Interviews for grad school admissions?

I've recently been advising a student who is trying to gain admission to philosophy grad school. One of the programs to which he has applied has invited him for a campus visit, one component of which will be an interview with the department's faculty.

I must admit I was a bit taken aback when he told me about the interview, since it does not seem to be a common practice for grad school admissions (at least in philosophy — I'm not sure about the norms in other disciplines). With that in mind, I was hoping readers might have advice or insight about these interviews.

If you were interviewed as part of the graduate school admissions process, what kinds of questions were you asked and how might a student best prepare for such an interview?

If you've been on 'the other side' and have conducted such interviews, what are faculty hoping to learn from them and what would you recommend students do to prepare for them?

8 Replies to “Interviews for grad school admissions?

  1. Has the student been accepted, or is the interview actually part of the determination about whether to admit?
    My impression was that philosophy grad programs generally make admissions decisions first, then inviting admitted students out for a campus visit to try and convince the students with admissions offers to accept those offers. On many of those visits, students have one-on-one meetings with faculty they might be interested in working with, but nothing that would be called an “interview”.
    I do have some friends who do graduate studies in the sciences, and from discussions with them, it seemed to me that, in those fields, something like an interview seemed much more common.
    Out of curiosity, can you share which philosophy program is including on-campus interviews as part of their process for making admissions decisions?

  2. Lewis,
    I think discretion and confidentiality suggest I shouldn’t name the program in question. But it does seem like an interview for the purposes of determining admissions decisions. The student has not received a letter of acceptance, and these are being described as “interviews” with “prospective students.” The department is interviewing 11 such students. The department reports it has about 30 grad students overall, so it seems to me unlikely that they’d be admitting all 11. ?

  3. I have heard of some departments having their visit days before they make official admission decisions. Even in these cases, few philosophy departments have enough money to pay travel expenses for people they haven’t yet decided to admit. More likely, your student is basically already in, unless he or she horribly offends somebody or something.
    When I was accepted to UC Irvine (department of philosophy), they flew us out after admissions decision but before funding decisions, then ended up not offering funding to everybody. I don’t know if they adjusted the funding priority of students on the basis of their meetings with faculty members or not (nobody said anything about that). The meetings in that case were just like the meetings at departments that had already accepted me: I mostly asked the questions, and they told me about their department and why I should come there. I’d be very surprised if your student got any ‘hardball’ questions.
    By the way, I’ve written in some detail about my (fairly recent) experience with graduate applications here.

  4. Michael, I think admitting 11 is just about right for a department of 30 grad students, since you’d hope/expect to get maybe five of those 11. In fact, that’s about what we (Brown) do. (But we definitely do not interview prospects.)

  5. I went through a similar process a year ago when I applied to graduate school the first time.
    The way my ‘interview’ was set up was:
    (a) I met with all the professors that I had an interest in working with.
    (b) We sat in on a class, a graduate seminar by one of the more well-known professors.
    (c) There were social functions to meet other grad students and more faculty.
    What I learned was:
    (1) Know your interests, and be able to talk about specifics. Let’s say the student is into German Idealism (I’m projecting). Then, that student should have some familiarity with the movement overall, how it fits into history and how it treats problems in most branches of philosophy. Most professors were trying to get a feel for what I liked (I imagine to test for fit). But if you aren’t ready for the questions, it can seem like they’re putting you on the spot.
    (2) Don’t be schmoozy, but don’t be shy. This is an odd tip, since academics aren’t the norm when it comes to socializing. But the students who took the trouble to introduce themselves and try to strike up conversation with the professors, once again leaning on the above advice, did better than those who didn’t.
    (3) If they are required, or are able, to sit in on a seminar, read the readings before hand, and maybe try to come up with a good question or two. It’s good not to hijack or derail the class, but a well-placed question shows that you can do well at their level.
    It’s a strange process, and I only had to do it for one school. But it seems like when this is done, it’s something along these lines.

  6. I had a somewhat bizarre experience that included something interviewesque. One school flew myself and 11 (or so) other people out to visit, after informing us that we had made the short list for admission. Over the weekend, there were both formal and informal events, including some small parties, during which we both gauged our interest in the program and were questioned by graduate students and professors so that they could determine which of us to admit (we were informed at the start of the weekend that the school had 5 or 6 openings and that that number of us would be admitted and the others placed on the wait list; some weird stuff ended up happening with those numbers, too, but I won’t get into that here). At one point, we were brought to a professor’s house for a party. After I’d been there a while (and had a chance to get a couple of drinks in me) one of the professors took me aside and started chatting with me about my philosophical interests. Given that this was (if I recall correctly) the longest one-on-one I had with any professor there (certainly with this particular professor), it was rather disconcerting to realize that my slightly inebriated self was the one that might be determining my chances of admission.

  7. About four years ago, Minnesota flew me out even though I was only on their waiting list, along with several other prospective grad students. They already had an established pecking order for us; I, for example, knew exactly where I was on their waiting list, and one or two of the others knew they were already admitted. There were lots of one-on-one meetings with faculty, which some of the other candidates referred to as “interviews” and were quite nervous about, but the reality was that most of the admissions process was over by that point. We’d pretty much have had to get into a fistfight with somebody to change our place on that list; the point was for *them* to sell *us* on the idea of going there, and to do it before offers started coming in from elsewhere. (This happened in February, and I for one had only heard from one of the other 14 schools I’d applied to.)

  8. Kenny said:
    “When I was accepted to UC Irvine (department of philosophy), they flew us out after admissions decision but before funding decisions, then ended up not offering funding to everybody. I don’t know if they adjusted the funding priority of students on the basis of their meetings with faculty members or not (nobody said anything about that).”
    Being in the same entering class as Kenny at UCI, I would like to clarify that funding priority was NOT adjusted based on meetings. There was a pre established ranking of students for funding (1-20)and on request we (and i had assumed Kenny too) were told our own ranking. These rankings functioned as a waitlist so that (with the exception of the top six or so) people received funding as those above them turned down the place.

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