It's that time of year again: the applications have been reviewed and a lucky few have been invited to attend interview weekends at their prospective grad schools. This is a chance for both the faculty and the potential students to evaluate each other and get a feel for the "fit" between student and program. And while it's important for you, the student, to learn about the program and professors during your visit, you should not forget that this is an interview, and to treat it as such.
As a grad student, I went to several interviews before deciding to come to Brown. Now, for the past several years, I've been in the position of watching prospective students interview with my department. I've seen some pretty egregious interview mistakes that could easily be avoided. So I have decided to share some tips here on how not to screw up your grad school interviews.
Don't talk about how another school is your top choice. Even if the school at which you're interviewing isn't your number one choice, don't tell them that. A graduate program can only admit a certain number of students. If they think you're going to decline an offer of acceptance in favor of another school, that's an easy reason to eliminate you from their final list of accepted students.
Don't be late to an appointment. If you are late, apologize. Interview days can be marathons of meetings with different professors, many of whom will not be keeping an eye on the time for you. If you can politely remind someone that you have to meet with your next appointment and leave, do so. If Professor X keeps you late, apologize and explain the situation when you meet with Professor Y. They know how it works, but you should demonstrate that you realize how valuable their time is.
Have questions ready, and ask them. I have seen far too many prospective students, when asked if they have any questions for their interviewer, simply say, "No" and then just sit there. This sends the message that you are uninterested in the program and the research that goes on there. Take charge! Ask questions. Show them that you care about this program and that you are an intellectually curious person. Plus, if you ask a professor about his or her research, he or she will likely talk for the next twenty minutes straight, giving you some time to collect your thoughts and think of more interesting things to say.
Research the department to which you are applying and the professors who are interviewing you. All this requires is looking at the university's Web site. See what the program requires of graduate students so you get a general idea about the department. When you know which professors will be interviewing you, look them up. See what they teach, what their area of research is and what their most recent publications have been about. It is a bad idea to appear unaware of or uninterested in the research of someone in the department to which you are applying. By making a small effort, you show that you are invested in the program and will be an involved member of the department. Looking over your interviewers' Web sites is also a great way to come up with incisive questions about their work, demonstrating both that you did your background research and that you are capable of critical thinking.
Don't get sloppy with the current grad students. It is likely that the current students in the program to which you are applying will take you out. Even though you have had a very long day, and are probably exhausted and maybe still nervous, don't drink too much. Professors ask the current students what they think of the visiting prospectives. If, when your name is mentioned, the overwhelming response is, "Oh, you mean that guy who threw up in the bushes and then got into an argument with a stop sign?" chances are no one will be very impressed. Use your time with the current students to ask them questions about the department, the social scene, the city — not to get wasted.
That's my humble advice, taken from experience. Getting invited to interview at a grad school is a great opportunity. If your application was strong enough to get to that point, it would be a shame to squelch your chances by making a silly, preventable mistake. The takeaway message here is be aware of how you are presenting yourself and make an effort to show that you think the interview is important. Showing enthusiasm, interest and respect at an interview will always make a good impression.
Mary Bates GS is a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology department. She can be reached at email@example.com.