The Matrix

I am hesitant sometimes to use personal experience/opinions when blogging about admissions issues, but every once in a while I will toss in a cultural reference that I understand maybe not everyone will understand.  We have applicants from over 100 countries each year and I understand that not everyone may understand the context, but I try to add enough detail to make the point understood.

One of my favorite movies is The Matrix.  I remember pondering the plot for days after I first saw it.  A good movie for me is one that makes me think for a while after seeing it.  I was not huge fan of the second and third installments, I think they should have left it at one movie, but such is the Hollywood model of producing sequels when a first installment of a film is a hit.

Anyway, for those who have not seen the movie the plot is based upon machines that set up a virtual reality called the Matrix.  Computer programs are written to provide humans with a world that they believe is real, but is not.  Humans are connected to the Matrix and do not physically live in the world, rather they live life as if a character in a computer program.  Why?  Well the machines wanted to tame humans and use them as energy sources after the war between machines and man cut off sunlight to the earth of course!  If you have not seen the movie, no, sleep deprivation from my travel schedule has not caused me to go off the deep end, it really is the plot =)

What does this have to do with admissions?  Well I think that sometimes we buy into a sort of Matrix regarding goals we wish to accomplish in life.  In some cases our society convinces us that there is a formula associated with the goals people have or achievements we seek to accomplish.  Admission to graduate school is a goal many have and society has led many to believe that admission to a graduate program is a Matrix.  Why do I believe this?  Primarily because two of the most common questions I have been asked as I have been traveling this fall are:

  • What is the average GPA required for someone to gain admission?
  • What are the average GRE scores of an incoming student?

These are two questions that I dodge like an adept politician (or should I say like Neo dodging bullets?).  Why?  Well two primary reasons are the diversity of age in our applicant pool along with the fact that we receive applications from over 100 countries each year.  Last year we received transcripts from close to 900 different universities and the youngest enrolled student this year is 21 and the oldest is 51.  With so many countries, universities, teaching styles, and grading systems you might think that it would not be fair to establish a singular standard for all applicants.  I agree – no single standard should be used to judge all applicants to SIPA.

We evaluate each applicant as an individual and the process is very holistic.  There is no Matrix.  Each person has a different story, background, education, experience, and goals.  Yes, we do look at GPA and test scores, but we put them in context and scores and grades are relative to the experience of an applicant.

Another example I could use to state why average GPA is not important is strength of schedule.  One applicant may have a “soft” academic record in terms of courses chosen while another applicant chose very challenging courses and achieved a lower GPA than an applicant who chose an easier pathway.  Should we punish the applicant that chose the more challenging path?  The Admissions Committee does not believe so.

How about the GRE?  Would it be fair to expect that an applicant that speaks English as a third language should score as well on the verbal portion of the GRE as someone who speaks English as a native language?  Again I believe the answer is “no.”

I do understand the desire of applicants to have information regarding GPA and GRE.  It is valid to seek an answer to the question, “How can I tell where I stand in terms of previous successful applicants to your program?”
I will offer up a few comments, none of which ever puts anyone totally at ease, but bear with me.

First, the younger someone is the more attention we pay to grades and test scores.  Why?  Well younger people have less work experience.  The older someone is, the more we might give them a “break” in terms of grades and test scores.  I would not expect that a 51 year old applicant would do as well on the GRE as someone that is 21 and just graduating.  However the 51 year old has decades of experience that the 21 year old does not.

Second, overall GPA is not as important as grades in particular courses.  Let’s say that an applicant majored in Economics and had a GPA of 3.1.  Perhaps this applicant went “off the board” and took some challenging classes that were unrelated to their major.  Maybe he or she got a “C” in a Sociology of Religion class.  Intellectual curiosity is admirable and average grades in a few classes may not be looked upon as a negative, but rather as a positive for wanting to expand one’s intellectual development.

I hope you understand where I am going with all of this – there is no formula we use to admit a student.  I know this still will not put you totally at ease so I will offer one final comment on test scores.  On the GRE we look more at percentiles than we do number scores.  Let’s say you scored a 680 on the quantitative portion of the GRE.  This may have put you in the 71st percentile meaning that 29% of those that took the exam scored better than you, and 69% scored lower than you.

As a general guideline I can say the following regarding percentiles as viewed by the Admissions Committee at SIPA:

  • The low 80s to the high 90s could be considered superior
  • The low 70s to the low 80s could be considered excellent
  • The low 60s to the low 70s could be considered good
  • Scores in the 50s could be considered fair

However, again realize that this scale is relative and we have no cutoffs.  An applicant may speak English as a third language and thus might have scored below the 50th percentile on the verbal portion of the GRE.  At the same time, this applicant could have scored very well on the TOEFL exam and the Committee will take this into account.

And perhaps someone completed extensive quantitative coursework in college but is not a good test taker and does not do well on the GRE.  It is typical for us to use academic transcripts as more of a barometer of ability than test scores.

I realize this entry will not put everyone at ease (just like watching the 2nd and 3rd installments of the Matrix left me unsettled) but I hope it helps provide insight on how we review applicants for our program.  We do not use a formula or Matrix to admit students and you simply need to do your best in telling a compelling story in your application.  A compelling story is told by how you weave your application together.  Who you choose for recommendation writers, what you choose to write about in your personal statement, what you choose to include in your resume, and yes your grades and test scores also are all parts of your story.

We look to admit applicants that are intellectually curious, committed to causes, possess diversity of experience, and are capable of handling our rigorous curriculum.  This mix does not lend itself well to formulas.  I have learned over the years that a bit of skepticism can be a healthy thing.  Be skeptical when society tells you there is one way to achieve something.  In the policy world is takes all kinds of people to make a difference, and we look to admit a class that we believe will assist the coming generations in addressing challenging policy problems – hopefully problems that do not include machines taking over our minds =)