Preparing for graduate school interview questions

Grad school interviews are the last step of the application process, so congratulations for making it to this stage! Getting this far is a big accomplishment—graduate schools only conduct interviews with those applicants they are seriously considering accepting.

Grad schools conduct interviews to assess your “fit” with their program and faculty, as well as your interpersonal skills. In many cases, they may also be attempting to match you with a supervisor.

Before the interview, you should prepare by doing your research and reflecting on how you’ll answer these common questions.

How to prepare for your interview

First, read the website of the program you’re interviewing for. They’ll usually have information on job placement, curriculum, and expectations of graduate students.

If possible, talk to previous students about their experiences interviewing. Although no two interview experiences are exactly alike, they may be able to provide you with valuable tips for preparing.

You should prepare answers for certain, very common questions. You don’t need to memorize your answers—you don’t want to sound scripted, but you should have a sense of what you’ll say.

Don’t be afraid to take a few seconds to gather your thoughts before answering a question. Remember, the substance and quality of your answer are far more important than the quantity of words.

Tips for specific programs

If you’re interviewing for a research program, you should try to read as many papers in your field of interest as possible. Reading others’ research helps you generate ideas of your own. You’ll also be more prepared to answer questions about the topics you’re interested in researching, which could come up during your interview.

Research programs may ask you about a current topic in your field and what methods you would use for tackling it. Make sure you know some of the current open questions in your field and think about how you would answer them, including dealing with any obstacles that might come up. One potential tip is to talk to older students or professors that you know about these questions.

Focus on the CVs or biographies of professors that you’re particularly interested in working with. Read any research they’ve authored and jot down questions that come to mind when reading. Try to come up with a good argument for why they would be a good fit to supervise or work with you.

Business schools are also interested in your interpersonal skills, so your interview performance is an essential part of the application process.

Business school interviews will focus particularly on your career—both your past work experiences and your future goals. Go through your resume and prepare stories that illustrate the challenges and successes you had at each major work experience. Focus especially on any experiences you’ve had managing others, since an MBA is ultimately a management program. Identify the unique contributions that you’ll bring to the school.

In addition to your professional background, don’t be afraid to bring in experiences from beyond work and the classroom, such as from volunteering or extracurricular activities you participated in undergrad or afterwards.

Medical schools are looking for more than just academic ability—they want to find candidates well-suited to the unique demands of medicine. As such, they look for integrity, empathy, reliability, ability to interact with the general public, and motivation for a career in medicine. Ensure you have your answer to why you want to be a doctor down pat.

Medical school interviews sometimes ask about “ethics questions” that are designed to assess your thoughts about ethical dilemmas that you may face as a physician. To prepare, think about a general ethical framework that you can apply to any ethical question. What are some ethical principles that you, as a physician, will have to keep in mind when treating patients? How important is a patient’s autonomy? Should equity or efficiency matter more?

Many undergraduate universities do mock medical school interviews with their students and graduates—take advantage of this opportunity if you can.

Law schools might ask about your opinions on current events, especially those with a legal angle. You may also be asked about your future career plans.

Many people apply to law school because they see it as a natural next step, without really knowing if they actually want to practice law. Interviewers know this and will be on the outlook for such an attitude. Make sure you have thoroughly researched the career and know why you want to pursue this path. Ask current lawyers you know about what they actually do in their daily work life and the best and worst parts of their jobs.

Questions about your background

Interviewers want to know how your previous experiences will serve you in this program and ensure you have the relevant skills and knowledge to succeed.

What will you bring to this program/why should we admit you?

This is one of the most important questions you’ll be asked to answer. Focus on the skills and background that you will uniquely bring to the program. Be prepared with specific anecdotes that demonstrate your abilities.

You should also tailor your answer to the type of program you’re applying to:

  • If you’re applying for a research-based master’s or doctoral program, you will want to focus particularly on your academic and research background.
  • If you’re applying to medical school, your academic background is important, but so is your personal motivation.
  • Business schools will want to hear about how your professional experience has prepared you to manage others in a rapidly changing and increasingly global business climate.

Tell us about the research you’ve completed or contributed to

Because future potential as a researcher is difficult for graduate programs to assess, they will be particularly interested in the background that you already have. Oftentimes resumes do not make it clear what exactly someone did as a research assistant, so you should be prepared to discuss your work and what you learned.

Specific questions about classes you took or skills you have

This depends on the program you’re applying to. Medical programs may ask about weak grades that you’ve received in science or math subjects or about your personal experiences shadowing doctors.

Business schools might want you to discuss any management experience you’ve had—particularly experiences where you overcame obstacles or a difficult interpersonal interaction.

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Questions about your interests and motivations

You’ll be asked questions designed to assess your knowledge of the program and how well it fits with your academic or professional interests.

What interests you about this program?

This is probably the most common question that you’ll be asked, so you should be sure you have your answer down pat.

Stay away from answers like “because you’re a good program” or “I want to attend a prestigious school.” While prestige matters, graduate programs want to hear more about why you think you’re a good fit for their particular program.

If the program has a particular speciality that interests you—say a medical school that’s particularly well known for their research on Alzheimer’s or a business school whose marketing program is top notch—be sure to bring it up. This will demonstrate to the interviewers that you have a genuine interest in their program.

