grad school interview questions

By Stephanie Small | Updated March 2017


Grad School Interview Questions & Interview Tips

Your grad school interview can make or break your application. Show ‘em what a stellar candidate you are by preparing your answers to some of the more commonly asked questions in advance. Here are ten of our top picks for questions you might encounter during a graduate school interview.

Why do you want to go here, instead of other schools?

This is your chance to show how much you know about this school, and how well you fit. A detailed and thoughtful response demonstrates you cared enough to research the department of your choice in advance. If you’re super stoked on the school, by all means, express it, but stop short of sucking up. And if you’re not that stoked on the school, but it’s your only option for financial or convenience reasons, you better think of a reason to get excited about it – fast.

Example:

“I like (School X) because of its 1:3 faculty to student ratio, which 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 alum.”

What are your research interests?

Now you get to wax eloquent about your passion. Don’t hold back: the interviewer needs to see your excitement and enthusiasm. Be specific, and address how your research interests fit with the school’s curriculum. Don’t forget to include past schoolwork, work experience, publications, and other accomplishments.

Example:

“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, which 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?

This is the time to toot your own horn by responding with a combination of personal and professional qualities. Again, be specific, and cite examples of these qualities you purport to possess. Remember: in this case, modesty will get you nowhere, but try to stop short of arrogance.

Example:

“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 of poisonous baby snake tracking 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?

Your answer to this question provides the interviewer with a sense of your initiative, interests, and ambition. A thorough and relevant response demonstrates you’ve spent some time reflecting on the professional direction you’d like to take and how you see yourself getting there.

Example:

“I really admire Professor Hiss’s professional track – for about ten or fifteen years he focused on snake and spider handling, research and publication 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?

Here’s where the interviewer gets to assess how well you’ve kept up with current developments in your field. It’s a time for you to note any recent journal articles you’ve read, conferences you’ve attended, and the topics relevant blogs or websites in your field are covering. Adding your opinion on the recent trends demonstrates you’ve spent time considering the pros and the cons.

Example:

“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.

This is not the time to be modest. State your accomplishments with confidence. But here’s the trick: you’ve got to fall short of outright cockiness. In order not to come across as arrogant, notice your tone of voice – does it reek of “I’m so great?” It can also be helpful to point out the difficulties you faced in achieving your goal, or a detail in which you explain, in hindsight, what you could have done even better.

Example:

“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.

Listing strengths should be easy. Again, this is not the time to be modest. Be clear and specific about your strengths, but the “listing weaknesses” part can be tricky. You want to be honest, but you’ve got to be careful not to look like a potentially problematic student. One way around this is to discuss how you’ve been proactively working to change your flaws. Examples illustrating both strengths and weaknesses are crucial.

Example:

“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.

Admissions departments want to know you’ll be able to achieve work-life balance. Here’s your opportunity to show your interviewer you’re more than a one-dimensional student. Your answer to this question has the potential to be very memorable.

Example:

“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 and 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?

This is similar to “why do you want to go here?” The interviewer wants to know how committed you are to attending their school. If you have applied elsewhere, let your interviewer know what particularly interests you about this school. If you haven’t applied elsewhere, explain why you are solely committed to their program.

Example:

“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?

The only wrong answer to this question is “no”. If you’re committed to being a student at this school, there’s got to be something you’re curious about and want to explore further. Ask about a particular faculty member or research opportunity, what careers recent alums have pursued, recent dissertation topics, etc. What better way to show your interest than demonstrating curiosity? You may want to construct some questions as part of your interview prep so you are ready to respond to this question with inquires that are insightful and demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the program, the university, and your field of interest.

Example:

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?

Taking some time to prepare yourself for common interview questions may also help you frame answers to unexpected questions that can arise during your appointment. Good Luck! Stay Calm! Remember, if you weren’t awesome you wouldn’t have gotten the interview in the first place, this is your time to shine.


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