Not long ago I was on the phone with Pete, a Gradschoolmatch member who couldn't understand why he wasn't accepted by any of the clinical psychology Ph.D. programs he applied to last year.

"My GRE scores were well above average, and I also had a very strong GPA.  Yet not one of the programs I applied to took me. In fact, I never really heard from any of them after acknowledging they received my application."

I asked Pete which programs he applied to.

"All of the top 7."


First, Pete was surprised when I explained that PhD programs in clinical psychology are probably the most competitive graduate programs out there.  From a simple numbers perspective, they are generally harder to get into than medical school. That's because most programs don't have a lot of slots. Meanwhile psychology is a very popular discipline. Graduate degree programs in psychology generate a LOT of applications.

Second, and much more importantly, Pete is a victim of the herd effect. Although Pete's numbers are very strong, by themselves they didn't stand out within his application cohort. In other words, lot's of his fellow applicants had numbers just as strong as Pete's.

Applicants like Pete aren't competing for slots against the average applicants. They are competing against the exceptional applicants.

Graduate school applicants generally get this wrong. They mistakenly think admissions decisions are a simple formula of better than average GRE scores and GPA equals acceptance.

In fact, admissions committees are looking for stand outs. They identify stand outs by carefully reading narratives and letters of recommendation, while looking for relevant experiences. They also pay extremely close attention to what you say and how you behave during interviews (if you get one). They look for how well you make the case that you belong in their program.

In contrast, GRE and GPA numbers are mostly just used to evaluate whether you'll struggle with their curriculum, or not. Once they meet a certain threshold, it doesn't matter how high they are.

To shed some light on this here's admissions statistics at the University of Texas-Austin graduate school from the past 5 years. These rare data are chock full of useful information on how selective graduate schools operate. The data cover over 150,000 applications to about 200 graduate programs, which is a huge sample size. Collectively, these programs made just under 38,000 admissions offers over this period, for an aggregate admission rate of 25%.

I'd call that pretty selective. So let's make the assumption that UT-Austin is typical of most pretty selective schools.

But what's interesting is the selectivity of the individual programs is all over the map, from 2% (eg, their Clinical Psychology PhD program!) to 100% (several programs that don't receive many applications).

==Now if GRE and GPA== numbers were the major criteria for acceptance, then you would expect to see dramatically higher numbers for the accepted students relative to the overall applicant pool.

But that just doesn't happen:

Applicant 156 153 3.9 3.56
Accepted 158 155 4.2 3.66

Yes, there is some enrichment going on here on average, but it isn't a lot. The accepted averages are only slightly higher than the applicant averages.  At these above average levels, I don't think 2 points difference in each of verbal and quantitative is particularly meaningful. This is born out by program-by-program analysis, too (not shown).

For some, but not all, of the more competitive programs the enrichment is somewhat greater than average. For example, in the clinical psychology PhD program the five year average of verbal and quantitative GRE scores of the accepted students are each 5 points higher than for the average program applicant.

Now five points is probably significant in terms of test score percentiles, yet I'm also pretty confident that these higher GRE and GPA numbers have very little to do with actually driving acceptances.  Here is why:

You can bet that a program with a 2% acceptance rate is only making offers to those whom they judge to be exceptional candidates. Exceptional applicants tend to do everything well--perhaps most importantly, they write and express themselves very well. After all they've managed to persuade the admissions committee of a highly competitive program to accept them!

The ability to write well is correlated with a tendency to perform well on standardized tests and with earning solid grades in college coursework. In other words, GPA and GRE are trailing, not leading, indicators for acceptance into highly competitive programs.