What to Expect During a Grad School Interview

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Knowing what to expect during a grad school interview is key to effectively answering the questions you're asked. Graduate school acceptance rates in 2017 were approximately 22% for doctoral programs and 50% for master's degree programs, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. The interview is your opportunity to show the admissions committee the person you are beyond test scores, grades, and portfolios.

Describe Yourself

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 choose you over another candidate?
  • 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 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?

Describe 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 have 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 bringing in students who will become positive members of the departmental community and will develop healthy faculty relationships. Your experience as an undergraduate 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 contribute to your mentor's research?
  • Why did you choose to apply to our program?
  • What do you know about our program, and how does it align with your goals?
  • What other schools are you considering? Why?
  • If you could change one thing about your undergraduate college, what would it be?
  • Tell me about a professor who you don't like. Why?

Describe Your Problem Solving and Leadership Skills

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 abilities 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 do you believe 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 might come across 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. Think of questions that you'd like to ask about the culture of the program and how students and faculty interact.
  • 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.

    Sources

    • "2017 CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees."
    • Murray, Gregg R. "7 Key Questions to Ask During Your Grad School Interview." PsychologyToday.com. 18 Dec. 2014.
    • Peterson's blog staff. "Graduate Admission: Tips for a Great Interview." Petersons.com. 29 Nov. 2017.
    • Struefert, Billie. "How to Ace Your Grad School Interview." USAToday.com. 20 Feb. 2015.