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Inside Graduate Admissions

Inside Graduate Admissions

Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping

Julie R. Posselt

ISBN 9780674088696

Publication date: 01/11/2016

How does graduate admissions work? Who does the system work for, and who falls through its cracks? More people than ever seek graduate degrees, but little has been written about who gets in and why. Drawing on firsthand observations of admission committees and interviews with faculty in 10 top-ranked doctoral programs in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, education professor Julie Posselt pulls back the curtain on a process usually conducted in secret.

Inside Graduate Admissions presents admissions from decision makers’ point of view, including thought-provoking episodes of committees debating the process, interviewing applicants, and grappling with borderline cases. Who ultimately makes the admit list reveals as much about how professors see themselves—and each other—as it does about how they view students. Professors in these programs say that they admit on merit, but they act on different meanings of the term. Disciplinary norms shape what counts as merit, as do professors’ ideas about intelligence and their aversions to risk, conflict, ambiguity, and change. Professors also say that they seek diversity, but Posselt shows that their good intentions don’t translate into results. In fact, faculty weigh diversity in only a small fraction of admissions decisions. Often, they rely upon criteria that keep longstanding inequalities in place.

More equitable outcomes occur when admissions committees are themselves diverse and when members take a fresh look at inherited assumptions that affect their judgment. To help academic departments promote transparency and accountability, Posselt closes with concrete strategies to improve admissions review.


  • A pleasure to read. Posselt offers a deep and compelling take on graduate admissions procedures and practices—a topic that has received little attention, despite a relatively large body of work on undergraduate admissions. This book will undoubtedly be of great interest to scholars from a broad array of disciplines, particularly when it comes to the practicalities of conducting admissions work.

    —Laura T. Hamilton, co-author of Paying for the Party


  • Julie R. Posselt is Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Southern California.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press