What PhD Programs Look For in Applicants? — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
8 min readFeb 1, 2023

Are you looking for an insider`s take on what PhD programs look for when they read applications? Are you considering pursuing a doctoral degree and currently researching programs? While it takes dedication, strategy, and skill to succeed in grad school, there is one thing that will get you through it all: fully understanding what most PhD programs are looking for.

Knowing how to put your best foot forward to gain admissions into PhD program is key — so take the time to explore the qualities that separate graduate students who succeed from those who don’t make it through!

As a former PhD admissions director and faculty member teaching in PhD programs, I have extensive insight into what universities and PhD programs look for when the time comes for accepting students into their doctoral programs. My experience also enabled me to provide guidance to prospective students on how to best prepare and present their applications in a way that will make them stand out from the competition. I am excited to share this experience with you in this blog!

How to Get Into PhD Programs for All the Right Reasons

Many students choose to attend grad school to continue their intellectual exploration. After spending four or more years in an undergraduate program, many students want to keep challenging themselves, pushing their boundaries, and developing a more comprehensive understanding of the world around them. A doctorate degree equips students with the necessary tools to apply new knowledge in real-world settings, allowing them to put to use the research experience they have acquired in graduate school.

As a result, students who pursue a doctorate degree often find that their career prospects increase and their knowledge expands exponentially. It is for these reasons that many students choose to continue their studies and enroll in a PhD program.

What Graduate Schools Require for a Doctorate Program

It is important for students to have a research goal in mind when applying for PhD programs. A well-defined academic research objective allows grad students to focus their energy and resources on a specific area of study. Additionally, what PhD programs look for when they look at application is to ensure that prospective PhD students have the academic skills necessary to succeed in their program.

When selecting the best graduate students for a program, institutions typically examine academic records closely. This includes transcripts, standardized test scores, and any honors or awards the applicant has received. Higher education institutions also consider how well the prospective student meets their standards of excellence and the admission requirements.

Faculty members view applicants as potential investments in the success of their PhD program. Many factors are considered before the acceptance of an applicant, such as the quality of their academic performance, the strength of their extracurricular activities, and their demonstrated leadership ability. Faculty members also carefully consider an applicant’s personal and professional goals, as well as their commitment to furthering the mission of their chosen institution. Applicants who appear most successful and accomplished are more likely to be admitted and fully funded. Therefore, it is in an applicant’s best interest to demonstrate their potential and commitment to achieving their goals.

To get considered for admittance into a PhD program, submitting your academic credentials, GRE scores, CV, and statement of purpose alongside letters of recommendation is an essential requirement. To ensure your success in the graduate application process, we’ll go through each element individually and explain what programs are searching for from every criterion.


When it comes to PhD admissions, your undergraduate GPA is paramount. We recommend a minimum GPA score of 3.3 for serious consideration, especially at top schools — anything lower than this does not make a strong case for admission into doctoral programs. There are no definitive limits on this figure, however, if your grade is below 3.0 then unfortunately we suggest that you may need to revise or re-apply with other qualifications in mind.

A doctorate degree is undoubtedly a lot of work; however, being intelligent is not the only requirement. Everyone admitted into these prestigious courses exhibits high intelligence and unwavering commitment to academic excellence — this is evidenced by their GPA scores which act as an indicator of both aptitude and preparedness for undertaking such challenging coursework.

In addition to your cumulative GPA, most schools will request to see your major’s particular grade point average. This is generated by computing grades you obtained solely in courses related to your major. It ought to be higher than the overall GPA, and ideally should exceed 3.5 for optimal opportunities of admission.

Additionally, some disciplines may require proficiency with research languages; this is more prevalent among social sciences and humanities applicants but all candidates will benefit from being able to conduct research using multiple languages. Make sure you review language requirements before submitting applications.


The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a standardized test that helps prospective grad students demonstrate their readiness and commitment to succeed during the application process. It assesses the skills and knowledge of students in areas such as analytical writing, mathematics, critical thinking, and verbal reasoning. The GRE can be taken at various testing centers throughout the world and is widely accepted by graduate programs. It is meant to provide prospective applicants with a reliable assessment of their aptitude for graduate-level work. By taking the GRE, students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge and determination to pursue advanced studies in a particular field.

The GRE score you need to get into graduate school varies by program and university. Generally, a higher score is always better, as it demonstrates a higher level of academic aptitude and can improve your chances of getting into the university you’re targeting. A top score on the GRE is considered to be around 320, though some institutions may have higher requirements.

