The Admissions Interview

by The Ebony Tower Contributors

Congratulations! You made it to the interview round of your graduate school application process. Let that sink in for a second or a week or 2 days (in my case!) and be proud of your accomplishment. After the stresses of applying- crafting essays, securing transcripts and letters of recommendation, taking and retaking tests, and getting all your documentation in on time- now it’s time to put all you’ve got on the table.

Interviews may happen in several different formats including formal, informal, or a mixture of both. You may be scheduled for a phone, in-person, or video-conference interview. There may be several rounds of interviews or just one round. Interviews may occur in groups, individually, or both. Many programs host full day or multi-day interviews, where all of the candidates for your specific program come together. One interview scheduling format followed by several programs includes the cohort interview. Upwards of 20 candidates, sometimes vying for just  2-5 spots, attend welcome sessions and are even wined and dined by current graduate students. The next day, after a full continental breakfast, the candidates are shuffled through a series of sessions about the program and brief individual interviews with faculty members, and sometimes even advanced doctoral students, before the final decision is made.

These interviews are tiring! However, the interview is also a unique opportunity to have access to faculty members that may not have been on your radar when you initially applied. Interviews also give you the chance to meet or re-meet some future colleagues in your field who are interviewing alongside you. It’s competitive (more for some than others) but, in general, it’s pretty collegial. Everyone is mostly excited that they moved on to the interview round.  

Ultimately, grad school interviews are two-fold: 1. Schools get to meet you and determine whether or not you’d be a good fit for their program and 2. You get to meet faculty, administrators, and your potential cohort to determine if they and the program are a good fit for you.

The latter is usually subsumed by the former given the pressurized nature of the interview process. However, keep what you see, hear, and feel and DON’T see, hear, and feel in the back of your mind once you’re accepted, and have to make the life-changing decision of which program to attend. How the interviews are structured and transpire can provide a lot of insight into how the program actually operates. Were faculty warm and friendly? Did they ask good, tough, thought-provoking questions or questions just designed to trip you up? Were the interviewers actually interested in your research experiences and intended research agenda? Did the faculty member seem nice? Were they actually listening to your responses? How did faculty interact with each other?  Even basic questions like those above can provide you with some insight into the daily goings on of X university. Below we’ve included a few general tips to help you prepare for your interview.

  • Be your(BEST)self. The graduate school interview is a chance for you to shine, which requires you to be yourself, though this really means to be your BEST self. It is important that the admissions staff get a sense of who you are as they are betting on you as much as you’re betting on their program. Interviews are not always the most natural settings- you wouldn’t normally strike up a conversation with someone by listing off your best qualities and accomplishments. Still, interviewing is an art that requires us to present a mixture of our unique and authentic selves with the caveat that you are also vying for a position. As always, dress to impress. No matter how liberal and laid back your intended program purports to be, you are essentially interviewing for a bevy of positions: graduate student, yes, but also researcher, teaching assistant, advisee/mentee, future faculty member, and representative of your intended program. For many of us, dressing sharp (if a suit’s too much, try a nice blazer :)), helps us to feel sharp, focused, and put together.  Make sure you’re rested! Admissions staff and future advisers may throw you a curveball question or two, so it’s important to be as relaxed and clear-headed as possible.  Arrive on time. Period.  And follow the schedule. Most interview days are super stressful and HIGHLY scheduled, especially if you’re attending a group-structured interview. (This will also help to keep you on time!).
  • Have your elevator pitch. Once you’re admitted into a program, you will thank your lucky stars that you devised an elevator pitch way back during the interview process. Everyone you meet will inquire about your research interests and also expect you not to bore them with 5-10 minutes of rambling. No matter the program you will be asked to describe your research interests. It’s helpful to connect these interests to work you’ve done in the past so that your research agenda surfaces as a cohesive narrative. It shows that you’ve thought about your research agenda and that it is core to your story- showing both commitment to a narrative that you can carry into your program, and a dedication to academic research. Don’t worry. Once you’re in everyone will tell you that your research agenda and interests are likely to evolve, if not change completely, and that’s typically OK.  
  • Be able to talk about yourself. As mentioned above, interviews are strange and completely the opposite of how most relationships begin. Still, interweaving your knowledge of the field/discipline you intend to enter with your past work and research, and how that trajectory has landed you in front of the interviewers is key.  If you are asked about challenges, get ready to humblebrag about a time when you triumphed over adversity. Be sure to practice! Have a few notes you can review before entering the interview space or keep a few bulleted notes off to the side if you’re selected for a video/phone interview.
  • Be able to talk about the program and the work of the faculty. When discussing your own trajectory it might be helpful to connect your experiences with what the program offers. Interviews can help demonstrate that you are a good fit for the program. Talk about the work of the faculty you’re interested in: mention their work, current applicable research, where the field is/is headed (if you know), the work of reputable people in your field especially if you’ve worked with them, and if applicable, the ways you plan to be a part of innovative work in the discipline, field, or program.
  • Pay attention! Take in your surroundings. See, hear, feel, talk to peers, talk to graduate students, assess group dynamics. Remember, when you do get in, this will be your home, your built-in peer/friend group, and quasi family if you happen to move far from home for school. This is the indirect way that you as a candidate can interview the program right back. Interviews can truly reveal whether the school/program can meet your individual needs as a student and human. And some interview experiences aren’t always peachy.
  • Ask questions. As we all know, it’s customary and basically expected that interviewees will flip the script and hit the interviewer with hard-hitting questions and concerns about the program. I’m kidding. However, it is good to go in with real questions for which you need real answers. Scouring the website, talking to current students, and contacting the program office (if allowed) should be your first step. Don’t ask the faculty members about financial aid, housing, or anything else you can readily access via the internet. Sure, it might be difficult to find out when your stipend gets dispersed or which route to take with a moving van if you don’t want to get stuck in Boston tunnel, but that’s what current students are for! Ask the interviewers program specific questions about the courses they teach, research opportunities, advisor/advisee relationships, teaching assistant opportunities, etc. Even though these seem basic, you may be able to surmise a lot from these seemingly simple questions.
  • Breathe. Remember to breathe. Remember who you are and why you want to go to graduate school. Remember that these are competitive spaces and not everyone will be as lovely and amazing and compassionate as you. Remember that you are great and that getting into graduate school doesn’t define who you are at your core. Remember that YOU made it to the interview round! If the whole process still gives you the shivers, The Ebony Tower staff recommends reading the book Presence by Amy Cuddy to alleviate some additional stress!

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