Getting into graduate school can be tough—really tough. Performing well during an admissions interview might be the key to getting a spot in your first-choice master’s program. The interview is the perfect opportunity to sell yourself and personally connect with the admissions committee, showing that you’re the right choice.
The following tips give you insight into what admissions interviewers are hoping to hear. With a little preparation, you’ll be sure to shine during your graduate school admissions interview.
10 Tips for an Impressive Grad School Interview
A successful graduate school interview doesn’t happen by chance. These tips will help you ace your interview and increase your chances of getting into a top-tier master’s degree program.
1. Practice your answers.
How do you ace a graduate school interview? Practice, practice, practice. Research the most common questions and practice your responses to ensure that you remember the main points you want to make and can clearly articulate them.
2. Think about personal stories to supplement your answers.
Talking about your academic or professional experiences is essential. Still, you want to also think about a few personal anecdotes you can pepper into your responses to show how you’ll use past experiences in your future graduate studies. Whether you had a challenge to overcome or a hard lesson to learn, your good and bad experiences can help demonstrate that you’re a well-rounded candidate.
3. Have your friends and family interview you.
Practicing your interview answers on your own is great, but to really find out how you’re doing ask a friend or colleague to do a mock interview with you. They’ll see and hear things you may not notice and give you feedback to finetune your responses.
4. Collect information about the program, school, and faculty.
Is the program you’re applying to known for research? Do the professors work in the industry you want to break into? Did the school make news for innovative contributions to the field? By researching the school, program, and faculty, you can collect pertinent intel to show how well-prepared you are and use it for your responses.
5. Research the interview structure and who is interviewing you.
Understanding how graduate school interviews work is important for navigating the process. Find out about the structure of interviews at the schools you’ve applied to and the people who will be interviewing you.
6. Have questions prepared to ask your interview panel.
An interview is not a one-way street. So as you prepare your answers to interview questions, you should also prepare questions to ask the interview panel. Use the information you collected to formulate questions about the curriculum, student life, and financial aid options.
7. Remember that everyone is part of the interview process.
Every interaction you have with someone at the school you’re applying to matters, so treat everyone you encounter with professionalism and respect. If you’re short with the administrative assistant before your interview, you can be sure that the admissions panel will hear about it. From professors to support staff to current students, be mindful of the impression you’re making on everyone you meet.
8. Focus on rest.
Although you may be used to pulling all-nighters as an undergrad to get things done, the last thing you want is to go into your graduate school interview running on empty. Getting enough sleep will help you feel refreshed and have a clear head, which will boost your performance. Also, practice relaxation techniques before the interview to control your stress in this high-pressure situation. And to further avoid stress, plan on arriving 10-15 minutes early in case you get lost or run into traffic.
9. Be yourself.
Other applicants may have similar backgrounds, but you are unique—and interviewers want to see that. Don’t try to behave in a way that you think will impress interviewers. Just be yourself and let your personality shine throughout the interview.
10. Be honest and earnest.
Interviewers don’t expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to be honest. If you don’t know the answer to a question, just say so—your interviewer will respect your honesty. At the same time, look for a way to display your eagerness to learn even when you don’t know an answer, which is an earnest quality graduate schools want in their students.
Sample Questions: Graduate Admission Panel Gives You the Best Answers
Don Martin spent 28 years in graduate enrollment and student services as dean of admission at Columbia University, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Wheaton College in Illinois. In 2008, he founded Grad School Road Map in conjunction with his book “Road Map for Graduate Study: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students.” Over the past 15 years, he has coached more than 650 applicants, 97% of whom have been admitted to one or more of their top-choice master’s, medical school, law school, business school, and doctoral programs. He holds a master’s degree from Wheaton College and a PhD from Northwestern University.
Athena Motal is the director of social work recruitment, outreach, and enrollment at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. She spent the first part of her career as a social worker in New York City public and private hospitals. Motal earned her master of social work from New York University. She completed post-graduate training at New York’s Ackerman Institute for the Family and earned her PhD in social welfare from Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
Douglas Gouzie is a professor of geology at Missouri State University, with expertise in the development and environmental management of cave and karst systems. Gouzie also has served as director of graduate studies for the university’s Department of Geography, Geology and Planning. He earned his PhD in geology and BS in geology/geophysics from the University of Kentucky. Before joining Missouri State in 2005, Gouzie’s career included work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and as a private environmental consultant.
