PhD Admissions Secrets Revealed

Philippe Barr, PhD
16 min readJul 12, 2023

Are you on the hunt for admission to a PhD program? You’re not alone — every year, thousands of potential students apply to programs across the world. The task can be daunting, especially when faced with cutthroat competition and stringent admissions criteria. While it may feel like there’s no easy way through the process, we are here to tell you that you can significantly increase your chances of success by understanding what goes into successful applications.

This blog post will share the insights gained through 15 years of experience in reviewing PhD applications, both as a professor and as a member of admission committees, to help improve your PhD application-from writing an effective essay to navigating interviews, and more. Read on for advice on how to make sure your application stands out among the crowd.

PhD Programs in America vs the U.S.

PhD admissions in the United States and Europe can be quite different. In the United States, applicants typically need an undergraduate degree, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores (such as the GRE), a personal statement, and other materials such as research experience or publications. On the other hand, European universities tend to place more emphasis on research potential rather than prior educational achievement. Consequently, you may need to have an extensive portfolio of research projects or publications if you want to stand out as an applicant in Europe. Furthermore, applications for doctoral programs in European countries often require lengthy essays explaining why you are interested in pursuing your field of study. Finally, many European universities require that students attend an interview before being admitted into a PhD program; this is not typically the case for US universities. Despite these differences, both US and European PhD programs share some key similarities. For instance, most universities in both regions require that applicants have a strong academic background and have demonstrated research potential through their prior experience. Additionally, both types of programs are highly competitive, so you should be sure to put your best foot forward when applying!

In summary, applying to a PhD program in the United States and Europe can involve some distinct differences, but there are many similarities between the two. This guide will provide information on how to apply to PhD programs in the US and Canada, including what admissions committees are seeking and details about the application process. Please note that European PhD programs have similarities and differences compared to those discussed in this guide.

Application Timeline

Time management is essential for PhD admissions. There are a multitude of tasks, deadlines, and requirements that need to be completed for an application to be successful. Staying organized throughout the entire process can ensure all necessary components are completed on time and with accuracy which can increase your chances of acceptance into a top-tier program. It is important to plan ahead, create checklists, and set realistic goals so that no detail falls through the cracks, giving you the best chance at achieving your academic dreams. Before you start, it is important to create for yourself a timeline that will help you stay on track. (If you are looking for inspiration, you are welcome to download our 2023 Application Timeline here).

To apply for a PhD program, you will need to submit separate applications to each school through their respective websites. Contrary to other graduate programs, there is no shared platform for applications. While you may need to enter some information multiple times, the good news is that the schools don’t request too much. Once you have prepared your documents, the rest of the application process involves providing personal details, demographic information, and contact information.

Applications are usually required to be submitted in December and January. If the PhD program requires an interview as part of the application process, interviews typically take place from mid-January to early March. Because most programs do not use rolling admissions, it is pointless to send your application before deadlines since graduate committees usually meet only once a year and prefer to see all applications before making their final decision. Every program has its own set of deadlines, so it is important to keep track of them to avoid missing any important dates.

(Would you like to know what PhD admissions committees are looking for? Watch this quick video to find out key elements to highlight in an application)

Funding

It is important to research the funding opportunities associated with each program thoroughly before applying. Some schools offer generous packages that include full tuition and a stipend, while others may only cover tuition costs. Other programs require applicants to have their own sources of funding such as scholarships or personal savings to supplement their studies. Knowing the available options will allow you to make an informed decision when considering which PhD program in the US is best for you.

It’s also important to factor in other costs associated with pursuing a degree in the US besides tuition fees. These can include expenses related to housing, books and supplies, transportation costs, insurance premiums, cost of living, and so on. If your financial situation does not permit covering these additional costs by yourself, you need to make sure that the program you choose offers scholarships or assistantships that can help offset some of these costs.

Overall, it is essential to take into account a variety of funding options when selecting a PhD program in the US. Doing so will ensure that you can focus your energy and resources on achieving your goals rather than worrying about how to pay for them. With thorough research and careful consideration of all available options, you can confidently embark on your doctoral journey with peace of mind.

