Graduate School Interviews for All Programs
While success in graduate-school interviews can be greatly helped by
experience, educating one's self and preparing mentally are very
important. As in many areas of life, being admitted can also be a matter
of luck; that is, you may be interviewed by someone who clicks with your
style, interests, background or experience.
The more informed you are about the various nuances of the process, the
less anxiety- producing it will be. Therefore, the purpose of this
article is to describe an array of areas that touch upon this process.
Former students who have been through the interview process often
circulate well-meaning interview stories, but these stories may frighten
those who are about to enter the process. Just remember that these are
anecdotal experiences, and, in all likelihood, you will not encounter
the same set of circumstances or have the same kind of experience. So
the point is, take the "grapevine" information with a grain of salt.
Some colleges keep reference materials on each graduate school's
interviewing process, including lists of standard questions that have
been asked of students. This may be useful, so check with your advisor's
office to see whether any such materials exist. The opinions of others
regarding the school may be very helpful as you develop your own list of
what to look for at that institution on the day you visit.
Most students are quite surprised to find that interviews tend to be
highly conversational, and the interviewer's purpose seems to be to get
to know the student. However, you should be prepared for anything; group
interviews and two interviewers to one student are not unheard of, but
you'll usually encounter the one-on-one situation. Interviews typically
last anywhere from 20 minutes to 90 minutes. Most schools will have from
one to four interviews. Many schools will have as one of their
interviews a meeting with the admissions dean or someone else who will
be asked to assess the student's academic record as well as his/her
It is advisable to know the basic facts about the school prior to
arriving there for the day of interviews. Helpful information might
include such things as size, relationship to the college campus, etc.
Use the following checklist to gather your data.
- Size of graduate-school
- Percentage of minority
- Percentage of women
- Age range of entering
- Academic mission
- Problem-based or
- Quarter or semester
- Research opportunities
- Grading system
- Policy re: promotion
- Academic support services
- Pre-matriculation program
- Administration's advocacy
of student needs
Make an index card on each school, and as you go from interview to
interview, write appropriate details on the reverse side of the card for
future reference. If you do a lot of interviews, things tend to blur
after a few months. Always seek out students at the school, and check
their answers with those of faculty interviewers. Develop your own
rating system and give the school points on the various areas.
The two major areas in which schools seek information are personality
Interviews for graduate school serve four main
- as a public-relations mechanism;
- as an
opportunity for the school's representative to answer questions for the
- to recruit the student; and
- for data-gathering.
Applicants should take note that three out of the four purposes stated
here center on meeting the student's needs. So relax, do your best and
Graduate Schools Look For
The majority of schools use a structured interview; that is, they have
identified important areas around which they will attempt to gather
information about the student. While the following list is not intended
to be exhaustive, it covers more than 80 percent of the information that
is being sought. Use it as a reference guide to think about these areas
in relation to yourself, and try to assess ways in which questions may
be posed to you to cover these areas.
What does the candidate know about his/her chosen career?
Is the student's knowledge base coming from family, friends, personal
experience or reading? How realistic is the understanding? What is the
level of awareness of the changes in graduate work today? What other
professions have been ruled out in coming to this choice?
How has the student
tested out his/her interest in graduate work? What level of
responsibility has the student assumed for others? Can a student
describe the values that he or she possesses that will sustain
motivation in difficult times? Who are the role models that have been
most significant in influencing the choice of graduate work? Is there
anything that, if it changed dramatically, would cause a student to lose
interest in graduate work?
poise, confidence, ability to communicate, sense of humor and proper use
of the English language will all be assessed by the interviewer.
Interviewers will pay particular attention to emotional stability,
including making an attempt to discern unresolved personal problems.
They will seek to gain a better understanding of family dynamics for
each student, and will try to discover the nature of relationships among
students, parents and siblings. Interviewers will want to know if a
student is emancipated from his/her family, and will explore students'
level of maturity and degree of development of empathy skills. They will
seek to understand the students' operating style, will want to know
whether tolerance for diversity has been manifested through life
experiences, and will explore whether students are sufficiently flexible
to manage the substantial changes that lie ahead.
How informed is
the candidate about local and national issues? Has the student taken a
stance on any area of social concern? What is the student's level of
awareness of some of the important ethical issues facing us today? Has
the student ever acted upon his or her political or social conscience?
Caring, Compassion and Conscientiousness:
If you wanted to convince someone that you are conscientious, how would
you go about it? Caring and compassion should be qualities that are
exhibited daily toward others. Are you willing to take a risk that might
benefit a colleague or friend? What are your feelings about your
abilities to be compassionate, yet remain sufficiently objective, thus
not incapacitating yourself by becoming overly involved?
Having the interviewer ask the question is one-half the equation; the
other is your response. What is the interviewer looking for in what you
provide? In all likelihood, your interviewer will be experienced, and it
is important that you assume that this will be the case. When
considering important aspects of what makes a good graduate student,
interviewers are likely to be looking for insights that help affirm or
deny a particular attribute.
