Some schools invite applicants to a series of on-campus interviews as the final step in the screening process. Some schools don't conduct interviews, but if they do and you're invited, you'll know that things are going well. Essentially, the school is telling you: "Look, we like you on paper. But we want to meet you in person to make sure that your marbles are in order before making a decision."
Sounds straightforward, right? Wrong! Unlike the rest of the graduate admissions process, interviews don't follow a rule book. You won't really know what to expect, nor will you be able to determine what the faculty is looking for – at least with any certainty. So what's an honest human to do?
For starters, take care of your wardrobe. If you're a man, wear a button up shirt and pants; if you're a woman, do the same, but with a skirt if you prefer. If want to present a more formal image, wear a jacket, although it may not be necessary. Next, prepare yourself mentally. Visualize the interview as a two-way conversation between peers, not as an interview.
Finally, it's time to prepare for common grad school interview questions. Chances are that you'll be asked at least a few of them, so preparing will help you look like less of a dunce. Here are the ten most frequent grad school interview questions, in our experience.
"Tell Me About Yourself"
This open-ended question has the potential to cause you to trip and plummet into a bottomless chasm. With spikes on the bottom. So don't take this four word question lightly. A strong answer establishes your status as a talented, motivated, and intriguing individual at the personal, academic, and extracurricular levels. You could start by explaining where you're from, where you grew up, and any interesting personal circumstances. Then talk about your undergraduate university, what you majored and minored in, and why you made those choices. Finally, close by talking about your extracurricular achievements – both in school and outside. Everything you say should build toward the idea that your life has naturally led you to apply to graduate school. Your answer should be a concise, one to two minute response, demonstrating your ability to synthesize and structure your thoughts.
"Why Are You interested in This Field?"
If you haven't figured this out in your personal statement, you should go back to the drawing board. Basically, restate what you've written in your personal statement, but go deeper and broader. By deeper, we mean explaining in more detail those factors and motivations that you mentioned in your personal statement. By broader, we mean all the stuff you couldn't fit in the statement. A good answer shows both depth and breadth. If we had to pick one, we'd say to focus on breadth and let the interviewer guide you on what topics to go into more depth.
"Why Are You Interested in Our School?"
Why not? List all the reasons why the school is the single most perfect choice for the field that you're studying. Discuss its faculty, facilities, theoretical approach, course offering, student activities, job placement record, location, and any and all reasons that demonstrate a deliberate choice on your part. Your goal is convey your belief that the school is a highly compelling choice for you, if not your first choice.
"What Are You Going to Research?"
You might be thinking, "How the hell am I supposed to know?" And, frankly, this is somewhat of an unfair question. The faculty is not so much interested in a precise answer as much as they are in establishing your interest level, that you have an understanding of the discipline, and have formed some preliminary ideas. You can disclose that your ideas are preliminary (it's mature), but be sure to have one or two ideas for what you could research, and why. Explain what you might want to prove and how it would contribute to the treatment of that topic in your field.
"What Are Your Strengths and Weaknesses?"
Nobody likes answering this question, but it comes up. Describing your strengths should be straightforward. Pick two or three qualities that you possess and which are relevant to your field. For example, if you're applying to an engineering program, you might discuss your advanced knowledge of math, creative mind, and detail-orientation, backing each claim with examples. Talking about your weaknesses is another story. The general rule is to pick weaknesses that are really "weaknesses turning into strengths". You might say, for instance, that you only earned "Bs" in math, but that you earned an "A" in your last semester after deciding to do something about it. Or that you're not assertive enough, but have been practicing speaking up in recent months and are getting better at it.
"Why Should We Accept You?"
Why not? Describe in modest and balanced terms why you are eminently qualified for the program. Talk about your personal, academic, and extracurricular accomplishments and how they make you a strong candidate for the program. Discuss your long range plans and how you will make full use of the university's resources to accomplish your goals. While may sound selfish, you're really telling the school that they won't be wasting an admissions spot with you.
"What Are Your Career Goals?"
You might not have a clue, but it's important to have a preliminary idea of your career goals. Perhaps you want to become a professor, or use your graduate degree to conduct advanced work in another type of organization. Whatever the case, sketch your plans and make it clear how the program that you're applying to is an integral stepping stone. It's okay to have more than one career goal, so long as your goals are all relevant and show that you're planning to apply the knowledge you'll acquire. Whatever you say, don't say you want to make money.
"Where Else Are You Applying?"
This is a delicate question. If you answer, you're admitting that you're interested in more than one school. If you don't, you risk coming across as defensive and combative. One way to deal with this question is to say that you've applied to a few other schools whose programs correspond with your research interests, career goals, and other criteria. But that their school is really an excellent fit and that you'd love to be considered for the entering class. This is somewhat evasive, but doesn't force a direct comparison between their school and other schools. Another option is to disclose everything, particularly if you have other offers. This shows that you're an attractive candidate and it may help you get admitted. Which approach to take is up to you.
"What Have You Read Recently?"
Don't answer the latest New York Times Bestseller. The interviewer is a faculty member who is interested in establishing your intellectual quality and curiosity. Ideally, your library will consist of books and academic journals packed with articles from the same field to which you're applying. This demonstrates that your interest is genuine, maybe even indicative of a passion. You can also mention wider reading, to show that you're well rounded, but start with material that's closer to your interviewer's heart.
"What Questions Do You Have For Me?"
You're almost guaranteed to have this in your grad school interview questions. So prepare a list of five or more questions. The best questions demonstrate that you've research your field and the school's faculty members in depth. For example, you can ask the interviewer to talk more about his or her research: "I read your article on _______, which is a topic that corresponds with my own interests, can you tell me more about it?" You can also discuss specific aspects of the school's department, facilities, courses, or other peculiarities that show that you're a serious applicant. So have your own list of grad school interview questions in your back pocket.