book spotlight: inside graduate admissions by julie posselt
Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Gatekeeping by Julie Posselt is an exploration of how faculty in leading doctoral programs choose graduate students. The book is fitting successor to Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, which was a book about how professors select elite fellowship recipients (see the orgtheory discussion here). The method is the same in each book – observe and interview academics as they deliberate and meet in committees.
Posselt provides a nice overview of how admissions committees operate. The take home points are intuitive and they should resonate with any faculty member who has served on such a committee: there are disciplinary standards; people choose others like themselves; there are internal politics and department level fit issues; people search for a hard to defined “talent” and diversity is paid lip service but doesn’t have much of an impact. There are also nice discussions of international students, conservatives, and students from low status schools.
Overall, a really solid contribution to the ethnographic study of group deliberation and a required reading for students of higher education and the disciplines. My one criticism is that Posselt gets the role of GRE’s wrong and comes to a conclusion that I would not have. She correctly notes that GRE are imperfect but in some sections of the book espouses the view that GRE’s are terribly flawed. Yet, in the conclusion, Posselt comes back to the view that GRE’s have only been “misused.”
As I’ve noted on this blog often, GRE’s are actually quite useful and that is backed up by enormous research. It saddens me to see that Posselt is not familiar with this literature. But there’s a deeper issue. Posselt’s ethnography reveals the importance of GRE scores. If it weren’t for GRE scores, graduate admissions committees would simply replicate themselves by choosing white, male Apple computer fanatics. You think I jest, but Posselt actually has an entire section about how professors like choosing students who mimic their personal style (she calls it “cool” homophily), which includes using a lot of Apple products. So I say this – the GRE’s may be flawed, but a world without them would probably be much worse.