It is very common in today’s competitive and diverse graduate school environment for graduate program admissions committees to require an interview for strong applicants. Interviewers ask some very hard questions. If you are not prepared for their questions and do not have a grasp of the purposes from the perspective of the graduate program admissions committee of your interview, your interview could become uncomfortable and even quite difficult. This article gives some examples of the most likely kinds of questions that are often asked during a graduate program admission interview and some strategies about how they can be answered in ways that best showcase the reasons why the program should accept you.

Table of Contents

Understanding the Scope and Purpose of Your Interview

At the outset, it is important to understand that it is often the case that at least some of the representatives of the college or university taking part in your interview will not have read your full application and will likely not work closely with you during your studies. This allows for the program to have a kind of “fresh assessment” from members of the university family who have not been influenced by your academic record and application.

Whether carried out by phone, over the internet, or in person, personal interviews provide graduate program faculty and staff an opportunity to see how potential students respond in real-time to questions that get beyond mere academics. Graduate programs are extremely diverse. And here we are not talking about location or discipline. Rather, a given program’s “personality” is at issue. Obviously, demographics, reputation, location, and many other factors go into shaping a particular department or program. In addition to the just-mentioned aspects, faculty and students strongly shape a graduate program at any given moment of the program’s history.

So, the graduate admissions interview is not primarily to rehearse your already stellar application. (You wouldn’t be having an interview if you weren’t a likely candidate for admission into the program). Sure, the faculty and staff who interview you will want to go over points of your application packet. However, the real purpose of the interview is to get behind the paper portrait you painted in your application, and get a bit closer to the person whom they and students will potentially be working with. This is why graduate admissions interviews can be so broad-ranging. They can touch upon personality, ambitions, failures, academics, extracurricular interests and hobbies, and, of course, academics. One university suggests that those interviewing you are interested in getting to know you better through

  • Your answers themselves;
  • How you organize your thoughts;
  • How well you express yourself.

In this case, the medium and the message are closely related and both important. It is not simply what your answers consist of, but how you frame and deliver your responses.

Graduate school interviewers like to cover four basic areas, even though questions from the different areas will likely be mixed together over the course of your interview. Graduate schools and programs are interested in:

  • Getting to know who you are, that is, how you perceive and present yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses;
  • Learning more about your academic history and performance;
  • Gaining deeper insight into the level of your interaction and interest in the particular field or program you have applied to for admission;
  • Responding to your questions.

Sometimes questions can be quite startling and seem totally unrelated to your interest and likely success in a graduate program. Students have been asked to consider very complex philosophical and ethical questions and explain what they think the response should be. Admissions interviewers have asked students to simply start talking, or even to play a board game with them during the interview.

Graduate interviews raise hard questions! Common to all these questions is the desire of the graduate school to understand you beyond your application. Graduate schools and programs want to get a read on your character and personality. They want to discover if you’ll be a good fit. Before we get to looking more closely at the specific questions and some good response strategies, we need to first lay out some overall guidelines that will allow you to give the clearest and most accurate impression of yourself to the graduate school.

  • Stay Calm! The person or persons interviewing you understand that you are nervous, and that hard questions are coming at you. Even if you are got off guard by a question, an interviewer will be impressed if you keep cool and think through your response. Keeping your nerves under control will also free your mind and emotions to more quickly and skillfully formulate your reply.
  • Be Flexible. So long as questions and/or request do not violate your dignity or ethics, go ahead and dream up thought puzzles, or play a game of checkers.
  • Don’t be afraid to show off your ingenuity. If presented with two options think of a third. Make interesting comparisons and connections across disciplines. Apply your learning and interests to the interview.

Areas of Frequently Asked Hard Questions

Personality: Strengths and Weaknesses

The questions in this area can be very wide-ranging. Interviewers in this component of the interview might ask you to talk about yourself, giving your self-impression of your strengths and weaknesses in both personal and academic matters. You might be called upon to list some of your strengths and provide instances from your life that demonstrate these strengths. Regarding weaknesses, you may be asked to explain ways that you have dealt with personal and/or academic limitations and how you have learned from them. You will probably be asked to talk about how your unique set of strengths and weaknesses will affect your participation in the graduate program you are being interviewed for.

Graduate programs will be interested in your extracurricular activities and hobbies as well. You may be asked something as mundane as “what was the last book you read or show you watched”? Your interests outside of the classroom can serve as corroborating information about your personality, leadership abilities, and teamwork skills, as well as your sense of and engagement in public service. Having diverse hobbies will show that you a well-rounded person, likely to be a positive addition to the program and the university.

