Thursday, March 18, 2021

Admission essays rebooted

There is a lot of excellent discussion these days about how we diversify our organismal biology community (ecology, evolution, behavior, etc). One of the keys needs is to admit more students from more diverse backgrounds into our training programs, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level. But often applicants from diverse backgrounds have a disadvantage in the application process, because they may not be as well connected to people in our field who can advise them on *how* to apply. There is an art to applying for a graduate program, which involves knowing the many things that admission committees and professors are on the lookout for, and red flags we are tuned to avoid. Having a good network of well-informed and dedicated mentors is crucial to help students know what topics to cover and how to approach things like direct contact with potential mentors. If applicants from underrepresented groups are less likely to receive this mentorship, their applications aren't as strong. So an important step in diversifying our scientific community is to rethink the application process. 

Many graduate schools are engaged in application-reboots. I briefly describe one such reboot, which I have been involved with at two different universities - first the University of Texas at Austin, and then the University of Connecticut. I do this both to get feedback, and to perhaps inspire other departments to consider following suit, if you feel it is a good idea. 

Specifically, I want to focus on the admissions essay. Anyone who has reviewed graduate school applications in EEB is familiar with the formulaic application essay opening, in which an applicant waxes eloquent about how they love nature, or turtles, or biodiversity. The "I grew up searching the local stream for critters" style opening story may often be heartfelt for the author, but to the admissions committee it often feels trite - they've seen variants on that theme before many many times.  But what follows that opening statement is... variable, to say the least. Each applicant has their own guess as to what we want to hear about. Sometimes this is spot on and they weave an engaging story about their motivations, past research experiences, future research goals, career aspirations,  strengths (what they will add to the lab & program) and weaknesses (what topics they need to learn more of). But all too often we get a subset of these topics, and different subsets from different applicants. The result is an apples-to-oranges comparison problem for the admissions committee. Students who don't deliver on the full set of topics we'd like to know about (e.g., those from underserved backgrounds often) are put at a disadvantage. 

A solution I'm fairly passionate about is to replace the application essay (which is very open-ended) with a series of more precisely targeted short answer questions. These specify the topics that we want to know about, directly conveying to the applicant what they should tell us about. For specifics, see the templates at UConn EEB and UT Austin EEB. For example, at UConn we ask questions like:

  • Describe your reasons for going to graduate school and your long-term career goals. (approximately 100 words)
  • Describe your research interests, the scientific questions that you hope to address as a graduate student, and your motivations for choosing this topic. If you have ideas about specific hypotheses you would like to test, study systems you think might be suitable, or approaches you would take, please provide that information as well. The Admissions Committee recognizes both that not everyone will know these details when they apply, and that research directions often change once a student enters graduate school. (approximately 400 words)
  • Describe any prior research experience, including the research teams you worked with, the topics studied, your role in the research, the skills you gained, any math or computing skills learned, and any papers or other products that you were directly involved in creating. It is not necessary to repeat everything that is in your CV (see below); use this section to highlight the points that you think are most relevant to your planned graduate research. (approximately 400 words)
  • Describe any other relevant work or teaching experience that you believe has helped prepare you for graduate work. This could include non-academic work experiences, for example those that demonstrate commitment, a strong work ethic, ability to work in a team, ability to work independently, etc. Also use this section to describe non-research skills that might be relevant to your planned graduate work. (approximately 150 words)
  • Describe one obstacle you have faced in research, work, or life and how you either overcame it, or used the experience to inform your future outlook or actions. (approximately 150 words)
  • Describe any activities you have engaged in that demonstrate a commitment to enhancing diversity and inclusion in science. (approximately 150 words)
  • Please tell us anything else you would like the Admissions Committee to know. (approximately 200 words)

If a student has nothing to say on a topic (e.g., they never taught before in any context), we try to make it clear that its fine to leave some areas blank. For instance at UConn we specifically state: "Provide what information you can for each and note that the Admissions Committee recognizes that not everyone will have detailed answers to every question." 

The goal here is to lay out specific expectations, so the students aren't left to guess what we are looking for, and don't forget to leave out key elements we might wonder about. The result is a set of essays that are much more parallel between applicants, which helps to compare them more effectively and to better recognize the multi-dimensional nature of people's strengths. We might have some applicants with stellar research experiences, others with exceptional teaching, and still others who don't stand out as much in either area but had exceptional obstacles to overcome to achieve the things they have managed. Personally, at both UT Austin and UConn, after implementing these changes, I felt much better able to compare applicants. I get the sense my colleagues feel the same (at least, neither department has yet abandoned these formats).

So what are the drawbacks? For one, I worry that having an atypical application process might deter applicants. If many other departments we 'compete' with for applicants have a standard one or two page essay format, where the contents are up to the applicants, then a student might write an application once, and submit it to multiple institutions. Then they come to us and realize there's a whole other format, and decide maybe to not bother. So far I don't think we've seen a drop in application rates associated with this new format. And students who are genuine in their interest in coming here won't be deterred (I think). But, it worries me a bit. Luckily, there's a solution: the more institutions that shift to a comparable format, the less of a burden it becomes on the applicants. I'd love to see a variant of this become more common. Because I really do think it aids under-served applicants in knowing what we are looking for, and it aids the faculty in comparing candidates in a multivariate sense.

Another worry is that by making everyone shoehorn their lives into a few pre-specified questions, we actually obscure some of the diversity of perspective, approach, experience, and make it hard to really see a creative mind at play. I don't really buy that, because I've seen great and creative answers to these pre-fixed questions, and we make a point of leaving something open-ended (e.g., the last question from the UConn list above). 

This experiment in reframing application questions is recent, and I'll be interested to see how this plays out. I'd also welcome comments, ideas, and others' attempts to crack similar challenges in other ways.

Oh, and if you are wondering about whether we require GRE scores, UConn dropped those this year. That's a whole other topic, for another time.


Added later:
Theresa Rueger commented and for some reason I couldn't reply directly so I'll write my reply here:

Great question. I honestly don't know. I can't speak for how members of underrepresented groups might or might not feel about this question, and would *greatly* appreciate feedback on that one in particular. Note, though, that even a privileged white cis-male 3rd generation college student such as myself can engage with diversity and equity issues in proactive constructive ways. Its not necessarily who you are, but should expand to include what you do. As a department, EEB at UConn is really devoted to DEI issues, and my colleagues felt strongly about including such questions in grad admission, as we also do in faculty applications (requiring a DEI statement that plays a strong role in distinguishing among otherwise equally excellent research applicants).

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