Reading vulnerable learners’ applications to grad school: we need to stop failing them

A sketch prototype from an online peer feedback tool I worked on with the Design Lab

A few years ago I decided to offer to help students with grad school applications.

I had a lot of travel time and I’m a fast reader. Plus, I’m a big sister. Something about that sticks with you. I’ve always been interested in assessment, predicting potential, in whatever getting in means. Picking the lock on the door of opportunity and changing everything.

I’ve also always felt like I still live precariously balanced between those two worlds: the conference room full of scientists and committees that get to judge, and the dorm bedroom where a kid who can’t afford the campus meal plan stares at a word document and wonders whether the right words strung together can conjure a chance. Maybe someone like me out there needed to hear that they can.

Every fall I open up my email and get takers. Over airplane rides and Saturday afternoon skype sessions, I’ve given feedback on dozens of research statements. I explicitly ask for vulnerable learners: a blanket phrase for students marginalized by difficult backgrounds, underrepresented identities in race and gender, international paths across changing countries, housing insecurity and other risk factors. Nearly all the students I meet are low-income, some severely so.


Feedback starts with listening.

I taught an undergrad who had a 3.8 GPA, a three-hour commute to campus, and five siblings to worry about every night. She was only going to apply to three graduate programs, because she couldn’t afford the fees; she hadn’t ever heard of fee waivers. She wanted to study clinical interventions in autism, because she’d spent an average ten hours every week for the last two years supervising such care for one of her siblings. She was fantastic to have in class, the kind of student who sat earnest and leaning forward in the second row and downloaded an app that would read the pdfs of research papers out loud while she drove inland every night.

None of this was in her application.

She’d gone to academic advising and gotten grammar notes, but her research statement still made a lot of mistakes recognizable to anyone who reads these things often: too many vague statements about the value of science, not enough evidence that she’d cultivated skills for doing it. She didn’t know a single person with a PhD. She wasn’t totally sure what a PhD was.

But she loved research, everything about it. I do qualitative interviewing, so I know how to ask the same question over and over again: tell me more. It came out of her gradually, all the science she’d found amazing because it helped explain her life, the hours listening to papers in the car. We workshopped her statement over pastries and then sandwiches, putting scientific language to the things she hadn’t thought anyone would care about.

In our class, she’d been fascinated to learn that you could ask interesting questions with survey research. She’d designed a tiny experiment of her own and run it online in several campus clubs. It was a survey about how many of her classmates had siblings on the spectrum, what interventions they’d ever seen, and at what age.

“Are you kidding me, that’s amazing,” I said, taking notes as she talked. Everything I said was a shock to her, so I just kept saying it, over and over. Amazing. What you did is amazing. I am a person with a PhD and I think you are amazing. Now she knew at least one. I wrote out a list of grad programs with fee waivers while she got a second cup of coffee to fuel her long commute home.

“It doesn’t always feel fair,” she said, like she was admitting a great big secret.

“It’s not fair,” I said. “But you have to try.”

She got in.


The doubt that vulnerable learners face is pervasive and confusing. Growing up disadvantaged and succeeding anyway means living in a world of constantly shifting expectations and norms. It’s not easy to drop twenty or more years of hiding where you come from, not easy to read the cues for whether your hardships will be perceived as strength, or weakness.

The students who come to me have read a thousand “how to apply to grad school” blogposts. But they’re still confused. They’re often putting in tremendous hours of work, only to be steered wrong by careless cues in the copy on old, outdated websites, or misconceptions from their peers. No one helps them detangle the personal from the professional. No one gives them encouragement. Everything they do is framed as their mistake.

All applicants need to make a case for themselves. But vulnerable learners need to translate a wildly different world into something the academy can understand, often before they’ve ever met a scientist.

Most of all, I’m struck over and over by the huge difference in the way these learners can talk about their research plans and skills, versus the way they write about it. They’ve never seen someone quantify the evidence in their favor.

