The Grad School Interview: What to expect, what questions to ask, and more
If you recently applied to graduate school, you may have been invited to come to campus for an interview with an admissions officer. (Not all programs require interviews as part of the graduate admission process, so don’t worry if this hasn’t happened to you.) Interviews can be great ways to learn more about the graduate program and sell your own strengths, so you may want to accept the invitation as a prospective student. But before you do, keep in mind that you’ll likely need to pay your own way. Depending on the location of the school how far away the school is, you may spend a big chunk of change on plane tickets, meals, and other expenses.
If you do move forward in the interview process after submitting your online college application, be sure to prepare thoroughly. Aim to impress your interviewer – but also commit to getting the answers you need to make a good decision. After all, interviews are two-way streets. As a prospective student, you’re being interviewed, so you want to put your best foot forward … but you’re also interviewing, trying to learn whether the grad program is right for you academically, financially, socially, and so on.
"You’ll likely be in the program for several years, so you need to make sure that you want to be on that campus and in that city, spending time with those particular people,” says Suzanne Chod, associate professor of political science at North Central College, “If you loved your undergraduate experience, try to remember how you felt when you made your first campus visit. Do you have a similar feeling with the graduate program?”
The process of a typical grad school interview
Now that you have learned the necessary steps for how to apply to grad school, next up is how to prepare for the interview process. There are lots of types of grad school interviews. You might meet with a dean, department chair, or admissions committee member one-on-one and then be on your merry way … or you might sit with several people who pepper you with questions for an hour or more (this is called a panel interview). Maybe you’ll spend a full day on campus, talking with professors and students and touring facilities. You might even spend a weekend with other applicants, attending informational sessions, interviewing with members of your department, and getting to know the area.
How can you know what to expect? Ask! It’s as simple as that … but many applicants don’t take this simple step of asking beneficial questions such as “what is grad school like?” and “how will I know which program is the right fit for me?”
How to prepare for a grad school interview
Once you’ve learned what kind of interview to expect, the prep process is similar to that of a job interview.
- Hit the books. You’ve probably already learned a lot about the school, but refresh your memory by reviewing its website and reading any notes or printed materials you have on hand. If you’ll be getting a campus tour or checking out specific labs or other facilities, learn what you can online, then jot down any remaining questions.
Also read up on the people who will be interviewing you. If you’ll be speaking with a professor, for instance, identify their areas of expertise. “If there’s a faculty member that you’d like to work with, review their CV and any recent research they’ve done,” says Chod. “Before you meet with them, consider how you could contribute to their work.”
- Brush up on your interview skills. North Central College’s Career Development office conducts mock interviews to help students get more comfortable answering and asking questions (we’ll get into specific questions below). Find out if the college where you earned your bachelor's degree can help set up a mock interview where you can practice asking specific grad school interview questions, too.
Career services offices can also help you fine-tune your body language in terms of making eye contact, sitting up straight, and smiling. Remember that these skills will be important during all of your interactions on campus – the university may scrutinize how you behave not just during interviews but also when you’re chatting casually with students, administrative assistants, even your restaurant server. Asking the right grad school interview questions is crucial, as is your body language when engaging in conversation with various facets of the organization.
- Dress for success. Most experts advise wearing a suit for interviews. If you don’t own one and can’t afford to buy one right now, look around for discount professional attire sites. You may also turn to your undergraduate college – North Central offers a “career closet” event where students can browse and try on professional clothes donated by alumni, faculty, staff, and other friends of the college. Students can keep the outfit that works best for them.
If your hair is long, pull it back so you’re not tempted to play with it. And depending on the field you’re pursuing, consider whether you should remove body piercings or cover tattoos during the graduate school interview.
- Come equipped. Bring a pen and notepad so you can take notes during the interview or immediately afterward. Also print out several copies of your resume or CV, even if you’ve already sent them electronically. Ask for each interviewer’s business card so that you’re sure to have the correct spelling of their name and an accurate email or mailing address for your follow-up thank-you note.
- Plan ahead. Get plenty of sleep the night before your meeting. And of course, make sure you know how to get to the interview, where to park, and so on.
Questions to ask grad school … and questions to answer
Devote some time to considering the answers to questions you’re likely to be asked, as well as crafting questions of your own to ask on the interview day.
Think about what kinds of details you want to include in your descriptions of yourself and your academic experience. Consider this common question: Why are you applying to this program? “It’s not enough to say that you’re applying because you have a family member who works in the profession or because you want to ‘help people,’” notes Billie Streufert in USA Today. “Take some time to reflect so you can address the specific aspects that appeal to you compared to other occupations. Reread your personal statement. Find inspiration by considering your life experiences, hobbies, or role models.”
Peterson's notes that it can also be helpful to consider instances when “you were under pressure to perform, had to really work to get the grade or were faced with an ethical dilemma...Giving a specific example is better than a philosophical ‘what if’ answer because it shows that you were actually able to implement the solution or idea you are proposing.”
Keep in mind that interviewers aren’t just looking for facts about your achievements or extracurricular activities; they also want to find out whether you would mesh well with the culture of the institution. “That’s why it’s so important to be true to yourself,” says North Central’s Chod. “If you pretend to be someone you’re not, then you won't find a school that’s a good fit for you or for them.”
David Gray, chair of the accounting and finance department at North Central, agrees. When he talks to prospective students about graduate study in the college’s master’s program in financial management, he says, “A lot of them are worried because they didn't major in accounting as an undergrad. But that doesn't bother me. I’m looking for people who are genuinely curious. Maybe they majored in philosophy or poli sci, but they’re really interested in financial markets. If they have good critical thinking and writing skills, that’s what I like to see.”
So what questions will your interviewer ask? Search online and you'll find hundreds of possibilities, but here are some perennial favorites:
- Tell me about yourself. What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
- Why are you pursuing graduate education and an advanced degree? Why are you applying to our program in particular?
- What kinds of research are you most interested in? Describe a research project that you’ve worked on.
- What are your career goals?
- What has been your proudest accomplishment?
- As an undergrad, what were your favorite courses? Your least favorite? Why?
And what should you ask? Craft questions specific to the interviewer (you could inquire about a faculty member’s latest research project, or ask current graduate students why they chose this program, for instance). Avoid asking questions that a brochure or website could answer; you’ll appear to have skipped your homework. You want to impress your interviewers with your thoughtfulness ... but you also need to get information that will be genuinely useful to your decision-making process.
A few ideas of questions to ask grad school interviewers:
- What are alumni doing six months after graduation? Where are they working?
- What kinds of financial aid are available to graduate students?
- What work would I be able to do as a research assistant (RA)? In teaching assistantships (TA)?
- How soon could I start working as an RA or TA?
- What are a few things that tend to surprise new students about this program?
- What type of person is most successful in this program?
Also be sure to include any specific questions that came up in your research about the facilities, faculty, and so on.
The day of the interview: You got this!
Leave yourself plenty of extra time to get to the interview location, since you may not be able to predict delays due to road construction or closed parking lots. Then try to relax and be yourself. If you feel tense, don’t worry; that’s perfectly natural, and you’ll probably find yourself settling down as you get into the interview.
When the interview is over, shake hands with everyone in the room and thank them for their time and perspective. That evening or the next day, send a thank you note – either by email or the old-fashioned, handwritten, snail mail kind. Reference something from your conversation so that your letter feels personal and sincere, rather than a generic note you’re sending everyone.
Congratulations! You’ve taken one more step along your career path. Good luck!
An award-winning writer, Lauren Ford runs her own communications firm, which serves a variety of not-for-profit organizations across the United States. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and her master’s from the University of Chicago.