*Experts’ responses were edited for grammar, clarity, and length.
Interviewers don’t want to just know your qualifications on paper. They want to know who you are. Be prepared to talk about things like your background, interests, and personal experiences and what you’ve learned from them.
Question: Why do you want to pursue a master’s in (your field of study)?
Martin: Be very specific and very focused on what the degree is. One of the answers I wouldn’t advise is, “I just want to further my development in this field.” Let’s say the field is psychology. Why do you want to pursue a master’s in psychology? One of the best ways I know to answer a question like this is perhaps using a particular story about an experience you had as an undergraduate. Perhaps you were focusing on that field—or maybe you weren’t—and something happened during your undergraduate experience to spark your interest. Maybe you went through a personal crisis or when you took your first general education requirement in psychology it just blew you away. And then give specific aspects of the psychology field that you would want to look at—child psychology, sports counseling, and so forth.
Motal: It’s important to think about what inspired you to pursue your career path. It’s usually not a decision that is made at the moment but maybe a series of experiences throughout your life that led you to this. Speak to what sparked and led to your decision.
Gouzie: An honest answer will let the grad studies director help you figure out if you’re aiming for the correct program. Suppose you’re simply looking for a degree based on the professor’s name or the university’s name or reputation. In that case, the director should be able to look at your transcripts carefully and help you decide if you’re a good fit or if you might be in over your head.
Question: What are your academic strengths and weaknesses?
Martin: Here you want to be very forthright. There are two things I suggest when you talk about your academic strengths. You want to be careful that you’re confident when you talk about them but not arrogant. There’s a difference. However, you don’t want to be overly timid either. If you have a 3.85 GPA, you want to say, “I’m really excited about that. I worked hard, and I believe that’s a very good reflection of my academic skills and how I would perform at the master’s level.”
If you’re talking about a weakness, let’s say your GPA wasn’t a 3.85, it was a 3.28, or your GRE scores weren’t stellar. You do want to address it, but you don’t want to make excuses or sound like you’re feeling sorry for yourself.
Motal: Focus and be transparent about what you did well and what you did not. It’s helpful to review your transcripts in advance of an interview, so you can collect your thoughts and respond as to why your grades were affected and how you would be successful now. What would you do differently if you had the chance to take a specific course over again?
Question: What are your hobbies and interests?
Martin: Don’t go overboard. Don’t feel that you must say everything you’ve ever had as a hobby since you were in junior high school. If they ask this question, they would usually like to get to know you a little bit outside of academia or outside of your professional work experience. My suggestion would be maybe highlight two or three, at most, hobbies or interests that are not academic-related.
Motal: Speak to what you are passionate about and what brings you joy, as this will shine through.
Why Do You Want to Go Here?
These questions are designed to find out why you feel a specific school and program is the right fit for you. You’ll want to be clear about how the program will help you achieve your goals and what attracted you to the program.
Question: How do you think this degree program will support your goals and interests?
Martin: You don’t want to sound as though you have decided so definitively on your goals that nothing could ever change them. That will turn off an admissions committee—they’re going to think, “Oh my gosh, if we don’t do everything exactly as this person envisions their goals, they’re going to hate us.” So you want to be able to say, “At this point in time, I have a couple of goals I’m pursuing or thinking about, and here they are.”
Motal: Think about what connected you and drew you to the program you’re applying to and why you think this will help you fulfill your aspirations.
Question: What do you like best about this program?
Martin: If they’re asking you what you like best, only give them one answer. The response needs to be such that it does not describe any other graduate program to which you’re applying.
Motal: This is a very individual question. Many students look for curriculum flexibility since most students are working and have multiple responsibilities. Speak about what caught your attention and drew you to the program.
Question: Why did you choose to apply to this university?
Martin: I wouldn’t give more than three answers, but you should have at least three ready. You could say, “I visited your campus and was amazed at the way things are laid out and the facilities,” so you’re not just saying the more general, “Your location is wonderful.” If you want to focus on academics, you could say, “I’ve noticed three courses in your curriculum that I haven’t found anywhere else” and go on to explain why these are so appealing.
Motal: It’s important for one to do their research for any school they are considering. Review all program options, class size, licensing support resources, and tuition and fees. Attend open houses that will give you an understanding of what’s offered and an opportunity to ask questions.
Gouzie: Folks at Harvard, Stanford, or any big-name university know any applicant for their program chose them because of the school’s name recognition. However, if you’re interested in the one specialty in which their program isn’t a leader, you want to figure this out before you start the program. Or sometimes it’s as simple as the expert in that one field will be on sabbatical next year and, for a two-year master’s degree, it makes no sense to admit you to their program until that professor returns. Flattering language, such as “Your university is the most eminent in XYZ field,” just tells a grad director that you really have no idea of what you’re applying for—unless the program truly is the No. 1 ranked program for your field.
Describe Your Professional Goals
Although you aren’t going to be expected to have years of your career already mapped out, interviewers will want to know what you hope to accomplish and how the degree will help you. Think about how your goals align with what the program provides and be prepared to paint a picture of how they blend for the interviewer.
Question: What are your short-term and long-term career goals?
Martin: Don’t be overly verbose, too general, or too pie-in-the-sky philosophical. You want to be specific, but you don’t want to sound like the goals are set in stone. I encourage students to have one or two options—not just for the long term goal, but for short-term goals, too.
Motal: Think of short-term goals as the beginning of developing your professional skills. Most new professionals view their short-term goals or early career goals as being open to various learning opportunities and not limiting themselves. Long-term career goals are the big vision for yourself. Not everyone has a big vision if they are just starting out. This is OK. You hope that your early career experiences will help lead you to what you will feel passionate about.
Gouzie: If you want to get a job in a local company but also want to study with a professor and program researching the South Pole, then you need to be very careful to design your program with your advisor to get you the skills you need. Some faculty and programs are known for graduating very good project managers or team players, while other programs and faculty are better known for producing unique, one-of-a-kind experts in a very specialized field. Those experts may be of little interest to most employers in the industry or in applied areas of government or industry.
Question: Why did you choose this academic field, and how will it help you reach your goals?
Martin: I would suggest that students start with their goals first. Say something like, “I believe that psychology is a field in which there is great information that can help people navigate the emotional side or relational side of their life, and I find that fascinating. What I’m looking to accomplish involves that very thing.”
Motal: I’m sure you know what your profession of choice is most widely known for, so articulate that and explain why it speaks to you. Give anecdotes and examples from your life that make this connection, share your personal and professional goals, and explain how and why this field will help you achieve them.
Gouzie: In the sciences, it’s important to choose the right research mentor for the type of project that interests you. It’s almost equally important to consider the faculty mentor’s network relative to where you want to end up. Some faculty are known for research for PhD programs or research institutes. If you want to work for a state or federal regulatory agency, they may not recruit much at a research institute program or seek that faculty advisor’s students.
Question: What made you choose your career path?
Martin: This is a time for a story to take you out of the realm of the more standard answer. If you don’t have a story to share, you may want to focus on how you first learned about this field.
Motal: It’s possible you’re already working in the field and have had exposure to it and or positive experience working with other professionals. If that’s the case, share the details. If there’s a reason this career speaks to you, share that as well.
Describe Your Academic Experience
Interviewers want to know what you studied as an undergraduate, what you learned from the program, and how it prepared you for your future studies. Reflect on your college career and how you will use it as the foundation for a graduate degree program.
Question: Why do you think you’re a good fit for this program?
Martin: This is the place to toot your horn a little bit but not blow it too loudly. There’s a balance between confidence and cockiness or conceit. Let’s say you believe there could be seven reasons why you would be a good fit for this program. You want to limit yourself to two or three. Don’t just keep going on and on and on. It would also be helpful to find out if the admissions website talks about what type of students succeed or what type of students they bring into the program. If you do that, you can help yourself tremendously in answering this by saying, “I noticed on your website that you’d described your ideal student as possessing these qualities. Well, I believe I do possess those qualities, and I’d like to share with you a little bit about that.”
