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Overweight or obese applicants to master's and doctoral programs were less likely to receive an offer of admission than applicants with normal body mass indexes

Prospective psychology graduate students have a lot on their minds when they walk into an admissions interview — worries such as whether they'll be tongue-tied or how their test scores compare with those of other applicants.

But a study in the journal Obesity suggests their interviewers may unconsciously have something else entirely on their minds: body size.

Researchers from Bowling Green State University found that after an in-person interview, overweight or obese applicants to master's and doctoral programs were less likely to receive an offer of admission than applicants with normal body mass indexes. The effect held true even when controlling for other qualifications, such as undergraduate GPA, and seemed to be stronger for women, according to post hoc analyses of the data.

For students whose interviews were conducted over the phone, body size made no difference in admission offers, the study found.

Allison Kiefner-Burmeister, a fifth-year PhD candidate and dissertation fellow at Bowling Green who co-authored the study, says the team was disappointed but not surprised by the findings. "They're consistent with past research showing that women are judged more harshly at lower levels of overweight than men," she says.

Contrary to their hypotheses, though, the researchers found that before the interview stage of the admissions process, thinner applicants weren't favored. In fact, when coding participants' letters of recommendation, the researchers found that letter writers used slightly more standout adjectives, such as "unparalleled," to describe students with higher BMIs than those in the normal range.

Body size had no apparent effect on letter quality, length, stereotypically weight-related adjectives such as "hardworking" or positive personality descriptors such as "friendly," the study found. "I would expect that once you get to know a person, biases from the surface soften," Kiefner-Burmeister says.

The results indicate for the first time that the graduate admissions process is affected by weight biases, just as other studies have shown that weight discrimination plagues the undergraduate admissions and employment processes.

The findings also demonstrate that psychologists — who are trained to be aware of and manage their own biases — aren't immune to this type of behavior.

Kiefner-Burmeister hopes the study will raise awareness of the problem among all professions. "As we've seen with most stigma and prejudices, once it gets out there and it's seen as what it is — a stigma and prejudice against overweight and obesity — people recognize it's not acceptable," she says.

— Anna Miller