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

Graduate School: The 10 financial questions you should investigate

10 Financial Questions You Should Ask Yourself About Grad School

I like money. I sometimes pull up my banking app just to stare lovingly at my savings account (it’s not robust, but it’s mine). When I chose to attend graduate school, I knew that decision had financial implications, both positive and negative, that I needed to examine. No matter the type of program, you should be asking questions about the financial layers involved in graduate school before choosing when and where to attend. While I am no financial expert myself, I can tell you what questions I would recommend you research, ask about, and think through with every graduate program. Here are my top ten:

#1.  What is the cost of tuition per semester and how many semesters will it take to complete the degree?

#2.  What other costs can be expected in this program, beyond just tuition?

#3.  How do most students in this program pay for tuition and other expenses?

#4.  Are there opportunities for tuition waivers and stipends through assistantships (experiences where you research, teach, or otherwise work for the graduate school)?

#5.  Are there merit scholarships available through the graduate school?

#6.  Are there external fellowships you could apply to and use for graduate school financing? (I recommend utilizing the Lisska Center in answering this question)

#7.  What is the cost of living in the graduate school’s location?

#8.  What is the median income of students fresh out of the program?

#9.  What is the return on investment- will an expected salary post-degree make paying off any loans manageable?

#10.  Is this program flexible with working part-time during the academic year?

Financial aid and admission counselors at graduate programs are a good place to start with these and other questions you may have about the financial investment of attending graduate school. I also highly recommend chatting with Denison’s own Financial Wellness Coach, Samantha Smith. Finances don’t need to drive your graduate school selection process (some investments are worth the money) but they must be a factor considered. The more you know, the more stress you save yourself later!



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

A 4-Step Process for Obtaining Flawless Letters of Recommendation

4 Steps for Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are more powerful in the graduate school admission process then you might expect. Grades, whether good or bad, don’t tell the whole story about you as a person or about your academic potential, which graduate programs understand. That is where letters of recommendation come in. They provide insight into your strengths, add context to support or contradict your academic metrics, and comment on your ability to succeed in your chosen academic or professional endeavor. We want letters of recommendation to support the claims you are making elsewhere in your application, such as in your personal statement and on your resume. Getting such letters, however, takes an intentional approach.

Here is my recommended 4-step process:

Step 1: Be thoughtful about who you select to ask for a letter

Getting an “A” in someone’s class does not mean you should automatically ask them to be a letter of recommendation writer. Similarly, getting a “C” in someone’s class does not automatically mean you shouldn’t ask that person! Most graduate schools will ask for about three letters of recommendation. You want these letters to provide as close to a 360 view of your strengths as possible. As you consider who is appropriate to ask for a letter of recommendation, think about:

        • How well does this person know me? Have my experiences with them been positive?
        • What perspective will they provide for the admission committee that is valuable?
        • Will they say something meaningful about me that is different from others writing letters?

Step 2: Set up a meeting, phone call or email in which you ask for a letter of recommendation

This can feel intimidating but remember that at an institution like Denison, faculty typically want to help and they field requests like this often. For them, this is a normal Tuesday. When you meet with the potential letter writer, let them know why you are asking them in particular to write a letter. Example: “Because we worked together this summer on research, I feel you can speak to my critical thinking skills and resilience better than anyone”. Remember: letters of recommendation are a privilege, not a right. Understand faculty members may choose to say “no” to your request. To avoid general weirdness, provide the individual with the option of a few days to consider the request. Do not force an immediate decision, but know that they may joyfully give an answer on their own. If that person knows they will be too busy or does not feel able to write you a positive letter, you WANT them to say no. A “No” now is much better than a weak or negative letter later that lowers your chance of admittance.

Step 3: Once an individual accepts your request, set guidelines and provide helpful tools

Yay! The letter writer said yes! I know that feels good. Now there are two important steps necessary for making the letter a smashing success:

        • Agree on a time-frame for completion of the letter. Try to allow a minimum of three weeks for letter writing, and make sure to establish the process for submitting the letter and discuss when/how you can follow-up about the letter (again, we are trying to avoid general awkwardness).
        • Provide them with the tools to write a personalized, excellent letter. Generic letters fade into the background of the admissions process and do not help your chances of admission. A great letter provides positive specifics. To supplement their writing, offer your recommenders a copy of your personal statement and resume, and volunteer to have a conversation with them about your goals if you have not already done so.

Step 4: Follow-up and say “Thank you”

I am a Type-A person, so keeping track of deadlines and tasks is my jam. It is not, sadly, everyone’s jam. A few days before the agreed upon deadline for the letter, email the letter writer with a friendly reminder of the approaching date and the submission process. Once you receive confirmation of a submitted letter, send a “Thank you” note or email to each letter writer. Then, go out and eat as many tacos as you can to celebrate (or drink a healthy smoothie if that is your preference, no judgement).


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

Writing an Awesome Personal Statement: 5 strategies for success

5 Strategies to Writing a Successful Personal Statement

Every student I have ever worked with has absolutely loved writing their personal statement for graduate school. Who wouldn’t, right? Ok, honestly, no one does. It is a notoriously painful process that few people relish; trying to encompass who you are and what you want from life in 5,300 characters. But, it doesn’t have to be such a difficult endeavor! Follow these five strategies for success:

#1. Have other people read it

Listen, I get it. I hate people reading my work before I feel like it is shiny and wonderful. But that is not how a personal statement process works. You need to let other people read it, and you should let them read it early in the process to save yourself time and angst. Why obsess over perfecting sentence structure before you get feedback regarding whether the content you have is on track? People to consider for reviewing your statement: a Knowlton Center Career Coach (Pick me! Pick me!), a faculty member, someone from the Lisska Center, a professional in the industry you have an interest in, or a mentor. However, don’t ask more than 2-3 people to help with the review process. Any more than that, and you have too many cooks in the kitchen (as my grandma loved to say, probably to keep me out of said kitchen and its customary cookie jar).

