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Graduate School Interviews

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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.

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?


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.

General Information:

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.

Ask Questions

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.

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