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Obscure POI phone calls


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In early January, long before any acceptances went out, a POI from one of the interdisciplinary humanities programs that I applied to called me to chat. He mentioned that my application was "very compelling," and wanted to know if I was still seriously interested in the program, if I had received any acceptances from other programs yet, and if I had any questions about the program "so as to be able to better recruit me." Sounds like a positive phone call. I mentioned that I was still certainly interested, hadn't heard back from other programs yet, and asked a couple of stupid-but-not-trivial rehearsed questions about the structure of the department. POI ended call saying "Well keep in touch, and I'll let you know if there are any updates to your application."

Six rejections later, I'm still interested in the program. I asked the chair of the MA program I graduated from if these phone calls are typical and how I should follow up, and he mentioned that they are very typical, might be used for a number of purposes, and that it's completely unnecessary to follow up. This week two acceptances were posted on the survey page. Historically, the program sends out personalized acceptance emails from POIs over the course of several days.

Is anyone familiar with phone calls of this nature? Out of curiosity, what could I have possibly said to make myself a more or less desirable applicant? Should I send a brief e-mail of continued interest? 

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Hi phagocytosis.  I'm going to guess by your handle name that you're an applicant in the natural or applied sciences, so what I have to say may not apply.  However, I had a phone call with a POI almost exactly like the one you describe:  POI contacts me to set up a phone call; during the phone call, POI says that my application is impressive, even though admission decisions are not finalized yet; POI asks if I have any offers on hand and whether I'm still interested in their program; POI says a number of things seemingly indicating that the school wants me to attend their program (for example, telling me that faculty members X, Y, and Z would be great dissertation advisors considering my research interests and that the school has a lot of great resources catering to those interests); I ask a few rehearsed questions, and the call ends.  This call was with the University of Pennsylvania political science department.


According to the POI, the purpose behind the call was essentially to ask candidates about the other schools they applied to, and if they already have offers on hand  (The POI, of course, did not use these exact words.)  This, to me, indicated that Penn is calling to screen out what they see as the more competitive candidates who, if admitted to Penn, would simply decline the offer and jump ship to a higher-ranked school:  Penn's political science department has a USNWR ranking of 28, whereas some Ivies with similar brand-name values are ranked in the top 5 to 10.  My observation was borne out, albeit anecdotally, by some of the other candidates who post to the political science PhD applicants' forums:  they got the same calls from Penn, had impressive numbers, and eventually ended up with what I consider to be better offers.  However, my hypothesis is not confirmed because Penn's political science department has not yet issued any offers, as far as I know.


Finally getting to your questions:  in my opinion,


1) I don't think there's much you could have said to make them view your application more or less favorably, unless you did something to indicate that you are not at all interested in going there if you were to be admitted (for example, by indicating that you don't really know anything about the program or the school).  If you did do something to indicate a lack of interest, they might think that you have better offers on hand but aren't telling them.


2) I don't think you should send the e-mail of continued interest.  In my opinion, it is inadvisable to do something that a person centrally involved in admissions has explicitly told you is unnecessary.  (In this case, I think "unnecessary" means "don't do it," like how they tell political science applicants not to e-mail their POIs before the admission decisions are made.)  Moreover, I think that sending a statement of continued interest might lead the school to think that you are desperate, because you already indicated to the Chair of the MA program that you are interested in the program.  If my hypothesis about Penn holds in your case, the school might no longer consider you as a competitive candidate once you do something that indicates that you don't have better offers.


Incidentally, I'd be very interested to hear others' opinion on this issue as well.


Edited by minoxum
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Thanks for the detailed response. Interestingly, the program is a interdisciplinary PhD that attracts mostly students coming from a political science background, so perhaps these phone calls are more common in that discipline. I was caught off guard by the "where else did you apply" question and spontaneously listed programs that were all more competitive than the program in question, though I doubt that would have led the POI to assume that I'd be accepted into any of those programs. I can't help but think that my rehearsed questions evidenced a lack of familiarity with the program, but I'll always find something to be paranoid about under these circumstances.

I agree with the not wanting to "seem desperate" bit. To clarify, I asked an LOR-writer from the MA program that I've already graduated from (who has served on phd adcoms for decades) whether it would be appropriate to send a follow up email. He's not associated with the program that I'm applying to. And he's known to give idiosyncratic advice.



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