How to Ace Graduate School Interviews

So you’ve decided to commit the next 5-7 years to graduate studies. (You’re sure? :P). You took the GRE. You wrote a phenomenal personal statement. You secured glowing letters of recommendation. And one day, your prayers were answered – you received an interview invite! Congratulations! In this post, I will tell you exactly how to ace the interviews so you can encounter the world’s greatest problem: decide which graduate school to attend!

The interviewing process for graduate students is very different from a job interview. We don’t just show up for an hour, present our best self, and leave. Our interview is an entire weekend long. Typically, applicants arrive on Thursday afternoon and join a students-only dinner/social event. Unless you have an extremely valid excuse, do not miss out on the social events! This is where you get to observe graduate students interact in a more laid back atmosphere and gauge how you might fit into the “social life” of existing graduate students. Mingle, mingle, mingle. Nothing is more concerning than an applicant in a corner all by himself/herself. If you’re socially awkward, make it charming. (If Sheldon Cooper can be approachable, you can too!) If alcoholic drinks are offered, either politely decline or drink lightly. While the atmosphere is casual, still be your best self. First impressions are lasting. You’re there because you have good credentials. Now we want to see you as a person – are you considerate, confident, and overall fun to hang out with? If you’re overbearing or overconfident, it’s a huge red flag for us. We need to be able to hang out with you on a daily basis. So make us like you! Students have a say in the admission decision. A huge say, actually. Faculty understands that admitting someone means giving us new colleagues, so they want to make sure we like the incoming cohort.

Applicants commonly have the choice of being hosted by a current student. Choose this option. You will get to see how and where they live. Thus you can infer what their stipend can afford. Also, it’s a nice gesture to bring a small gift (i.e. chocolate) for your host. This is not bribing! Hosts spend a lot of efforts to ensure that you enjoy your stay, so it’s the least you can do. And leave them with a handwritten thank you card.

Friday is an all-day interview marathon. You typically meet faculty and students back to back, either for 30 minutes or an hour. You will have a scheduled break. Take this break to jot down as many notes as you can. You will need these notes when writing thank you letters and when you’re trying to decide which program to attend.

Be prepared to answer the following questions:

– Why do you want to be an XYZ/researcher?
– What qualifications do you have that will make you a successful XYZ/researcher?
– Tell me about yourself.
– Tell me about your research interests.
– Without thinking of any constraints, what would your dissertation be?
– What attracts you to our program? What do you look for in a program?
– What do you bring to the program? What are your special attributes?
– Where else have you applied or interviewed?
– Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?
– What do you see as your strengths and weaknesses?
– How do you work under stress or pressure?
– How do you handle criticism?
– Tell me something that isn’t on your application.

What interviewers ultimately want to know:

– How well you fit with the program
– How you can contribute to the program (skills, knowledge, and experience)

- What kind of person are you? (Reliable and personable? Can we trust you with our research 
– What distinguishes you from 20 other people who can do the same tasks?

Interviewers evaluate:

– Social skills 

– Emotional stability 

– Professional maturity 

– Focus 

– Goals 

– Development of pursuits

Your Interview Attitude:
Be honest. Be yourself. Be in the moment. Don’t worry. Don’t overthink. 
You are qualified to be there. Have confidence. Show enthusiasm, appreciation, and curiosity. Leave an impression. Be positive. But don’t be 
caffeinated/overly bubbly. 
Listen more than you talk. Don’t heed attention to the competition. Focus on learning as much as you can about each school, finding out from students and professors what types of work they’re doing, asking questions about what it’s like to live in the area, etc. Always be respectful, curious, eager, and passionate. 

Above all, be prepared to discuss the faculty’s research! When reading their publications, pay careful attention to their proposed future work. Chances are, they are pursuing this very line of research. Probe intelligent questions and propose future directions whenever possible. Keep in mind faculty wants someone who can advance their research, not someone who merely follows directions and do as told.

Questions You Should Ask:

To faculty:
– Address most of your questions about the faculty’s research. Then, ask these:
– Do most students support themselves through RAs, TAs or special assignments?
– Are RAs available for all students?
– Where do students typically get internships? Jobs?
– When does the program expect to have its applicants selected?

Overall, make sure your questions are well thought-out and that you have done your homework. Don’t ask questions that can be answered on the program’s or lab’s website.

To students:
– How would you describe student/faculty relations in your program?
– How does your advisor work with students? Faculty? Personal style?
– What is the cost of living?
– What is life like here?
– What do graduate students do for fun here?

After the Interview:
Write a thank you email to everyone you interviewed with. This is not because you want a last shot at impressing them, but because you are genuinely grateful they took time to meet and get to know you. Most schools make their admission decisions Friday evening, so your thank you notes have little to no influence upon your chances of acceptance. Write it because you’re courteous.

Remember you always have a choice. Even with only one admission offer, you still have the choice to accept or reject. 5-7 years would be a long time commitment even for something you love, much less something you settled for. So if you have enough reasons to dislike the program or potential advisor, do consider re-applying next year. Take the year off to make yourself more competitive. It all boils down to whether the program offers an environment in which you can thrive. I know of top institutions where many would dream of attending, but I’ve decided not to apply there because I knew (and have witnessed first hand) the competitive, back stabbing, gossipy atmosphere would break me. I’ve also interviewed at a school where I thought its extreme laid back attitude would crumble me – I thrive best in a cooperative environment that continues to value excellence and progress. When making your final decision, keep these factors in mind.

Want Additional Help?
You can always email me should you want one-on-one advice regarding graduate schools. We can also do a mock interview and I’ll provide you the same feedback I would to my advisor as if I was evaluating a prospective candidate.

Enjoy this process. It’s actually really fun to meet so many people with the same interests and passion as you. Have fun and good luck!


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