The Graduate School Interview: Be prepared for these 10 questions

Be ready to be asked these 10 questions during your grad school interview

Receiving an interview invitation for graduate school can be one of the most exciting and terrifying events in your undergraduate experience. Positive: you are one step closer to an acceptance. Negative: you now must arrange travel and get hyped up to go talk to some really intelligent people. Or maybe that is just a negative for me, due to my very introverted heart! Graduate school interviews are not always super formal, but you still need to prepare in advance to give a positive first impression. Here are ten questions to consider in advance:

#1. Tell me about yourself.

Dreaded, I know. But this question is actually a gift. It is wide open, allowing you to set the tone of the interview by sharing the most relevant and interesting information about yourself. Here is my easy formula for answering this question flawlessly, every time: Present + Past + Future. The goal is to say 2-3 things about each of these for a total answer lasting about 2-minutes, customized to the audience you are speaking to. Think of this question as the teaser trailer before the movie: it’s short and it highlights the best stuff.

Bare-bones example for a PhD interview: “I am currently a Senior at Denison University, a small liberal arts institution in Ohio. I am studying biochemistry and am particularly interested in how *insert science jargon*. I am very involved in my academic department, including servicing as a TA for the past 3 years in a variety of courses. My first exposure to research was through *insert short description*. Since then I have deepened my engagement and am conducting senior research around *again, science stuff*. That really is what brings me here today. I know I want to study *things*, and I am so excited by the idea of *important trait* available at this institution.”

#2. Why are you interested in this institution?

This question is meant to examine if you are diligent, and therefore have conducted your research in advance and been thoughtful in selecting institutions. It also is a value-based question, trying to see what is important to you and how it aligns with this particular school. In answering this question, stick to the rule of three: only mention three reasons you are interested. This allows you to list them, tell more about why those factors resonate with you, your goals, your strengths. Any more than three and it is harder for the listener to grasp and it quickly begins to sound like a list being recited. Things to consider mentioning: curriculum, mission of the program/institution, experiential opportunities, faculty (don’t ever mention just one, mention 2 or more in your scope). Things not as important to mention in this case: location (unless it’s related to the research/experiences you are most excited about), prestige of the institution, and admission requirements (hey, no GRE required!).

#3. Why are you interested in this particular degree?

No right or wrong answer here, if it is thoughtful and authentic. Just be yourself and all that.

#4. What will you bring to our program? Why should we select you?

Your response could be a combination of strengths and skills, but with a focus on fit with this institution. Before your interview, ask yourself: what is this graduate program looking for? What are they trying to achieve? You can gain good insight into these questions by reviewing mission statements and looking at student outcomes post-graduation. Then consider: how would I be positioned to further this school’s interests, goals, and mission? Try to remember this is an interview, but they are trying to see if this is a mutually beneficial opportunity for you AND them.

#5. Tell me about your past research/internship experiences.

The goal here is to give them the highlights, but to not get lost in the details. Remember- they can ask follow-up questions. An answer about 2-minutes long that discusses what you were trying to accomplish, what you did to contribute, and what you learned/what happened is a great start.

#6. What are your plans if you are not accepted into graduate school?

Consider: why are you applying in the first place? Whatever is motivating you, think about other ways you could channel that motivation in this worse case scenario. If you are applying to a PhD program because you want to research and teach at a college, you might discuss how you would take a year or two to work as a Research Assistant or in an educational capacity. It is ok to say that you would likely reapply. Things to avoid: not having a clear plan or saying something totally opposite of what you are applying for (if you apply for a master’s in museum studies but say you would go into financial consulting if this doesn’t work out, they will question your self-awareness and motivation).

#7. Describe your greatest accomplishment.

This is another value-based question. What is most important to you? It is also a chance for you to humble-brag, and you should take it. This is the time to talk about presenting that research poster in Norway, or the time you help your faculty member fix the methodology of a complex experiment, or when you gave a flawless musical performance of a notoriously complex piece.

#8. Tell me about a time you failed.

This is an example of a behavioral question, which is trying to predict your future behaviors based upon your past behavior. What you pick for this one should be authentic, but does not have to be your deepest darkest, most personal failure. No need to say, “I failed me girlfriend by not picking up pizza when she specifically asked” or “I feel like I should have spent more time with my little brother before college”. Instead, select something that was challenging (like when you were failing English), briefly describe the situation, and then talk about what you learned about yourself or how to approach things differently in the future. Always end with a positive learning experience. My favorite formula for answering behavioral questions:

S:  situation (the context of the story)
T:  task (what you were trying to do)
A:  action (what did you do in attempting that task)
R:  result (what happened)
T:  tie it back (make bigger meaning of this story: what you learned, how it changed you)

#9. How would your professors describe you?

Again, the rule of three: pick three traits. Think about your biggest strengths: you are a learner, you are intellectually curious, you are detail-oriented, a critical thinker, whatever. Then give a quick example of why a professor would pick that trait for each one to support it.

#10. What questions do you have for us?

You must have questions. Seriously, do it. The more, the merrier. You don’t only want to plan 2-3 questions and then 2 of them get answered during your interview. Good questions are either tactical based on your research (I see that there will be a new research wing added in 2020. How can I anticipate that impacting this program?) or opinion questions that help you understand the culture and values of the school (In your program, what do you find are the traits or skills that successfully students possess?). The more conversational you can be, the better.

Now, it is likely that you will be asked questions beyond this list in your graduate school interview. But: if you think critically about your goals, research the program extensively, design questions to ask them, and consider the examples/stories you hope to tell, you will be in great shape regardless! Go get ‘em, tiger.

Authored by Sara Stasko, Associate Director for Graduate School & Pre-Health Advising