Preparing for Graduate School Interview

The graduate committee from XYZ University has reviewed your application materials and has invited you to the university for an interview. This is great news! You are now one step closer to being accepted. Although it is still premature for you to go out and celebrate, if all goes well, you may find yourself in “the big leagues.”

The interview process varies from university-to-university. Some universities will accept you in the first round, and the interview process is  approached as a formality. Others are trying to assess “good fit” before offering you a position in their program. As you can imagine, the more competitive the program is, the more difficult the interview process will likely be. 

What is “good fit?”

“Good fit” is essentially an assessment of how well your interests and future goals match with what the program has to offer. At this point, the graduate committee used your personal statement and the rest of your application materials to formulate the opinion that you are a “good fit,” or they would not have offered you an interview. The purpose of assessing “good fit” in the interviewing process will have more to do with your personality, your maturity level, and your ability to think on your feet and discuss your desire to gain expertise in the specific discipline that you applied for in your own words. It helps to have a research question of your own to discuss within that field of expertise. Develop a brief 15-20 second “elevator” speech that informs the audience what specifically you are interested in studying and what you hope to do with that information. 

Examples of an “elevator” speech

“My main area of interest is in studying the social relationships of adolescent children who have witnessed domestic violence in their homes and the ways by which they react to aggression from their peers.” 

“I am interested primarily in working one-on-one with drug abuse victims in a clinical setting. I hope to work with other drug and alcohol clinicians to develop & implement new interventions that will help patients to sustain long-term sobriety.”

It is important to be able to elaborate on your goals and discuss ideas about how you can bring your goals to life. Consider how your research interests and/or goals will contribute to the work already being conducted within that particular program. It is especially relevant to know what your potential advisor’s current interests are, as well as the interests of other faculty members in that program. Most of this information can be found on the graduate program’s website under faculty biographies. Sometimes, professors will have copies of their curriculum vitae and most recent publications in PDF format on their web pages. If you can locate this information, it will be valuable to refer to during the interview process.

The interview generally entails a full weekend-long agenda facilitated by graduate students already enrolled in the program. These graduate students serve as hosts, tour guides, and escorts during your visit to the campus. They can offer interesting views of the faculty at XYZ university, and they are generally very accommodating. It is highly likely that you will have to spend the weekend at one of the graduate student’s houses, and that person is “hosting” you during the interview process.

It is wise to be respectful and courteous. These graduate students may seem to be very casual, but it is important to realize that they are also evaluating you to see if you have “good fit” with the personalities and objectives of the other students already in that program. Be sure to maintain a mature and friendly, yet professional demeanor. It is unwise to get drunk and air all of your dirty laundry to your new best friend, Jenny Graduatepants! She does not want to hear about how your boyfriend cheated on you in your last semester of college, or how your mother is addicted to prescription drugs. Such disclosures may call into question your ability to remain focused on the demands of graduate school, whether that is the case or not. Graduate student hosts are still expected to carry out their own schedules while accommodating you, so remember their time is valuable. Be yourself, but be respectful of boundaries and privacy concerns.

In addition to meeting the graduate students, you will be meeting multiple professors during the interview process – one of which will be the faculty member that you hope will become your advisor.  Some universities have you meet with a dozen or so professors, but most will have you meet only three or four who have similar interests to your own.  Practice your “elevator” speech. You will be repeating it many times over the course of the weekend.

It does not matter what people say, personality does matter.  It is important to be genuine, and approach the interview with an equal mixture of confidence and humility. You should be confident enough to know the reasons why you belong in XYZ university’s program, but be humble enough to know that you will not be considered a “super-star” from the start. You will have to prove yourself over the course of time in the program, and these professors have likely seen many students both significantly gain and lose confidence over the course of a very difficult program.

If you are one of those people who does not interview well, you will want to consider as many possible questions as you can, ahead of time, so that you feel as prepared as possible. If you are the nervous-type, don’t worry. To avoid awkward silences, come armed with a lot of questions about the work of the faculty members and graduate students that you meet, and specific information about the program itself. Remember you are assessing whether or not the program is a “good fit” for you, as well. 

If you do not get into the program of your dreams after your interview, try not to be discouraged. The graduate committee knows that not all the students that are interviewed will accept an offer of admission. You may not have gotten accepted into XYZ university simply because the number of slots that the program had open was exceeded by the number of students that were invited to the interviews. This is a common occurrence, as many desirable students are accepted into multiple programs. If you are in competition with many promising students, it could mean that some other graduate student had slightly more research experience than you (perhaps even a publication) or had interests more closely aligned with the program. If you are very serious about this program in particular, reapply the following year and state that in your personal statement. You will likely have a better chance to get accepted the second time around, if you were invited to an interview (especially if you were wait-listed).

Additional Resources

Oudekerk, B.A. & Bottoms, B.L. (2007). Applying to graduate school:  the interview process. Eye on Psi Chi, 12(1), 25. 

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has put together a comprehensive list of potential interview questions here: