve around the least important part of the solution. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:22

You have to specialize. If you can do that, you will be the first choice of those interested in your area of specialization, so the best ones will come.

Today's globalization has created "winner takes it all" markets, and the education market is not so different. In this style of market, the top players get many times more customers than second-tier players, second-tier players do much better than third-tier players, and so on. The differences between the tiers are huge, and each place in the first few tiers of the global market is already occupied. The competition is ferocious.

So currently, you are getting two types of student: A) Those for whom you are accidentally special, e.g. they live in your city and don't want to move, and B) those who dreamed to get into Harvard. A will contain the usual mix of brilliant and average students, while from B, Harvard picked all the chocolate chips from the cookie.

The solution is that you become top player by getting into a niche which has been overlooked. It may be completely new, or it may have 1-2 players which are in it accidentally, so you can beat them easily. Suddenly, you'll start getting applications from C), the students who dream of being in that niche. Not only did you open yourself to a new set of students, but those who know early on what they know, and find out which university offers it, tend to be the best. This is a set of self-selected people who are motivated and effective.

The good thing is that, once your core excellence area builds you a reputation, it rubs off on the whole department. If you are a computer science department and become the place to study formal verification methods, many future students will not hear specifically about the formal verification methods, or know what they are. They will have simply heard that there are good people vying for admission at your department, and conclude that they want to go there too.

You asked for short-term tactics, and I'm talking about reputation. But you can certainly start now short-term. The thing to do is to pick your niche right now, and recast your PR material to support it. Maybe even try to make some lightweight changes to teaching to support the new orientation, such as changing the names of existing courses to better show how they are connected to the niche you are going to claim.

By the way, the currently most upvoted answer - attract minorities - is also going in this direction. It suggests that you occupy a social niche, instead of a discipline-based niche. The good thing is that you don't have to choose, you can do both in parallel.

I realize that any good intentions in this direction are likely to get mired in politics and stopped at many levels, so this won't succeed in many cases, unless championed by somebody with sufficient power. This doesn't mean that the answer is wrong, just that it is difficult to do it right.


One method that my department has found to be quite effective is to make outreach visits to universities. We have relationships with professors in departments related to our own, and these professors will often promote or recommend students to our department. In addition, colleagues from my department will make visits to other departments. During these visits, my colleagues will give a short research talk as well as talk about our department to the audience, which is mostly undergraduate students in their second or third years.

Given that quite a few of the PhD students admitted to our department have applied to our department because of these visits, I would argue that this outreach program has been quite successful.

  • I think this is a good idea. Our program is successful in getting great people from a few particular universities which have good training for BA/MA students but no PhD program. Although we don't do specific on-campus outreach there, the professors recommend our department to their best students, and we typically admit at least one per year. I suppose, in a way, the students are acting as our "outreach committee" too, as they have good experiences here and are likely to tell their friends one year younger.
    – Dawn
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 15:01

I'd recommend speaking with your marketing department/office, as it's a question of reaching the right market/audience for your department's subject area and standing.

I have worked on a new PhD programme previously, and we attracted very large number of excellent students; however, very few of them were anywhere near the subject specialism of the core academics available to supervise, so we struggled to recruit.

To remedy this, we went back to the drawing board and thought about 1) who is our ideal student, 2) what are our strengths (eg research activities, access to labs etc), 3) what are our weaknesses (what might turn off a potential student) and 4) what are our competitors other threats.

We also thought about in detail the kinds of subjects that we were able to supervise and came up with a succinct summary of these. And got some funding for a specific topic to shout about too.

In terms of raw tactics, addressing the points above, we did the following:

  • Mail campaigns to relevant academic discussion groups (JISC and ListServ) - to those who accept course announcements.

  • Updating website to specify subject area requirements.

  • Leaflets/bookmarks advertising the programme that academics can give to prospective students they bump into at conferences etc.

There's no fancy trickery. Provided that there actually are people out there that are interested and able to study at doctoral level with your department (which is always worth research - avoid confirmation bias!), then it is only a matter of reaching them.

One tip: keep it short and sweet, don't bury the key information in superlative text. They will base their decision to come to you on the information you provide to them, not in how you dress it up!