Mention any professors you are especially interested in working with or any resources that the school may have special access to. Perhaps they run an internship program in an area you’re interested in or have strong connections in a particular industry.

What topics are you interested in researching?

Graduate schools know that what you’ll end up researching is not yet set in stone, particularly if you are applying to a doctoral program. However, they like to see that you have some idea of what you would like to do, mostly as a way of demonstrating your seriousness in pursuing research and knowledge of the field.

You should therefore come up with a few topics, preferably ones that are strengths of the school’s faculty, to discuss during an interview.

Who would you like to work with in our program?

Most graduate programs, particularly those in research, will assign you some sort of supervisor or advisor. You should have a few ideas of who you’d like to work with in this case. Ensure that it’s not just a single person—faculty can and do often leave their universities for other opportunities, so you’ll want to have a few back-up options.

Questions about your post-graduation plans

Interviewers may also ask about how this program fits into your longer-term goals.

What career are you interested in pursuing after graduation?

Be honest but realistic in your answer to this question. Importantly, you should not indicate your interest in a career that doesn’t fit with the program—if you don’t want to be a lawyer, don’t mention that in an interview with a law school!

Example answer: Law school

Ideally, I’d like to start off by gaining experience in a law firm, then move to a company where I can work as an in-house lawyer. I’m not entirely sure which branch of law I’d like to pursue yet, but I’m planning on taking classes in bankruptcy and corporate law to see if they interest me.

If you’re applying to a doctoral program, you will most likely be expected to continue in a career in academia, although this may vary based on the program. If you don’t have a perfect idea of what you want to do, don’t panic—that is part of what the program is intended to do! Just answer with your current thoughts.

Example answer: Economics PhD interview

I’m interested in becoming a researcher in applied microeconomics, hopefully as a tenured professor at a research university. I am particularly interested in applying the methodology of behavioral and experimental economics and the rigor of econometrics to issues like the political economy of housing policies and voting.

What to ask your interviewers

Interviews are a two way street. Interviews will almost always ask if you have questions for them—make sure you have some good ones! Here are some examples of things you can ask about:

  • Funding opportunities: do they have funding available for research or projects you might want to carry out? How accessible is it?
  • Access to advisors: How often do advisors meet with their students? How hands-on are advisors?
  • Other access to resources: if you need computing resources for your projects, will you have access to them? Do they have a library of books or academic articles that will be available for you as a student?
  • Placement record (if not available online): How do students normally place after completing this program? What sort of jobs do they take? How long do they require to find a full-time job? Do they normally go on to tenure-track positions or something else?

        What not to discuss

        Stay away from any questions that can be easily answered from looking at the program website. Admissions officers want to know that you’ve done at least a little bit of research on the program!

        Although personal considerations (such as what it’s like to date or live in the city where the school is located) are vitally important to the choice of a graduate program, you should generally ask these questions only of current and former students, not faculty or admissions officers. Try to keep your questions on the theme of academic or professional experiences.

        There are also some questions that interviewers should not ask you. Although it rarely occurs, be aware that you don’t have to answer questions that are inappropriate, or possibly even illegal, including anything that relates to your marital status or pregnancy, age, disability status, race, or gender. If asked a question that falls into this category, you should inform the interviewer that you’re not comfortable answering and report the incident to an admissions officer afterwards.

        Frequently asked questions about grad school interviews

        What are the most common graduate school interview questions?

        Graduate schools often ask questions about why you are interested in this particular program and what you will contribute.

        Try to stay away from cliche answers like “this is a good program” or “I got good grades in undergrad” and focus instead on the unique strengths of the program or what you will bring to the table. Understand what the program is looking for and come up with anecdotes that demonstrate why you are a good fit for them.

        Different types of programs may also focus on different questions:

        • Research programs will often ask what topics you’d like to research and who you would like to work with, as well as specific questions about your research background.
        • Medical schools are interested in your personal motivation, qualities such as integrity and empathy, and how you’d respond to common ethical dilemmas.
        • Business schools will focus on your past work experience and future career prospects, and may be particularly interested in any experience you have managing or working with others.
        How do I properly prepare for a graduate school interview?

        In addition to thinking about your answers for the most commonly asked grad school interview questions, you should reach out to former and current students to ask their advice on preparing and what sort of questions will be asked.

        Look back through your resume and come up with anecdotes that you could use for common questions, particularly those that ask about obstacles that you overcame. If you’re applying for a research program, ensure that you can talk about the previous research experience you’ve had.

        You should also read as much research in your field as possible. Research the faculty at the schools you’re applying to and read some of their papers. Come up with a few questions that you could ask them.

        Which types of graduate programs require interviews?

        Most medical school programs interview candidates, as do many (though not all) leading law and business schools.

        In research programs, it depends—PhDs in business usually do, while those in economics normally do not, for example.

        Some schools interview everyone, while others only interview their top candidates. Look at the websites of the schools you’re applying to for more information on whether they conduct interviews.

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        Lauren Thomas

        Lauren has a bachelor's degree in Economics and Political Science and is currently finishing up a master's in Economics. She is always on the move, having lived in five cities in both the US and France, and is happy to have a job that will follow her wherever she goes.