Having stumbled upon this site by goodness-knows-how, I thought I’d make myself available to provide info about Illinois to anyone who still hasn’t made up his/her mind with two weeks to go (or is ahead of the game for next year), and to comment on a couple of things about the program that I’ve seen here. If no one is interested, then I guess this will sink to the archives for future applicants.
Background: I finished my PhD there in the last year or so. I was not in CM. Would I choose to go there again? If given the same options I had before, probably, but I had an unusual application situation, and would probably try a few things differently, but hindsight is 20/20 and all that. My degree got me a job that I love, so I consider it to have worked out well.
Now, to address something I’ve seen multiple times here (paraphrased):
They admit a lot of students to work as TAs and then weed them out. Nonsense. It’s true that for a couple of years recently they overadmitted (getting entering classes of about 70 rather than the usual 50); at least one subsequent class was made rather small to help compensate. However, I’ve heard nothing about an increase in the qual fail rate from when I took it (in my class, three or four failed out of 50; and one of those who failed just switched to another department and kept doing the same research). And they decreased the TA load (i.e., the number of sections each TA teaches in a given semester) with the effect that those larger classes could still all get funding; “admit more, make them each do less work, and so pay more for the same total output” would not be a good strategy if you’re just looking for warm bodies to stand in front of classes for a couple of years before you fail them out.
The Illinois qual’s reputation for difficulty is something I really don’t understand. I wouldn’t say it’s any harder than those of most other schools whose problems I’ve seen, and indeed I think many of those others are harder. We all know that Illinois has the lowest stats for admitted students of the “top 10” departments, and if the qual pass rate is over 90%, it can’t be that bad.