EDIT: I will also add, we targeted 'in-house' MSc programmes that we felt could produce good candidates as well and set up an informal pathway from one to the other.


As I applied to graduate school (in North America in the sciences) I felt some hesitation applying to the top programs in my field because I was afraid I wasn't the caliber of student they were looking for. This hesitation arose despite my professors being very confident that I was indeed the caliber of student the top programs were looking for. I then decided to apply to many of the top programs in my field (not just because they were the top programs, but because there were specific aspects of the program/department that were attractive to me) and got accepted at most of them. I am now attending the program that was my top choice of the programs I applied to and enjoying, as you put it, a great jump-start to my career.

This high acceptance rate I had came as a surprise to me (though not to my professors). I think that's a key aspect for an answer to your question.

I still often wonder if I actually belong in the excellent program I am enrolled in, as do the majority of my classmates (if not all). This is impostor syndrome, where high-achieving individuals feel like they don't belong in the circles to which their achievements have brought them. Impostor syndrome affected me as I was applying to graduate school. I almost didn't apply to the great programs that I was eventually accepted to because I did not feel like I belonged in such programs, although obviously the admissions committees felt different. I still don't know how I snuck in.

I believe the great reputation that a top program has may discourage otherwise qualified students from applying to such a program, precisely because of impostor syndrome and related feelings. Students gets scared away, thinking they have no chance of getting into a program when in fact they are very qualified.

If you could somehow modify the reputation of your department so that it doesn't seem unachievable to qualified students, I believe you'll get a better applicant pool. This goes for all top programs, not just yours in particular.


Some suggestions moved from comments (if you have an urge to answer this question in a comment, please write an answer, or edit this answer and add your comment here instead. Comments are not for answers.):

  • Forgo GRE scores and the like (and make it known). That would have gotten me applying, and it is a huge financial investment. - Davidmh
  • A summer research program for undergraduates is a good way to build relationships with strong students. Depending on the field, the NSF has funding for this. - user37208
  • Exchange students with another Universities in different countries/regions might help. - Mikey Mike
  • If you teach courses, I would recommend showing excerpts of current research papers to your students and spending a bit of time explaining how they could get into research; maybe assign a literature survey for a class assignment in an undergrad course. As an undergrad I wanted to do research but I didn't realize I had access to journals, and I wasn't sure where to start. After a good course I got a taste of what research was like, and it made a big difference in my academic plans. – jrh
  • Generous scholarships. Pay people to come, and suddenly you need to weed them out and pick the best because there are too much. – Michael

Two suggestions:

  1. Advertise on www.jobs.ac.uk and the academictransfer site in Europe.

  2. Make a list of unis half a notch down from you and write to the professors telling them you are looking for students, should they have students they could recommend.

A less cheap suggestion --

Get funding. In the UK it is almost unheard of to pay for research based degrees. The expectation is that university gets the funding and pays itself fees and pays the student a tax-free amount that is quite livable. In Europe, students are employees of the university and paid quite well.


I'll also give a few perspectives as a former applicant. First of all, a key aspect is the demeanour of faculty and PhD students, as they interact with undergraduates at other institutions. To be more specific:

  • As an undergrad I went to a few conferences. There I interacted with Professors from a diverse set of departments. Three of them recommended that I should apply to their department's PhD program and that I should e-mail them should I have any questions. I ended up applying to all three of these universities: Two of them I would never have applied at, one because it was relatively lowly ranked and the other because it originally seemed to be out of reach (tier 1).
  • In a similar spirit, I occasionally interacted with faculty or PhD students from other departments who left a very bad impression to me, e.g. being extremely arrogant. When I had to choose where to submit my applications (given time and money constraints), I avoided such departments.
  • Online media presence is also very important. I learned about many of the Professors whom I thought I would enjoy working with from their blog posts, online video lectures or even twitter activity. Such online presence really showcases the personality and style of individual faculty members, therefore being very informative. Note that the previous point also applies: Some blog posts I came across were extremely condescending and aggressively criticizing work from other labs. I did not apply to such labs.

Also, as others mentioned, one should also try to avoid adding artificial barriers to applicants. For example, I applied as an international student and some universities required a certified "conversion" of grades on my degree to the GPA system. I avoided the hassle by not applying there.

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