Motal: In preparing to respond to this question, it’s important that you have done your homework about the graduate program you’re applying for. Did you attend an open house? Did you speak to alumni? Did you research where graduates have gone after they have concluded the program? If it’s a license-eligible profession, is there a strong pass rate?
Gouzie: This is an important question for everyone to think about. There is no set answer—mostly because the point of graduate school is to help people advance in their knowledge. Trying to give an important-sounding answer may end up backfiring—what if you get into a program because you want the name recognition and then realize you are not at all prepared for the workload? Most grad program directors really want to help every student find the best fit for them—and that begins with the student knowing why they are applying and how this specific program fits into their interests and skill levels. Admissions staff members often even know other grad directors and might be able to help you find a better fit.
Question: How do you feel your undergraduate experience prepared you for this program?
Martin: This could be difficult if someone’s undergraduate major is not in the same field they are pursuing at the master’s or doctoral level. If there’s a match, that would be an amazing opportunity to talk about their experiences in the undergrad major and how they believe that really strengthened them to prepare for this next step in that same field. If they’re switching majors, however, they may have to be a little more diligent in talking about some of the skills they learned and the success they had in their major.
Motal: If you have a strong undergraduate academic record, speak to how your commitment to your studies will transition over to your graduate studies—that you will be equally, if not more, committed to being a successful graduate student. If you’re able to make graduate studies a priority in your life, please consider speaking to this.
Gouzie: If you’re applying to a research-heavy program (straight to PhD or large research lab group), it might be very important to have had some experience in undergraduate research, and being able to discuss that in detail is essential. Equally important is what undergraduate coursework you’ve completed and where you found challenges in learning some specific material. Many graduate programs have a set of classes that assume certain prerequisites. If you haven’t had those prerequisite undergrad classes, consider how quickly you can complete them and what other grad classes must be delayed while you do.
Question: What courses have you enjoyed the most throughout your college career?
Martin: My only suggestion here is just telling the truth. Don’t overthink this, and don’t approach this as, “Oh, now what courses would they most like me to talk about?” That said, if you majored in art history and don’t list any of your art history courses as ones you most enjoyed, that might look a little odd. But on the other hand, if you took a course in introductory Russian literature or European art and it was just so exciting, talk about it. Just be honest. They just want to get to know you here. This isn’t them sitting there with some sort of grid and checking boxes.
Motal: Some students might say they loved all their classes. Try to select at least one and why it stood out to you. Think about what you learned from the course. What were some key takeaways?
Gouzie: One example I know of is a student who was outstanding at math and generally good in other science classes. The student found chemistry more interesting than math and so they wanted to focus on the chemical reactions in the environment rather than on the mathematical models of how chemicals move physically through the environment. Talking about how math and science are intertwined and how you love both but are more drawn to chemistry than math would make a great grad school response.
What Are Your Research Interests?
If you have research experience or aspire to do research in your career, be prepared to talk about your research interests and why you want to pursue them.
Question: Why are you interested in your research topic?
Martin: Maybe you’ll have a story about something that happened that was so pivotal in your life that you knew this was the area or after all the studies you’ve done in the field, it’s just a match for you. It’s your calling, if you will. But if that’s not really how you feel, don’t try to fake it. Don’t pretend if you don’t feel that way. But if you do, what you want to convey is this passion, this tremendous calling you feel to this research topic.
Motal: Research is about a systematic investigation to establish facts, reach new conclusions, revise existing theories, and add to the body of knowledge. Think about what motivated you or inspired you to undertake your research topic. Why is it important to you?
Gouzie: The best answer is an honest answer. “It intrigues me” is fine, and “I had an experience with this in life” is fine. For example, many stories exist of someone who went into medical research after experiencing an injury or illness themselves or a close friend or family member. The truth is important, though, because all of us are human beings and cannot be 110% “on.” So saying that you’re obsessed with something until you figure it out might be a cautionary flag to a research advisor to investigate how you deal with setbacks or unsuccessful results—all of us experience failures or experiments that went wrong at some point in our career, so being honest about it during the application process is a good thing.
Question: What do you see as a significant trend in your field of study?
Martin: I tell students that, if they have access to a faculty member in this field, they should ask that person to share a few thoughts. The other thing they could do is get on the internet and search trends in research today or current trends in the literature.