When studying for the GRE, it is important to give yourself enough time and take your preparation seriously. It is not a good idea to rush through GRE preparation as the test is challenging and demands a significant amount of time and effort. It is possible for a person to take the GRE five times in a year, with at least 21 days between each test, but it is not recommended to take the test multiple times in a short amount of time. It is better to spend a longer period studying and preparing for the test, in order to achieve the best possible score.

That being said, your GRE score holds less power in the eyes of admissions committees than what university websites imply. Test scores are a not necessarily a reliable indicator of an applicant’s potential for success in graduate school and beyond. Poor grades, due to factors such as lack of motivation or weak study habits, serve as red flags when screening through applicants; subsequently eliminating them from consideration, but GRE scores have little bearing on eventual PhD completion rates or future career prospects. What PhD programs look for is something more than just empty numbers. For these reasons, PhD admission committees often take test scores with a grain of salt, and a compelling statement of purpose and strong evidence of research skills often compensate for low standardized test scores.

The Key to a Great Curriculum Vitae

A CV’s primary goal is, similar to a resume, to show your accomplishments in both academic and professional life. However, CVs are much more tailored towards academics; consequently, they’re frequently used for professorships or other fields of academia.

Admissions officers search for signs of research in applicants’ activities to determine their preparedness to pursue a PhD. Publications are also highly valuable and form the cornerstone of an academic career; beginning early provides long-term benefits that last throughout your professional journey.

While it is not a requirement, publication of your work would be an impressive addition to your portfolio. If you have earned a master’s degree, chances are that you possess some kind of publication history — even if it only consists of your thesis. While it is always a good idea to consult with the tutors from your academic institution for guidance on how and where to get published, don’t lose sleep over it if you don’t. Admissions committees are not expecting it.

What PhD Programs look for? A Compelling Statement of Purpose

Every graduate school you submit an application to will need a statement of purpose. This essay serves as your opportunity to highlight your research interests, prior studies, proposed specialty area, and areas for potential focus. Clearly articulate what drives you in this endeavor so that admission officers have greater insight into who you are beyond just the numbers on paper.

The essay is thus the most vital component of your application. Your grades and GRE scores are necessary to demonstrate that you possess the academic qualifications for graduate school, but it’s up to the essay to show readers if you’re a suitably fit for their program, as well as how sincere and determined you are about pursuing research in this field.

Your Statement of Purpose is Everything

The main goal of the statement of purpose is to provide a sample of your communication skills. This includes showcasing what you can do with languages, such as crafting compelling arguments and persuasive storytelling. The statement of purpose should clearly outline your ideas, relevant experiences, and professional qualifications so that the admissions committee can get to know you better. It should demonstrate your ability to think critically, evaluate evidence, and compellingly present an argument. It should also demonstrate your understanding of the field or program you are applying for, and how you plan to contribute to it. Finally, use language that is clear, concise, and professional.

The statement of purpose should be a reflection of the unique qualities and experiences that you bring to the table. It should highlight your past successes and how they have prepared you for the position. It should also focus on how your abilities and experiences can contribute to the organization’s success. Showcase your strengths, not your weaknesses.

The Importance of Letters of Recommendation

Applying to a PhD program can be daunting, yet letters of recommendation are an essential element that helps inform admissions committees about who you are both as a student and researcher. These recommenders provide their perspective on how well-suited you will be for the rigorous work associated with graduate studies.

Since academic fields are typically close-knit, the individuals evaluating your application will most likely recognize or be aware of those who wrote letters of recommendation on your behalf. When you apply to programs, they may request two to four references- primarily from faculty members that have seen first-hand how hard you work and can vouch for the quality of your skillset. Make sure these professors are ones that know you well!

Choosing the Right Recommenders Matters

If you had a thesis advisor, they should be one of the people to provide you with an endorsement letter. Moreover, if you have been involved in research for some time, then your mentor or lab director would make great references as well — even those who haven’t taught you directly.

The sole official outside point of view a committee has on your potential worth is from letters of recommendation. Nevertheless, the most impactful contribution that these letters can make comes from how knowledgeable the writer is about you.


In conclusion, earning a PhD takes time, energy, and considerable resources. Admissions committees are looking for well-rounded individuals who have demonstrated excellence in their field of study as well as the ability to think critically and contribute something new to their chosen field of research. If you want help putting your best foot forward during the application process, check out my PhD application services or schedule a free admissions consultation with me today. I’d be more than happy to share my insight and knowledge with you about what PhD programs look for in prospective students and how you can increase your chances of being accepted into the PhD program of your dreams.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on February 1, 2023.



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/