Graduate School Interview Questions 101 — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
8 min readMar 2, 2023

In this blog, you’ll discover some of the most common-as well as some of the more complex and intricate-graduate school interview questions students have to face every admission cycle. To assist you in generating thoughtful responses, we’ll provide advice and guidelines to tackle these frequently asked questions.

An interview may be necessary when applying to certain graduate programs, especially research-based graduate programs. It is crucial to be ready for the many queries you might receive. Although some questions appear uncomplicated and straightforward on the surface, there could quite possibly be a more in-depth meaning behind them. To guarantee an outstanding grad program application process, come fully prepared with answers to all kinds of graduate school interview questions — even the seemingly innocuous ones!

Although you should feel relaxed enough to converse with your interviewer(s), keep in mind that the interview is a critical evaluation. Remember that if you have secured an interview for a graduate program, they are more likely to search for reasons to admit rather than reject you! The review committee has been thoroughly impressed by your application materials and statement of purpose, so they now wish to determine if you are as amazing in person as you appear on paper. Will this be someone with interesting ideas that the department will want to bring into their community? Being prepared for your upcoming interview will allow you to show the best version of yourself.

Tell me about yourself

There is no doubt that this question ranks among the most frequently asked graduate school interview questions, regardless of field or program. Consider this question as some sort of prologue, or as the beginning of your story as an ambitious graduate student. It is important to provide an accurate and honest account of your background, experiences, and goals. However, be concise! You should not spend more than two minutes on this question. To start, you may feel anxious and could be guilty of rambling as your nerves settle. Second, you don’t want to say too much and keep your interviewers engaged throughout the interview, and you don’t want to spend the rest of the time you spend with them repeating what you already stated at the beginning of the interview!

Why do you want to go to graduate school?

When applying to a graduate program, it’s essential not only to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject you have studied but also to prove that you are well-equipped and prepared for such an opportunity. Expressing admiration is certainly appreciated; however, communicating how this endeavor will expand upon your existing knowledge base is key in advocating yourself as a strong candidate.

Being passionate about research is commendable, so by all means demonstrate your enthusiasm for it. However, you also need to make sure that your response goes beyond mere statements of genuine excitement. To do this, you can share details about relevant research that you have conducted in the past and how it has inspired new inquiries that you are enthusiastic to explore further. Discussing your previous research can demonstrate to the interviewer that you have a developed understanding of the topic and that you have the necessary skills and motivation to succeed in a graduate program.

It is also essential to communicate your reasons for wanting a graduate degree, and how it links in with your career ambitions. Be prepared to talk about what you want to do after graduation, and be as precise as possible. This will demonstrate that you have taken the time to consider the consequences of obtaining a doctoral degree.

Why Do You Want to Pursue Graduate Studies Here?

When answering this question make sure to be precise. Do not talk more than necessary about the school or the program’s prestige. No need to reiterate their academic standing; they understand it well. Instead, focus on the curriculum and how it caters to your learning needs. Who could be the ideal collaborator to work with in your field of study? What is it about their research or teaching approach that captivates you and ignites your curiosity? What areas of the department bring you the most enthusiasm and dedication for this topic? What major initiatives is the department currently working on, and how do these goals align with your own aspirations? What makes this school/program uniquely qualified to help you reach your ambitions more than other educational establishments? It is absolutely critical to be able to respond thoughtfully and accurately when asked questions like these — from any program you choose to apply for.

How will you contribute to our program?

Until now, you may have been primarily considering what type of perks and benefits the institution could provide for you as a student such as funding, academic mentorships, or job opportunities in research labs. As you progress in your studies, understand that the university will also reap immense benefits from your presence. Your research projects and teaching contributions are invaluable to their success. After you earn your diploma, your education not only benefits yourself; it also reflects positively on the program from which you graduated. As a working professional, having that diploma hanging in plain sight is more than decoration-it’s a testament to their educational programming and an ambassador for all of their hard work! What unique and innovative concepts are you bringing to the table? How can you contribute ideas that others may not be able to bring into fruition, or at least not in the same manner as yourself?

