Reader Query: Use of informal campus visits as part of PhD application process?

A reader writes:

I am writing to inquire about a practice at one PhD program to see 1. what you think of it and 2. if you or any of your readers know how prevalant it is. One of my students is visiting a Philosophy PhD prgram to which she applied for a “prospective students” day. When she received the invitation, she asked whether she had been accepted. The reply was something along the lines of: well, no, not yet, they [PhD Program] have only X number of spots (I think 4?), but invite X number of students (I think 12?) who made it to the next to final list before they make offers. Mind you, these are not formal interviews, and the students are all invited to visit on the same day. My student aptly noted that it feels a bit like the Hunger Games. I wondered also about things like implicit bias and the empirical data on orchestra auditions using a curtain to anonymize the performer. What do you think? And do you know how common this practice is? I’ve never come across it before.

14 thoughts on “Reader Query: Use of informal campus visits as part of PhD application process?

  1. I was accepted into two programs during admission season last year, and one of them had a “visit weekend” for all the accepted students. I went to the visit weekend. I was one of two students– out of 8 or 10– who already had an offer in hand. You’re right to assume that it will be awkward. Because it was awkward. I did end up turning down that offer and going with the other offer.

  2. Both my partner and myself were accepted to programs that have “visit weekends” for prospective students. She’s in Art History and I’m in Philosophy. She accepted the offer from the program in question and I did not. In both of our cases, (I believe) the visit weekend was only for students with an offer in hand. But I’ve heard of programs inviting waitlisted folks to visit weekends.

    I’ve never heard of a program using the visits as an informal interview. In my experience I’ve only encountered programs inviting students with an offer in hand or inviting waitlisted students who have a reasonably strong chance of being made an offer (but an offer that does not, in any way, depend on the results of the visit). I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – just that I haven’t seen it.

    Non-humanities fields are another matter. I understand pre-acceptance interviews to be fairly common in the sciences. A very good friend of mine has a partner who has attended several such interviews. But these were formal interviews – not informal ones.

  3. The program at Baylor does this, and I’ve heard that DePaul does as well–that is, they specifically invite students to campus for a group interview time to determine which students will be offered spots.

    I personally worry about putting this level of pressure on undergraduates (or minimally, students who have not had graduate-level training), in addition to the concerns about implicit bias you raise. It has been suggested to me that this group-interview situation is good for determining who will actually be collegial, and who will be ruthlessly competitive and/or a bad fit for the department. I suppose that these are reasonable concerns, but I worry that they’re not enough to justify such a practice (for the reasons you and I mention).

  4. If I understand the description correctly, my program did this, but my experience was the same as Matt Drabek’s: these were not interviews. At least some waitlisted students were invited out (I was one when I visited), and the line has always, as far as I know, been along the lines of “There’s no guarantee, but it’s likely we’ll be able to make you an offer.”

    I think it’s a valuable thing to offer (though of course I’m biased, having been involved in several of these weekends). It gives prospective students a chance to meet and talk with current graduate students (without faculty around), to meet and talk with faculty, to sit in on seminars, and to learn a little bit about life in the city more generally.

    I do agree that making it an interview is problematic. But I don’t think that a group campus visit is inherently bad, and I think it can help prospective students make a better-informed decision about which department will fit them best.

  5. FWIW, My program invites as many people from our list of admitted students as we have money to bring out. (Often it isn’t enough to bring out everyone we eventually have funding for.) Some of those will have a funded offer whereas others will be admitted to the program but on the wait list for funding. We see this entirely as a chance to attract students to our program. The ordering of the wait list is already determined at this point. Anyone we invite out is someone we’d be happy to have and wish we had funding for, and in fact if someone turns us down these people are next in line for that funding. We’re just trying to sell our program and are hoping that if prospective students meet they’ll like each other and us well enough to come.

    As for my opinion of the practice described in the query, I think that bringing people to campus for further interviewing is a bit unsettling. There is all sorts of evidence that interviews don’t add much to the hiring process. Why think they’d make admissions better? I also think it would be counter-productive as a recruiting tool. You want people to come and have fun and like your program. You don’t want them to feel like they’re auditioning for something while they’re on campus. Maybe that isn’t the intention, but as described it would be likely to make prospective students feel like they’re doing that.

  6. This sounds somewhat unethical. Like Erin, I find it an odd amount of pressure on undergraduates who have not yet been accepted to the program, and are these “group visits” even pretending to be optional? Are they paid for? What are students expected to do when they get there, and are they provided information in advance that they’ll engage in scholarly seminars, oral presentations, group interviews, or what? Are there appropriate accommodations for everyone? Do they try to grab money from an electrified rug? I understand why a program might want to conduct them, but one should not always do everything one wants.

