I have written before about how hard it is to recruit good students (e.g. here and here). My department is ranked in the top 15 or so, therefore it's quite a good place but we don't routinely bring in superstar student candidates. However, I believe that if we are a bit clever in how we recruit, we can find some true gems among students who get passed up by more highly ranked schools because there is something a bit off with their record.
In the physical sciences, American students have multiple fellowship opportunities available to them and they are therefore (on average) easier to fund than international students. This is part of the reason why good American students are very attractive to hire and they routinely get snatched by places more highly ranked than mine. So, in order to find some good talent willing to come here I typically look hard at international student applications. I generally give a lot of weight to the quality of the undergrad institution, grades in math and physics, letters of recommendation, research experience and papers (if the student has any), as well as my previous experiences with students from the same school. As for tests, I look at TOEFL scores for international students and GRE Quantitative but not at Verbal or Analytic. Unfortunately, there are several countries that produce students who have very high Verbal scores, but when they come to the US it turns out they don't speak English fluently at all and have trouble following classes. The Analytic part, since they changed it to "Analytical Writing" is -- in my humble opinion -- completely useless for selection in my field. These are essays scored by humans; being able to write persuasively in essay format in English is not a skill most international students have when they take the GRE test, even if they speak the language well and have decent listening comprehension. The average quality of English instruction and the availability of resources for test preparation vary greatly from nation to nation and should be taken it into account when looking at test scores. Also, in many countries the GRE and TOEFL tests aren't offered very often, may still be paper-based, and taking the tests more than once may be prohibitively costly for the student.
My best two students came in with really mediocre test scores. However, they were from countries with selective admissions processes at the undergraduate levels and had very good grades in math and physics and some research experience. So this year I was going to bring in another student from the same university from which I recruited good students before; even spectacular students from this country tend to do so-so in the GRE. The new candidate has excellent math and physics grades, stellar letters of recommendation, even published a paper in a reputable journal. GRE Quantitative maximal, he even took a GRE Subject test (not necessary for admission to this program, which is in engineering) and received a very good score. We have been in contact and I was sure he would get formally admitted without a problem.
The student contacted me a few days ago, very upset, saying he was rejected. I was stunned. I inquired around a bit with our admissions committee, and apparently the person who looked at the student's file thought his GRE Analytical Writing Score of 3 was too low and that was what got the student nixed. For comparison, my two excellent American-born and -educated undergrad researchers, who both went on to top-5 places for their PhDs, received 4's on their GRE Analytical Writing; I think holding international students to the same standard is pretty ridiculous. The colleague who examined the student's file appeared defensive about the decision, which leads me to believe he hadn't even examined the rest of the student's file carefully.
Anyway, I had to make a stink about it (thank God for tenure that enables me to do this) and the student's file will be reconsidered. But this leaves a bad taste in the mouth -- that a good student can be dismissed based on a pretty irrelevant test score. I know people on admissions committees work hard, there are a number of applications to go through, and it's very time-consuming as far as service roles go. Picking cut-offs to streamline the process seems like a must. But, I have been less than happy with the quality of the average graduate student admitted in my department ever since I started my job here; I feel we admit too many poorly prepared or insufficiently motivated candidates, but most importantly -- too many candidates who don't have the background for the type of research that the faculty in this department do. I generally hand-pick students on my own before the selection is made and then make comments to the committee, but this time I didn't get to the student's file before the formal decision was made. It looks like it's time for me to get more involved in the admissions process at the department and university levels and push for giving admissions criteria at my place a big-picture do-over.
Having formally high and inflexible selection criteria may seem to convey that we are a top-notch, hard-core place. We are, in the sense that there is very good science being done here, but let's not kid ourselves. We are not a top-5 place, we are not a magnet school to which everybody applies and everybody wants to go, so we do not have our pick among the cream of the crop. We need to be smarter than inflexible admissions and test scores, accounting for the fact that the obviously superb students won't come here. We need to be more efficient at identifying and attracting the not-so-obviously superb students who will be interested in coming here. All this seems obvious, but is surprisingly hard to implement, especially at a level higher than a research group (department, college, university) where the different stages of the admission process are decoupled from one another.
How is the graduate admissions process handled at your school? If you are a faculty, are you happy with the process? Do you pick from admitted applicants or pre-select on your own? Please tell us also what your area (broadly) is and how highly ranked the department is, and anything else that you deem pertinent for the successes or failures of graduate admissions at your school.
And Happy New Year everyone!