It is essential for you to carefully review the mission statement of your prospective school and hardwire yourself with information about the departmental priorities (which can be found on both their websites). Aside from any pre-existing ideas that may inform your research, this will help ensure that all objectives align. With this knowledge, you can identify the qualities they prioritize and research areas they support. Additionally, understanding what goals they are striving to achieve will help you see how your own interests and values coincide with theirs. Furthermore, pinpointing events, projects or activities that highlight these attributes in yourself is an effective way of expressing it as well.

What are your research interests?

At first glance, this is one of the graduate school interview questions that may appear easy to answer. However, as you apply for graduate school admission, it is okay if your research agenda is not crystal clear yet (especially at the master’s level)!

Even if you have a research agenda, it is likely to change throughout the course of your degree program. This is simply the nature of higher-level research as you will discover many new topics and subjects that were previously unknown to you.

At this point, you have accumulated a great deal of knowledge and likely identified some areas where there are still opportunities to learn more. Despite being aware of the gaps in your knowledge, lying beneath them are hidden depths of understanding that remain unnoticed. These unknowns may be things you know nothing about or issues that are beyond your scope because of your limitations.

The takeaway is that your ideas will be pushed to their limits, which can lead you down a new path of research and exploration. Your interests may evolve, potentially leading you in directions that you never could have imagined when beginning this journey. Your interviewers understand that you are still working on gaining expertise. Come prepared with a concrete plan of what you would like to accomplish in your education. If you don’t have all the details worked out just yet, that is okay. Demonstrate why these goals are important and relevant and do not attempt to revolutionize a discipline by introducing an ambitious idea.

What are the major trends in your field of study?

Even if you aren’t asked this question explicitly, it is important to demonstrate that you are immersed in the literature and actively engaging with your scholarship. This shows a commitment to learning beyond the typical coursework requirements.

Not there yet? No problemo!

Start by exploring the most relevant journals, an actionable source for current issues being discussed. Don’t have any idea which ones they are? Get on the internet, or contact a librarian or professor — they will guide you through the leading journals that can assist in broadening your understanding. Look at past editions to gain insight into what topics are engaging experts right now! Mastering the classics is an essential part of any graduate student’s studies, yet it’s just as crucial to stay updated with what is going on in your field at present. To wow your interviewer(s), make sure you can cite some relevant figures and theories that are currently popular or trending. Doing so will demonstrate a commitment to staying informed and up-to-date with current developments in your area.

What is the proudest achievement thus far?

As you apply for your graduate program, it’s likely that you have achieved both personal and academic milestones. Without a doubt, make sure you bring this up in the interview. Nonetheless, remember to remain humble-especially if you’re discussing academic accomplishments. You should be proud of all your accomplishments, but now you are about to enter a new world where everyone is as successful and celebrated as you. You may have been used to being at the top of every list before, however, in this arena, there will be other people just like you competing for those #1 spots and even more skilled individuals who decide who ranks on such lists. Showing humility is always appreciated. Remember, the admissions committee sees each potential student as a possible team member. Graduate school should be about working with your professors and peers — not only for them like you did in undergrad classes. Alongside assessing academic credentials, they want to make sure that you’re someone they would enjoy seeing daily when on campus!

The Bottom Line

It is important to go through potential graduate school interview questions and contemplate how you might reply, however, we do not suggest coming up with a pre-written script or predetermined answers. Bear in mind that it is impossible to anticipate which questions will be posed on interview day. You may get these inquiries but there could also be school/program/discipline specific queries as well.

Therefore, memorizing particular answers to these questions may not be the most efficient method for developing your skills. Moreover, overly-scripted responses will always appear insincere and robotic at best. Instead, consider the different ways you can showcase certain qualities through your personal experiences that are unique to you.

With this kind of understanding and approach, your stories will flow naturally. To gain further insight into the effectiveness of your answers to various questions like these, check out our Mock Interview Service. Through my extensive experience interviewing doctoral students as a professor, I possess the knowledge to guide you in crafting a compelling narrative that accurately reflects and exemplifies who you are!

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on March 2, 2023.

--

--

Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/