What to Expect During a Grad School Interview

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Knowing what to expect during a grad school interview is key to answering the questions you're asked. In some competitive fields, as much as three-fourths of applicants who are interviewed are rejected. The interview is your opportunity to show the admissions committee that you're a person beyond the test scores, grades, and portfolios.

Who Are You?

Interviewers often begin by asking applicants about themselves to put them at ease and for the interviewers to get a sense of who the applicants are as individuals. Admissions officers and faculty want to know what motivates you as a student and how your personal interests relate to your goals as a graduate student. Some common questions are:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What do you believe your greatest challenge will be if you are accepted into this program?
  • How would your professors describe you?
  • Describe your greatest accomplishment.
  • Why should we take you and not someone else?
  • Are you motivated? Explain and provide examples.
  • What would you change about yourself and why?
  • If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
  • What do you do in your spare time?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What volunteer experiences do you have?
  • What contribution have you made to your department or school?
  • What was the last movie that you saw?
  • What was the last book that you read?

What Are Your Professional Goals?

Personal questions often segue into ones about your professional plans and interests. These aren't limited to the graduate program to which you're applying. Be prepared to talk about what you may do if you aren't admitted to grad school as well as what you plan to do upon graduation. Interviewers ask these questions to get a sense of how much thought you put into your plans.

  • If you're not accepted into graduate school, what are your plans?
  • Why did you choose this career?
  • How will you be able to make a contribution to this field?
  • What are your career goals? How will this program help you achieve your goals?
  • How do you intend to finance your education?
  • What do you plan to specialize in?

Describe Your Academic Experiences

Academic institutions want to make sure they're recruiting students who will become positive members of the departmental community and will develop healthy faculty relationships. Your experience as an undergraduate and in other programs may indicate how good a fit the program is for you.

  • In college, what courses did you enjoy the most? The least? Why?
  • Describe any research project you've worked on. What was the purpose of the project, and what was your role in the project?
  • In what ways have your previous experiences prepared you for graduate study in our program?
  • Tell me about your experience in this field. What was challenging? What was your contribution?
  • What skills do you bring to the program? How will you help your mentor in his or her research?
  • Why did you choose to apply to our program?
  • What do you know about our program, and how does it fit with your goals?
  • What other schools are you considering? Why?
  • What don't you like about your college?
  • Tell me about a professor who you don't like. Why?

Problem Solving and Leadership

Grad school can be a stressful time for even the most successful students. There will be times when you will be pushed to your intellectual limits and must find your own way forward. Interview questions about your leadership skills and problem-solving exercises are a way for admissions advisers and faculty to understand how you function by yourself and in a group during demanding times.

  • Explain a situation in which you had a conflict and how you resolved it. What would you do differently? Why?
  • What can be determined about an applicant at an interview?
  • Define success.
  • How well do you handle stress?
  • Discuss a situation in which you showed leadership ability.
  • Do you think one person can make the world a better place? Why or why not?
  • How will you make the world a better place?
  • Explain an ethical dilemma that you faced and how you dealt with it.

Tips for a Winning Grad School Interview

Experts and academic admissions officers offer these hints for having a positive grad school interview. 

  • Practice your answers: Now that you know some of the questions to expect, think about how you'd respond. Write down your thoughts to organize them, but don't memorize them or you could come off as stiff during the interview.
  • Think of relevant personal stories: These stories demonstrate how your life experiences have led you to grad school.
  • Don't forget about funding: Higher education is very expensive, and many graduate programs offer their students teaching assistantships or grants to help them defer costs.
  • Interview your interviewers: You want to make sure you'll be studying with faculty who share your academic goals and intellectual interests.
  • Be yourself: You're committing yourself to a year or more of intense academic study, and grad school isn't cheap. If you can't honestly tell your interviewers why you want to be admitted to their program, that may be a sign that that program wouldn't be a good fit.

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