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Top 12 Graduate School Interview Questions and How to Answer Them


You've made it through the first round of screening for graduate school, and now your preferred school wants to schedule an interview before they'll admit you to their graduate program. As a potential grad school candidate, you are probably an expert at studying for exams, but how can you study for an interview? You can't. However, if you take the time to prepare and consider how you will answer possible questions, you will exude confidence and sail through grad school interviews. Of course, the most important thing to remember is to be yourself and answer interview questions honestly. If you want to ace your upcoming grad school interview, keep reading to learn the top 12 graduate school interview questions and how to answer them honestly.

1. "Tell me about yourself."

Interviewers often open interviews with this seemingly simple question to break the ice and help put you at ease. Hopefully you know yourself well enough to answer this question on the fly, but if you take the time to prepare an answer, you will maximize every second of your interview. Come up with a one-minute elevator pitch about yourself: Highlight your best qualities and what sets you apart from others as well as what you're passionate about and what motivates you.

2. "Why did you choose this program?"

With a thoughtful answer to this question, you can show that you're qualified while also demonstrating that you've done your homework and learned about the department and the professors. Start by focusing on the aspects of the program that are most appealing to you, and then connect those factors to any relevant undergraduate or research experiences.

3. "What will you contribute to the program?"

Most graduate programs expect to have a mutually beneficial relationship with their grad students. Your department will expect you to conduct research, write and publish academic studies, present at conferences, and teach or help teach undergraduate classes. When you answer this question, mention any previous publications, significant contributions to research studies, or relevant work experience.

4. "What are you hoping to gain from this program?"

Perhaps you are seeking a graduate degree because you want to expand your job options or increase your salary, but you're not sure how to say this in an interview-friendly format. Instead, you can say that you want to learn more about specific aspects of your field so you can contribute to society or that you are passionate about research and want to gain more research experience through this program. You can also mention previous graduates from the program as examples that you hope to emulate.

5. "What are your career goals after you complete this program?"

If you're applying to graduate school, you probably have specific goals that you want to accomplish, and finishing grad school is the first step towards achieving those goals. Write down a list of your short-term goals (what you hope to accomplish within the next five years) and your long-term goals (your overall career goals/what you hope to accomplish more than five years from now). Now review your lists and highlight any places where your goals overlap with the department's goals. In the interview, focus on these areas of overlap.

6. "Tell me about when you overcame a challenge."

Before the interview, think about specific situations in which you struggled at first but in the end you succeeded, and identify how you overcame that challenge. Remember, everyone fails in life, and the most important thing is what you learn from it and how you handle it. If an interviewer asks about a time that you failed or struggled, they probably are not as interested in the failure as they are in how you handled that failure.

7. "Describe your greatest accomplishment."

If you cringe when someone asks you to talk about yourself, try to reframe this as an opportunity to talk about your work. When you're preparing for upcoming graduate school interviews, make a list of your academic and non-academic accomplishments. Even if interviewers don't ask you this specific question, if you have already catalogued your recent accomplishments, you will be more likely to mention them during the interview.

If possible, try to connect your answer to your research interests or the program to which you are applying. Also, remember that interviewers don't expect you to say that you climbed Mount Everest; you can always answer the question by clarifying that your answer includes one of your greatest accomplishments.

8. "What is your greatest strength or your greatest weakness?"

Before the interview, make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. If you find it difficult to identify any, ask your friends, loved ones, and mentors for suggestions. Don't take it personally if someone identifies a weakness you weren't aware of—if someone is willing to be honest with you about your faults, they can probably identify four times as many strengths that they admire about you, and they most likely want you to succeed.

Once you have a few solid strengths and a few solid weaknesses, evaluate them and consider if any are particularly relevant to your chosen program. If you have learned strategies to counteract one of your weaknesses, mention that weakness in your interview and explain how you have learned to succeed despite that weakness.

Resist the urge to answer this question with a cliché response such as "My greatest weakness is I'm a perfectionist, but that's also my greatest strength." Answers like this have been featured in too many sitcoms/workplace comedies, so avoid any answer that could be mistaken as a line from The Office.

9. "How do you manage stress?"

Graduate school is stressful, so your interviewers might ask this question to ensure that you have developed healthy ways to cope with stress. Hopefully you already have healthy coping strategies in place such as exercise, yoga, dinner with friends, or hikes in nature. If you haven't established any of these healthy stress-relieving routines yet, now is a great time to start. If you develop positive ways to handle stress now, you will be able to give genuine, honest answers in your interview, and you will also experience the benefits of those healthy habits.

10. "What would you do if… ?" (hypothetical questions)

Some interviewers like to present candidates with hypothetical situations to evaluate how candidates might approach ethical issues or problematic scenarios. There isn't one right answer about how to handle a hypothetical situation, so the best strategy is to stick to your personal morals and focus on problem solving. Hypothetical questions give interviewers a chance to see how you analyze a problem in real time, and your answer will provide clues about your work ethic, communication styles, and personal boundaries.

11. "If you got a personalized license plate, what would it say?" (obscure questions)

It's almost impossible to prepare for obscure, off-the-wall questions like this one, so just remember that you don't have to answer the question immediately. If your mind is completely blank at first, you can smile and say, "That's a great question. Let me think about it for a moment." If you take your time and provide a genuine response, you will show the interviewer that you are assertive and confident and that you can think clearly under pressure.

12. "Do you have any questions for me?"

Many interviewers will conclude the interview with this question, even if you've asked brief questions during the interview. Take this opportunity to showcase your critical thinking skills and glean some information at the same time. When you prepare for the interview, create a list of questions about the program. Write down at least six questions, because they might answer a few of the questions during the interview, and you do not want to ask a question if the answer has already been discussed. Consider writing down a few questions specific to each university, and write down a few that you can ask each institution so you can compare if necessary. Examples of questions you can ask include the following:

  • What is this program's greatest strength?
  • What is this program's greatest weakness?
  • What kind of scholarships are available for the program?
  • How can I find out about research assistant positions in the department?
  • How do graduate students find advisors or mentors within the department?
  • How would you summarize most professor-student relationships in this department?
  • Do students and faculty collaborate and co-author papers?
  • What kind of positions do graduates tend to pursue after graduation?

Graduate school interviews can be daunting, but if you take the time to prepare and approach the process as if you're studying for a final exam, you will ace your interview. If possible, ask a friend or colleague to rehearse with you so you can practice responding to these 12 interview questions. Preparing your answers and rehearsing with a friend might help you relax in the actual interview, so you can provide authentic answers that will help you land a spot at your preferred grad school.

Header photo by airfocus.

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