Admisssions Committees: What they look for

PhD programs require academic preparedness and a specific research objective. The program culminates with each student conducting research to answer their self-devised question, thus adding to the world’s knowledge.

To evaluate your eligibility for the program, PhD admissions require your GPA, GRE scores (this could be optional), CV, statement of purpose, writing sample (can vary), and letters of recommendation. These factors assess your intellectual ability, research goals, previous research experience, and potential contribution to the program.

We will explain what graduate programs are looking for from each topic, one by one.

GPA

Having a high GPA during your undergraduate studies is important for getting accepted into a PhD program. It is recommended to aim for a GPA of at least 3.3, especially if you want to apply to top-tier schools. However, there are no strict cutoffs. If your GPA is below 3.3., you still have chances of getting accepted into a good PhD program since other factors are often at play in PhD admission decisions.

If you have a Master’s degree, admissions committees for PhD programs will typically place more emphasis on your overall academic performance in graduate-level courses and your research experience. Higher grades in the relevant coursework or research projects can help demonstrate not only your ability to excel academically but also that you are capable of engaging with complex topics at an advanced level. Without a Master’s degree, GPA becomes even more important as it is often viewed as an indication of potential and mastery of foundational concepts in the field. Admissions committees will be looking for evidence that you can handle independent study and apply skills learned over time to their program’s specific requirements.

PhD programs require a significant amount of effort, beyond intelligence alone. Your GPA is only among many other factors that can demonstrate your ability and willingness to perform academically at a high level and prepare for the challenges of a PhD program.

Academic Requirements and PhD Admissions

To assess your academic preparedness for the program, your GPA and transcript will be taken into consideration. It is expected that you have a strong foundation in the field and have taken advanced courses but it might not always be necessary. Taking graduate-level courses as an undergraduate can demonstrate this level of preparation.

Prior research experience is not mandatory in PhD admissions however, some universities may still require a research plan from prospective students. A research plan outlines the ideas and goals of the student’s proposed dissertation project as well as a timeline for completion. It gives admissions committees insight into the student’s preparedness to begin the program and provides evidence that the applicant is capable of completing independent work at a high academic level. While it isn’t required by all institutions, having a comprehensive and thoughtful research plan can help an application stand out from others during competitive admissions cycles.

It is common for PhD programs in social sciences and humanities to require proficiency in research languages. However, having knowledge of other languages for research purposes is beneficial for all students. It is recommended to check the language requirements of programs you are considering applying to.

GRE

The GRE is a standardized exam designed for students applying to graduate programs, including both MA and PhD programs. Similar to the SAT or ACT in college exams, it’s intended to assess academic readiness and logical abilities.

The GRE test includes six sections: writing, two verbal reasoning, two quantitative reasoning, and a research/experimental section. The test is taken on a computer with one-minute breaks after each section and a ten-minute break after the third section. Although there is also a paper-based test, it is less commonly used. The test is multi-stage, meaning your performance on earlier sections affects the difficulty of later questions.

There are three sections on the test: verbal, quantitative, and writing. The verbal and quantitative sections each have 20 questions to be answered in a 30- or 35-minute time frame. The scoring range for these sections is 130–170. The writing section is scored from 0–6 and requires you to write an essay on a given issue in 30 minutes, and then critique an argument provided in the next 30 minutes.

The GRE test scores range from 130–170. It is preferable to have higher scores for admission to graduate school, but the required scores vary based on the program. Also, some programs prioritize verbal scores and others prioritize quantitative scores. The importance given to GRE scores varies among different programs.

Many institutions have made the GRE test optional, some applicants may still choose to take it even if it is not a requirement. To improve your chances of success, we suggest preparing thoroughly before taking the GRE exam. You can take the GRE up to five times within a year, but there must be a minimum gap of 21 days between each testing date. Graduate programs will only accept or consider scores that are no more than 5 years old.

