Demystifying Graduate School Visits

Many Princeton students dream of attending graduate school, but don’t actually know much about the process, or what graduate school visits are like. Unlike school visits for prospective undergraduates, graduate school visits typically occur after you’ve applied but before you’ve been accepted into a graduate school program. Interviews and visits for graduate school happen simultaneously: if a school is interested in accepting you, you’ll be invited to a “prospective student weekend” where you’ll visit the campus while also interviewing for the program. I’ve spent a good portion of this semester visiting graduate schools around the country and have developed a list of helpful things to know before embarking on your first graduate school visit!

Graduate school visits typically happen after you've applied to but before you've been accepted to a program.
Graduate school visits typically happen after you’ve applied to but before you’ve been accepted to a program.

Prior To The Visit:

Logistics: After applying to many psychology graduate programs and receiving invitations to their prospective student weekends, I immediately began to coordinate the logistics of my visit with the departments. Would they pay for my flight to and from the school? If not, was there a way for me to get reimbursed? Where would I stay during my visit? The answers to these questions and many others typically vary from school to school, but most of the programs I visited reimbursed me for my travel expenses and arranged for me to stay with a graduate student or at a hotel for the weekend. Once all of those details are squared away, you can move on to the next part of preparation: packing.

Packing: One of the biggest challenges I faced while trying to pack for graduate school visits was figuring out how many business casual and plain casual outfits to bring. Typically, the university will send you an itinerary of your weekend events about a week prior to your visit so that you can pack accordingly. It’s also helpful to bring at least two pairs of shoes: one to match your business casual outfit (but are still comfortable to spend all day walking around in, such as black flats or oxfords) and one to wear with your casual attire (like nice boots). Weather is also something to pay attention to, so make sure you take into consideration the time of year that you’ll be visiting and check the forecast for the weekend right before you leave. Having the appropriate attire (including coats) can have a huge effect on how much you enjoy your visit!

Preparation: Preparation is essential for your sanity during graduate school visits, especially when you have many visits back to back. In order to prepare, it’s a good idea to develop a “spiel” for how you would like to describe your research experiences and research interests to the graduate students and faculty members that you will be meeting with. If you know who you’ll be interviewing with in advance, it’s also a great idea to look them up beforehand and read about their research.

During The Visit:

Traveling: I downloaded the NJ Transit app to make sure I stayed up to date with train schedules for the day of my visit. I also tried to arrive to the airport around 2 hours before my flight; while it may sound excessive, it was extremely advantageous in the cases where my original flight was delayed. Unfortunately, many schools don’t cover or reimburse food purchases during travel, so it’s also important to ensure you either save some money to eat at the airport or eat before leaving school. In addition, it’s important to have a clear understanding of how you will be getting from the airport to the school’s campus. In some cases, a graduate student will pick you up, but in other’s school will arrange a cab for you or expect you to get one yourself and will reimburse you afterwards.

The NJ Transit app is extremely helpful for figuring out train schedules.

Attending Events: As previously mentioned, most departments arrange an assortment of events for you to attend during the interview weekend. Here is a breakdown of some of the most common interview weekend events, along with some pointers for each one:

Graduate Student Dinner/Reception: This is typically the first event you will attend, and it is a great time to meet current graduate students as well as other prospective students. The dress code is usually casual. Be prepared to repeat the same spiel to many people telling them where you’re from and what type of research you’re interested in.

Interview Day: This is the day you’ve been waiting for! Many programs provide breakfast for prospective students on this day, as well as give various talks throughout the day about the program and faculty research. The dress code is generally business casual, with many people wearing a nice sweater or blazer and slacks. In addition to acing the interviews and being engaged during the presentations, however, it can also be helpful to get to know the administrative personnel of the department. Not only could they put in a good word about you to the faculty, but they can also give you a sense of what the department is like!

Faculty dinner parties: Many departments make arrangements for prospective students to visit the house of a faculty member for a departmental dinner party. This, by far, has been one of my favorite parts of my graduate school visits. These events, which are also typically business causal, allow you to see how close-knit a department really is.

Sightseeing: Many schools will also include visits to their cities most famous or interesting landmarks; while I was in Chicago, for example, we visited the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a great idea to learn as much as you can about the city the school is in to figure out if you could see yourself living there long-term. The dress code for these events is typically casual.

After The Visit:

Thank you letters: After your visit, it’s important to thank your potential advisers for meeting with you and remind them of the great conversation that the two of you had.

Comparing Programs: Once your visit is over, it’s important to write down what you learned about the program so that you can compare it to the other programs you visit. Be sure to include all of the variables that could influence your final decision, like stipend amount and location desirability.

It may be helpful to create an excel spreadsheet to compare schools!
It may be helpful to create an excel spreadsheet to compare schools!

My experience attending graduate school visits has been nothing short of fantastic, and I’m excited to announce that I’ve officially accepted an offer of admission to the Psychology PhD program at the University of Chicago! Hopefully this blog post will be helpful to you as you attempt to discover which school is right for you as well 🙂

— Jalisha Braxton, Natural Sciences Correspondent