While there are some exceptions—entrepreneurs—nearly all folks aiming to further career opportunities and salaries pursue some form of graduate education. Given the massive investment graduate education represents, prospective students should carefully analyze their likelihood of receiving an admissions offer(s). Some consultants will advise you to limit your applications given that submitting large numbers can lead to a price tag well-exceeding $1,000. However, this cost pales in comparison to the investments of money, time, and emotional energy associated with the application process. Think about it this way—you will end up spending a few months on each of the following:
Discussing your aspirations with mentors to get advice;
Carefully selecting a number of institutions that match your goals;
For some programs—identifying a faculty member whose professional interests intersect with your own to designate as a potential faculty mentor;
Identifying 3-5 possible recommenders to obtain you letters and staying in contact with them until submission;
Writing distinct Personal Statements for each university;
Composing a number of supplementary essays;
Carefully crafting a CV and/or Resume;
Investing in support services from an admissions consultant like GAI to review your documents and refine them into a sharp, complete, and professional package.
Requesting separate GRE score reports to be sent to each prospective university;
Carefully checking the status of each application with programs’ respective online submission portal;
Pulling your hair out while reading admissions forums (seriously—don’t do this!!);
For a two-month period, jetting to a different city every other weekend for an admissions interview…
…You may be thinking now, ALRIGHT—I get the point!
This unnecessarily detailed list is intended to show the amount of time and emotional energy invested in the application process. Given that you’ll be making an enormous investment, GAI Consulting advises you GO ALL IN! How exactly do you “go all in” to maximize your chances of admission? Begin by assessing your prospects, which will depend on 3 major factors: (a) admissions rates of individual programs, (b) your quantitative statistics (i.e., GPA; MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, GRE, etc.), and (c) the number of programs you are applying to.
For the purposes of this piece, let’s assume that you have quantitative stats equivalent to the average of accepted applicants at your prospective program. Leaving that variable aside, let’s turn to how acceptance rates and your number of applications interact to influence admissions outcomes.
I gathered some data regarding aggregate acceptance rates for M.D., J.D., Psychology Ph.D., and M.B.A. programs. As an important side note, the M acceptance rates for law and business degrees represents averages for the top-50 ranked institutions only. This was done, primarily, because starting salaries for J.D. and M.B.A. program graduates are more closely tied to the prestige of their alma mater than they are psychologists and medical doctors—where one’s specialization instead carries a disproportionate influence. For M.D., programs the M was calculated from the top-126 ranked institutions. Given that psychology Ph.D. programs have significantly smaller cohort sizes (median = 10) than the others, the Macceptance rate was taken from an APA (2019) survey of 891 programs. All data represent 2019 admissions season statistics. An informal list of empirical sources is included at the end of this piece. With all of that said, here were the M acceptance rates for these four competitive disciplines:
Medical School Programs: ~6.70%
Psychology Doctoral Programs: ~13.70%
Law Degree Programs: ~37.0%
Master’s in Business Programs: ~37.40%
As a very important point that was discussed in a prior article on medical school admissions, Macceptance rates of individual programs are deceptive. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of applicants submit numerous applications. In fact, this past year, M.D. and J.D. applicants submitted an average of 16 and 6, respectively. Each additional application may not give the same exact bump in one’s probability of earning at least one acceptance. However, common sense and the data shows that there is certainly some degree of an additive effect. The acceptance rates for individual applicants of M.D. and J.D. programs were ~41% and ~73%, respectively. These numbers—the percent of applicants accepted to at least one school, regardless of the number of applications they submitted—are astronomically higher than universities’ M acceptance rates.
Specific apps per applicant data were not available for M.B.A and Psychology Ph.D. programs. However, given that good M.B.A admissions advice—including that provided here at GAI Consulting—is to focus on 2-5 programs, stressing your strong fit and passion for each, it’s fair to estimate an average of 3. This would indicate that last year’s 87,323 applications for top-50 programs came from 29,108 individual applicants. As such, the 22,429 offers of admission at those institutions yielded an acceptance rates for individual M.B.A. applicants of ~77%, just a touch higher than that for J.D. programs. Specific numbers for psychology were also unavailable, but Golding, McGavran, Susman, and Wright (2020) recently analyzed the topic based on a sample of 21,238 applications from 100 Clinical Ph.D. programs. They arrived at the following estimatedacceptance rates for individuals per number of apps submitted: 5 (25%); 8 (40%); 12 (60%); 15 (75%). Based on my psychology admissions experience, I believe 12 best represents the average number of apps per applicant, meaning an acceptance rate for individuals of ~60%. Wrapping up, the contrast between programs vs. individual applicants’ acceptance rates is shown in the following table:
Implications For Your Application Season
Ultimately, as an applicant, you will have to determine what level of chance you are comfortable with. Obviously, the overall quality of your applications as well as how well they are individually tailored to programs is paramount for admissions success. However, these numbers clearly illustrate that the # of applications you submit really, really matters in terms of maximizing your chances for admission.
At GAI, we utilize these data as benchmarks for advising applicants on how broad of a net to cast. In particular, if you’re applying to medical or doctoral research programs (e.g., psychology, economics, etc.) you are certainly going to want to be in the 10+ ballpark. For medical admissions, applying to less than 15 likely places you at a substantial disadvantage.
As such, go all in—submitting a high number of applications provides you a serious admissions advantage!
Golding, J. M., McGavran, M. B., Susman, D., & Wright, R. (2020). Demystifying One’s
Chances of Acceptance into Clinical PhD Psychology Programs. Teaching of
Psychology, 47(1), 97-101.
Additional Data Sources
Michalski, D. S., Cope, C., & Fowler, G. A. (2019). Graduate Study in Psychology Summary Report: Admissions, Applications, and Acceptances. American Psychological Association.