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How do you know if interview weekend is a formality or an actual interview?


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Basically the title. The POI who contacted me sounded very positive, but I feel like I should still treat things as very much up-in-the-air. Some people have told me that interview weekends are basically a formality and unless you do something glaringly wrong you are basically accepted, while others have told me that the decisions are still very much in progress. How should I gauge what type of interview weekend I'm attending? I will probably treat it as the latter regardless, but it would be nice to know.

Edited by essequamvideri
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It varies wildly by school, program, and POI, so you are right to act cautiously.  Once you're there, you can ask around -- current students will probably have a sense of how many folks get through from interviews.  In general, professors don't invite you out unless they are very interested in admitting you (so congrats!).  But whether you are actually admitted may depend on:

  1. How good the fit actually is between your interests and theirs.  There is only so much they can tell from your personal statement, so they will expect you to talk about research at an interview.  They will also take the chance to let you clear up any outstanding questions they may have about your application, but these are likely to be minor points (or they wouldn't have bothered to invite you).
  2. How strongly the POI can/will make the case for you to other faculty after the interview.  This also varies by department, but the POI may be in competition for resources in the department.  Even if there is no competition with other faculty, many departments have a formal or informal policy of consensus or backup advisors.  In those places, the other faculty in the department will be thinking about whether you are good for the department and (in a backup advisor situation) whether they would want to work with you if things go wrong with your primary advisor.
  3. How much funding the POI has for students.  Even if the POI would love to admit everyone he or she interviews, that may not be possible.  In that case, the POI will be forced to start rank-ordering candidates.
  4. Whether the POI thinks you are likely to accept an offer.  Every offer made to a student who declines can be a missed opportunity for a professor.  In some cases, the department will redistribute extra places, but there's no guarantee your POI will get one in the second round.  Some places, a "waitlist" is just not kept.  And even if the POI can ask his or her next choice after you decline, they have to wait -- and in the meantime the next choice may well have moved on as well.  So the POI will think at least a little about whether you are going to accept an offer before they make one. This is especially true if #1 is at play and they have to fight to even make you the offer.
  5. Whether you do something unforgiveable stupid/rude/etc at interview weekend.  If this is the only bar, you're in pretty good shape, because it often quite low.  Just prove that you can behave professionally in an interview and don't throw up on yourself, and you're probably good.  But yes, it is possible to screw up badly enough at interview weekend that they will not accept you.

And that's just a few of the biggest things they may be thinking about.


So, stay on your toes, don't throw up on yourself, and good luck!! :)

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I've been grappling with this question myself, but I think the reason why we have both gotten conflicting answers on this is because it really does depend on the school.


IMO, this mostly boils down to four main questions:

  1. Are interviews listed explicitly on the school website as part of the admissions process?
  2. On that note, are the interviews required for admission?
  3. Are you applying to clinical psychology (where this is more common)?
  4. How competitive is the school in question?


I am applying to social psychology - and while many of the social programs do at least informal interviews before decisions - some do not. Either way, I feel it is pretty much about gauging what you are up against. If there are 500 applicants and many of them are Ivies, then the interview weekend may be of monumental importance. 


Finally, your POI may simply answer your question in the emails and phone calls to come as  the logistics of the travel arrangements are determined. 

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So happy for this post! I have three interviews: two are two-day interview weekends with meals and socials abound, one is a half-day of departmental interviews. My guess was that the bigger schools, both with interview weekends, take less of their interviewees. I hope I'm wrong!

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Rule #1: Until you have been officially offered admission (with guaranteed funding), EVERY interaction you have with ANYBODY affiliated with the university should be considered an "interview." That is, you are always being evaluated/judged, and anything you do (or say) can and will be reported to your POI/the admissions committee, who in turn can and will consider that information when deciding whether or not to accept you. (Actually, this rule holds even after you've been offered admission--they just can't reject you anymore.)


Rule #2: When in doubt, see Rule #1.


That being said, Gepetto's advice is good: Be relaxed and be yourself. Focus on being as friendly, outgoing, and professional as you possibly can be and you'll do fine--not to say you'll get in, but you'll give yourself a fighting chance (and you won't hurt yourself with anything stupid).


And try to have fun! Even if you assume that you're always being evaluated, it's certainly possible for interview weekends to be fun, engaging experiences. Indeed, they really should be enjoyable; after all, you get to hang out with a bunch of people with very similar interests--professional and, frequently, personal--to your own. That's a pretty good weekend in my book, and I've had a great time at interview weekends even for programs that ultimately rejected me. (Also, if you don't enjoy the interview weekend, you probably won't enjoy being in the program, either.)


Plus, interview weekends are a great opportunity to learn new things, both about your field and about yourself. Treat every interview as a chance to grow, personally and professionally, regardless of whether you enjoy the weekend or ultimately end up at that university.


TL;DR: Always assume that it's more than just a formality--but don't let that assumption spoil the weekend.


(P.S.: these same principles will apply later in your career when you're on the job market, so you might as well embrace them now :).)

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