CV

A CV is similar to a resume, but it serves a different purpose for PhD admissions and cannot be substituted for one another. The main objective of a CV is to highlight your academic achievements and career milestones. Though it shares similarities with a resume, a CV is primarily used for academic pursuits and careers.

To create your CV, you can either search for a template online or seek guidance from a graduate school admissions consultant. If you already have a resume, then converting it to a CV will be easy.

Publications and PhD Admissions

It’s important to showcase research related to your PhD field of interest in your activities, as admissions officers are primarily looking for this. For PhD amissions, publications are also valuable, as they are important in academia, and beginning early can benefit your career.

It would be beneficial to have conducted research during your undergraduate studies, regardless of your field of study. The research does not necessarily have to be directly related to your area of interest, but it should help you develop transferable skills. Higher-level academic research requires learning its own set of methods and terms, and students who are already familiar with these forms and structures of research will have an advantage in graduate school.

Although not mandatory, having publications is a good thing. If you have finished your master’s degree, you are expected to have some sort of publication record, particularly from your thesis. Consider consulting with your academic advisors to learn how you can get your work published.

Statement of purpose

When applying to multiple graduate schools, you’ll have to write an essay for each one. While the structure can be similar, you’ll need to tailor each essay to the specific program. Keep in mind that some programs may require a second essay on diversity, but most only need one.

The essay requires you to clarify your research interests, study background, intended specialization area, and specific focus. As a PhD student, you will be exploring and addressing a particular research question in your dissertation, which will consume your time and attention for several years if you are accepted.

The essay holds the utmost significance in your application. While your grades and GRE scores demonstrate your academic preparedness for graduate school, it is through the essay that admission committees assess how well-suited you are for their program and how committed you are to your research.

To start off your essay, specify the program you are seeking admission to and mention your reasons for it. Then, detail your academic background and previous experience in the relevant field. While you don’t have to provide information about all your classes, elaborate on the ones that relate to your research topic. Along with this, mention any prior research you have done, including any thesis or publication credits in your undergraduate or master’s program. It is important to discuss your previous experiences directly related to the field you are trying to enter. For example, if you are interested in lab work, discuss your previous lab experiences. On the other hand, if you are pursuing fieldwork, talk about your experiences in that area.

As you move forward on your PhD admissions path, it would be beneficial to discuss the research area you plan to focus on, even if you haven’t formed a precise research question yet. It is recommended that you mention the subfield and try to be as specific as possible. While it isn’t always necessary, providing insight into your methodology can be helpful. Additionally, if any research projects align with your interests at the institution, it’s important to mention these and explain how they relate to your own research.

It is important to mention the professors you would like to work with. Professors typically advise graduate students and it is recommended to choose someone with a specialization in a field related to yours. The more closely their studies align with your own interests, the better. The essay should be one and a half to two pages long, single-spaced. Make sure to provide enough detail so that the readers can understand your research goals.

The faculty who lead the department review the essays and use them to decide who gets accepted into the PhD program. Since there are more applicants than available spaces, the admission rate is low. To increase your chances of being accepted, it’s important to provide detailed and specific information about your research aims in the essay.

Personal Statement

Although not all programs require it, it’s important to carefully consider if you can use the same essay for those that do. The personal statement is intended to gauge what distinctive perspectives and experiences you can bring to the program. PhD programs are designed for learning, and the program experience will be richer with a diverse array of viewpoints and ideas.

In this essay, we recommend that if you belong to an underrepresented group, are an immigrant, come from an underprivileged background, or from an area that is generally underrepresented, you consider discussing that. However, please do not write about your study abroad experience or your interactions with these groups’ members.

The most important thing about this essay is that it reflects your personal experiences and truly represents who you are. The objective is to demonstrate how your upbringing has influenced your character and shaped your perspective on the world.

Recommendation Letters

Similar to college applications, PhD admissions also require letters of recommendation from professors. These letters provide insights about your potential as a student and researcher, and evaluate how well you can perform in graduate-level studies. Since the academic community is relatively small, the admissions committee may already be familiar with the professors who wrote your letters through their reputation or personal connections.

