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Literature Interview Tips and Tricks


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I know that we have a general interview forum, but I feel like there's something to be said for tips in a specific area of study. So, past applicants that got interviews, what did you do? How did it go? What were the main things they tried to learn about you?

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As I bet you all know, very few English programs interview (and Columbia is historically not one of them, Caien).  Sometimes a professor will informally contact a student, but only a couple of programs interview their whole short list.  Off the top of my head, Chicago and Duke Literature (but not English) have interviewed in the past few years, and I think but might be mistaken that Emory and Notre Dame do as well?  It does change, though--Stanford used to and doesn't anymore, Chicago didn't and does now.  I am not sure about Comp Lit, though, since I didn't apply--it is my general impression that interviews are more common in that field, in particular to test language skills. 

However, I did have one interview last season.  Quite honestly: it was nerve-wracking; I don't think that it went very well; I was admitted anyway.  

The interview questions were entirely based on my writing sample and the substantive proposal in my SoP.  If I were to give any advice, it would be to be extremely familiar with the material in these documents, as well as research beyond what was expressly mentioned but would inform your field of proposed interest.  Although that probably sounds ridiculous now when it feels like you could never not know these intimately, in over a month, when you are maybe taking other classes and definitely focusing on other things, putting in the work to really refamiliarize yourself with those documents and the research that you did to generate them will pay off.  The tip that I received (and did not do, but realized too late was a great idea) is to make a couple reminder notes to yourself on post-its and put them around your computer screen (since it will likely be a Skype interview with 2-3 profs).  If you are stressed and start to panic, even one word that sets you off in the right direction can be helpful.  If you are really worried and don't think it would be too much of an imposition, you might ask a recommender who is familiar with your application to compose a few relevant questions, or even try to do this yourself.  Be as relaxed and as confident as you can, know that you can answer questions somewhat cagily to direct the conversation toward surer ground, and don't worry too much-- they are just trying to get to know you and what you want to study as well as they can in 20-30 minutes!  

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 12/21/2016 at 10:26 PM, screamingacrossthesky said:

However, I did have one interview last season.  Quite honestly: it was nerve-wracking; I don't think that it went very well; I was admitted anyway.  

Would you mind elaborating on the interview a bit, @screamingacrossthesky? Was it a Skype interview or in person? Who interviewed you---potential advisors, admission committee, etc? Did they only ask about your potential proposal? 

I'm applying to one of the schools that interviews, and I'm really curious as to what the process is like. 

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Sure.  We received an email to sign up for an interview.  As I mentioned, mine was a Skype interview, although I think some schools still have interview weekends (Notre Dame?); mine was with two professors from the department--I have no idea if they were on the admission committee or not, they didn't mention it either way--although I heard about interviews with three professors and even a whole panel at another school.  They would not have been my potential advisors, but were in tangential fields and were able to ask very knowledgable and informed (read: intimidatingly specific and thoughtful) questions about my area of interest and writing sample, so I do not think it is entirely random, but is instead dictated by some combination of field and schedule.  

The interview, as I wrote, was entirely questions about my writing sample and proposed project/field of interest more generally, except when I had the opportunity to pose questions to them--another part that you could prep in advance.  I don't want to get into too many details on a public forum, and every interview is different based on who is interviewing, but mine, at least, was entirely substantive and quite challenging.  For example, I was asked about specific authors/texts and theorists in my field that weren't expressly mentioned in my writing sample/SoP, but names that I should have known. 

Again, however, I really think that this is so dependent on your specific interviewers and potentially the specific school's format that making any generalizations from one anecdotal piece of evidence isn't very wise.  Just brush up on what you already know, be honest about what you don't--you aren't expected to know everything, they know we are all just embarking on this crazy adventure--and do the best you can.  Like I said, I'm pretty sure that I botched it and it all worked out okay anyway.  Like all aspects of your application, this is just one part of the whole.

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On 12/22/2016 at 1:26 PM, screamingacrossthesky said:

 I am not sure about Comp Lit, though, since I didn't apply--it is my general impression that interviews are more common in that field, in particular to test language skills. 

 

Does this mean that in Comp lit interviews they may ask you to speak in your target languages? Anyone had similar experiences? 

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When programs inform you that they are interviewing you from their "short list," has anyone perhaps heard how large (or should I say short?) the list is in comparison with students they've accepted? For instance, if a program admits 8 students to a Ph.D. program and they're interviewing, how many students may roughly be on the list? Approximately 20 maybe? (In all honesty, I don't expect anyone to know this answer, as it's probably something the DGS knows.)

For those who have experience with interviewing, how long after the interview do people often hear back from the programs? 

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10 hours ago, TeaOverCoffee said:

When programs inform you that they are interviewing you from their "short list," has anyone perhaps heard how large (or should I say short?) the list is in comparison with students they've accepted? For instance, if a program admits 8 students to a Ph.D. program and they're interviewing, how many students may roughly be on the list? Approximately 20 maybe? (In all honesty, I don't expect anyone to know this answer, as it's probably something the DGS knows.)

I guess you've read it already but a current Duke literature phd student said that what you said is about correct. It's on 'Duke English vs Literature' thread. 

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