When applying to graduate school, prospective students are tasked with putting together a portfolio complete with a shining application, a thoughtful essay or personal statement, and glowing references and letters of recommendation. In many cases, applicants will also need to nail an interview to gain admission to their dream program.
For most people, the graduate school interview is a particular source of stress. After all, speaking about yourself is not always comfortable, and the pressure to dazzle the admissions team can feel overwhelming.
While not all graduate school programs require an interview, it’s becoming increasingly common, so it’s best to prepare for this possibility during the application process. Plus, an interview often gives you a competitive edge: It allows the school to see just how committed and qualified you are for the program.
In order to get a better sense of what prospective students should expect from a graduate school interview, we spoke with two graduate/international credentials analysts for the Office of Graduate Admission at USC: Moises Cortes and Astghik Tsatryan.
How to Prepare for a Grad School Interview
To begin your interview preparation, brainstorm questions you’re likely to be asked and outline your answers for them. Do some mock interviews before the big day, too. Try practicing with a friend or colleague to be sure the answers land — and so you won’t feel as nervous recounting them in front of your interviewer.
Of course, a vital part of prepping for those questions is doing thorough research. Look into both the school and the program you’re applying to so you can easily demonstrate your interest in each and every aspect of the curriculum and its mission.
“I recommend carefully reading the department’s website and look for its ‘About Us’ section. This will let you tailor your overall interview questions and commentary to their liking,” said Cortes, a current student in the Master of Library and Information Science program at San Jose State University.
He also advised looking into the faculty and even reading some of their research to get an idea of whom you may be learning from — and why that’s an exciting prospect for you.
But don’t just limit yourself to reading up on the professors, Tsatryan noted: “Talk to alumni of the program. I used to look through LinkedIn and contact previous students of the program and get their insights.”
That way, you can develop a sense of what the graduate school committee is looking for, and you can be confident that the program is the right fit for you. After all, being sure of your higher education pursuit is maybe the most crucial step in the preparation process.
“You should never just go for a degree for the sake of having a degree — go for it knowing that there is a deeper purpose for it,” said Tsatryan, a graduate of the Master of Science (MSc) in Global Governance and Diplomacy program at University of Oxford.
What Are the Top Questions Applicants Should Prep For?
What specific questions should you absolutely expect to answer, no matter which program or school you’re applying to? Cortes noted there are two crucial queries you should be ready to address: Why us, and what do you want to study?
“‘Why us?’ … seems like a very easy question, but it’s actually very hard to give a convincing answer. Applicants should be aware of the faculty and their work, and an applicant’s interest will need to line up with what the department can offer … Know what the university has to offer,” he said. “[Then] what do you want to study? Your interest will change as you spend more time in the program. I recommend a few sentences (three to five) on what you want to study. Not too broad, but nothing too specific.”
Other common questions you’ll encounter include:
- What should we know about you?
- What can you contribute to the program?
- What have been your greatest successes?
- Conversely, what have been your greatest failures?
- What’s a time when you made a mistake, and how did you fix it?
- What makes you unique?
- What are your interests outside of school and work?
- What would be the most difficult part of this program, and how do you intend to prepare for that?
- What are your ultimate career goals?
What Questions Should You Ask During a Grad School Interview?
The interview process is also a time for you to obtain more information about the degree, as well as demonstrate your curiosity and passion about the program.
Consider asking questions about the school culture, program structure, notable alumni accomplishments and the available financial aid/scholarship opportunities. Additionally, ask what their ideal candidate looks like: That way, you can show how you fit the mold.
Taking the time to learn more about your desired program will also help determine if it’s best suited for your prior experience and future career goals. Their answers may even be the deciding factor between programs if you receive multiple acceptances.
What Should You Wear for an Interview?
Once you’ve completed your prep and feel ready for anything the interviewers may throw at you, it’s time for another hurdle: What should you wear?
“Go formal — perhaps not a suit and jacket, but nice dress pants and a nice long-sleeved, collared, button-up shirt,” Cortes advised.
For women, a business casual dress, pantsuit, or skirt and blouse combo will do. Keep to simple accessories as well. Above all, you want to look professional and business-ready.
Of course, in today’s environment, more interviews are taking place over Zoom or in other virtual meeting platforms. That means a little less pressure about what to wear — after all, you’re just focusing on the waist-up.
But there is one thing to avoid: “[You want] a virtual background that does not take the attention away from you,” Cortes said. That goes for real-life backgrounds, too. Make sure you’re in a quiet environment that’s conducive to an interview.
What Materials Should You Bring to an Interview?
When you’re all dressed and ready to head in, don’t forget to bring along a folder with some supplemental materials.
“[Bring a] copy of your CV in case they don’t have it. If they do, it’ll still make you look prepared,” Cortes said.
Other possible items to bring include your employment resume, your school transcripts and some writing samples. While the committee should have electronic versions of all these items, it doesn’t hurt to have a copy easily accessible for you both to refer to.
What Is Thank-You Note Etiquette for a Grad School Interview?
Writing a thank-you note after your interview is both a way to show your appreciation for someone’s time and demonstrate your passion for the school. Send a thank-you note within 24 hours to the people who interviewed you that hits on these key points:
- Remind them of your interest in the program.
- Hit back on a unique topic that you discussed to show you valued the conversation — and to stand out.
- Make it a point that you know they took important time out of the day to speak to you.
- Briefly state again why you’d be an excellent choice for the program.
A simple, clear, personalized note will suffice, and ideally, it will reiterate why you should be considered a top contender by the admissions team.
Graduate school interviews can be a stress-inducing experience, so in the end, remember to celebrate this final step in the application process.
For more information, visit the Office of Graduate Admission at USC and explore USC Online’s master’s degrees, doctoral programs and graduate certificates.