By Rajkamal Rao
Go back to Step 7: Finalize your application
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At this stage, the admissions committee using what is called the "mismatch thesis" decides on a "pool of a candidates that can do the work", as Dr. Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University, said in a TV interview on June 26, 2013 reacting to the US Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.
Suppose the school needs to fill 600 seats. The pool of candidates will be set at a number much higher than this, say 1,000 students.
With the pool chosen, the committee has to now vote on who among the pool is worthy of admission. To do this, the committee systematically applies a set of rules to reject the 400 students from the pool that do not meet the school's affirmative action criteria - including geographical diversity, racial and ethnic preferences, and in the case of Columbia University, even military veterans. Schools use these rules to create a diverse student body which, in the words of Dr. Bollinger, "represents diverse experiences which add to the richness of the educational experience" of everyone admitted. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed such policies as constitutional.
Unfortunately, US schools do not publish ahead of time their formulas for affirmative action. Also, the formula used by one school is different from that used by another. Most international students are unaware that these affirmative action programs even exist at schools. And they are shocked to learn that although otherwise perfectly qualified to get into a school, they were rejected in favor of another student merely because the other student brought "needed diversity" to the student body. In our example above, an international student from India or China may be denied admission to accommodate a US Hispanic military veteran simply for the richness of life experiences that he brings that the international student cannot.
If a student is admitted and found to be excellent, he is flagged to potentially receive a graduate or research assistantship. Final decisions on assistantships are made after all applications are fully reviewed and the department Chair confirms that funds are available.
Note that at times the whole process may appear somewhat chaotic and isolated. The student completing the application is doing so in a "vacuum" not knowing anything about how many other students around the world are competing with him. At the other end, the admissions committee deciding on the student's application is also working in a vacuum because it does not know how many other schools the student has actually applied to. Think about this dilemma from the school's point of view. If the committee votes to offer admissions to exactly the number of seats it wants to fill and some of those students reject the school's offer, it runs the risk of not having enough students when classes start.
Here's an excellent video on how the admissions committee of a famous undergraduate institution - Amherst College - works.