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Graduate School Interviews for All Programs

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General Information-  (Back to top)

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 personal attributes.

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 class
  • Percentage of minority students
  • Percentage of women
  • Age range of entering students
  • Academic mission
  • Problem-based or non-problem-based curriculum?
  • Quarter or semester program?
  • Research opportunities
  • Community-outreach programs
  • 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 and capability.

Interviews for graduate school serve four main purposes:

  • as a public-relations mechanism;
  • as an opportunity for the school's representative to answer questions for the candidate;
  • 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 have fun.

Research

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

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.


What Graduate Schools Look For-  (Back to top)

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.

Work Exposure:

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?

Motivation:

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?

Personal Qualities:

Appearance, 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.

Social Awareness:

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."

Value System:

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.

Interpersonal Relationships:

Good 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:

Good 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 assess include:

  • 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 professional judgment;
  • what areas of your personality you are working on, i.e. what you consider to be your weaknesses.
  • 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 student.
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 learning?
  • Can you adapt easily to new situations?
  • Do you see yourself as a good test-taker?
  • 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-  (Back to top)

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 ingredients.
  • 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 possibilities.
  • 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 confidence.
  • Be prepared to be challenged. A good interviewer is looking for depth, and most will probe if your answers are too superficial.
  • If questions are focused on your academic record, don't make excuses.
  • 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 interviewer.
  • 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 say.
  • 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.


Questions From Them-  (Back to top)

Questions often asked by the interviewer:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What factors influenced you to go to graduate school?
  • Why are you interested in our graduate program?
  • What skills and personal characteristics make you a good candidate for this graduate program?
  • What do you hope to gain from our graduate program?
  • How do you see this program fitting into your career goals?
  • What is your greatest strength? What is one of your weaknesses?
  • What are your goals for the next five years? 10 years?
  • How do you feel your undergraduate studies have prepared you for this program?
  • Describe your past work/volunteer experiences and how what you have learned from them will help you in graduate school.
  • Describe your past research experiences and how they will help you in graduate school.
  • What recent professional articles or books have you read?
  • What problems do you expect to face while attending graduate school? How will you handle these?
  • What contributions do you plan to make to the field?
  • What do you believe to be the major trends in your intended career field at this time?
  • What do you think about _________ (current event)?
  • What do you think is the most important development in the field over the past 25 years, and why?
  • We are looking at many other candidates for this graduate program; what sets you apart from the other candidates?
  • What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or outside interests?
  • Tell me about a major accomplishment and how you achieved it.
  • Give an example of an ethical dilemma you faced and explain how you resolved it.
  • Tell me about a situation in which you took initiative.
  • Tell me about a time you assumed a leadership role.
  • Tell me how you handle stress.
  • Tell me about a time you had a number of assignments due. How did you make sure you completed all of them on time and did a good job?
  • Tell me about a time you were confronted by a fellow student, co-worker, or a customer. How did you handle it to resolve the conflict?

Questions From You-  (Back to top)

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. 

There are two reasons to ask good questions. First, you should ask many questions during your graduate admissions interview so that you can gather the information that you need to determine if this is the right program for you. Remember that you are interviewing the graduate program - you must choose the program that is right for you. Second, of course, good questions impress admissions committees. DO YOUR RESEARCH TO DEVELOP GOOD QUESTIONS.

Ask away-if applicable:

What do you consider the greatest strength of this program? Of this profession?

What makes a student successful in your program?

What future changes do you see in this profession?

This is what I know about your program….can you tell me more?

Where do graduates of your program typically work?

Where are recent alumni employed? What do most students do after graduation?

What types of financial aid are offered? What criteria are used for choosing recipients?

Are there any scholarships or fellowships available? How do I apply?

Are there teaching opportunities, such as teaching assistantships and adjunct positions?

Do most students publish an article or present a paper before graduation?

What planned practical experiences are included in the program (e.g., internships)? Ask for examples of internship placements.

What is the relative importance of admissions test scores, undergraduate grades, recommendations, statements on applications, experience, and other requirements?

Does the department prefer applicants immediately out of undergraduate programs or do they prefer applicants with work experience? If they prefer or require experience, what kind of experience are they looking for?

How are mentoring and advising relationships established? Are advisors assigned?

How long do most students take to graduate? How many years of course work? How long do most students take to complete their thesis/dissertations?

Do most students live near campus? What is it like to live in this area as a graduate student (ask to other students)

Curriculum:
Describe this school's curriculum in the pre-clinical and clinical years. Are there any innovations, like Problem-Based Learning?
Are there opportunities for students to design, conduct, and publish their own research?
Is there flexibility in the coursework (the number of electives) and the timing of the courses (accelerating, decelerating).

