The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) recently released a report titled Master’s Admissions: Transparency, Guidance, and Training (Okahana, Augustine, & Zhou, 2018). The report, which is based on a project supported by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), addresses three questions:

  1. What is success in a master’s program?
  2. What attributes are currently used in admission decisions to predict success?
  3. What evidence is currently used to evaluate the attributes?

Based on the rich data and input we gathered from two national surveys, as well as from regional focus group sessions and an advisory board, the report also highlights potential practices to strengthen the relationship between master’s degree admission criteria and program success. Although the report covers a range of disciplines and master’s degree programs, we greatly benefited from insights gathered from the online ASHA Community as well as a number of communication sciences and disorders (CSD) programs. Among the members of the project’s advisory board was Margaret Rogers, Chief Staff Officer for Science and Research from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Also, as some of you may know, I am a former graduate program director and department chair of an accredited CSD master’s degree program. In this article, I not only address the high-level findings from this report but also put on my former hat as a CSD faculty member and offer what I think are the key takeaways for fellow CSD program directors and department chairs.

What is the Focus During the Admissions Process?

The report found that at the time of admission, master’s degree program directors are primarily focusing on applicants who have the potential to successfully complete coursework leading to degree completion. This was consistent for both research-focused and professionally focused master’s degrees. Other outcomes—including “program fit” and postgraduate success—were weighed as less important considerations at the time of admission. During the focus groups and colloquium, many program directors commented that (a) degree completion rates are often used when evaluating and/or accrediting programs, (b) the data verified that programs seek to admit students who have the best potential to complete the degree, and (c) completion of the coursework lays the foundation for that outcome. Establishing degree completion as the focus of success at admissions provided the connection to determine the attributes that programs seek.

What Makes One a “Strong” Applicant?

We also found that many program directors look to critical thinking, analytical thinking, and written communication—for both research-focused and professionally focused master’s degree programs—in determining applicants’ potential for completing degree requirements. However, in certain professional fields, non-cognitive attributes—including integrity and professionalism—were identified as important for completing degree requirements. This resonated with focus group and colloquium participants who noted that a cognitive foundation in combination with non-cognitive competencies yields the success that they seek. A key finding of this study, however, was related to the evidence that the researchers used to evaluate these attributes. The study revealed that although transcripts and standardized test scores are used, they have a very narrow range of uses. The evidence that researchers most frequently use—and that has the broadest application—are letters of recommendation and personal statements. Researchers use these forms of evidence to evaluate almost every attribute, including cognitive and non-cognitive qualities.

What Does This Mean for CSD Programs? My Thoughts

The report outlined important actions that can strengthen the connection between admissions and program success, and these actions have important implications for CSD master’s degree programs. First, I recommend that programs prioritize transparency about the attributes they associate with success in their CSD master’s degree programs. Transparency can be achieved in several ways, such as:

  1. Showcasing profiles of successful past applicants on the CSD program websites
  2. Providing generic examples of recommendation letters and personal statements that the faculty feel demonstrate an applicant’s attributes for success in the program
  3. Including prompts or other guidance to obtain the most convincing evidence
  4. Engaging faculty leaders to develop rubrics or matrices to achieve consistency when reviewing “open-ended” materials such as letters and personal statements

Another key finding from the project was to inform the faculty about factors that can bias their reviews. This finding can be addressed by considering the value of organizing the admissions reviews among panels of faculty to ensure that those reviewing the documents stay focused on the attributes. The panels also would discuss the order of evidence review. Doing so would avoid biases that are associated with reviewing grade point averages (GPAs) and test scores too early in the process. Some programs consult with their advisory boards for guidance on how to avoid bias; others have found that including applicant interviews can strengthen the admissions processes. However, interview practices may introduce other biases, and faculty may require training on how to recognize and account for these factors.

The value of training was another important finding. Only 26% of the graduate schools participating in the survey reported that their institutions provide training to those who review applicant files. We can strengthen the connection between admissions and program success by working with faculty to develop comprehensive training. Among the practices to consider are (a) creating consistency in the review process via rubrics or other tools and (b) including practices that aim to eliminate admissions biases.

I encourage my ASHA colleagues to access the full report to further inform your admissions practices. The complete report is available at the CGS website.