Philosophy Admissions Survey: High Achievers

We’ve all been warned that graduate admissions in philosophy are among the most competitive in academia, where students apply widely and are lucky to be admitted to one or two programs. But we’ve also seen people who have been enormously successful, and I hope I’m not the only one who has wondered, “What about them made them so successful?” The data we have now may or may not give us a complete view, but I wanted to look at the people who were the most prolific in their admissions. Despite their successes, there was no one who applied to more than one school who had a 100% acceptance rate, but everyone I’m looking at here was admitted to at least 5 schools, often near the top of the PGR.

There are 7 people who meet this metric.

# of admission offers Gender Minority status Tradition
A 5 Male N C
B 5 Female N A
C 5 Female N A
D 6 Male Y C
E 7 Male N A
F 8 Female N A
G 14 Male N A

Undergraduate Career:

All of these applicants went to a selective or moderately selective undergraduate institution. All had high overall GPAs—the lowest in the 3.60-3.79 bracket (applicant B), and only one other outside of the 3.90-4.00 bracket (applicant G)—as well as strong philosophy GPAs. All were philosophy majors, and 5 had additional majors or minors. 5 out of the 7 were applying as seniors in undergrad (or had completed their degree within the past 6 months). Only applicant C had a Masters degree, which was in philosophy, and applicant E had completed his degree in the past or to two years, but had not spent any time away from the academic study of philosophy.


All had high GRE scores on verbal; 6 had about 95th percentile, and one had above the 90th percentile. The quantitative and writing scores were more scattered. Applicant A had the lowest quantitative scores, in the 50th-59th percentile, and the best quantitative scores were in the 90th-95th percentile (scored by applicants B and G). Writing scores were mostly in the 90th-95th or 95th and up categories; Applicant B scored in the 70th-79th percentile.

Not a single applicant had a publication. Only two (B and G) had somewhat relevant work experience; the rest had no work experience.

All applicants had letters of recommendation predominantly from philosophy professors, including endowed chairs or tenured professors. Applicants B, D, E, and G all had two letters from endowed chairs of philosophy. Every applicant has at least one letter from a tenured professor; Applicant E had a high of 4. Applicants A, B, C and F had one or two letters from tenure track faculty. No one had letters from adjunct faculty. Applicants G and E had letters from non-philosophers. Applicants A, C and F only had 3 letter writers in total; the other applicants had 5 letter writers in most case, although applicant E had 7 letter writers. It is unclear whether the applicants with more than 3 letter writers submitted more than 3 letters with each application, or if they only used some of their letter writers for some of their schools.

Most applicants listed two or three areas of philosophical interest in their statements of purpose. Those areas are:

19th Century Continental Philosophy, 20th Century Continental Philosophy, Philosophy of Art, Decision, Rational Choice and Game Theory, Philosophical Logic, Political Philosophy, Ethics, Applied Ethics, Philosophy of Race, Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Philosophy: 17th Century, Metaethics (metaphysics, epistemology & semantics of morality), Philosophy of Language, and History of Analytic Philosophy (incl. Wittgenstein). Ethics and political philosophy appeared three times each; philosophical logic appeared twice, but there was no other overlap of interests.

Writing samples generally covered one or more of the interests from the statement of purpose. The only exception was applicant G whose writing sample was not on any of his stated interests.

Each applicant submitted a large number of applications, the fewest being nine and the most being 18. Most applied across the PGR, often including unranked programs; this is especially true of the two continental candidates, A and D.

Here are their overall results:

Admitted Denied Waitlisted Admitted or waitlisted in PGR top 20 Admitted or waitlisted in PGR 21-50
A 5 5 2 3 4
B 5 11 0 3 1
C 5 4 0 3 0
D 6 2 1 1 0
E 7 1 3 9 1
F 8 3 0 0 4
G 14 3 1 13 2

Since there were relatively few international programs, I used the US PGR for the top 20 and 21-50, and simply assigned the rank from the global list to any international programs. (This was largely due to laziness on my part, but it wouldn’t really change the results too much).

After spending some time looking at this, I’m a little surprised. I’m sure every one of these applicants deserved their successes, but there’s nothing here that stands out as the reason why. Each candidate has an obviously strong profile, but there are many people with equally strong profiles who were shut out, or at least did not have their pick of programs. This seems to support what many people believe: high GREs and GPAs get your profile looked at, but it’s in the letters, statement of purpose, and writing sample that get you admitted.


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