There’s one key element that can help separate your grad school interview from the pack: preparation.
Specifically, preparing for the types of grad school interview questions that might be asked. You may not be able to access their exact list, but you can still pinpoint the types of things they’re likely to ask you about, or practice with interview prep questions. By thinking about these in advance, you could ensure that you have solid answers at the ready. This may help you appear—and feel—more poised and confident as a result.
Here are 10 interview questions commonly asked in grad school interviews
- Why do you want to go here, instead of other schools?
- What are your research interests?
- How will you contribute to our program?
- What are your short-term and long-term career goals?
- What do you see as the major trends in your field of study?
- Tell me about you achieved a significant accomplishment?
- Lists some of your strengths and weaknesses.
- Tell me about your hobbies and interests.
- Where else have you applied?
- What questions do you have for me?
We’ve also included a few examples and tips. Review these, then start creating answers of your own.
Why do you want to go here, instead of other schools?
Of all the potential grad school interview questions, this one might be the most common. It has a few key elements you could consider:
- What you like best about that program and university
- Your familiarity with that school (e.g. showing that you’ve done your research)
- How, specifically, that program could support your goals and interests
Think about each of these factors when putting together your response. That will help ensure that you’re both focused and sufficiently detailed. After all, answering thoroughly and thoughtfully could help to show your school how much you care, and how much effort you’ve put into your application. Staying focused on these points also means you’ll be less likely to go off on unrelated tangents. Instead, you could sound professional and concise.
Finally, make sure your answers are not only honest, but also constructive. Telling a school you want to attend only because they’re the cheapest option might be the truth, but it’s not a truth that’s likely to help your cause. Try and stick to answers that will show your dedication and enthusiasm, without going overboard and sucking up.
“I like (School X) because of its 1:3 faculty to student ratio. This is important to me because it suggests I’ll get a lot of mentorship. Also, Billy Bob Corndog’s research focus on venomous animals and poisonous plants of the Rocky Mountains aligns very strongly with my interests. It would be great to work closely with him. I’ve also heard great things about the student culture and fieldwork opportunities from Elvira Discovampire, who is a recent graduate.”
What are your research interests?
This question could especially be relevant if you’re applying to a more academic or research-focused graduate program, as opposed to one that looks toward a certain career. It’s important to have a detailed answer to this question. That should include a few key elements:
- Your specific topic (This should be fairly narrow! Your research area isn’t the whole field of biology; rather, it’s poisonous plants and animals in the Rocky Mountains.)
- Your background and experience with that topic (This includes research you’ve already done, prior coursework, work experience, and similar accomplishments.)
- Why you’re interested in that topic (Did a mentor inspire you? Or did you have a personal experience that led you to this topic? Make it personal!)
Of course, all of this could vary, depending on what you’re studying, and why you want to study it at that particular school. Feel free to edit those above points if you need to!
“My work is in the area of venomous animals and poisonous plants of the Rocky Mountain region. I first became interested in this topic when I got lost up near the Continental Divide and ate raw elderberries for sustenance. This caused some gastrointestinal issues, but piqued my interest. In college I majored in Biology, and took coursework in Spiders of the Southwest, Rattlesnakes of the Rockies, and Berries You Shouldn’t Eat. I also had a research assistant position with Professor Hiss and together we published our findings as an article called “Beware the Brown Recluse”, which was published in 2005 in the American Journal of Things to Avoid.
How will you contribute to our program?
When you’re applying to graduate school, what that school could do for you is an important factor. But the school is also looking for students who could bring something to the table! In many cases, some grad school interview questions will be dedicated to exactly that. Your answer could have to do with your diverse personal or academic background, unique skills, driven personality—whatever you see as your strongest asset. Now is your chance to sell yourself. Be honest, and show the school what a valuable addition you’d be to their community! (One caveat here: make sure you don’t brag. After all, you might be selling yourself, but the focus is on what you can do for the school, not so much on how great you are.)
“Well, I bring a unique research background. For example, I spent a summer in college doing fieldwork that focused on identifying and tracking live nests of poisonous baby snakes. I’m really excited about the advances in the field and love to experience and employ the latest technology, such as heat-sensing devices and snake-tail spray painting. There’s lots of opportunity for collaboration with other scientists and students I’ll meet in the program. I also find my sense of humor comes in handy and can uplift others’ spirits during stressful periods like finals, or getting accidentally injected with venom.”
What are your short-term and long-term career goals?
These kinds of graduate school interview questions could be especially crucial if you’re applying to a more career-oriented program—but it’s relevant either way. After all, academia doesn’t exist in a vacuum! You’re pursuing your degree for a reason. What is it? Here are a few tips on how to frame those goals for your interview.
Draw a connection between the degree you’re pursuing, your area of research, and your specific career goals. Show them why your graduate education could be a valuable asset!
If you can, anchor your goals in the school or program you’re applying to. For example, is there a member of the faculty whose work and career you admire and wish to emulate? Have their alumni achievements inspired you?
Point out why your goals are important, not just for you, but for the world, your field, and your community. Will your work help make your city a better place? Maybe your research could inform policy, or help people help others more effectively.