Counseling / Student Support:
What kind of academic, personal, financial and career counseling is available to students?
Is there a mentor / advisor system? Who are the advisors - faculty members, staff, other students?
How diverse is the student body?

Facilities:
Tell me about the library and extracurricular facilities (i.e. housing and athletic / recreational facilities)
Are computer facilities integrated into the curriculum / learning?
What types of clinical or internship sites are available or required for students?
Is a car necessary for clinical rotations? Is parking a problem?

Financial Aid:
Are there stable levels of federal financial aid and substantial amounts of university endowment aid available to students?

Student Involvement:
What committees have student representation?
Are students involved in (required or voluntary) community service?
What types of student organizations are there? 


Healthcare Graduate School Interviewing Questions:-  (Back to top)

Health Profession Graduate School Interview Questions for Medical/Dental/Optometry/Physical Therapy/Occupational Therapy Schools
How are you today? (Not as innocent as it may seem. Prepare 30-second intro that stresses what you want them to know about you. Be careful that it does not sound canned.)
Tell me about yourself. (Avoid rambling)
What are your strengths and weaknesses? (Turn weaknesses into strengths/end on a positive note) Similar questions:
Have you always done the best work of which you were capable?
What will be the toughest aspect of medical education for you?
Tell me about a time you failed. What did it teach you about yourself?
Tell me three of your worst qualities and three of your best qualities.
What do you think the hardest thing about being a physician is?
Who are your heroes? (Find someone)
Describe three people who have profoundly influenced you.
If you could invite any three guests (living or deceased) to a dinner party, who would it be?
What do you do in your spare time? (Tell them you do more than just study)
What are you currently reading?
What are your hobbies?
What do you do just for fun?
What are your plans for a family? (May be an illegal question but is asked often. Respond in a way to show that your outside life will not affect your performance)
Why do you want to be a physician/physical therapist...etc? (Do not become bored with your own answer.)
How do you explain your low grades/dropping of classes/low MCAT, DAT, etc. scores? (Do not sound defensive. A deficiency in one area doesn’t have to be a liability unless you react adversely. Be honest. Explain that you worked and went to school, that you had adjustment problems your first year, point out your high major GPA, or how your grades steadily improved over your college career, etc.)
What will you do if you are not accepted this time? (Make sure they know you will do what it takes to apply again)
Do you have any questions for us? (Always say yes. Refer to CDC worksheet, “Interview Questions to Ask Health Related Professional Schools” for ideas).
 
Expect the unexpected. Here are some questions designed to test your quick thinking abilities or how you handle stress.

If you could be any cell in the human body, which would you choose to be and why?
I don’t think you’d be right for a medical career, why don’t you be a nurse/ teacher/other occupation?
Teach me something not related to your schoolwork in five minutes.
How do you normally handle conflict?
What is your most important coping skill?
If your house were burning, what three objects would you save?
Tell me about a time when you had to tell someone something unpleasant.
Ethical and current event questions are popular. However, be careful. Stay away from soapboxes. You don’t know the views of those who ask the question. Stick with general facts to show that you are well read.
How do you see the delivery of health care evolving in the twenty-first century?
What would you do if you were in a position to treat someone for an injury who had just stabbed your best friend?
How emotionally involved should a physician become with the health of his or her patients?
What is the most important ethical question that you will face as a physician in the next decade?
What are your opinions about physician assisted suicide/stem cell research/genetic testing/other controversial current topics?
If you could spend one hour with the President of the United States, what would you want to discuss with him?
Some questions are designed to find out how much first hand knowledge you have of your chosen profession. (Hint: you need a lot!)
Tell me about your volunteer experiences.
What clinical experiences have you had?
Tell me about the patient from whom you learned the most.
What percentage of your time do you anticipate devoting to basic research and clinical medicine?
Where do you see healthcare in 20 years?
Some questions are designed to relate your skills and personality type to what is required in the field.
What do you think is the most important quality a doctor/dentist/OT/PT should have?
What three traits do you possess that you are most proud of?
When you experience the death of a patient, is it something that you will take with you, or will you leave it at the hospital when you go home?
What kind of fulfillment do you expect from patient contact?
What do you have to offer your fellow medical students?

The following are actual questions at several health profession school interviews:

What would you do if all medical schools in America were to close today?
What do you want to be doing in 10 years?
Do you think it’s important for people to know two languages?
What good qualities have you seen in doctors, and what bad qualities have you seen?
What is something your mother would say about you, and what is something your best friend would say about you?
Know your personal statement: a lot of discussion can come from this.
Should an uncooperative patient receive more or less time than a cooperative patient?
Rate your humility on a scale from 1-10.

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