Grad school admissions and goodness of fit: why students actually get admitted

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, let’s get into our subject of the day, which is taking another look at grad school admissions. Orion, I’ve heard you talk before. And we’ve had several episodes in the past that touch on this, which is, you know, the reasons to go to grad school but also the reasons that an admissions office is looking at to admit people into grad school. And I’ve heard you mention something called goodness of fit. So will you break down that concept for us?

Orion: I would be happy to. Yes, we’ve talked in the past about how no one actually gets into grad school because of the GRE. The GRE only keeps people out; it never lets people in. I got a perfect score on the GRE. I was rejected by far more programs than I even got an invitation to interview from. That’s just the name of the game. So, assuming that you dodged the bullet, that is the GRE. And the admissions committee actually takes a closer look at your application. How do you get into grad school? Like, what are they looking for? And in so many words, they are looking for goodness of fit. There are a number of ways that we can approach this; the easiest way to understand this is sort of the Matthew principle. Have you heard of the Matthew principle?

Davis: I have not.

Orion: The Matthew principle comes from a verse in the Gospel. I’m going to paraphrase it, which is basically that onto him that has, even more will be given, and onto him that has not, even what he has will be taken away. So this is a teaching of Jesus, actually. And it’s kind of like the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, which on some level is what we see. In reality, it’s like the people who need opportunity the least have the most opportunity given to them; the people who need wealth the least have more money being given to them. Do you understand?

Davis: I understand. But, I get the concept you’re saying, but I’d want to look at the actual passage to see if the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is a teaching of Jesus.

Orion: That’s my paraphrase. The words that I used are, I think, very close to the actual passage about he who has and he who has not. Now, what this means in respect to grad school admissions is that the people who generally need the admission the least are the ones who get invited to join. For example, when I went back to grad school to get my Ph.D. in psychology, that was a career shift for me. Before that, I was an actor. I had taken one intro to psych class and I got a B- in it.

On some level, you might think that I, who has very little background in psychology, would stand to benefit the most from participating in a grad school program in psychology. I had so much more to learn than, say, somebody who already has a bachelor’s in psychology and has worked in the field and has published in the discipline. What do they need another degree in psychology for? They’re already kind of doing what grad school is supposed to prepare them to do, and yet those folks are precisely the ones who get the invitations, not the ones who potentially could benefit the most from an invitation, but the ones who, on some level, are already doing what grad school purportedly is preparing them to do, which is paradoxical because if you can already do it, why are you going back to grad school? Which is actually an excellent question. But to the extent that you need grad school less, the more likely you will get an invitation to grad school. Does that make sense?

Davis: No, that, in that level, makes sense, which is that, from the point of view, as you’re saying, of who could stand the most to benefit from it, then the qualification is who has the least experience, whereas the understanding that I feel grad school admissions officers might be working from, or at least the academic culture at large is working from in this country, is that, you know, grad school Ph.D. programs are really the next step for someone who already has a lot of experience in that area, which is a little backward. I agree with you on that point in some ways, but that’s just how the world works.

Orion: So, if you want to understand what goodness of fit is, you should take a look at the profiles of the students who are already in that program. The more that you look like the folks who have already been admitted, the more likely you are going to demonstrate that you would be a good culture fit for that program. There are a number of ways to do this. A lot of programs will publish all kinds of statistics about their incoming cohorts. Most programs also have an opportunity to reach out to pre-existing doctoral candidates to potentially discuss with them kind of what it’s like to be there. And, and to learn a little bit more about themselves.

And so you can kind of use that as a determination as to whether your application sufficiently demonstrates that goodness of fit. Now, there’s a caveat here, which is that this is what happens in like an ideal world. In an ideal world. It’s more of a meritocracy. And it’s simply on the basis of this goodness of fit that folks get these invitations. And in practice, I find that not to be the case. For instance, one of my dissertation advisors was a really brilliant woman named Davina. And she went to Harvard to get her undergraduate degree. And she remembers her interview with a professor at the time who she subsequently worked under for her thesis project.

Now, three or four years after she was admitted, she finally worked up the courage to ask this professor why it was among all the many qualified applicants to Harvard that she was offered an invitation to join, like, what was it about her application? She kind of wanted to know so that she could help other folks potentially who are interested in matriculating. And the professor kind of laughed and shrugged and said, Well, my daughter’s name is Davina. And this was shocking to my advisor. But this happens far more than we would probably like to admit.

For instance, in my own case, probably the main reason why I got extended an invitation at my top program of choice is that I happened to have the good luck to be interviewed by someone who also used to be an actor, and who saw in me something of his own story and trajectory, which was actually fairly unconventional. And he became my dissertation chair, and we had a great relationship. And I’m very fortunate that he was the one who conducted my interview because another professor probably would have seen that past as a liability.

Davis: So, I hear what you’re saying, that there’s definitely a personal and maybe even one could use the word serendipitous quality or factor variable in the admissions process for people. So, let’s kind of wrap this up for us in a nice bow for all of our good listeners out there. Like, what’s the action item for them when they’re considering admissions when they’re considering schools?

Orion: Yeah, if we’re talking about this factor, there’s very little that you can do to prepare like, Davina certainly couldn’t have prepared, or even known about that fact about the interviewer’s daughter. I couldn’t have chosen my interviewer; that was simply some good luck. I’m just mentioning this to sort of round out the discussion that there is a level of, let’s say, randomness or serendipity to this process. There’s not much you can do about it. But potentially, that can help to make sense of certain programs or decisions. Because we don’t live, let’s say, in a perfect world, we can do what we can. We certainly shouldn’t ignore that. And that’s, you know, making sure your application is as high as possible in terms of its quantitative metrics and demonstrate goodness of fit, but sort of like after that, it’s kind of a roll of the dice.

Davis: I definitely hear you. And thank you for that bit of advice and those interesting stories. And I guess, let me ask one final question here. In order to, you know, kind of increase chances of synchronicity between oneself to create a good fit with a program or a specific discipline, one is looking to get a graduate degree in, is it worth doing any kind of smaller certification programs that are easier to get to that don’t have such a high bar that limits access beforehand to demonstrate good fit?

Orion: I would say no, actually, I think that that would potentially make you look good on paper. But I think again, what gets people in is somebody has to pick you for dodgeball, like one of the interviewers, one of the members of the faculty has to say, I like this person, I want him or her on my team. And so probably a better strategy is to show more of yourself because you have to allow people to know you to like you. And there’s a risk associated with that, because you might share something that another person doesn’t like, but if you run the risk, you run a bigger risk by not sharing anything because there’s nothing likable if you can’t be known.

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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