I have applied to a very well-known institution for PhD in Europe. They evaluate students first and then match them with advisors, so this is not a position with a specific supervisor; an admission committee will decide, not a single supervisor.

I am thinking about an interview that one will have with them. This university has almost the best group in my field and is extremely famous for it. It’s obvious that many students, who are interested in this field, want to study there. I was thinking about the following question in their interview, and how I should answer?

“Why did you decide to apply to this institution/Why in particular this university?”

I am having a hard time in preparing an honest while strong answer to this question. The problem is that, as I said, it’s obvious they’re good and I think they aren’t interested in hearing this from an applicant. At the same time, that’s basically my reason for applying there: since there are great professors there, very talented students, etc. On the other hand, their research is very specific and I believe they do not expect from a candidate to show off with “knowing” their research in “detail”. I know what they are doing, I believe it is important and valuable, and it matches with my interest as my background shows. However, I cannot prove to them by examples or other ways I know in details what they are doing since that’s not right. My question is this:

What is your suggestion to me? Should I start reading their research in detail to be able to make specific examples to support my reasons for applying to their group? I am a bit puzzle about this.

Please if you think more information is needed leave a comment before writing an answer. Thanks a lot!

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    Does this answer your question? PhD application question: "Why do you want to join my research group?"
    – GoodDeeds
    Mar 22 at 23:20
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    @GoodDeeds Thanks. I think not specifically because as I said, they have an admission committee there, and they’re almost the best group in that field in Europe. So my question is kind of more specifc, I think. Mar 22 at 23:24
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    @mandoblurian Focus less on your assessment that they are "almost the best group in Europe". Focus more on why you think so: Their important and impactful contributions to science (prepare some examples). The success of their former PhD students. The high regard your current adviser holds them in. ...
    – Roland
    Mar 23 at 6:45

Don't overthink this. Tell the truth! "Your group is the best!" (... and I want to be with the best)...

Yes, if you can make some incidental remarks about how/why you know that their group is "the best"... and in what field, precisely... that would be good. Not just "gee whiz! Gosh!", but something a bit substantive.

I'd think departments/groups would want to hear from prospects that those prospects appreciate the expertise of the group/department/whatever. Otherwise it's really silly cold-calling. (When I (in the U.S., in math) get cold-call emails from people who're manifestly using a uniform template about "Dear Sir, I've studied and admire your research", with no details pertaining to me (either in the form-of-address or anything else) it's easy to hit "delete".

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    I'd add that the other piece of the puzzle is that group X is the best group in their very specific field. You might want to add why you are particularly interested in that very specific field. Mar 23 at 9:45

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