    The department already holds all the cards. Those are powerful cards! Can’t they manage the information they’ve got without adding in all the confounding factors of personal insta-judgments of presentation? I don’t see how a graduate program could justify this practice, but then again, I’m not at a graduate degree conferring program. It does not sound like best possible practice. Perhaps grad program faculty will be more enlightening, but all I can imagine are reasons not to do this.

  7. One practice that may be common is this: A department admits some students and has some students on the wait list. All students are invited to campus to visit. The wait list has not been ordered, so that visits from the wait listed students can affect their prospects on the list.
    One way to avoid this is to order the wait list in advance of visits. But there are good reasons not to have a settled ordering. One may want diversity of topic, gender diversity, etc., which would require different people to replace different admitted students if they said “no”. In that case, one could create an elaborate plan for how to go through the wait list if each admitted student says “no”, but it’s harder in practice to imagine that happening.
    I think the practical reality is that wait listed students should be invited to visit, and should visit, and that visits will affect their chances.

  8. I believe the Notre Dame HPS program does this as well, and I know Baylor does. And I believe it’s very common in other disciplines to have interviews before admissions are decided.

  9. My graduate program used this practice when I was admitted. Everything was paid for and it was a good time (although I was nervous beforehand for the reasons suggested here). There was no penalty for being unable to attend. I know of several people who have been admitted without attending, and that when possible, the department tried to have contact with them in other ways (by phone, or now perhaps by Skype).

    The graduate student admissions process is as much about recruitment as it is about selection. By having prospectives visit early, our department won “primacy effect” points as it was a visit to which later ones were compared (and the comparison was favorable, as they had money for nice events, people were friendly, and they made it feel like a fun place to do philosophy). The admissions committee had a fairly established ranking prior to the visits, and used the visit less for interviewing and more as a reliability check on the initial judgments. Undergraduate institutions vary widely in the philosophical training they provide – many prospectives are coming from programs where the faculty and program are unknown to the admissions committee, so it can be helpful to use these visits to determine the correspondence between the application and the applicant. Implicit bias is not restricted to face-to-face interactions; it is operative at all stages of the application process. Relying on applications alone can bias decisions toward undergraduates from research schools with known philosophy programs even though these undergraduates may have had less interaction with their instructors and there are studies that show students from SLACs are often better prepared for and thus more quickly complete graduate programs.

    Everyone else in the department had no idea of this ranking and so treated everyone as a potential future colleague (also helpful since some years offers go well into the waitlist). And since all visitors were on equal footing it promoted camaraderie amongst prospectives (the feelings of competition are unaviodable, but the tone of the visitation weekend encouraged keeping this to a minimum). In the end, I enjoyed this visit, as I felt it indicated a graduate program that valued collegiality alongside scholarship.

    If the student is nervous, she should send some emails to current graduate students asking about what to expect.

  10. On implicit bias: While it is true that implicit bias is likely present at all levels and that coming from an unknown college or university can also unfairly bias a committee against a student, there are things a committee might not know that an on campus visit would reveal. For example, what of the student who shows up in a wheelchair? or who is not gender normative in ways that, for the admissions committee, would take a little more than a day or two to become accustomed to before “feeling comfortable”? Do the benefits of “interacting for a day (or two)” before deciding who will be accepted and/or receive money/financial support outweigh the costs here? Especially given the fact that students will have to “compete” with others also invited for the same visit?

  11. I recently found out, through a friend, that this practice (having unadmitted, but somewhat vetted applicants come out for an interview) is the standard in psychology. She has been asked to visit several schools, and has gotten admitted to two. She had to pay her way there, and at some places, had to pay for a hotel/hostel. She was often there with other applicants — needless to say, there were fewer positions than attendees. I think that this process was unsettling for her. On the other had, she got to meet with potential advisors, see the way the department worked, the cities that the schools were in, and so on. Even so, I would never trade her experience for mine.

  12. We use exactly the system described by Mark van Roojen @5, except that we bring everyone on the list out. The order is fixed in advance, with built-in rules for how to adjust it as we go in light of gender and diversity concerns. I am very comfortable with the system as many of our waitlisted people will get funded offers in the end, and we really want a chance for them to meet us and see how great our program and community are. But if there were no advance ordering, I would be completely opposed to using the visit to help settle this sort of thing.

  13. re: 11. It is standard in psychology, and in a lot of other fields as well. When my wife was a grad student in psych, we occasionally hosted visiting potential grad students.

    re: 12 and 5. That’s how we do things at Syracuse too. We’ve already made an internal ranking prior to inviting people to visit. Visiting is in no way required, and whether a person shows up is irrelevant to issues about admittance or funding. The sole reasons we invite peeps out to the Cuse is to recruit the people we’ve admitted, to give them a chance to meet with their possible professors and their possible graduate student colleagues, and to answer questions they might have about the program, the university, and the city.

  14. Bringing out admitted students makes total sense. It’s the scenario described in the OP that strikes me as not best.

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