The seven types of graduate student applicant

Yes, it’s that time of year again.

  1. Hide and Seek: Contacts you every day about the status of their application, then goes on radio silence the moment they receive an offer, never to be heard of again.
  2. The No Chancer: Has an offer from Harvard, Princeton, and MIT, but still plans to attend the prospective student day because they fancy a three day holiday in (wherever your university is located).
  3. The Copy & Paster: It has always been my dream to attend Michigan University, the best university in the world. Well, good luck with that.
  4. The Nervous Nellie: Has some questions about the graduate program — a lot of questions. Wants you (that is, me) to answer detailed questions about everything from the reasonable (exact duties of a TA, particulars on graduate student stipend and health insurance) to the less so (graduation statistics and data for the last 10 years of graduates, upcoming schedule of faculty sabbaticals for the next three years, tips on the best place in Evanston to purchase toothpaste, etc.).
  5. The Surprise: Never responds to any email query about whether they are interested in coming or whether they have offers from somewhere else, is completely discounted by the committee, but then ends up accepting on April 15.
  6. The Googler: Makes an effort to look at the department website to customize their application, but gets it all wrong: I would really like to work with X, Y, and Z where X is a postdoc, Y has retired, and Z moved to a different institution two years ago.
  7. The Unicorn: Actually accepts the offer well before April 15.

Tell me if I’ve missed anyone.

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11 Responses to The seven types of graduate student applicant

  1. New says:

    How about an analogous post about postdoc applicants?

  2. Dick Gross says:

    Amusing. I think at the base of our frustration with the graduate admissions process is the fact that these entering students are in some real way evaluating us. They aren’t advanced enough to make any sense of it, but they are trying their best.

    • My 22 year-old self somehow ended up choosing Berkeley over Harvard, which is probably not something I would necessarily recommend today. (Although everything worked out very nicely for me, I should say.) I remember chatting with Joe Harris on the phone — he suggested visiting, but, at slightly more than 10,000 miles away, it wasn’t such a practical option.

  3. JustCurious101 says:

    Is the following one relevant, or is it always a subcase of the others ?
    8. The Overseas: Has a degree from some European or Asian university with seemingly good marks and recommendation letters, but still it’s difficult to know the actual level of the student.

    • It helps to know the local system, the school, and the letter writers. England is different from Italy is different from China is different from Australia (and so on). My favourite recommendation letter of all time, from someone I shall just call Sir Whimsey Grotto, was the following: “This [candidate] was ranked 28th in [his/her] year at Cambridge, thereby making [him/her] one of the strongest 30 mathematics undergraduates in England.”
      Students coming out of Beijing over the past 10-15 years have been amazing. For foreign students, I place more emphasis on grades. You can also get a sense from the personal statement of how much the student has interacted with real mathematics.

  4. voloch says:

    There is also the Idealist, who wants to defer admission for a year so he can go build houses in Mali.

  5. JSE says:

    What about The Ghost: you make them an offer, you hear nothing from them, April 15 comes and goes, they never respond. You begin to ask yourself: does this applicant even actually exist?

    • I never make an offer to anyone who doesn’t first respond to an email asking if they are still interested!

      • JSE says:

        But why would they have applied in the first place if they weren’t interested? Some Ghosts are in the “obviously got into Harvard, didn’t bother to tell us” category, but most are not.

        • I think the point is that once they respond via email once, they are no longer a ghost. (That’s one theory anyway. Despite fairly convincing prior evidence, I’m now starting to suspect that “the referee known as David Helm” doesn’t actually exist…)

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