Motal: In considering this question, please be prepared to have researched your chosen field and see what has changed over time and what direction it’s going in.
Gouzie: This is a good thing to think about yourself and discuss with any potential research mentor. Knowing that you are looking ahead in your field helps grad directors see that you aren’t just applying somewhere for a prestigious name but that you care about the field and its growth.
Question: What research projects or publications have you worked on?
Martin: If you’ve had any research projects, this question would most likely be an extension of something that’s already on your resume. Be prepared to talk more about it.
Motal: If you’ve participated in research projects or publications, please be prepared in advance and specific about your work. If you were an author of a publication, please be prepared to answer if you were a primary or secondary author. If you have not participated in any, say you are hopeful that you will have an opportunity to do so in your graduate studies.
Gouzie: With a research project, you may need more coaching and preparation before being set free to work on your own. At the same time, few things frustrate faculty more than someone who overrepresents their research experience and skills and then underperforms if they are tasked with an independent project before they really are ready to go solo.
Describe Your Problem Solving and Leadership Skills
Graduate school is challenging, and problem-solving skills questions are designed to demonstrate how well you will handle the challenges. Be prepared to talk about issues you’ve experienced, how you worked through them, and how you were able to coordinate with other students to solve problems.
Question: What is an obstacle you’ve faced, and how did you resolve it?
Martin: I think my best piece of advice for this question is to really talk about a genuine obstacle. Maybe you had a huge change in your financial situation during your second year of undergrad, and it put in jeopardy your ability to continue. Or you were playing a sport, and you were injured and discovered that you would not be able to play competitively at the collegiate level again. Or you lost a loved one. We’re not asking to know everything, but the fact that you did go through something you considered to be an obstacle that could have really taken you down a different path, and yet you overcame it, that story would be powerful.
Motal: If you have work experience, try to think of the most difficult challenge you have faced and how you tried to resolve it. Speak specifically and concisely about what the problem was and what steps you took in your problem-solving process. Even if it didn’t work out how you would have hoped, what did you learn from the experience and how would you try to approach it differently the next time?
Gouzie: This is often a standard question in many job interviews—graduate school or industry. Hopefully, every applicant can offer a positive answer. Everyone has some failure at some point in life; it’s simply part of being human. Another part of being human is learning from that failure and growing as a person—“adulting,” as it is often termed in recent times. Now is a good time to learn from your mistakes and think about something you could have done, or will do, better in the future.
Question: What is a situation where you worked as part of a group, and what was your contribution?
Martin: This is very straightforward. Was it sports? Was it a debate? Was it the yearbook club? Was it the choir? Was it a team project for a class? When did you participate as part of a team of people, and what do you believe you did?
Motal: If you were part of the group, what role were you assigned? How many were in the group? What was the group seeking to accomplish, and what was your part?
Gouzie: Another good question where honesty is really, really important. Many of us have large projects where some tasks are one-person tasks, and others are team tasks—be sure you address which kinds of tasks you’re best suited to. Please note that many faculty rely on reference checks for this item. Many students really like to work on a team project because they can hide their lack of skills or effort in the group’s success. I can also think of some students who think they were great leaders on a team only to read a reference letter saying they were not good team members and simply talked too much or bullied other team members into their own point of view—often to the detriment of the team’s accomplishments. All of us as humans need to think about how we interact with others, how we perceive ourselves, and also how others perceive us at the same time. If you aren’t sure about yourself, get in touch with some old teachers, maybe even from high school, and ask them for an honest opinion of how you work on a team—they probably noticed more than you know. Be sure to ask both teachers you liked and one or two whose classes were a struggle.
Question: What is a situation where you took a leadership role, and how did you handle it?
Martin: Whatever example you’re going to offer, don’t get hung up on how wonderful you were and how you saved the day. What was the situation? How did you address it? Was there an improvement? Talking about what you learned in that process would be helpful and how you handled it. Be honest and convey that you were excited about doing this. You might have been a little nervous in the beginning, but you stuck with it. Let them know you didn’t stop. You didn’t quit. And what did you learn?
