How to Prepare for Grad School Interview Questions

Two people at a table discuss grad school interview questions
March 19, 2024 5 min read Liaison

Your response to a challenging question can significantly impact the interviewer's impression of you.

Key Takeaways

Grad school interview questions typically focus on your background, academic interests, goals, and knowledge of the program.

You'll also have a chance to ask the interviewer(s) questions, so prepare a thoughtful list that demonstrates your interest.

Mock interviews allow you to practice your responses to potential questions and receive feedback on your performance.

Remember to maintain a positive tone when discussing challenges or failures.

The STAR Method of answering a question covers the situation, task, action, and results you experienced.

Proper post-interview etiquette can leave a lasting positive impression on the interviewers and potentially influence their decision.


Preparing well for graduate school interviews can dramatically influence your ability to achieve important academic and professional goals. This part of the application process is an opportunity for program directors and faculty to get to know you beyond your written submission, allowing them to understand your motivations, aspirations, and how well you might fit within a specific academic program.

For a prospective student, it's a chance to demonstrate your passion, articulate your research interests, and explain how the program aligns with your long-term goals.

Understanding the Types of Questions Asked

Navigating the landscape of graduate school interviews requires an understanding of the different types of questions interviewers typically ask. Each interview question is designed to assess not only your academic proficiency and intellectual curiosity but also your personal qualities and how you handle challenges.

Personal Background and Motivation

Questions might include: "Tell us about yourself," "What motivates you to pursue this field of study?" or "Why did you choose our program?"

Purpose: These questions aim to understand your personal journey, passions, and the driving force behind your application. They give insight into your character and how it aligns with the program's culture and values.

Academic Interests and Professional Goals

Questions might include: "What are your research interests?" "How do your academic background and research experience prepare you for this program?" or "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Purpose: Interviewers are interested in how your academic pursuits and career objectives fit with the program's offerings and whether you have a clear vision for your future.

Knowledge of the Program and Faculty

Questions might include: "What aspect of our program interests you the most?" or "Which faculty member’s work do you find most closely aligns with your interests?"

Purpose: These questions assess your initiative in researching the program and faculty, demonstrating your genuine interest and how you envision contributing to the academic community.

Situational and Behavioral Questions

Questions might include: "Can you describe a challenge you faced in your research and how you overcame it?" or "Tell us about a time when you had to work closely with others on a project."

Purpose: To evaluate your problem-solving abilities, resilience, teamwork, and communication skills. These competencies are crucial for success in graduate studies and beyond.

Questions for Your Interviewers

In addition to answering question, you’ll also have an opportunity to ask your interviewer(s) questions. Preparing thoughtful questions ahead of time demonstrates your interest in the graduate program and your proactive approach to your education and research.

Close up of three people interviewing for grad school

Source: Unsplash

Be sure to ask about the program and faculty. Inquire about opportunities for collaboration, resources available for students, and any upcoming projects or initiatives within the department. This shows you're thinking about how you can contribute and benefit from the program.

Conducting a Mock Interview

The significance of a mock interview in preparing for the actual graduate school interview cannot be overstated. Also known as a practice interview, this rehearsal simulates the interview environment, allowing you to practice your responses to potential questions and receive feedback on your performance.

Seek out a mentor, faculty member, career counselor, student, or even a friend who is familiar with the graduate school application process. They should be willing to role play as interviewers, providing a realistic interview experience. Provide your mock interviewers with a list of potential questions they can ask, and also encourage them to include unexpected questions to help you prepare for a variety of scenarios.

Try to mimic the interview environment as closely as possible. Whether the interview is in-person, over the phone, or via video call, practicing in the same format can help you acclimate to the setting. If possible, record your mock interviews and then review them for insights into how you could do better.

Handling Difficult Questions

Navigating challenging questions during a graduate school interview can be daunting. These questions may probe into your academic weaknesses, gaps in your CV, or situations where you faced failure. How you respond can significantly impact the interviewer's impression of you.

First and foremost, stay calm and collected. Pause before answering, if necessary. It's perfectly acceptable to take a moment to collect your thoughts before responding. A brief pause allows you to formulate a thoughtful answer rather than react impulsively.

Also, remember to maintain a positive tone when discussing challenges or failures. Focus on what you learned from the experience rather than the failure itself. If a question touches on a weak point in your academic record or a gap in your CV, be honest. Attempting to obscure the truth can backfire if discovered.

While being honest, frame your response to highlight how you've overcome the weakness or what you learned from the experience. For example, if you're asked about a gap year, discuss the skills or insights you gained during that time. Talk about how a setback helped your grow and develop resilience; discuss the steps you've taking to improve yourself based on that experience.

Using the STAR Method

The four-part STAR Method of answering a question provides a framework that allows you to provide meaningful, well-developed responses that aptly describe even the most difficult scenarios. Answer each question by explaining your:

  • Situation: Briefly describe the context of the challenge or failure you faced.
  • Task: Summarize the task you were responsible for in that situation.
  • Action: Detail the specific actions you took to address the challenge or complete the task.
  • Result: Share the outcome of your actions, focusing on positive results and lessons learned.

Post-Interview Etiquette

The steps you take after a graduate school interview can be just as important as how you prepare and perform during the interview itself. Proper post-interview etiquette can leave a lasting positive impression on the interviewers and potentially influence their decision.

Send a thank-you note or email within 24 hours of your interview. This shows your appreciation for the opportunity and reinforces your interest in the program. Address it to the interviewer(s) by name and mention specific details from your conversation. This personal touch demonstrates your attentiveness and genuine interest. Keep the message concise and professional. Conclude by reiterating your enthusiasm for the program and how it aligns with your academic and career goals.

If the interviewers provided a timeline for decision-making, respect it. Avoid sending premature follow-up messages which could seem pushy. If the decision timeline passes without communication, it's acceptable to send a polite follow-up email. Inquire about the status of your application and reiterate your continued interest in the program.


The period following your graduate school interview is critical for reinforcing the positive impression you've made. By practicing thoughtful post-interview etiquette, sending personalized thank-you notes, following up appropriately, and reflecting on your interview performance, you solidify your standing as a strong candidate. Whether you're ultimately accepted or not, these actions can enhance your professional reputation and prepare you for future grad school opportunities.


Ask questions that reflect your academic and career ambitions as well as your understanding of the program and faculty

Dress professionally, as if you were applying for a job in your chosen profession after graduation.

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