Some of the following areas are the
guideposts from which they view a "good graduate student."
How interested is the
student in others? What does his/her track record indicate? Do the
student's goals include expressions of wanting to serve others?
Interviewers will attempt to determine your degree of courage to
persevere during difficult times.
graduate students make friends easily and enjoy positive interactions
with others. They are able to work independently as well as
collaboratively. They are able to value the contributions of others.
Good graduate students will always be sensitive to the needs of others
and will take others into account in their actions.
Knowledge Based Skills:
graduate students enjoy solving problems and have good aptitude for it.
Discipline and order are key prerequisites to success in graduate
school. It is critical for a good graduate student to have high
standards and the integrity to know when to seek help. Understanding
whether the student exhibits integrity in his/her value system is key
for graduate-school interviewers.
Questions will most often be presented in an open-ended, abstract
manner; that is, few can be answered by a yes/no response. When the
question is asked, if you don't understand it, seek clarification.
Interviewers will be assessing whether your thinking style is more
abstract or concrete in nature. Other areas that interviewers will
- your ability to
understand the question being posed;
- your depth of knowledge
in providing the response;
- whether you can
synthesize from one experience to the next;
- what you've learned
about yourself from various experiences/events;
- what kind of reality
testing you've done, and whether you exhibit maturity and good
- what areas of your
personality you are working on, i.e. what you consider to be your
- Internal consistency is
important in your responses. If you make negative comments about
yourself, interviewers will likely follow up with questions about why
you feel the way you do and attempts to determine whether any of your
disparaging comments might interfere with your success.
What gets the student into trouble with an interviewer? First of all,
how does the student see life? Does s/he take the "glass is half-full"
approach, or the "glass is half-empty"? What is the degree of
compulsiveness, which might lead the student to reveal too much about
himself/herself? Interviewers will attempt to determine if there is
pomposity, arrogance, anger or hatred toward institutions or individuals
that would get in the student's way of succeeding. How strong are the
student's religious beliefs? Might they override a willingness to accept
responsibility for personal actions? On the positive side, can the
student be described as someone who has initiative (a high level of
intellectual curiosity), and what examples exist? Has the student
participated in rigorous academic activities that speak of a willingness
to take an academic risk? How can the interviewer know that a student
can handle multiple, and often competing, demands, so that s/he can
learn the importance of being able to set priorities? Can a student
discuss a meaningful life problem?
The interviewer's main focus in assessing your academic characteristics
is to determine whether you can handle a rigorous program at her/his
school. Interviewers know that if a student is not assessed properly,
s/he could wind up failing at that school. This is contrary to the
desires of most schools; most want their students to succeed. When
reviewing your own academic record prior to the interview, think about
questions that are likely to arise, such as (1) If there were
quarters/semesters during your undergraduate career when your total
hours were low, what were the reasons? (2) If you received low grades,
were there extenuating circumstances? (3) How have you done overall in
your school's required science courses? (4) If your transcript includes
withdrawals, incompletes or course repeats, what were the circumstances?
(5) When asked about a difficult course from your academic program, can
you provide evidence of resourcefulness in the face of adversity? (6) Is
there any discrepancy between your undergraduate grades and your GRE
score? If so, what accounts for this? (7) If you posted a low verbal or
writing-sample score, what does this mean from your perspective?
Graduate schools have a pretty good perception of what your academic
record indicates about your potential to be a successful graduate
Keep the following list in mind as you answer questions
about your academic record.
- Do you enjoy reading and
believe that you're good at it?
- Are you enthusiastic about
- Can you adapt easily to new
- Do you see yourself as a
- Do you learn actively? Do
you anticipate questions to be asked/tasks to be done?
- Do you set priorities and
deal with competing academic demands?
- Do you organize your time
and use it efficiently?
- Are you able to integrate
new information with your existing knowledge?
- Can you develop a big
picture, i.e. a conceptual framework of knowledge?
Interviewers will often ask questions that are of an ethical nature.
Typically, these are posed in the form of a hypothetical situation. Some
of the scenarios described may be considerably out of the realm of the
student's experience, but remember that the interviewer is not so much
interested in determining a right or wrong response, but will be looking
for how you develop the framework of the response, what experiences you
bring to bear in your answer, how your values and beliefs fit into what
you say, and how deeply you hold your convictions. If interviewers
challenge you, they will be looking to see if you quickly capitulate to
their view or whether you can back up why you believe what you do. A
word of advice: Don't ever get into an argument with the interviewer.
You will lose.