“I really admire Professor Hiss’s professional track – for about ten or fifteen years he focused on snake and spider handling, research and publishing on Australia’s deadliest creatures. Once he had really established himself he stepped into an academic role. I see myself doing the same – learning in the trenches in the short-term, and then teaching in the later part of my career. In America, there’s a notable lack of university-based research centers on venomous animals, and I have a dream of establishing a one. Ideally it would be located in the American Southwest so as to have the best access to the most venomous animals.”
What do you see as the major trends in your field of study?
This question is about evaluating your expertise. You might say you want to study venomous animals, but how fluent are you in that field? Before your interview, make sure you’re familiar with current or recent influential research, especially related to your own topic of study. Be able to speak on the content and findings, the implications of that research, and other relevant details. And don’t be afraid to share your own informed opinions on these topics!
“In the past year, there’s a trend in Europe and in parts of Asia that involves dying venomous animals in pastel polka-dot shades. The rationale is that it will make these animals easier to spot, and therefore avoid, but frankly, I disagree with their choice of color and pattern. Pastel polka-dots can make the animals look harmless and cartoonish and there have been several instances in the past year of people grabbing the animals excitedly and sustaining a toxic bite as a result. I like the approach used in East Africa in the 1980s of implanting a tiny musical device within these animals that plays the theme song from “Jaws”. But that proved too costly so the program was discontinued.”
Tell me about how you achieved a significant accomplishment.
These kinds of grad school interview questions aren’t asking you for modesty—though you do want to stay grounded! Try and focus on something directly related to your field of study, if you can. Then you could use this question to tell a story that demonstrates your competence. Not sure how to frame your accomplishment in a way that won’t sound like you’re bragging? Try talking about the obstacles you had to overcome to get to the finish line, how you overcame them, and what you learned from the experience.
“During my junior year of college we went to Arizona to do fieldwork. One component involved trapping the most venomous animals without being bitten. I won by catching nine scorpions and three Gila monsters in one day. It was tough! I was up all night, hiding under pine needles and behind cacti. But I was determined to take home the prize, which was a trip to Australia to hunt box jellyfish, so I made it happen.”
List some of your strengths and weaknesses.
When listing your strengths and weaknesses, make sure you keep your goal in mind—acceptance to a specific program. Try and focus on strengths that apply to the work you’d be doing as a student there, or as a member of their broader school community. Make sure you illustrate these with concrete examples. As for weaknesses, be honest, but constructive. It might be tempting, but try and avoid the somewhat dishonest strategy of naming a supposed weakness that’s actually a strength. Instead, demonstrate self-awareness by naming a concrete weakness you’ve noticed in yourself, and elaborating on what you’re already doing to try and overcome it.
“My strengths include my passion for the subject – as I mentioned earlier, I’ll stay up all night to catch Gila monsters and scorpions – and my attention to detail. I consistently get very positive feedback on my detailed knowledge of animal behavior. One weakness is that I can get caught up focusing too much on the details. For instance, I’ve been known to work for three hours on one sketch of poison ivy. I’ve been addressing my tendency to obsess by allowing myself a set amount of time to work. For instance, these days I set an alarm so that I allow myself to work for 45 minutes. When the alarm goes off, I have to stop or take a break. It’s been working well so far.”
Tell me about your hobbies and interests.
The other grad school interview questions so far have all focused on your area of study and what you could bring to the program in question. Here’s an opportunity to show them who you are outside academia! You not only get to show that you’re a well-rounded, passionate student with diverse interests. You could also show another side of your personality, values, and forge a memorable personal connection with your interviewers. And if you can do all that while still connecting those interests to the school community, all the better.
“I know in order to keep a balanced lifestyle I have to attend to my health. I’m a squash player – I play 3-4 times per week. I notice your school has some great squash courts, which is a bonus for me! I also love to cook, especially Thai food, and tend to have small dinner parties once or twice a month to be sure I’m getting some socializing in.”
Where else have you applied?
When preparing your answer for graduate school interview questions like this, think back to why you said you want to attend this program. What the interview is trying to understand here is where they fall in your school preference, and how dedicated you are to attending that particular program. So if you’ve applied elsewhere, be honest about it, but also try and explain why you’d prefer their school over the others. And if it’s the only school you’ve applied to, explain that decision to, so they understand why you’re so committed.
“I’ve also applied to University of Arizona’s graduate program, because the fieldwork opportunities would be so excellent. But frankly, the faculty here is stellar, and the curriculum here aligns better with my interests than the curriculum at U of AZ. This is my top choice.”
What questions do you have for me?
This is definitely a question you want to prepare for! The only way you could get it wrong would be if you don’t have any questions to ask. Try to prepare a few, just in case some are covered by your interviewer before you get a chance to ask. And try to be insightful, rather than asking basic questions you could have figured out on your own. You could ask about research opportunities, working with specific faculty, recent faculty or student publications, what career paths graduates have pursued… whatever it is that sparks your interest! This shows that you’re actively interested, perceptive and that you’ve done your reading.
Example: “I recently read a study by Dr. Corndog, on new methods for trapping Gila monsters – since I have unique experience in this practice, I was wondering if there is an assistantship opportunity on his staff?
This is a lengthy list of 10 grad school interview questions, but remember, it’s not exhaustive! Your interview experience may be unique, so be prepared to hear some unexpected questions, or ones not suggested here. If you need to improvise, don’t be afraid to take a few seconds to breathe and think your answer through. Be clear, concise, and polite in your answers, and you could make a solid impression. And maybe even increase your odds of acceptance!