Another way interviewers may try to get a sense of your personal characteristics is by asking you to comment on your perception of what others think of you. How you think your professors and colleagues think of you as a person and a student can be an avenue to understanding the level of your engagement with and awareness of others. Applicants will almost certainly be asked during their interview about what motivated them to pursue graduate studies in this field, what their academic and career goals are, and how the applicant thinks a given graduate program will help the student reach their goals. A person’s ambitions and the steps they have taken to fulfill them tell a great deal about their motivations, thereby giving a clearer indication about likely fit.

Academic History

No surprise here. For those called upon to help determine whether or not to accept you into a graduate degree program, your academic background is the key component of your potential acceptance. Be ready to be asked about what guided your choice of college and major. What promise did the major field you entered hold that made you commit to it? Be able to speak to what interests you in particular about the field to which you are applying. If you are applying to a graduate degree program in a field different from your undergraduate studies, have some reasons ready for the interviewers.

Of course, those interviewing you will be interested in what attracts you to their program and what courses during your previous studies served to prepare you for their program. Schools often want to know what other graduate degree programs you have applied to. Related to academics, you will likely be asked about how you handle stress, whether you finish assignments on time, what are some of your best academic successes, how your academic record reflects your potential. Because any graduate program will depend on how well you work with professors and, very likely, fellow students, your interviewers will be looking for examples in your academic background that showcase your ability to be a team player, the readiness to be a team leader, and your finesse in avoiding and/or resolving conflicts.

Knowledge of the Field

Graduate program interviewers will want to drill down a bit deeper by asking specific questions about the current state of the field you are applying to for admission. You may be asked about the majors trends in the field and their consequences for your goals and for society as a whole. Recent or past events may be brought up for you to analyze and comment on as they relate to your chosen field of study. Interviewers will want to know what you consider some of the more difficult problems that your discipline addresses and how you might seek resolve them by applying want you would learn through their graduate degree program. Another type of question you will want to be ready for is “what are some of the most important recent developments in your field“?

These questions all seek to help the admissions team get a clearer and more precise measure of your interest and involvement in your field. So, steps such as reading academic journals and publications, following the work of respected scholars, and even contributing to the field through research, writing, presentations, teaching, and field work in your chosen discipline will all contribute to making the best impression in the interview component of your application process. It is also very helpful in giving a positive impression to be current on the particular contributions in your field of study of current and even past scholars and researchers of the institution where you are seeking admission.

Your Questions for the Interviewers

Here is where you as an applicant get to turn the tables, so to speak, on those interviewing you. But, here preparation is important, as well. We have divided what we think are some of the most important types of questions aspiring graduate students should ask of their graduate admissions interviewers. Questions about:

  • The traits of the program that gives it its special quality or qualities that makes it stand out from other potential programs;
  • Practical aspects of the program and its requirements;
  • Opportunities that students have in the program;
  • What you as an applicant can do to improve your likelihood of admission.

Now let’s flesh these questions out a bit. Your questions for your interviewers, like their questions for you, are a two-way street. You’re learning about their program and their gauging your level of interest in the program.

First, you should ask your interviewer/s what in their opinion makes the program stand out, setting it apart from other programs. This sort of question is insightful because it gives you a chance to hear from the inside how the graduate degree program is perceived. This information will help you determine whether the degree has the right “feel”. The representatives of the graduate program will be happy to know that your interest in their program is deep enough to ask about the details.

Second, you need to find out as much about the practical details of the program as you can for your own sake. This will help you make an informed decision about the practicality of doing a degree. You should inquire about financial aid and scholarship opportunities. You need to find out the typical length of time it takes to complete the degree. Finally, ask about the employment of recent graduates from the program. This will give you a sense of how the program is perceived as well as deeper insight into the likely employment situation you will face upon graduation.

Third, you need to ask about what initiatives you can take or become involved with while you are a student. These would include work programs, assistantships, internships, and research and publishing opportunities for students. Also, let the interviewers know of your research interests and ask about the possibility of working with faculty on some of these, especially, if the current faculty are involved in this same research.

Fourth, see about how you can improve your chances of acceptance into the program, if, after the interview, you are still interested. Ask about how parts of the application packet are evaluated. These include test scores, writing samples, letters of recommendation, personal statements, etc. This may provide you a chance to improve a test score or procure additional letters. Lastly, you might want to ask about when you should hear from the graduate degree program about your acceptance.