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Leiterrific grad student

My guess is that it is letters and writing sample. My writing sample was thoroughly middling, but my letters were strong and from people well-known -- both personally and by broader reputation.

My impression was that GRE mattered not very much.


I'm sure this varies a lot according to the individual reading the file, but when I read the files, the writing sample is by far the thing I care most about; the recommendation letters are also pretty useful/important, but less for the details or for 'how good' they are—they help me to contextualize everything else I'm looking at.

Grades are important in a course-grained way: anywhere from pretty good to exceptional is something I'll quickly take notice of, but I wouldn't treat a B GPA very differently from an A; a difference in writing sample quality would thoroughly swamp a GPA difference there. A low GPA (like, sub-3.0 in the US system) would be a bit of a red flag. I also notice low grades in philosophy courses.

I barely even glance at the GRE score, and forget about it almost instantly afterwards.

Someone in the know

I think most folks on admissions committees actually don't care too much about GRE scores, unless they are alarmingly low perhaps. Certainly grades, letters and the sample are the key elements of the application, and for better or worse the institution of origin is also an enormous factor, as can be seen by looking at the lists of grad students at any of the top schools.

I would also advise students at non-elite schools to look into terminal, funded MA programs in philosophy.

Obviously this will change quite a lot depending on where you are applying to and where you are applying from, but I'd wager that successful applicants tend to have 165+V, 155+Q, 3.7+GPA.

I have a more bleak view than the above commentor, who suggests that a sub-3.0 GPA would be a "red flag." I think a sub-3.0 GPA would not make it to the committee; it would be trashed by the department secretary.

David Chalmers

I directed graduate admissions at NYU last year. I also directed graduate admissions at Arizona for a few years, including the year we admitted Marcus.

I'd say that by far the most important things are the letters and the writing sample. The letters play the biggest role in making an application "stand out" early in the process and progress to later rounds. At that stage the writing sample receives a lot of attention and plays the biggest role in further selection. Personal statements can play some role around the edges, partly because committees often pay a lot of attention to areas of interest (e.g. to achieve a balanced pool), and the personal statement is the best guide to that. For me at least, grades play only a minor role, and I mostly ignore GRE scores.

That said, these things can vary a fair amount between departments and between committee members. Many people take the view that the writing sample is the "gold standard" and should really be the main thing that matters, while others are skeptical about putting too much emphasis on it given differences in student's training and in how much feedback they've received on the writing. Some people are highly skeptical of letters (too much unreliable "grade inflation") while others give them a lot of weight throughout the process. Some people put much more weight than I do on grades and GRE scores, though I don't know of anyone who gives them more weight than letters.

Over time I've gradually become something of an "admissions skeptic": it's just very hard to make reliable judgments and all the bases for the judgment are highly imperfect. I can look back at all the people I admitted about 15 years ago at Arizona and see how they've done -- many have done great. But I can also look at the lists of people who we nearly admitted (not to mention those we offered admission to and didn't get) and see that many of them have done great too. In Marcus's year, I recall that two people who have gone on to considerable success in the profession were both offered admission very late in the day on April 15.

It would be interesting to do a really serious study correlating strength of an application on various dimensions (writing sample, letters, etc) with outcomes 15 years later, but I've never done that. (I'm now keeping more systematic records so perhaps I'll be in a position to do that in 15 years!) If anyone knows of such a study I'd be interested to hear about it.

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