As Principia students settle into a new year full of new classes and new opportunities, many seniors are beginning to look beyond their four years in Elsah and toward new academic horizons. For those studying for graduate school admissions tests and compiling application materials, the inevitable question arises, “Has my intellectual sowing at Principia prepared me to reap admissions offers from elite programs?”
While graduate school searches are often more self-directed than those at the undergraduate level, Principia provides institutional support for students looking for guidance in the admissions process. Most prominently, the College’s Academic and Career Advising Office (ACA) is tasked with helping guide interested students through the application process of their chosen graduate program.
According to ACA’s James Brandt, a “significant,” though not quantified, number of students go onto to pursue a graduate degree at some point. Brandt estimates that this figure is around 50% to 60%, but he notes that his office does not maintain a formal count of Principia’s placement in graduate programs. The number of students that chooses to pursue graduate school immediately after Principia is far lower; Brandt states that such students “can be counted on your fingers.”
While Brandt acknowledges that assisting students with finding graduate school falls under ACA’s topical umbrella, he noted that his office often suggests students work with faculty for guidance on graduate programs. Should a student seek to explore a budding interest in graduate school through conversations with ACA, Brandt says, “The principle thing we would always do is refer students to the faculty in their departments, because they are the scholars in their disciplines.” Doing so accomplishes two things: a student’s faculty advisor is most likely to understand that student’s individual needs and career goals, and, as an academic, that faculty advisor is also most likely to be aware of specific programs in their field that would meet student interests.
Instead of providing explicit advice, ACA maintains a variety of reference materials on graduate admissions, hosts annual trips to a law school fair at SIUE, and assists students with resume preparation through periodic lunchtime workshops.
Recent graduates indicate that Principia’s departmental faculty is indeed the best resource in the application process. According to Haley Morton, a 2014 College graduate currently in her second year in law school at William and Mary, “The professors from the Political Science and History departments were incredibly helpful. I was extremely grateful for their willingness to write letters of recommendation, and they even took a look at my personal statement a few times.” Morton majored in Political Science and History at Principia, and credits the faculty of those departments with preparing her for the rigorous discussion and volume of reading expected in law school. Vanessa Waller (C ‘15) concurs, saying, “Even before applying, I asked professors for advice on graduate school and career options. Their advice helped me feel confident in my decision to apply.” After completing her Biology major and Sustainability minor at Principia, Waller is now pursuing a Masters of Environmental Management at Duke University.
Aside from ACA, other institutional support is less apparent but available. For instance, political science professor John Williams serves as the official liaison between Principia and the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). However, William’s role is not advertised on campus. Williams said that he himself is not often aware that students have an interest in law school until he is notified, either by the student him/herself or by LSAC, that a student has registered for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Williams noted that some students do approach him to discuss their interest in law and to learn about the law school admissions process, but that this interaction is not uniform among law school applicants as a whole.
Despite having institutional channels to help students with graduate school applications, interviews with Principia administrators, faculty, and alumni indicate that these channels to help students in the graduate school process are minor compared to the help that the faculty themselves provide. While students praise faculty for their guidance, the lack of a centralized program to assist students can hinder the dissemination of information about the graduate admissions process in general, and possibly deter students who are less individually driven from pursuing a graduate degree.
Each year, Principia students go on to work towards their master’s degree, law degree, or doctorate where they acquit themselves well. College administrators are not alone in their assertions that Principia prepares its students to do well in any program across the country; graduates praise the rigor of Principia’s academic program and the preparation they received for their graduate work. However, are the close professor-student relationships, small classes, and extracurricular opportunities enough? Administrators and faculty echo Brandt’s assertion that Principians are not at any disadvantage in the graduate admissions game, but as the literature and anecdotal evidence suggest, admissions committees at elite graduate programs view Principians differently than we would like to believe.
In the case of law school, Principia’s undergraduate reputation neither helps nor hurts an applicant. Instead, law schools focus on quantitative measures of success, namely a student’s LSAT score and undergraduate GPA. Since legal thinking is a unique pursuit that is not honed at the undergraduate level, law schools believe that these quantitative measures correlate well with future success in a legal environment. Three law schools—Harvard, Yale, and Stanford—are known for their emphasis on soft attributes in addition to traditional quantitative measures of success.
However, as Heidi Brooks Bradley (C’ 00, Stanford Law School ‘04) demonstrates, the soft attributes of a Principia student can be sufficient to gain entry into even the most highly ranked law school programs if the student takes advantage of on-campus opportunities and gets sufficient grades and LSAT scores for admission.
Admissions to top Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs are similar to law school in that where one obtains their undergraduate degree is not as important as other factors. Yet, while law schools care solely about quantitative measures, business schools are noted for their emphasis on prior work experience before graduate school. Though where one obtained his or her undergraduate degree may impact the kinds of post-graduation jobs that students can get, working for a top company is valued more highly than where one attended school at an undergraduate level.
Unlike law and business schools, non-professional Master’s and Ph.D. processes are more holistic and less straightforward. For these programs, admissions committees consider a combination of an applicant’s undergraduate GPA, Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, research experience, letters of recommendation, the ranking of the applicant’s undergraduate institution, and other soft attributes. Among these considerations, admissions committees, particularly those at elite programs, place a strong emphasis on relevant research experience and the ranking of an applicant’s undergraduate institution. While its academic program may be rigorous, Principia is liberal arts college and not a research institution. Therein lies the rub.
