Grad School Admissions – Paper vs. Person

It’s that time of year when most STEM departments at U.S. universities are winding down their season of interviews and recruitment weekends for their Ph.D. programs. But just what are those visit weekends for?

For some programs, acceptance (and rejection) decisions are made months before spring visits. Judgments of a student’s suitability for a program are based solely on what’s on paper – grades, GRE scores, recommendations, and personal statements.

In other cases, no decisions are sent out until the faculty have had a chance to interact with the candidates. The stock application serves as a filter to decide who meets the admissions criteria and who they want to interview. But the faculty want to see how candidates perform under pressure, how they might fit in with the department, or whether the they know what they’re getting into and why.

When I applied to mostly chemistry programs [redacted] years ago, all programs made their decisions prior visit weekends, and the visits were largely about recruiting students and interacting with potential advisers. From others’ experiences, it seems large, multi-departmental umbrella programs use interviews to sort the applicant pool further.

I’m curious – do the tactics vary by discipline? By program structure or size? Which programs make their decisions based on how a candidate looks on paper? Which committees want to meet face-to-face before making the call?

In 60 seconds or less, you can help satisfy my curiosity (and perhaps a few others) by filling out this quick survey. Just click below to get started.

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7 Responses to Grad School Admissions – Paper vs. Person

  1. Did your poll. My program did not do interviews at all when I started (2004) but did “recruiting” visits. During my tenure in grad school, interviews were started during the recruiting weekends, but they more of a last-chance weed-out for those who make it on paper but clearly IRL are not up to it. From my department, the weed-out rate was nearly 0 I think, but I don’t know how that relates to the overall rate since I was part of a large ~20 program graduate school of biomedical science across 3 institutions.

  2. hazelnut_swirl says:

    This year I took part in the PhD selction for the Biosciences programmes in Europe. In all cases candidates were prescreened based on their application/references/etc; but everyone who was selected was then required to attend the gradschool interview week. Personally I think that the visit is very important. In the end you need to know if you like the PI and the lab group, the place and so on (and vice versa – lab needs to like the student!). Also, you can learn so much more about the place/group/projects/people when you are actually there. It is tricky to base your opinion on the written sources. In the end both the student and the PI are making a loooong commitment to each other – the correct fit of the student to the lab is as important as their GPA and marks. I’d say People over Paper!

  3. jbashir says:

    Graduate alma matter did interviews. Was told that they were mostly for recruitment and for a “sanity check”. Most who interviewed were admitted. We did straight into lab style with no rotations.

  4. oh yeah, forgot to add that the final admission offers were made based on the matching process that followed the interviews. Students and PIs were asked to submit preference lists, based on these the offers were made. Many people didn’t find a match and were not admitted.

  5. chall says:

    I can’t open the survey (server dropped the connection) but I’ll try again in the morning.

    As for short answer, I wouldn’t go on paper only… but would want to meet them in person… After all, this is someone you will spend significant amount of time with for the next coming years. It might be unfair (?) but I’ve seen people look great on paper only to think when I meet them that “oh boy, this will never work”, either because they lack social skills or maybe due to in-me-prejudice (?) but it’s hard to show certain traits in paper form, and there is something special in asking “how would you deal with A and B” in person and listen to their answer and reasoning.

  6. We recently did our interviews and only invited the shortlisted candidates. It’s interesting when what’s on paper (particularly in a statement of purpose) doesn’t actually match with reality … and from the applicants’ perspectives, the same is definitely true for faculty re websites vs in person. Also, given that our dept is small and faculty research interests are diverse, we couldn’t afford to admit all of the shortlist if the pool was too heavily skewed towards one faculty member or research area as this reduces the likelihood of making good applicant:advisor matches in their first year. The interviews were really the last step in our process and decisions were made immediately – we accepted almost all of them.

  7. Pingback: The grad school interview – Vetting the candidate |

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