#2. Start early

I mean it! Not just early, I’m talking EARLY early. When working with a student, I typically go through a minimum of four drafts with them. I reviewed 13 drafts for one student I worked with last year (let me tell you, that was a polished final product!). So, this isn’t something where you sit down, pound back a Vitamin Water “Focus” drink and write the night before you submit. I recommend starting your first draft two months in advance of when you hope to apply, at minimum. This also allows you to provide your personal statement draft to letter of recommendation writers if they want it, which enhances the cohesiveness of your application materials.

#3. Focus on a few things, but tell them well

I 100% understand that you, as a complex human being, have so much you want the admission committee to know about you. However, I strongly recommend not telling your audience ten things broadly, and instead telling them 2-3 things powerfully. Always strive for depth over breadth by focusing on key ideas and expanding on those well.

#4. Create a compelling narrative

Show, don’t tell. Give readers a story to connect with. This means providing examples that expand and connect to your goals and values, not just reiterating your résumé. Your goal is not to just list experiences, but to make meaning of them. Discuss what life events brought you to this decision, the experiences that confirmed it for you. Ask yourself:

  • What kinds of qualities are necessary for the profession I wish to pursue?
  • Where have I demonstrated those qualities?

The personal statement is your chance to show why you are a good fit for the profession and the program in an authentic manner. You don’t have to be “unique”, you just have to be real.

#5. Just get started!

You are never going to feel excited to sit down and bust out a personal statement. The hardest step will be writing the first sentence on a blank word document. Stop, breathe, just begin. Here are some strategies to get started:You are never going to feel excited to sit down and bust out a personal statement. The hardest step will be writing the first sentence on a blank word document. Stop, breathe, just begin. Here are some strategies to get started:

Make a Life Timeline: Outline your life in chronological order. Include anything that is important to you, from running a marathon to conducting research with faculty. Put this aside for a few days, then revisit it and ask: “What are the things that most excite me and relate to my pursuit of graduate school?”

Free Write: Sit down and start writing. Don’t worry about if it is “good”, just write.

Here are some questions to free write in response to:

  • Why am I interested in pursuing this program of study?
  • What experiences have confirmed my commitment to pursuing this program?
  • Who has influenced my decision?
  • What challenges have I faced on the way to graduate/professional school?
  • What kind of impact do I want to have on the world with this degree?
  • Why do I believe I will be a good fit for this program & excel in it?


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

Graduate School: Is it right for me?

Is Graduate School Right for Me? Four people you should talk to!

Graduate school is a big decision. A big decision that means a significant investment of time, energy, money, and your ability to binge watch the latest Hulu original series. Before you dive in, it’s best to be intentional about why you are going to graduate school and why you are choosing to go now in particular. This reflective thinking is a daunting task to tackle solo, but if you talk to the right people, you can feel so much better in your decision-making process. Who are these magical individuals that will help you decide “YAY” or NAY” on graduate school? Here are the four major players we suggest…

#1. A Faculty Member You Trust

Faculty see into your soul, we mean it. They have observed you in an academic setting: how you approach intellectual tasks, how to face challenges, and what excites you within the sphere of learning. They also have a deep, can’t-forget-it-if-they-tried memory of what the graduate school experience was like. Faculty can provide advice that combines their knowledge of graduate school processes with their knowledge of you, producing some pretty accurate feedback in most cases. If this faculty member also happens to be in the discipline you aspire to join, all the better! Then they can also provide advice on faculty members at other schools who are solid (and maybe those who are less so) as well as schools with stellar programs (and those that you should stay far, far away from).

#2. A Denison Alumnus

Alumni know things. They too have stress eaten at Curtis while trying to figure life out. They want to help. Find an alumnus who is in the industry you want to join: they will give realistic advice on how a graduate degree will influence your employment ability and the tasks/skills/knowledge most beneficial for the industry. Find an alumnus who went to graduate school for what you want to study: they will let you know the ins and outs of the application process. How do you find such alumni? Let’s count the ways:

       1.  Faculty in your field often remember their students, keep in contact and give out referrals.
       2.  Wisr: a networking platform meant to connect Denison students to Denison alum in a magical synergy.
       3.  The “Find Alumni Tool” on LinkedIn: don’t know about it? Your life is about to change.

Reaching out to alums can be scary…. don’t be afraid to stop by the Knowlton Center for advice on how to do so professionally!

#3. A Knowlton Center Career Coach

You all knew this was coming. Knowlton Center Career Coaches can help you examine your interests, goals, and motivations for graduate school and help with strategy on deciding when and where to attend. Plus, we can help you rock the application process if you decide it is right for you to attend graduate school! Everything from selecting graduate programs, preparing for the GRE, writing your personal statement: we’ve got your back. How to begin? Make an appointment online via Handshake, call (740) 587-6656, or just stop by Burton Morgan 306. We hope to see you soon!

#4. An Important Person in Your Life

People who know you well are always good to talk to. For some, that is a parent, a significant other, the guy down the hall who is a great listener, whatever. Talk out your thought process, ask them to listen for the underlying motivations you have, encourage them to ask you questions, let them help you think through this decision. The more you talk about this, the more aware you will become of your own goals, strengths, and values.

Ok folks, time to buckle down and get talking! Best wishes on the graduate school exploration process!