What types of questions are asked during grad school interviews?

When you’re the one asking the questions at a grad school interview, it’s easy to crack a smile.
When you’re the one asking the questions at a grad school interview, it’s easy to crack a smile.
Carlos Davila/Getty Images

"So, what do you consider your greatest weakness?"

If you're applying to graduate school, you should spend some time thinking about that question. Don't be too hard on yourself, but make sure you can turn your weakness into a strong personal characteristic.

For example, if your friends say you can't see the forest for the trees, you might explain: "Sometimes I'm too detail-oriented, but I'm usually able to identify mistakes or opportunities that others overlook." That's an excellent quality if you're applying to an accounting program or forensic science. Or, you can offer an explanation about how you are trying to overcome your weakness. If you dread public speaking, you might explain how you're trying to conquer this fear by seeking out opportunities to make presentations to others.

Whether you're applying to law school, medical school or a graduate program in medieval literature, chances are a one-on-one interview with one or more members of the grad school faculty constitutes part of the admissions checklist. In spite of the horror stories we've all heard -- the panel of five experts firing questions at an unprepared interviewee or the interviewer who asks an off-the-wall or politically loaded question -- graduate school interviewers simply want to learn more about you and find out if you have what it takes to succeed in their program.

Specifically, they want to learn more about your personality, background, problem-solving skills and, of course, the way you react in an interview. After all, one day you may find yourself sitting before a committee of faculty members vigorously defending your dissertation or master's thesis. They're also looking for someone who is likable and who will fit into a group that will work together closely over the next few years.

Consider the questions being asked as opportunities to tell the interviewer more about yourself and why you should be admitted to the program. Remember, to every question, you can give a short response that simply answers the question, or a long explanation that provides more information and details about your experience and capabilities. In short, take advantage of every opportunity to sell yourself.

Now let's start preparing to wow those interviewers.

Preparing for Your Graduate School Interview

Graduate school interviews can take many forms, including one-on-one conversations, group interviews with more than one candidate, panel interviews with more than one interviewer or impromptu phone interviews.

How can you put your best foot forward? Prepare yourself. Do your homework on the school you want to attend and the faculty. Know your long-term goals: Do you want to teach, go into research or pursue a career in the field?

Before the interview, consider the points you want to make, write down a list of your best skills and qualities, and develop a strategy to communicate your strengths. Be prepared to answer tough questions about your transcripts and explain the reasons for any gaps in your performance.

Remember that most interviewers are looking for these things when you answer questions: the content of your answer, how you organize your thoughts and solve problems, and how you articulate your ideas. Don't be afraid to pause and collect your thoughts before answering a question.

Ready? Let's do a practice round. Following are some sample personal questions that you should be prepared to answer.

  • Describe yourself.
  • How would someone else describe you?
  • Why are you a good fit for our program?
  • What are your long-range objectives?
  • Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • How and when did you choose to enter this field?

We'll move on to academics next.

  • How has your education prepared you for our graduate program?
  • Why did you decide to apply to our program?
  • What courses have been the most challenging for you?
  • Does your academic record reflect your true abilities?

Schools will also be interested in your extracurricular activities, as well as your leadership and problem-solving skills. You might find yourself responding to questions like these:

  • What extracurricular activity has been most rewarding to you?
  • What hobbies or activities do you enjoy?
  • What is your most important contribution to an organization, company or team?
  • Describe a situation where you showed initiative.
  • Tell me about when you were last involved in a conflict and how you handled it.
  • How do you handle stress?
  • What are the major trends in your field?
  • What world problems bother you most? How would you solve them?
  • What do you consider to be the most important developments in this field over the past ten years, and why?

[source: University of Wisconsin/Green Bay]

Read on to learn how you can make a good impression by asking questions in a graduate school interview in addition to answering them.

Questions You Should Ask the Interviewer

Just as important as your answers to the questions asked by the interviewer are the questions that you ask. Intelligently inquiring about a particular graduate program helps to reinforce your interest and your commitment to succeeding in your field. Here are a few ideas to help you make a mental list:

  • What is the greatest strength of this program?
  • What sets your program apart from others in the field?
  • How long do students usually take to finish the program?
  • What makes a student successful?
  • What do most graduates do after graduation?
  • What types of research projects are current students doing?

[source: Boise State University Career Center]

After you've gotten ready for the interview questions, prepare yourself to make a good first impression during and after the interview. Dress neatly and professionally. In many fields, that means dressing like a professional in the field: a candidate for a master's in business administration would wear a suit, but business casual might be more appropriate for someone going into academia or psychology.

In addition, as common sense as these tips are they're worth reiterating. First, arrive early or precisely on time. Second, show respect for your interviewers. They spent years plugging away at their dissertation to earn that "Dr." Address them with respect using their proper title, not as casually as you would a relative or friend. Third, send a thank-you note to the program director and anyone with whom you spoke during the interview. Third, call to follow up to check on your status.

Finally, relax and be yourself. Whether you're pursuing an advanced degree in law, environmental engineering or classical music, don't be afraid to show your passion for the subject and to express your desire to be accepted into the graduate program of your dreams.

Read on, scholar, for more links you might like.

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Sources

  • Alexander, Linda, M.D. "Medical School Interviews: How to Prepare and Do Well." MomMD. (Jan. 13, 2010)www.mommd.com/interview.shtml
  • Farlow, Kristin. "Graduate School Interview Tips." University of California. May 22, 2009. (Jan. 12, 2010) http://bunny.ucdavis.edu/advising/grad/handouts/graduate_school_interview_tips.html
  • "Interviewing: Professional & Graduate School." University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. (Jan. 12, 2010)www.uwgb.edu/careers/interview_questions_grad.htm.
  • "Law School Interviews." Ivy League Admissions.com (Jan. 13, 2010) http://www.ivyleagueadmission.com/lawinterview.html
  • Oudekerk, Barbara and Bottoms, Bette. "Applying to Graduate School: The Interview Process." Association for Psychological Science. June/July 2007. (Jan. 12, 2010)http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2184.
  • "Sample questions asked during academic programs & graduate/professional programs interviews." Boise State University Career Center. (Jan. 12, 2010) http://career.boisestate.edu/PracticeInterview - GraduateSchoolQuestions.htm.