Alright, so I'm a Master's student in a top-15 graduate program, and I am sending in my Ph.d. applications this fall. I definitely want to get into a good program, and I plan to devote at least 2 months to polishing my writing sample. I got recommendation letters from professors that gave me 'As' in their courses. I have two B+s, but other than that, seven As and one A-. Also, I have written a book on philosophy and skepticism that is being published. Unusual perhaps given my age and (lack of) education, but I was determined to contribute something to a debate that was important to me. Plus I'm hoping that that little extra credential will help my application stand out. All in all I'd say the strongest part of my application is going to be my writing sample. It is going to be outstanding. Only weakness, GREs, 6.0 on the Analytical Writing section, 780 on Verbal, but only 630 on Math. Talked to one admissions committee person, he said they don't look so much at transcripts, but that letters of recommendation and writing sample are truly paramount. What would you say my chances of getting into a (really) good program are? Thanks

OK, so first a disclaimer: I teach at a place where we send off two or three students each year to highly ranked Ph.D. programs who will only have BA degrees when they begin. I understand that it has become much more common for students to get MAs first these days, but so far, our students seem to be doing fine without that intermediate step. So this is the basis for what I am going to say. I have served on graduate admissions committees at two places I worked before, but neither was ranked even near the top 15. So feel free to ignore what I will say, since I am not actually based at one of the places you are wanting to go.

But I did want to say that everything that I have heard strongly indicates that what you were told about the paramount importance of writing sample and recommendations holds true. The most influence generally resulting from GREs and such is that they might be brought in to decide between two candidates who otherwise look more or less equal on the basis of writing sample and recs. So, these things will not open any doors for you, nor will they put you on any finalists lists...but they can nudge you off of such lists when the last cuts are getting made, other things equal.

As such, if you feel that there may be some weakness in your GREs, you might think about whether taking them again after more prep might make a difference. But as you have already been told, whatever you decide about this focuses on one of the less important features of your eventual application.

However, there is another aspect to what you have asked that might be worth attending to. Decisions about whether or not to admit a candidate are not just about the candidate's credentials--and this aspect doesn't show up in discussions about graduate admissions as clearly or vividly as I think it should. There are important other questions of fit that are addressed by admissions committees. For example, given that it sounds like your projected AOS would be in epistemology, some place that you are applying to might think that--as well qualified as you are--your specific interests and achievements in epistemology don't really fit with the departmental profile, and so you might get rejected for that reason. Or, some department might think you are a perfectly fine fit for the department, but two other candidates with your projected AOS are already on the "accept" list, and the department (reasonably!) thinks that it will perhaps not do well trying to find as many as three new PhDs jobs in epistemology down the road. Or, the best person in the field you are projecting as an AOS is going to retire in a few years, and where will that leave you? Or... (you get the point).

Anyway, the idea I am trying to communicate is that questions about qualifications are simply not the whole story when it comes to graduate admissions. And you will note that part of what I was just saying is that there are implications that will affect your own candidacy that flow from the qualities of other applicants, as well--and there is quite obviously nothing that you can do to address these factors, beyond being the best candidate that you can be.

But given all of these considerations, my advice comes down to the last several words of the last sentence I just wrote. Beyond that, there is really no good answer to your final question, because the relevant considerations simply cannot be predicted. If you have very strong recommendations from well-regarded professors, and a very strong writing sample, you will look to most places like a well-qualified candidate. But to assess your chances? Can't do that!

Prof. Smith gave a detailed and honest answer to which I don't really have anything to add. But two things about your question struck me. First, your GRE scores seem to combine two different scales: the current scale on which Analytical Writing is scored out of 6 and the old scale on which Verbal and Math (Quantitative) were scored out of 800. Nowadays, Verbal and Quantitative are scored out of 170. Did you take the GRE on different occasions separated by some years? In any case, an Analytical Writing score of 6 is 99th percentile, as is a Verbal score of 780. Those scores should impress anyone who sees them. Second, I'm struck by your having published a book on philosophy and skepticism before even entering a doctoral program. I'd be surprised if any of your competitors have done that. If the book is good and the publisher is reputable, you'll certainly stand out from the crowd. My only concern in that case would be whether you think you still have much to learn about (say) skepticism from a doctoral program after having already published a book on it. If you have time to email me the title and publisher of your book (my email address is on my homepage, linked to at right), I'd be interested in knowing more about it. In any case, best wishes.

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