Graduate application fees

I routinely receive inquiries from potential graduate students, who send me their Curriculum Vitae, asking me whether I am planning to take new graduate students under my supervision. They state to me their interest for the research that I conduct, and inquire as to whether I would consider them as members of my research group. My response to them, in these cases, is usually “boiler plate”, almost.

The basic point is, I am fairly limited in what I can promise them. I cannot take students under my supervision, unless they are formally accepted into the physics graduate program in my department. So, all I can really tell them, is to submit an application to said program, including all relevant information, as well a required undergraduate (and graduate, if appropriate) transcripts, formal English test score records, and letters of recommendation from previous supervisors. There is also an application fee that they are required to pay upfront, which at my institution is $100 (CAD) — I believe in line with that at most comparable institutions (possibly slightly higher than average, but not by much). This is a fee whose purpose is none other than for an applicant to have his/her application considered by the institution. Presumably, it is applied toward the cost associated with the bureaucracy required to collect, sort and process all of the applications.

The application has to be reviewed by the graduate admission committee (GAC) of my department, whose difficult task is that of selecting, out a pool of typically around one hundred applicants, the twenty-five, thirty (not many more) who will form the entering graduate physics class of 2011. I can surely offer a prospective applicant my opinion on his/her chances of being admitted; I can definitely, and in fact I am encouraged to forward my recommendation to the GAC, if I feel that a particular student is worthy of special consideration. I can also inform them of my willingness to support the student financially, possibly even during the student’s first year, even though it is something that most of us are reluctant to do (we are talking people whom we have usually never met, and who will scarcely have any time for research in their first year, as they will be busy taking courses [0]).

Ultimately, however, applications from students in different areas of physics are received, practically every faculty has one or two “excellent” applicants, and it is often essentially impossible to compare applicants in different areas. Considerations of balance, fairness and equity among faculty and/or departmental research areas, besides obvious budgetary and infrastructural restrictions, inevitably play a major role in the admission process. Thus, no individual faculty can “guarantee” admission to an inquiring student, no matter how strong (s)he may appear on paper.

So, what would be my recommendation to an applicant ? Well, I would simply tell them to apply to many different departments (obviously not any one — see here for more on this subject), in order to maximize the chances of being admitted at least into one. But I have to confess to having overlooked, until very recently, an obvious problem, namely the financial one: to how many departments can a cash-strapped applicant realistically apply, especially a person from a third world country, if each application will cost him/her a hundred bucks ? That is an enormous amount of money for some.
And so, here is where the “catch-22” arises: the student is reluctant to apply, unless some concrete assurance is given that the application will be successful. On the other hand, no such assurance can be given, and a student can honestly be only told to apply [1].

It is inevitable for one to wonder how many possibly good applicants never even bother to apply, due to their objectively limited financial resources. There simply has to be a way to overcome this problem.
Doing away with the application fee altogether does not seem viable. Aside from the fact that there are probably objective costs associated with processing applications, I have heard several times, in America the opinion that, without an application fee, the reputation of the school is perceived as lesser — “Anything that you get for free, is worthless”, which reflects of course basic supply-and-demand mentality.
I think that a simple and quick “fix”, that most schools would be willing to implement and would entail only a minuscule financial effort for each one of us, is that of allowing individual faculty who wish to see applications of specific students examined by the departmental GAC, to pay upfront for the corresponding graduate application fee. Typically, these will be the applications of students who have contacted those faculty directly, before applying. Of course, this would be done with the full understanding, on the part of both the applicant and the “sponsoring” faculty, that the application may not be successful in the end, for a number of reasons (some mentioned above). I think it is an investment of a few hundred bucks every year, that many of us would be more than willing to make.

It would not be a “solution”, in the sense that it would still require applicants to establish an individual line of communication with a faculty, something that many, perhaps most students are unable and unwilling to do, for many valid reasons. But, it would still be a first step. Any other ideas ?