According to an article by Stanford academic Karthik Raghunathan entitled “Demystifying the American Graduate Admissions Process,” research experience is what sets candidates apart from one another. After an admissions committee weeds out the academically unqualified applicants that could not attain sufficiently high GRE scores and GPAs, Raghunathan explains that elite programs believe that the remaining candidates have comparable intellectual ability. That is, any of the students could succeed in the graduate program if granted entry. However, the programs do not have enough space for all the qualified applicants. So, they resort to other determinants of potential success in the graduate program.
Of these determinants, Raghunathan argues that research experience becomes the most important factor in differentiating among applicants. Applicants who have presented at conferences or been published in academic journals become the most attractive candidates due to their demonstrated commitment to academia and their potential to become scholars. As the winnowing continues, distinctions between applicants become more granular as the admissions committees begin considering the repute of both the conferences where the applicants have presented and the academic journals in which the applicants have published.
According to Dean of Academics Joe Ritter, Principia provides its students a stronger likelihood of conducting—as well as presenting and publishing—research than its larger counterparts. This is because of the school’s low faculty-to-student ratio. Ritter estimates that over half of Principia’s graduating seniors have the opportunity to work with faculty on some kind of capstone or research. Similarly, Brandt commented on and commended the amount of research done within each major throughout a student’s experience at Principia.
This may be true, but evidence suggests that graduate admissions draw a distinction between capstone research—which is the kind of research to which Dr. Ritter and Brandt refer when they speak of research experiences at Principia—and research for professors. According to a story from the American Psychological Association, which is the primary professional organization of academics within the discipline, “completing a senior thesis is a must” for admission to elite graduate programs. The article makes the distinction between this type of research and research for professors, both of which are necessary for admission. The article argues that previous research with a professor is so crucial that, without sufficient experience, applicants should consider postponing graduate school applications for a year or two in order to work as a research assistant and gain experience prior to applying.
While these kinds of opportunities are common at other colleges, they are only found within a few disciplines at Principia. To be fair, Principia does its best to support some degree of student research. For instance, the Academic Dean’s office administers a research fund for students attempting to fund both their own work and the presentation of this work at conferences.
Another stumbling block for Principia students interested in graduate school is the relative anonymity of the College. In 1993, the Department of Government at Harvard University released a publication in which it outlined its admissions process for graduate-level applicants. According to Harvard, the factors of greatest weight in admissions decisions were undergraduate GPA, major GPA, GRE scores, summaries of the quantitative indicators on recommendation forms (class rank and rank within the major), and a ranking of the quality of the undergraduate institution. Quality rankings for undergraduate institutions are based on the selectivity of the institution.
Principia has an admissions rate of eighty percent and sits at number 139 in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of liberal arts colleges. This list only includes schools like Principia that focus on teaching and does not include large research universities like the University of Illinois. Therefore, aggregate rankings of all institutions of higher learning place Principia even lower, as Forbes recently rated the school number 328 overall–a far cry from the elite rankings of undergraduate schools against which Principia graduate compete against for graduate school admission.
Harvard’s admissions criteria is indicative of elite universities across the United States, and this focus on rankings and name recognition has disadvantaged Principia graduates in applications to elite universities in the past. One well-qualified Principia graduate, Janessa Gans Wilder, was initially denied from the International Policy Studies program at Stanford University despite strong qualifications. When Wilder drove to Stanford to contest her rejection in a meeting with the head of the department, she was asked if Principia was even an accredited school. Although Wilder eventually was able to prove the strength of Principia’s academic program, her experience proves how easily elite universities dismiss applicants from a small school with a high admissions rate.
This attitude is concerning due to the weight a graduate degree from an elite program holds. The job market for those with Ph.D.s seeking to pursue academia is already tight, as even graduates from elite programs like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale are no longer immediately shuffled into tenure track positions. However, graduating from elite programs still makes a difference. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, graduates of the top 11 Ph.D. programs (overall) obtain fifty percent of tenure track positions at schools across the country. This evidence was corroborated by a study of 16,000 faculty members across several disciplines published in Science Advances. It demonstrated that the top ten schools for history graduates produce three times the number of professors than the next ten schools. The numbers were similar for all disciplines examined in the study.
This lack of respect for Principia within the academic world is also exemplified on the websites of Principia graduates currently working in academe. For instance, a recent press release from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government announcing the hiring of Josh Burek (C ‘99, Harvard Divinity School ‘04) notes his Harvard educational pedigree, but omits his undergraduate work at Principia. A similar trend is apparent on the professional academic web pages of Sarah Andrews (C’ 07, University of Virginia Ph.D. ‘16) and Arend Lijphart (C ‘58, Yale University Ph.D. ‘63), both of which mention their graduate institutions but omit their Principia College degrees. This omission is not necessarily indicative of embarrassment or frustration with the College, but of the outside academic community’s lack of respect for a Principia degree.
However, the 2014-2015 Strategic Plan indicates that the school is taking strides to overcome its reputation and make its graduates more competitive for elite universities. Most prominently, this will occur through the recently enacted emphasis on promoting research opportunities on campus. Jim Hegarty is currently the head of the new Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, which was piloted on campus during the past summer. The Strategic Plan places a great deal of importance on the role that undergraduate research should play in the Principia student experience, and provides for over $80,000 worth of funding for research, conference presentations, and publication opportunities over the next several years.
With the advances it is making in providing research opportunities and funding, as well as the existing educational opportunities and assistance provided by the faculty, Principia is on the road to boosting graduate success in both industry and in academia. However, literature and anecdotal evidence suggests that there are systemic hurdles that complicate admission of Principia College graduates into elite graduate programs. While making the jump from Principia to an elite program is not impossible, an understanding of the system is essential for students to distinguish themselves adequately from fellow informed applicants. Morton, Waller, and Wilder are just three Principians who have gone on to excellent graduate programs, but future applicants must be aware of the challenges they may face.