I try to talk to students before reading their statements, because their apps are so constrained by hidden assumptions. When we talk I learn about huge things that are missing. I hear that students are afraid to write about projects that they don’t think are relevant or prestigious, even when they are actually amazing. But they’re also confused about sharing personal details and emotions. College admissions often involved sharing personal stories, and they don’t know why everything changes for grad school.

In this way, graduate programs continue to fail to communicate what they want from applicants. Generic advice and shallow feedback are worthless. We need to find these learners and listen to their actual lives.


I met a student who was finishing college and mentoring students at his previous high school at the same time.

“Really the hardest is just to get them to apply. I like to go back and just be like, hey, college is cool. I’m still cool,” he laughed, before we turned to his own application. We were talking over Skype. He looked cool, tattoos and a sharp haircut, guitars in the background of his video and my pet rabbit in the background of mine. The rabbit helped — it gave me something to talk about with this student, who got so quiet when I opened his file that I thought he’d signed off.

His grades had started sliding in his junior year of college. Getting in had been a triumph, but he worked fulltime to cover housing costs and classes got harder. He had never written long essays before, had never been told what a primary source was. There was constant construction around his cheap apartment, making it difficult to study, and no one had ever taught him how to study anyway. His parents divorced, making money even harder, and he hadn’t known about things he later thought he needed, like accommodations for testing, until it was too late.

We talked grade cutoffs and studying for the GRE, which he called “scary as shit.” I told him about checking out ten-year-old SAT study guides at my local library, the first place I ever read the words standardized test. We talked about master’s programs, taking a year off after college, brainstormed ways to get more chances. He hadn’t known it was possible to apply to grad schools after working, that there were more options than the same top five PhD programs that came up when he googled.

“Look,” he finally said, “You were one of those smart kids. Is this just stupid, a dumbass like me applying to grad school?”

“You are not a dumbass,” I said, “You are brave.” I told him about research on resilience, on how putting math problems into more recognizable contexts like grocery store prices made low income kids like us way better at them. I told him that most higher ed students in the US are in community colleges, that the whole world isn’t captured in a New York Times writeup about R1 schools. I told him about four years of college working nights, that I’d once misread an assignment so badly I turned in a paper thousands of words shorter than the minimum.

He told me he didn’t feel like a role model when he went back to his high school. He went back anyway, because he was one of the only kids who’d ever made it to college. They looked up to him, and then he went back to campus, where he wondered if he was just a loser.

“The way they feel about you is the real part,” I said.

He took a year between college and grad school working with his high school and a local nonprofit tutoring center. He applied to a master’s program nearly a year after we talked.

He got in.


The distance traveled metric is an idea I often mention when I’m working on hiring and selection scenarios. I like the way the Kapor Center describes this in their advice on diversity in tech: that “distance traveled” measures take into account where a candidate comes from. That it gives credit. This resonates with me, as someone who sees marathons behind some kids and easy strolls behind others. I also like it because I’m a social scientist working on data, and I think measuring change over time is always better than a snapshot.

We advise vulnerable learners to cut away the personal from their statements, tell them how to put on a mask that makes them look more like all those confident, successful, expected kids. And to be fair, I give this advice too. I help with the jargon and the foot-in-the-door and I tell them how to code switch their makeup and clothes. But I wish I didn’t have to do it so much.

For vulnerable learners, their life is work. I don’t have all the answers for this complicated assessment situation, but I wish that grad programs could see this more clearly: that for a student surviving extraordinary circumstances, a B grade can be a fundamentally different measure, a striking achievement. That we need to reach out to them, that twenty minutes asking for their stories can change everything about what we think of their potential. That there is so much that they already have done, to earn getting in.


When students write back to tell me they got in, there’s one thing I always say. It is, I think, the truest thing never said to a vulnerable learner:

“They’re lucky to have you.”


Many thanks to the wonderful students who graciously shared their stories for this.