[0] Yes, I know, why not just get rid of those courses ? Eh, don’t get me started…

[1] A popular opinion is that, as long as a faculty is willing to commit to shouldering the full cost of supporting the student through his/her studies, by tapping into his/her individual research grant, admission should essentially always be granted by the department. I think that that is a bad idea for many reasons, primarily because it “binds” from the start a student to an individual faculty, something that may turn out later on not to be in the best interest of either one. Adopting such a policy would also likely bring about non-trivial problems with ensuring uniform standards of admission, and even of evaluation of students throughout their studies.

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14 Responses to “Graduate application fees”

  1. Devin Baillie Says:

    You forgot the # in the link to footnote 1, so it redirects to a 404 error.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Don’t most schools have procedures in place to enable low-income applicants to waive the application fee? I imagine that for domestic students, financial hardship would not be that difficult to demonstrate. Might be a bit more complicated for an international student … but perhaps not impossible.

    • mareserinitatis Says:

      I was going to suggest the same thing. I was part of the McNair Scholar’s program (which accepts minority and low-income, first generation college students who are interested in graduate school). Because of that, I had all my grad school applications waived. I know that most US schools do have options for other low-income students as well, but it requires some paperwork on the part of the student.

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, sure, these things exist but, for one thing applicants are typically not aware of them (especially those who most need them) and/or they are not really prominently advertised. I also think that the way most of them work is, the application fee is refunded after the student has been admitted, by that one and only program. Finally, I really don’t think that there is enough to help the bulk of potential applicants.

      • Anonymous Says:

        I also think that the way most of them work is, the application fee is refunded after the student has been admitted, by that one and only program.

        No, if it worked that way, it wouldn’t work at all, as you no doubt realize. Waiving the application fee happens up front – as in, submit documentation about why you shouldn’t have to pay instead of your check. The schools that have such programs often mention them in the same section where they state what their application fee is, so I don’t think not being informed is an issue. Besides, this is the internet age, the age of blogs, grad café, etc. O.c., my sample is small and heavily weighted towards top schools that may have more resources to throw at this problem, so YMMV.

        I *am* a bit touched by your offer to pay for some students, though! 🙂

      • Cherish Says:

        Nope, they were just waived. I can’t say for sure what other people’s situation was, but I was quite aware of this. I couldn’t afford any of my college applications for undergrad, either, so all of those were waived. If they made it into college with those same financial limitations, I would be very surprised if they didn’t realize they also exist at most US grad schools.

      • Massimo Says:

        Well, maybe that says something about my own institution or the people who want to work with me, but I receive dozens of inquiries every year and practically half of them bring up this issue. Maybe the information is there, not easily accessible. At my previous institution it was very much the same though… I mean, I am sure that mechanisms such as the one you mention exist, but, what fraction of all needy applicants actually benefit from them ? If it is just a problem of communicating things effectively, well, then we would have to recite a collective mea culpa and remedy quickly.

  3. GMP Says:

    The post rings true on multiple levels. (Warning: another “War and Peace” comment coming up.)

    I am in an engineering department, and there are not as many TA’s around as in a basic science department, which generally means that I have to commit sight unseen to fund a student right off the bat (even though, as you remarked, students are pretty much useless in research in their first year and often two). So it takes me two back-to-back grants to support one student to graduation, which is quite stressful from the grant writing point of view. But, to bring in an international student that’s pretty much what must be done — I must commit to fund them right off the bat as there are too few TA’s and their English is often not good enough to TA right away. This practice has resulted in elevated gastric acid for me, as there were several students whom I brought in like this (no matter how much vetting I tried to do beforehand) and had to let go after them having spent 1 or 2 years of a full RA on taking classes and screwing around before it became clear they have no motivation or preparation or initiative or are all around a bad match… Some people deal with this problem by hiring almost exclusively Americans, who are always competitive for the few TA’s and also qualify for many outside fellowships.

