Robert Augustine, Senior Vice President, Council of Graduate Schools

    A National Study on Admissions
    Late last year, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) released Master’s Admissions: Transparency, Guidance, and Training, the result of a year-long study on master’s admissions supported in part by Educational Testing Service (ETS) (Okahana, Augustine, and Zhou, 2018). The study addressed a significant gap in our understanding of master’s education (Augustine, 2018), building upon prior work on admissions and holistic admission practices conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS, 2012 and Kent & McCarthy, 2016).

    The project collected national-level data through a survey administered to graduate program directors and graduate deans as well as qualitative information gathered during four regional focus groups. CGS sought answers to three questions about master’s admissions: (1) What is success in a master’s program? (2) What attributes are currently used in admission decisions to predict success? and (3) What evidence is currently used to evaluate student attributes? Once we had gathered data from deans and admissions directors, we convened a diverse group of leaders to discuss the implications of this information: program directors, experts in business and industry, leaders of disciplinary societies, educational researchers, and graduate deans. These discussions, which took place at the 2018 Colloquium on the Master’s Degree in Washington, DC, informed the final report, whose findings we summarize below.

    Defining Success During Admissions
    The study found that according to graduate program directors and deans, an applicant’s likelihood of completing the requirements necessary to receive a graduate degree was the most important admissions criterion. This finding was consistent for both research and professional master’s degree programs. It was also consistent with information obtained from earlier discussions with program directors who indicated that degree completion rates are used when evaluating and/or accrediting programs. Admitting students who have the best potential to complete the coursework lays the foundation for degree completion.

    By contrast, program fit and post-graduate success were weighed as less important considerations at the time of admission. The data indicated that programs seek to admit students who are most likely to complete the degree, and completion of coursework lays the foundation for that success. Establishing degree completion as the primary attribute defining success at the time of admission gave insights into the attributes that programs are looking for to achieve that success.

    Role of Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Attributes
    During the admission process, critical thinking, analytical thinking, and written communication were identified as the most important attributes associated with the potential for completing coursework required for degree completion. This was true for both research and professional master’s programs. However, in certain professional fields, non-cognitive attributes, including integrity and professionalism, were rated as important for degree completion. These findings suggest that an applicant with the best potential for success as defined by degree completion is one who has a cognitive foundation integrated with non-cognitive competencies.

    Broad Use of Letters and Personal Statements
    The study also identified the strengths and weaknesses of current evidence used to evaluate the cognitive and non-cognitive attributes associated with program success. Our data suggest that transcripts and standardized test scores have limitations due to the very narrow range of competencies they assess. The evidence most frequently viewed as having the greatest potential to evaluate the cognitive and non-cognitive attributes associated with success were letters of recommendation and personal statements. These forms of evidence are highly valued because they are considered to reflect a broad range of attributes that define a strong applicant.

    Potential Practices: Transparency, Guidance, and Training
    The project’s findings identified three broad categories of potential practices which could be applied to improve master’s admissions processes: transparency, guidance, and training. An ethos of transparency begins when we make explicit the attributes that faculty and others evaluating candidates seek in applicants. This information may be published via websites and other communications and accompanied by profiles of successful past applicants, and examples of letters of recommendation and personal statements. Prompts that clearly articulate the types of evidence admissions committees are looking for when evaluating applicants was also identified as a best practice.

    Admissions practices may be further strengthened by providing guidance to graduate administrators on how to review admissions materials. Promising practices identified in the study include developing rubrics, matrices, or related practices to achieve consistency when reviewing “subjective” materials such as letters and personal statements. Guidance is particularly important in evaluating such application materials because of valid concerns about reviewer bias. An effective practice for reducing bias was to organize admission reviews among panels of faculty to ensure that those reviewing the documents stay focused on the attributes and that the panels discuss the order of review in order to avoid biases that have been associated with reviewing GPAs and test scores too early in the process. Some programs have consulted their external advisory boards for guidance on how to avoid bias and others have also found that including applicant interviews can strengthen the admission processes. Knowing that interview practices may introduce other biases and that faculty require training to recognize and account for these factors strengthens the use of these practices.

    Training in admission practices was identified as a key element of practice. Only 26% of the graduate schools participating in the survey reported that their institutions provide training to those who review applicant files; yet, effective training was identified as important for achieving admission success. A comprehensive faculty development program on mastery of the most effective admissions review practices further strengthens the connection between admissions and program success.

    CGS members can find more information on the project by accessing slides from the presentation during the 2018 Annual Meeting titled Understanding the Master’s Admission Landscape featuring James Marshall, Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at California State University Fresno and Sheryl Tucker, Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate College at Oklahoma State University.  A webinar on the project titled Master’s Admissions: Transparency, Guidance, and Training was also presented on Tuesday, March 26, 2019 and featured Dean Marshall and M. Scott Herness, Vice Provost for Research and Dean of the Graduate School at Montclair State University. CGS members can access a recording of the webinar on the CGS website

    Future Research on Master’s Education
    The master’s admissions project revealed additional areas of needed research. For example, many program directors and deans requested more research on best practices for evaluating non-cognitive competencies such as leadership and interpersonal effectiveness. The challenge of assessing non-cognitive competencies was further amplified during the Colloquium on the Master’s Degree held in Washington, DC, on September 16, 2018.

    The current study also revealed that many admission practices used by master’s programs were developed for traditional on-campus master’s programs. There are significant gaps in our understanding of how admission practices should be modified or adapted when the master’s degree is offered using an alternative degree type such as accelerated degrees, online/blended degrees, competency-based degrees, interdisciplinary degrees, dual/joint degrees, or degrees that may be earned by “stacking” certificates and other micro-credentials.  CGS looks forward to continuing to work with our member institutions to address these gaps.

    The complete report is available free of charge at the CGS website:  

    Augustine, R. (2018). The Master’s Degree Admission Study: Your Opportunity to Shape the Future of Master’s Education. GradEdge, January 2018.
    Council of Graduate Schools. (2005). Master’s education: A guide for faculty and administrators: A policy statement. Washington D.C. Retrieved from the Council of Graduate Schools website:
    Kent, J. & McCarthy, M. (2016). Holistic review in graduate admissions: A report from the Council of Graduate Schools.  Washington D.C. Retrieved from the Council of Graduate Schools website:
    Okahana, H., Augustine, R., & Zhou, E. (2018). Master’s Admissions: Transparency, Guidance, and Training. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from the Council of Graduate Schools website:


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