Attempts to Equalize a Subjective Process (Case Study 1)

Admitting Graduate Women with Broad Criteria


  • University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has one of the top-ranked computer science graduate programs in the United States. It also awards doctoral degrees to a small but above average proportion of women. One important element in their admission of women is consideration of applicants’ life experiences. When reviewing applicants’ statements and letters of recommendation, the graduate admission committee pays particular attention to evidence of diligence, drive, and determination.

    For example, admission was offered to a woman who had attended a liberal arts college where the computer science department was not highly ranked. Like many women, her interest in computer science developed after starting her bachelors program. She took advantage of all available opportunities for taking classes and conducting undergraduate research, but still had less than most students who were admitted. By looking closely at this applicant’s circumstances, the committee surmised that she had untapped potential. Their faith in her was eventually validated when the student was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship for graduate study.

    This example illustrates the importance of considering more than computing background; other life experiences and conditions provide valuable information that can identify women with the capacity to succeed in graduate level computing. Of course, admission is only one element for including women. Beyond valuing life experiences, UCSD employs ongoing efforts that support the students they admit to help ensure they are healthy, happy, and productive, but the first step is getting qualified women as well as men in the door.

  • University of California, Berkeley has one of the very top-ranked and largest computer science doctoral programs in the nation. They are prohibited from using diversity as an admission criterion by Proposition 209, but they may consider life circumstances such as socio-economic hardship. The EECS graduate program takes a two-stage approach to admissions that results in women enrolled at a rate slightly better than average for their peer institutions. First, the admission committee identifies applicants who qualify based solely on the conventional admissions criteria: the quality of their undergraduate program including grades, recommendation letters, and evidence of research accomplishment and potential. (Nearly 100% of admitted students previously engaged in undergraduate research.) In the second phase, a faculty member and academic staff member advocate with their colleagues for admission of women who passed the quality threshold but are still under consideration with many other applicants.

    In this advocacy process, broad criteria such as life experience can play an important role because women often come to graduate study in computer science under different circumstances than the standard applicant. For example, the new women graduate students in Fall 2007 included a former professional dancer. The admissions process took into account life experiences evident in her prior career accomplishments. It also weighed another woman’s unusual initiative in overcoming the challenge of few CS courses offered at her very small undergraduate institution. By looking carefully at women and other diversity applicants, considering their life experiences, and engaging in dialogue with colleagues, more diverse students are admitted than would otherwise be the case.

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Authors: J. McGrath Cohoon