If you get asked an "illegal" question, what do you do? It helps to know
which questions are considered illegal first, and then to construct a
response. Questions that focus on a person's race, religion, sexual
orientation, position on abortion or family planning, marital status,
age, possible physical/mental disability or learning disability cannot
legally be asked by an interviewer. Such a question might be phrased as
follows: "How do you plan to manage your roles as wife, mother and
student?" "Why are you considering graduate school at your age?" "Tell
me about your religious beliefs." One method of responding to such
questions is to say that though you understand the question may be
illegal, you are happy to try to answer. There is a certain risk in
doing this; it depends on how you feel about answering the question.
Tips for Interviewing
Interviewing properly is a complicated matter. Knowing the reason behind
the method of interviewing will increase your level of comfort.
Here are some tips that you may wish to consider to make the
interview go more smoothly. Think about them and practice them:
- Relax and be yourself.
Confidence, poise and
thoughtfulness are important
- Dress appropriately. It is
part of the communication
process. Select a comfortable
outfit, and for women, make sure
that your skirt is not so short
that it is difficult to sit
facing an interviewer.
- Treat everyone with respect.
The administrative and
secretarial staff give feedback
to the admissions committee;
treating them poorly will
reflect badly on you.
- BE ON TIME. If you're not
sure exactly how to get to the
interview, call in advance and
ask for directions. Arrange your
schedule to handle unforeseen
- If you are unable to make
the interview, don't just NOT
SHOW UP. As an aspiring
professional, you owe it to the
school and yourself to bring
proper closure to that
interaction. Remember: Courtesy
leaves a lasting impression.
- When you are introduced to
your interviewer, your solid
handshake will be a telling
statement. A limp handshake is a
sign of a person who lacks
- Be prepared to be
challenged. A good interviewer
is looking for depth, and most
will probe if your answers are
- If questions are focused on
your academic record, don't make
- Provide the best
matter-of-fact information that
you can. Explain personal or
extenuating circumstances that
you may have been facing at the
time, but don't make disparaging
comments about yourself.
- Find a way to convey some
unique quality about yourself in
the interview. Don't provide
answers to questions that
weren't asked. Don't dominate
the conversation. Give your
responses fully, but present
them in a logical, forthright
and friendly manner.
- Maintain good eye contact;
there is no need to stare, but
when you're responding to
questions, talk TO the
- Be aware of the body
language you convey when you
sit. If you sit on the edge of
the chair and grip the seat, the
interviewer will wonder if you
have sufficient coping skills to
handle the stress that you will
face as a graduate student.
Remember, 65 percent of
communication comes in the way
of non-verbal clues.
- Prepared answers to
questions sound prepared. In
order to introduce some
spontaneity into the interview,
most interviewers will attempt
to ask you questions that you
have not thought about in
advance. Keep a positive,
cheerful attitude. Be open and
honest, and believe in what you
- Do prepare one or two
questions for the interviewer
about the students, the
educational program or other
aspects of the school to which
you've applied. It is best not
just to ask her/him to cite the
strengths or weaknesses of the
school. The interviewer wants
you to feel as if all your
questions have been answered.
I recently completed my first grad school interview, and it was
definitely an experience worth writing about. Of course, every interview
is different, but here's some advice based on my own experience.
First and foremost, you should never be afraid to ask questions (even
ones you think might be stupid) during your interview and even in the
days leading up to it. If I hadn't called ahead to ask about suitable
attire, I never would have known that the school I visited didn't want
me to wear a tie, let alone a suit or jacket of any kind.
Research helps you to avoid "stupid" questions that might throw you out
of the applicant pool. Especially if you know beforehand which faculty
members you'll be interviewing with, do a little research before meeting
with them. Life histories aren't necessary, but at least familiarize
your self with your interviewers' areas of expertise. This is important
because their research (or how your interests match theirs) will come
up. Don't be caught off guard. Be prepared to make a comment or two.
Rehearse your answers to commonly asked interview questions. You'll feel
more comfortable answering questions during the interview. The more
comfortable you are, the more likely that you'll be able to think
clearly, and you'll appear controlled and mature (always a good thing!).
Rehearse in front of a mirror, so that you can see what your interviewer
will. Also, a word of warning: people don't enjoy talking to a robot,
complete with pre-programmed answers. It's fine to rehearse, just make
sure that during the real thing you don't come across like you're
reading from a script.
Finally, if you are confronted with a question that you're not prepared
for, there is nothing wrong with asking for a moment to think about your
answer. Interviewers will respect you for taking a moment to compose an
answer instead of just blurting something out to avoid being silent. It
shows that you really want to give the best answer you can instead of
just anything that comes to mind.
In my opening, I said that my personal experience was something worth
writing about, and I meant it. The University of Texas-Southwestern in
Dallas showed me a truly great time, enough so that I've accepted their
offer of admission. I felt welcome and at ease the entire weekend, and
dare I say it, I actually had fun while I was there. They wanted to know
who I was as a person, not as a transcript and test scores (thank God
for that, my transcript is a little sketchy), and all my interviews were
of a more personal than technical nature. I hope all of your interviews
go as smoothly.