    Regarding application fees: having been an international student myself, I can testify that it can be very hard (logistically and financially) to apply to too many places. But I remember I received some solid advice to maximize the chances and minimize cost: wait for the test scores, then if they are good, pick 2-3 top places in top 10, 3-4 in top 20 but not top 10, and 2-3 safety schools (not top 20). If the scores are absolutely kick ass, you can increase the number of top-10 schools and reduce the number of below-20 ones…

    When I was applying, I was saving money for a long time to have enough to pay for all the tests (TOEFL, GRE general, GRE subject) and then I think 9 application fees, and then to DHL 20 lb of application materials to a friend in the US who would fill out the checks and enclose them with the applications and mail them to universities (an additional hardship was finding someone who had US bank checks, as US universities wouldn’t cash anything else, and obviously being from abroad I didn’t have any).

    I try to be understanding about this issue with international students. If I am looking for a student, and a really promising one contacts me,
    I tell them that I may or may not have the funds to support them and that will know at such and such a time, but that I encourage them to apply nonetheless. For some that’s not enough, but those who are really interested will still apply.

    • Massimo Says:

      Hi “Leo” 🙂

      I think I would rather see things been done as in Engineering rather than in the sciences, where a lot of the time I get the sense that students are admitted into the program because of the sheer need to staff labs with TAs.

      In terms of application fees: I too, of course, was an international student, but for me things were different at many levels.
      First of all, I applied to the one and only place which I thought would take me, because a professor there was a friend and collaborator of my undergraduate advisor in Genova. It never even occurred to me to “shop around” — the whole notion that a school in the US, any school, would actually pay me a stipend to be a graduate student was almost “too good to be true” to me, and I would never even think of looking into the mouth of the gifted horse.
      Secondly, application fee was something like $39, and I had a full time job right after graduating with my BS in physics — not really a problem. But I was not the “typical” applicant.

  4. Soon to be graduate student Says:

    With such worries about the skills and motivations of potential students how could a PI effectively screen applications? I imagine most application packages similarly describe the candidates as great future researchers.

    How does one critically examine a transcript? Applicants would certainly explain low grades in their letter of interest if they chose to take particularly rigorous courses. They would certainly not highlight the fact that they took some ‘bird’ courses.

    If say a non-CS student takes a first-year CS course (for non CS students) in their fourth year, does that say that they can’t handle a normal academic workload? Perhaps it says they can honestly assess the difficulty of their final year.

    Letters of reference aren’t particularly informative, unless one either knows the referee or the letter is written as Massimo has described in a previous post.

    Letters of interest can easily be plagiarized. Or lack of instructions can have a good candidate write a meaningless letter.

    What is left? Standardized tests, email and in person visits/interviews?

    My (one) application to graduate school was fairly strong. My visit to campus before I applied seemed more like a courting attempt then a critical review of myself. Is it expected that students sell themselves during the visit? Luckily, I was genuinely interested in the research and facilities, so I gave a good impression.

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, each one of us has his/her own “pet” criteria. Me, personally, I look at the following, ranked by importance:

      1) Student is recommended to me by a collaborator, with whom I have had a fruitful exchange of students
      2) Student is a graduate of a school or department which I consider reputable (mostly because I know its faculty and/or have had previous good experiences with their graduates)
      3) GPA, with particular attention to grades in Math and physics courses
      4) Candidate statement — I find this often quite telling
      5) Possible research experience — I tend not to give much weight to this, for reasons I shall not dwell on now.

  5. UofA grad student Says:

    A bit late to the party, I know.

    Upthread you said:

    “I think I would rather see things been done as in Engineering rather than in the sciences, where a lot of the time I get the sense that students are admitted into the program because of the sheer need to staff labs with TAs.”

    I’m in an engineering department and we are being told that currently we have more students who WANT to TA than available TAships!

    Also, our department chair has mentioned that basically in the future in order to be admitted students will likely need to have a supervisor lined up in advance, because there just aren’t the funds there for them to commit! So basically there won’t be any choice, that line of communication will have to be there right from the beginning.

  6. Craig Says:

    Interesting idea! I suppose the way to implement would be to suggest to promising candidates that they submit the rest of their application (minus fees) to the dept. We read their app, and if we like them we pay their fee. If not, we recommend to them that they not pay the fee, as we won’t take them; they still retain the option to pay the fee and try to find another supervisor.

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