How to Ace Your Grad School Interview After Taking Time Off

Congratulations—the admissions committee liked your application enough to grant you an interview! That’s fantastic. But don’t tap dance just yet. More than a third of interviewees are not on the final acceptance list. What can you do to make sure you are one of the names on that list?

If you've been out of school for a while, don't worry—the interview process is similar to a job interview. Treat it with the same formality, and you'll be fine. The lesson to keep in mind if you want to successfully navigate any grad school interview is the same one they teach in the Boy Scouts of America: Always be prepared.

Before the interview:

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Do the Legwork

Ryan Hickey
Ryan Hickey

Scour the school’s website so you are familiar with their programs, what they offer, and, most importantly, the image they project. Consider how they like to be perceived and try to embody that mission statement. Are they particularly concerned about rigid testing standards? Diversity? Creativity? Whatever it is, show that you understand that. Your maturity will be your strength—use it to show confidence, experience, and leadership potential, and you will have a leg up on kids who are coming right out of undergrad.

Research campus professors and programs that interest you, and be prepared to talk about them. Find out who are the most dynamic professors on campus, and take a look at their bodies of work. Program-wise, seek out those in which you would most like to participate and look for competitions or research labs on campus that have received national attention. Research notable alumni and ask around about alums you may know. Do you have any connections at all with the school? All this info will be useful in interview.

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Try to Be Psychic

kristian sekulic - E Plus - Getty Images 170036844

Prepare for their questions thoroughly, and even write down some answers to anticipated questions beforehand. Because you are more experienced, the place to focus your discussion will be on leadership. What is your greatest strength? Be prepared to talk about a successful project. Be ready to give examples of your initiative and leadership. How have you taken on responsibility?

Administrators feel that those with leadership skills have a good chance of graduating and doing something important, and therefore will be more likely to shower prestige back on the university.

Also, if you are returning after a hiatus from academics, the big question they’ll want to know is, “Why do you want to go back to school now?” Make sure you are ready to discuss this question from every angle, because it will definitely be asked and will directly affect your interview.

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Be Ready to Discuss Red Flags

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If there have been gaps in your scholarship or work experience, be prepared to discuss this, but don’t initiate any excuses or point them out. If an admissions officer wants to, he or she will ask you about any discrepancies spotted on a transcript or resume. It's okay. This article will help you prepare: How to Explain a Gap in Your Resume When Applying for College

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Make a List of Questions

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Finally, make sure you have a list of meaningful and insightful questions. Practice asking these questions in the mirror or with a friend. They should focus on the program and specific details think an admissions committee member would like to talk about, but they should also be questions that will help you determine if this school is right for you. What is the policy on publications, internships, or job placement, for example?

Questions NOT to ask include:  

  1. “So... did I get in?”
  2. “How much money can I get for financial aid? (That’s a different department, though asking about fellowships or scholarships is okay.)
  3. “How do you think this interview is going?” (With that question, suddenly... not so great).

The Day of the Interview:

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Dress Professionally

Meeting - Digital Vision - Photodisc - GettyImages-dv1080004.jpg
Digital Vision - Photodisc - GettyImages-dv1080004.jpg

Though you are re-entering the halls of academia, this is a formal occasion, and that means appropriate attire is required—a suit or nice dress is definitely the way to go. No jeans, no scraggly beards and hair, no Chuck Taylor's. Clean it up and look your very best.

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Know Who Is Interviewing You

Interview - Neustockimages - E Plus - GettyImages-155068866.jpg
Neustockimages - E Plus - GettyImages-155068866.jpg

Though interview processes vary from school to school, you will likely meet with admissions officers, professors, and current students, so make sure you’ve prepared questions for all three of these categories of people. While it’s fine to be easy-going, don’t be fooled into a false sense of security—the folks interviewing you aren’t your friends or peers just yet, and they are evaluating you. Don’t get an adult-type drink (even if they offer), don’t get too colloquial, and though you might be the same age... don’t hit on them.

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Be Polite

Interview - Ariel Skelley - Blend Images - GettyImages-88752115
Ariel Skelley - Blend Images - GettyImages-88752115

In large part, the interview isn’t about what you know, but how you present yourself. Your application was impressive enough to get you this far, but they want to make sure you are not crazy, that you are really interested, and that you’ll fit in with their culture.

Some thoughts on how to act right in your interview:

  1. Don’t be crazy: Give them every reason to believe in your sanity (this is not the time to bring up your theories on the Knight’s Templar).
  2. Tell them about it: Don’t just act eager and interested, actually say the words: “I am extremely interested.” You may think you’ve gotten this across with your attitude, but maybe you didn’t. Say the words.
  3. Match game: Try to mirror your interviewer in style. If they seem open and gregarious, try to curve toward the relaxed, but if they seem buttoned up, then be formal too.
  4. Listen here: Don’t dominate the conversation by pushing your qualifications. Be sure to listen.
  5. Think before you speak: One of the most important things in all interviews is this: Don’t worry about silence. Take the time to consider your answers (even if this feels awkward, and it will). It’s more important to say what you mean after considering the answer than just blather on about nothing.
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Be Gracious

Writing - Sheer Photo Inc - Photodisc - GettyImages-sb10064231ah-001
Sheer Photo Inc - Photodisc - GettyImages-sb10064231ah-001

After the interview, you must write a thank-you note—it’s an essential part of the interview process. In your note, say what a pleasure it was to meet your interviewers (write down their names so you don’t forget them) and that you are available for any further questions.

Take these ideas to heart, and you will be on the road to acceptance. Again, for returning students, the most important question to answer in interviews is “why now?” If you feel you can really speak to that idea, you’ve got a great shot at acceptance.

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