For the application, you’ll need two to four letters of recommendation mainly from professors who are familiar with your work. If you had a thesis advisor, they are ideally one of the letter writers. If you have research experience, a good choice for a letter writer would be a mentor or lab director, even if they were not your instructor.

It is often recommended that you do not read the letters written for you even though you have the option to, but there are some cases where it could be a good idea to not waive your right to see them. In general, if you do not have faith in your writers to write good letters for you, it is better not to ask them for letters in the first place.

For requesting letters of recommendation, it’s best to ask with plenty of time in advance. Our recommendation is to ask for them at least eight weeks before they are due. It’s important to keep in mind that non-tenured faculty have a lot of responsibilities, so if you’re asking them, it’s best to give them even more time. It’s a good idea to send a reminder as deadlines get closer. In addition, be sure to share a copy of your essay with letter writers so they know the field you want to study and can talk about it in their letters.

It’s important to consider the political dynamics among professors when requesting recommendation letters. Some professors may hold strong negative feelings towards each other. If you are viewed as closely tied to a professor whom others dislike, it could hurt your chances for admission. Be sure to talk with your letter writers about the schools and programs you are applying to, and consult with an advisor who knows the field well when selecting your letter writers. Academic politics can be quite petty, but if your goal is to pursue a PhD, it’s essential to understand the game and how it’s played.

PhD Admissions Interviews

In US PhD admissions, the interview is not as common as one would think. Once your application clears the initial review, you might receive an invitation for an interview with faculty members from the program you have applied to. The purpose of the interview is to get to know you better and comprehend your research goals.

To impress the listeners, you need to effectively communicate your research topic and how this program aids in achieving your goals. While they are knowledgeable about the field, they might not be familiar with your specific subfield. Expect inquiries about your goals, but don’t worry if you can’t answer everything at the moment.

Normally, interviews are conducted face-to-face. Nevertheless, virtual interviews are gaining popularity due to the pandemic. The interview is also an opportunity for you to ask any remaining questions about the program, which you were unable to discover online. You may train for the interview with an advisor or graduate school admissions consultant by participating in mock grad school interviews.

FAQ

We now address some frequently asked questions regarding the application process for PhD programs.

What is the average of applicants to PhD Programs?

We recommend that professionals who pursue a PhD after their undergraduate degree should take some courses in their intended field at a local university first. Keeping up with the latest academic research developments is crucial, and this will help you get familiar with them. Additionally, this is an opportunity to meet professors who can write you letters of recommendation.

What are my chances of getting admitted?

The difficulty of being admitted to a PhD program varies depending on the field and program you are applying for. Typically, the admission rates are around 10%. Admission is highly competitive, and only exceptional students are accepted, particularly in top programs and schools.

When is the best time to get started on applications?

When selecting your major, consider the level of attainment you want to achieve in that area. Certain majors are suitable for pursuing a PhD if that’s your career goal, while others offer job opportunities at different levels.

How do I select programs?

To find the best program for your field of study, look for professors who are dedicated to it. Just because a university is prestigious doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for you if they don’t focus on your area. Your goal is to find a professor who can offer guidance and assist with relevant research. Additionally, when professors accept graduate students, they tend to prefer candidates with similar interests and fields of study.

Conclusion:

In short, the key to success in submitting a high-quality and effective PhD application lies in taking the necessary time to draft a well-crafted essay, having multiple people review and proofread it, and incorporating feedback for improvement. It is also extremely important to remain organized and be mindful of key dates throughout the application process. Last but not least, investing in any form of coaching or services when available can be highly beneficial given the importance of the outcome. Of course, this blog post only scratches the surface in terms of how much effort goes into submitting a successful PhD application. That being said, we hope that our 15 years’ worth of experience gained reviewing applications are able to serve as useful insight and guidance for anyone planning on applying. If you need an assistive hand in preparing your PhD application, do consider checking out our PhD application services for more help. Got questions? Sign up for a consultation, or send us your draft for an estimate. It’s FREE!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Dr. Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Dr. Barr spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Dr. Barr has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

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Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on July 12, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/