When I did graduate admissions at Maryland one year I was handed 120 folders from the “rest of the world” – there, as at Michigan, there is geographic specialization by faculty on this task. I read through them all and managed to narrow down the choice set to about 20 strong applications. At that point, I essentially randomized because that was no more or less arbitrary than any other scheme I might have used given the extreme multi-dimensionality of the choice problem. So, I picked the applicant who said in his personal statement that his friends called him “Golden Eagle” and the one who talked in his personal statement about playing Dungeons and Dragons.
When I took the graduate econometrics sequence, the first equation mentioned was “B equals PhD.” But I much prefer D&D =PhD. Makes me feel like I made good life choices as a nerdy teenager.
Also, the combination of Jeff and Fabio’s comments is fascinating, especially their thoughts on Letters of Recommendation. I’ve been asked to write two letters now, both by students I had known for exactly one semester. I was somewhat baffled about what to say, and Jeff’s suggestions about how to write such a value seem on point: you basically restate the student’s transcript, and add whatever information you can about the course you taught and the student’s relative ranking in it, and/or some anecdote about their performance if you have one. It’s very unsatisfying. I wonder if this one facet of graduate admissions that especially favors students from liberal arts colleges – even though their professors are not famous, they often know students over a period of years and have much closer contact. All of my letter writers were lecturers in the Residential College (Michigan’s mini-liberal arts college within the big university) who I had worked closely with on projects, as well as taken one to four courses from, so I had a similar advantage. On the other hand, savvy students are large state schools (especially public ivies) can get involved with big name research projects, even if only as grunts.