Motal: Think about any professional situation where you offered to take the lead or step forward on something. Present the circumstances of the situation, what was involved when you took on this role, and how it turned out.
Gouzie: Much like thinking about working in groups and how you contribute to a group project, this question goes one step further and asks you to think about how you perceived your role on the team and how others perceived it. For example, do you always volunteer to be the team leader? Never volunteer to lead? Do you suggest the team take a group vote—a show of hands or secret written ballots to find a leader? After you’ve led once or twice, do people from that group ask you to take the lead in future teams—or do they volunteer to lead future team efforts?
Interview Etiquette: How to Be a Professional
Whether you are being interviewed in person or virtually, behave professionally to impress your interviewers. These interview etiquette tips will help.
1. Dress the part.
Remember that a graduate school interview is a formal meeting, so you need to dress accordingly. Choose a professional outfit that projects that you’re serious about getting into the degree program and that you care about your appearance.
2. Be a little bit early.
Arriving at your interview early will show the interviewer that you’re conscientious and organized. Also, it projects an enthusiasm about the prospect of attending the school, which will go a long way toward showing the admissions committee that you’re serious about the program.
3. Bring a notebook.
Jotting down notes during the interview is another way to display that you’re serious about the program and you want to retain the information you receive from your interviewer. But it’s also a good idea to use your notebook before you even get to the interview: As you research the school and interviewers, write down questions for them, which will further show how serious you are about being admitted into the program.
4. Have your application materials readily available.
Bringing copies of your application materials or having them ready to email if you’re being interviewed remotely will allow you to provide the information if the interview panel doesn’t have it on hand.
5. Learn about basic body language.
You already know that what you say is important, but do you know that what you don’t say communicates just as much as your words? To use your nonverbal communication to impress the interviewer, make eye contact, maintain an open posture, and demonstrate that you’re listening by nodding your head at the appropriate times.
6. Wear a watch to monitor how much time you have left.
It’s important to know how much time you have left during your interview, to make sure you don’t ramble toward the end and run out of time to share other important information. Wearing a watch allows you to discreetly look at the time during the meeting—something you can’t do with your cell phone.
7. If you’re doing a video interview, test your system first.
With remote interviews becoming more and more common, there’s a good chance you may be asked to complete your graduate admissions interview online. If this is the case, test your equipment ahead of time to ensure everything is working correctly. Check your audio and video settings before the interview—the last thing you want is for a glitch to occur while you’re live with the interviewer.
8. Write thank you notes.
Your interview isn’t the last chance you have to leave a good impression on the graduate admissions committee. Be sure to send thank you notes to everyone you met to express your appreciation and let them know how interested you are in enrolling in the program. Mention something specific that was discussed, so interviewers know you were paying close attention.
Additional Graduate School Interview Resources
You can never be too prepared for a graduate school interview. To help you get ready for the big day, we have assembled the following resources.
5 Stress-Relief Exercises That Will Calm Your Interview Anxiety
These tips will help to reduce interview stress.
7 Nonverbal Mistakes to Avoid Making During Job Interviews
These tips also apply to graduate school interviews.
Biggest MISTAKES I've Ever Seen in Grad School Interviews
In this video, University of Cambridge and University of Pennsylvania faculty member Jay Phoenix Singh discusses people’s biggest missteps.
Dress for Interviews
This article from Kent State University outlines how to dress for interview success.
Exactly What Foods to Eat—and What to Avoid—Before an Important Interview
Although people don’t necessarily think about the food they eat before an interview, it can affect their performance. Learn what will help—and what may hurt—your interview performance.
How to Use Nonverbal Communication in an Interview
Since nonverbal communication is just as important as what people say, this article discusses how to leverage nonverbal communication during an interview.
Interview Follow-Up: Thank-You Notes
This article provides tips on how to write effective post-interview thank-you notes.
Interview Questions to Ask: Grad School
In this article from North Central College, find out the best questions to ask your interviewer.
Preparing for Graduate School Interviews
This workshop from the Office of Intramural Training & Education at the National Institutes of Health covers what applicants can expect during the interview and provides a glimpse into the interviewer’s perspective.
Ten Tips for Graduate School Virtual Interviews
This article includes insights on performing well when your interview isn’t in person.