How Do Admissions Criteria Affect Women’s Representation in Graduate Computing?

Leading practitioners recommend using “broad admission criteria” to increase women’s representation in computer science and computer engineering (CSE) graduate programs. Their experience confirms research findings that show broad criteria like applicants’ life experiences and membership in an underrepresented group result in more women admitted without lowering standards. For example, a nationwide study of CSE graduate programs conducted by NCWIT social scientist, J. McGrath Cohoon, shows that faculty support for these criteria results in more women enrolled regardless of program size or quality.

“Broad” criteria are not always favorable for women’s admission, however. Criteria that emphasize computing work and computing volunteer experience are associated with low representation of women, probably because women are less likely than men to develop an early interest in computing.

What does it mean to consider an applicant’s “life experiences”? One faculty member explains the characteristics that indicate likely success in a doctoral program in this way: “The things that I have learned to look for are both life experiences that indicate that they can act independently and overcome difficulties…and also experiences that indicate that they’re really interested in finding out the reasons for things… and that tells me that they are more likely than an average person to be a good researcher.” In this way, excellent students are admitted by looking beyond computing experience and achievements to other very commonly used but somewhat ambiguous criteria.

Admission decisions are subjective. Faculty members of graduate admission committees routinely describe an imprecise process where committee members disagree about applicant ratings. Disagreements arise because selection criteria typically include hard to quantify or to interpret ingredients, such as student motivation and communication skills, general quality of academic record, and letters of recommendation. The ambiguity of the admissions process can either promote or inhibit diversity as either commitments to broadening participation or unconscious stereotypes come into play. When admission committee members minimize the biasing effects of stereotypes and consider applicants’ membership in an under-represented group as a positive characteristic, they promote diversity.



Lord and Cohoon’s new research and literature review of graduate education and diversity resulted in the following recommendations. More information is available in their report from the Computing Research Association:

  1. Create leadership and oversight regarding women’s representation in your graduate program.
  2. Broaden admissions criteria to consider applicants’ life experiences.
  3. Employ diversity as an admission consideration.
  4. As a department, articulate clear and common goals for the outcome of the admissions process.
  5. Formalize criteria and procedures for admission and make them as explicit as possible.
  6. Record and report data on recruitment and admissions outcomes.
  7. Beware of gendered effects from letters of recommendation (e.g., use of adjectives that imply positive attributes of men, but which are negative for women, such as “aggressive”).

Train admissions committee members in practices that mitigate gender bias and stereotypes. This training might make use of resources such as Valian’s Gender Tutorials, which are available online at

Active recruitment and admission increases diversity. Admitting the best students relies on attracting, as well as admitting, well-qualified applicants. Eight out of ten computing faculty agree that their department should actively recruit members of underrepresented groups. “Actively” is an essential word here; being gender “blind” does not improve the gender balance of computing. Active recruiting calls for targeted messages that reach women where they are and focus on the appealing features of a graduate program, such as its flexibility. Active admission values the contribution that diversity makes to an educational program by enhancing the quality of students’ intellectual exchange.


  • For more information, see Lord & Cohoon, 2006, “Recruiting and Retaining Women Graduate Students in Computer Science and Engineering.” Computing Research Association.

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Authors: J. McGrath Cohoon