This hasn’t been a thing I’ve explicitly discussed yet, but this past fall I applied for PhD programs in economics for the second time. My first attempt, two years ago as a senior in college, wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. I’ve spent the last couple years bolstering my profile and figuring out precisely what I wanted to do, and I’ve had much better success this time around. Now, I have just a few weeks to figure out where I want to spend the next five years of my life.

In a few hours I’ll board a plane to my first open house/visit day. My attempt to get any amount of sleep tonight has been thwarted, so tomorrow may be a long day.

For those not familiar with the routine, every school holds a visit day for admitted students they’d like to woo into their program. Students are flown in from across the world, shown around the department, and wined/dined to various extents. To be honest, I kind of see the whole visit-day routine as kind of an unfortunate prisoner’s dilemma.

I’d imagine that most students make their final matriculation decision based mainly on factors like prestige and location of the institution, as well as the observable strengths of the department. All of these are clear to see from a few web searches; no one comes to a visit day uninformed about the school’s research strengths or US News ranking.

What then, is the use of a visit? Students take a single visit invite as a signal of (i) the department’s care for incoming students, and (ii) the size of the department’s wallet. But in my understanding and experience (I went to two flyouts last time around), this signal is mostly uniform across schools, and thus when all other schools offer flyouts, it is meaningless. Students like to be wined and dined however, so all attend. It’s clear that in the current equilibrium, if one school deviates by not offering admitted students a visit day, public perception would be that the program is weak in both (i) and (ii) above. So, we are stuck in an equilibrium in which schools dump thousands of dollars into an uninformative obligation.

Feel free to take or leave that analysis, as it’s 3 AM and I’m kind of rambling. I’m actually fairly certain that many people more sensitive to personal fit than I am, so my generalization may not be wholly true.