I'm in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs right now, and professors from two schools have let me know that I've been recommended for admission and that the graduate studies department still had to approve the recommendation. In both cases, I was assured that there was no way the approval would be denied.

I don't have any red flags in my application, so this is a question out of pure curiosity. How often does it happen that the graduate school at large goes against the recommendation of the departmental committee, and for what sorts of reasons would this happen?


2 Answers 2


In both the private and public R1s that I've been in (in the USA), the departments run admissions. They read through the applications and then send the graduate school their ranked list of admits, a rolldown list, and the list of rejects.

However, technically the department does not admit students, the graduate school does. So the department list are only "recommendations."

I would say that 99% of the time, the graduate school acts on those recommendations. They'd be fools not to, since the disciplinary expertise is in the department.

The 1% that I've personally experienced was with a graduate student who had horrible GRE scores but other stellar qualifications. Despite our university annually sending us guidance saying that GREs are not correlated with graduate school performance, very low scores could be cause for concern in their office (likely because of national rankings, but I have no insight there).

The dean of the graduate school wrote to us about that student and held up their admission. We had to write a response as to why we felt other aspects of their application overrode their poor GRE scores, and the student was admitted. But the experience did make it clear that the graduate school does look over admits, and might step in for extreme cases -- and why we have to be careful in our communications with students that we're only recommending admission.

Another scenario that might apply is that the graduate school changes its calculation midcycle in terms of how many slots a department might have, or how much funding is available to students (cutting, for example, some fellowship slots). I haven't heard of this happening, but I would imagine the grad school reserves the right to pull such a maneuver, especially as we are asked to submit ranked lists and so it is possible that the 13th student in a 13 member list might be sent off the island in some scenarios.

  • 7
    This would also apply to language tests. Departments sometimes want to admit someone whose language skills are sufficient to do research, but not sufficient to TA. The graduate school may enforce its standards for TAs at the point of admission. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 8:06
  • Another data point: About 20 years ago, I chaired my department's graduate admissions committee for three years. Although the graduate school occasionally did some strange things, they never deviated from our admissions recommendations. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 15:00

I think the other answers are correct. In addition, if you publish a controversial pro-(terrorism, rape, Hitler, etc) article after the department recommends admission but before the graduate college formally admits you, they may feel free to not admit you.

  • My university provides an example of this scenario for a tenured faculty hiring recommendation. So, sadly, it's easy for me to imagine a similar response to a controversial graduate applicant, but with much less fallout for the institution.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 14:14
  • @JeffE thank you for providing the link. That case was on my mind when I wrote the answer, but I could not recall enough details to google-fu a link.
    – emory
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 15:59
  • Creative answer, but in this scenario the department is also likely to revoke its own recommendation, so it's not so much in the spirit of what OP was asking about, which was situations where the department and grad studies would have differing opinions about whether to admit the same student given the same information about them.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 16:12
  • @DanRomik "In both cases, I was assured that there was no way the approval would be denied." leads us to believe that the process is pro forma - so it would take something extraordinary to happen.
    – emory
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 18:43

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