Unlike undergraduate admissions committees, which usually are comprised of full-time administrative staff, a graduate admissions committee consists of professors in the specific program to which you are applying. Occasionally, the committee will also invite a small number of students currently enrolled in the program to participate in the process.
An applicant's file consists of transcripts, GRE or other test scores, letters of recommendation, and one or more essays. Admissions committees read the essays within the larger context of a candidate's application. The essays are your chance to tell the personal story that the other pieces of the application cannot.
Admissions committees for programs in different fields evaluate personal statements according to vastly different criteria. Professors reading applications for programs in language-intensive fields such as literature and philosophy examine the originality and elegance of the applicant's thoughts as well as fine points of style. In engineering or scientific fields, on the other hand, admissions committees seek to gain more basic insight into the applicant's goals and to confirm a baseline of competency in written English. In fact, for many applicants to graduate programs in the sciences, English is not even their primary language.
As the committee members make their way through stack after stack of applications, they often place the applications they have already reviewed into a hierarchy of admission. The particular aspects of this process vary, but according to an admissions officer at the University of Washington, their hierarchy of admission is as follows, in decreasing order of applicant attractiveness: "Admit with guaranteed funding, Admit with potential funding, Tabled (a sort of admissions purgatory), and Reject." It is in the case of "Tabled" and "Admit with potential funding" applications, the admissions officer reports, that the personal statement can make a real difference: "If there is a good match between the applicant's research interests and the particular strengths of the school, this can bump them up a level or two in the hierarchy of admission."
Among the schools whose admissions officers we consulted, the minimum number of readers who look at an applicant's essay(s) ranged from two to ten, with an average of twenty minutes spent on essays for laboratory and computational science programs, and thirty minutes on those for all other programs.
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