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The Interview

At the outset, it should be realized that the interview is not just a brief exchange between yourself and one or more representatives of the school that has requested your appearance. The interview should not be looked upon as a one sided affair, but rather as an opportunity for a dialogue that has advantages for both the school and you.

The interview will permit the school to determine:

  • If your personal attributes are as appealing as your academic record (this goes, of course, for a student who is already academically acceptable), and if your personal attributes will enable you to overcome any deficiency that may appear;
  • If your personal attributes will place you in the overall acceptable range (if you are borderline);
  • If you are considered to have some obvious academic or physical deficiency, whether you have the personal attributes to overcome the deficiency.

The interview will permit you to:

  • Have an opportunity to sell yourself by projecting as favorable an image as possible, and thus overcoming any deficiencies in your record;
  • Familiarize yourself with the campus and with its facilities, as well as with members of its student body;
  • Obtain firsthand answers to questions about the school that may not yet have been answered.

Significance of the Interview

The receipt of the letter requesting that you come for an interview clearly indicates that the graduate school is seriously interested in you. The large volume of applications has meant that admissions officers have to be highly selective in granting interviews. Admissions officers have at their disposal only a limited number of interviewers, who are usually faculty members and whose time is obviously very valuable. Thus, obtaining an invitation to come for an interview means either that they wish to confirm a tentative decision that you are acceptable or they think that you deserve a chance to prove that you merit admission in spite of some possible weakness. The interviewer will endeavor to appraise such personal qualifications as responsiveness, warmth of personality, poise, ability to communicate ideas clearly and concisely, and soundness of motivation.


What Is the Interviewer Really Looking For?

  • Physical appearance: Grooming, bearing, and self-confident manner.
  • Personality: Friendliness, ability to establish rapport and charm, sense of humor.
  • Communication skills: Ability to express ideas clearly, fluently, and intelligently.
  • Motivation: Soundness of career choice, conviction of interests.
  • Maturity: Ability to undertake responsibility that the career entails.
  • Interests: What educational, social, and cultural interests do you have?
  • Level of concern: Do you have a genuine interest in people, their problems, and helping them solve them?
  • Emotional stability: Composure while under pressure.
  • Intellectual potential: Have you truly demonstrated superior intellectual abilities?
  • Overall subjective reaction of the interviewer to the applicant.

Evaluate yourself in terms of items 1 to 9 as honestly as possible and work to improve your weaknesses. By subjecting yourself to mock interviews by your peers, you can determine where your weaknesses are, and how well you are doing to overcome them. Allow your mock interviewers to be honest and candid (even if it hurts your feelings.)


Pre-Interview Suggestions

  • Read the catalog of the school and become familiar with any special facilities or programs is has to offer.
  • Discuss with fellow applicants from your college the nature of their experiences at interviews at various schools.
  • Dress neatly and be properly groomed.
  • Arrive for the interview early, so that you locate the interview site with time to spare for an adjustment to your surroundings.
  • If your interviewer is late, do not indicate annoyance for being kept waiting. (He/she probably was delayed by something important.)
  • Act naturally and avoid looking nervous.
  • Answer the questions raised without trying to anticipate what you think the interviewer may wish to hear.
  • Avoid controversial subjects and don’t raise sensitive issues.
  • Be prepared to explain your specific interest in the school you are visiting.
  • If you inadvertently “flub” a question, don’t let it upset you for the rest of your interview.
  • Be well rested, alert, and honest. Do not exaggerate your scholastic achievements or extracurricular activities.
  • If you worked on a research (or other) project, be prepared to discuss it fluently and concisely.
  • If you have had exposure to medicine by working at a hospital, be prepared to discuss it if asked, or work it into the conversation in an appropriate manner.
  • If you can, find out the departmental affiliation of your interviewer in advance from an admissions office secretary, or by checking his or her name in the school catalog. You may then be able to raise a topic of special mutual interest.
  • Do not hesitate to ask questions about the school and its program – or about the interviewer’s activities (e.g., how much time does he or she have for research).
  • Talk to a classmate who has had an interview at the school. Get his or her impressions of the school and interview. Remember that it is unlikely that you will get the same interviewer – but it is possible.
  • If the school is of special interest to you, you may wish to contact an alum in attendance or a recent graduate.
  • Bear in mind that the school is trying to get a sense of you as a person – to see what motivates you – to understand why you want to enter their school, and to become convinced that you are a worthy, potential colleague.

Preparing for The Interview

  • Rehearse answers to the typical questions that may be asked at an interview. You should tape record your responses and hear how you sound.
  • See if you can appropriately fit or slip your rehearsed answers in during the interview in a manner which is casual and doesn’t sound canned. The latter can be accomplished by pausing for a moment before answering a question that you are prepared for, acting as if you are preparing your answers.
  • Sell your favorable assets by fitting them into the interview (e.g., related work, research experience, community activities, research articles published, etc.). Know your strengths thoroughly.
  • Establish a rapport with the interviewer from the very outset. Walk in with a greeting, a smile on your face and a firm handshake. On leaving, express your appreciation for the time the interviewer gave you.
  • Avoid, where possible, “yes” or “no” answers. Rather, give the pros and cons of the issue and your views in a brief and concise manner. Show that you can be analytical while at the same time avoid being overly talkative.
  • If you don’t understand the question, ask the interviewer to clarify it.
  • Look directly at your interviewer; act relaxed; avoid squirming in your seat; if you “flub” a question – forget it – go on, rather than become upset and ruin the remainder of your interview.
  • If you don’t know an answer, admit it rather than guess wildly. If pressed for a reply, qualify it as being an “on the spur of the moment” judgement, that is open to change on further reflection.
  • Don’t open up discussions on your own, such as on politics or religion. If asked, don’t be defensive. Interviewers seek a sense of confidence even on controversial issues.
  • Avoid disparaging your school or specific instructors or students. It will not help make you look better.

Adapted from “Graduate School in Science and Engineering: Tips for Students and Faculty,” by Marsha Lake Matyas


Typical Interview Questions

  • Why did you attend your undergraduate college?
  • What are your extracurricular activities?
  • Why do you want to become a _____?
  • What books and newspapers do you read?
  • What do you do during the summer?
  • How will you finance your education?
  • What other schools have you applied to?
  • What do you plan to specialize in?
  • Why did you get a poor grade in ?
  • Do you have any questions?
  • Which school is your first choice?
  • What kind of social life do you have?
  • Describe your schedule at The College of New Jersey?
  • What were your favorite courses taken?
  • Did you participate in any special projects in high school or college?
  • Will your religious convictions interfere with your studies or practice?
  • How did you arrive at your decision to become a _____?
  • Describe a typical day in your life.
  • Do you feel you should have gone to a different college?
  • What do you do in your spare time?
  • Tell me about yourself and your family.
  • What do you think are the most pressing social problems?
  • Describe your study habits.
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What experiences led you to your career choice?
  • What are your plans for marriage and a family?
  • Why isn’t (name of school) your first choice?
  • Why do you think you are better suited for admission than your classmates?
  • What is the status of (job title) in modern society?
  • What has been your most significant accomplishment to date?
  • If you had great willpower, how would you change yourself?
  • What are the characteristics of a mature person?
  • What can be determined about an applicant at an interview?
  • What television programs and movies have you seen recently?
  • Describe any research project you’ve worked on at The College of New Jersey.
  • What is your opinion on (major current event issues)?
  • What newspaper do you read and what columnist do you like the best?
  • How do you cope with frustrating situations?
  • What will you do if you are not accepted?
  • How do you rank among other students in your major at your school?
  • Have you ever worked with people, and if so in what capacity?
  • Who has the greatest influence on your life?
  • What made you apply to our school?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • Describe your exposure to (subject) at The College of New Jersey.
  • If you are accepted to more than one school, how will you decide which to attend?
  • How do you see yourself ten years from now?
  • Why did your grades go down in your semester?
  • What is your favorite piece of music?
  • Do you know enough about hockey to compare the players and the teams?
  • What would you do to improve the quality of life in large cities?
  • What topics of conversation do you most enjoy?
  • If you were to have a year off, what would you do with it?
  • What is your favorite form of entertainment?
  • What is your opinion of the government’s health care plan?
  • How do your parents feel about your career goals?
  • What are the characteristics of aromatic compounds?
  • What do you think of and how did you prepare for the entrance exam?
  • Can you explain why your admission test scores went up (down) when you took the test a second time?
  • Would you be willing to serve in an area where there is a shortage?
  • What message would you like me to convey to the admission committee in your behalf?
  • What were your most favorite and least favorite courses in college?
  • How do you intend to finance your education?
  • Have you been interviewed or accepted at any other school?

Questions You Should Ask During A Graduate School Interview

Ask the graduate department…

  • What are the academic regulations/requirements for graduating?
  • What percentage of the students pass the qualifying exams the first time? How many chances are there?
  • Are a large percentage of the students graduating with a terminal masters degree?
  • What is the average time to obtain a Ph.D.?
  • How many students will be in my entering class?
  • When (and how) do you choose your advisor? How difficult is it to switch advisors after, say, a year?
  • Who selects the thesis/dissertation committee?
  • Is the support offered in the form of a teaching or research assistantship? How much is the stipend?
  • How many working hours per week is expected for a TA (teaching assistant) or RA (research assistant)?
  • Are you guaranteed support for the entire time, or is it on a year by year basis?
  • If it is year by year, what would disqualify a student?
  • Is there a teaching requirement? How are teaching assignments made (lottery or choice)?
  • What sort of computing facilities do they have? Do they have easy access to electronic mail?
  • What are their provisions for housing, day care, health insurance. etc.?
  • What is the actual time commitment for a TA / RA? Is the stipend enough to live on in that area?

Choosing an Advisor »

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