Graduate School Interview Questions (With Example Answers)

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 28, 2020
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As you advance throughout your career, you will encounter several opportunities to develop your skill set, expand your professional network, and excel to the next rung on the income ladder.

Acquiring your undergraduate degree is undoubtedly one such opportunity. Regardless of your major, obtaining a bachelor’s degree will make it possible for you to access a huge variety of professional opportunities that were previously unavailable to you.

Attending graduate school is another major opportunity for personal growth and professional development. In graduate school, you’ll learn to apply the basic skills you acquired in your undergraduate career to the specific field of study you’ve chosen to pursue. Graduate school will provide you with opportunities to hone your skills and build your craft in the real world. And with a master’s degree in hand, you’ll be far more likely to catch the eyes of prominent employers down the road.

However, it’s also important to bear in mind that graduate school is a serious commitment, both personally and financially. It’s a career choice that often requires individuals to move to a new city, transplanting their entire lives and social circles in the process. It can also be quite expensive, which means that students often find themselves in debt after receiving their advanced degree. Like all major investments, however, graduate school can pay off in a serious way.

If you’re thinking about applying for graduate school, it will be essential for you to understand the various stages of the application process. This process will inevitably vary from school to school and from program to program, but it can often be quite strenuous and time-consuming.

One of the most critical stages of the grad school application process is the interview. You can think of a grad school interview in a similar way that you would think about a job interview. At this stage of the process, you’ll be required to speak with an admissions officer (or a group of admissions officers) from your selected program, whose job it will be to closely scrutinize whether or not you’re suitable for a position within their program. As you can probably imagine, this stage in the process can be stressful, and it tends to make many grad school applicants feel nervous.

The key to minimizing your anxiety and nailing your grad school interview is to thoroughly prepare beforehand. One of the best places to start to prepare for your interview is to familiarize yourself with some common interview questions.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Apply for Grad School

Before we dive into the questions that you should anticipate during a grad school interview, let’s first outline some self-reflective questions that you should ask yourself before you decide to apply for grad school.

As we’ve already mentioned, grad school is a significant commitment. Therefore, it’s crucial to be sure that graduate school will be the right next step for your career before you start submitting applications.

With that in mind, here are three questions that you should ask yourself before you apply for grad school:

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  • Will you be able to afford graduate school? According to a recent study from Franklin University, the average cost of a master’s degree in the United States today is between $30,000 and $40,000. And if you’re hoping to attend one of the nation’s more prestigious universities, the cost of a master’s degree can reach upwards of $100,000.

    Therefore, it’s essential to have your financial strategy in place before you decide to submit your applications for graduate school. What funds and assets do you have that are immediately available to you? Will you have to take out student loans? If so, will you be able to secure a job after receiving your degree that will provide you with financial security?

    These are all critical questions to ask yourself at the outset of the application process.

  • Is a master’s degree essential for my particular career path? Though a master’s degree will invariably provide you with an expanded skill set, professional network, and a sense of self-confidence, it isn’t always an absolutely essential step in one’s career.

    Suppose you’re interested in becoming an entrepreneur and founding your own company, for example. In that case, receiving your Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree can give you a significant edge over the competition.

    But it isn’t mandatory in the way that an advanced degree is mandatory for someone who is looking to excel in, say, the medical, scientific, or academic fields. Both Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates never received their MBAs, and they’ve gone on to be among the most successful entrepreneurs and business people of our time.

    So before you decide that graduate school is the appropriate next step for you, be sure to do some careful background research to find out whether or not receiving a master’s degree is likely to make you a stand-out job candidate in your chosen field.

  • Is this the right time in my life to attend graduate school? While there aren’t necessarily any “bad” times to attend graduate school (aside from those times when you don’t have the money to afford it), there are some times that will be more convenient than others.

    For example, many people choose to spend a period of time after they receive their undergraduate degree to travel the world or get some professional experience in their industry. Furthermore, both of those experiences – international travel and real-world work experience – can ultimately increase your chances of impressing an admissions board and landing a spot for yourself in a grad school program.

    So before you decide to start applying for graduate school, be sure to ask yourself: “Is this the right time for me to pursue my master’s degree? Or are there other valuable life experiences that I want to pursue first?”

Ten Common Graduate School Interview Questions (and How to Answer Them)

Once you’ve gone through those self-reflective exercises and you’ve decided that you do, indeed, want to pursue graduate school at this point in your life, the next step in the process will be to start the application process. And as we’ve seen, one of the most essential (and nerve-wracking) steps in that process is the interview stage.

To help you feel maximally prepared and minimally nervous, here’s an overview of ten common questions that you might be asked during a graduate school interview (as well as some suggestions about how to respond to them):

  • What are your career goals? The primary purpose of this question is to gauge the extent to which you’ve thought through your long-term professional goals – that is, the goals that you’d like to achieve in your chosen field after you receive your master’s degree.

    You don’t need to know precisely what you’d like to achieve (one of the points of grad school, after all, is to add greater clarity to your long-term professional goals), but you should have some idea of the major goals that you intend to pursue after you achieve your degree.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “After I receive my master’s degree in journalism, I intend to pursue a career as a foreign correspondent with a major, New York City-based publication such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.

    More specifically, it has always been my dream to provide on-the-ground coverage in major conflict zones such as Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. Ultimately, I hope to write a New York Times best-selling book focusing on the connection between the rise of nationalist politics in the twenty-first century and the collapse of colonialism in the twentieth century.”

  • Can you tell me about a time when you failed? How did you recover from that failure, and what lessons did you learn from the experience? More than anything else, the goal of this interview question is to gain a deeper understanding of how well you’re able to cope with unexpected challenges, both in an academic and a professional setting.

    For the record, it will never benefit you to simply brush off this question by claiming that you have never had to face a crushing failure in the classroom or the workplace. The simple reason behind that is that everyone has faced a crushing defeat at least once in their career.

    So rather than trying to evade the question, you can seize this as an opportunity to demonstrate to your interviewer that you’re capable of overcoming failure and learning from your past experiences.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “A little over two years ago, as you’ll see on my resume, I was working as a project manager with a start-up tech company in Los Angeles. It was my first major job in the tech field, and I was eager to make a good impression on my new colleagues, managers, and clients. In retrospect, I may have been a little too eager.

    Shortly after being hired, I was asked to take the lead on a very important project for one of our top-tier clients. In an effort to impress those around me, I promised this client that I would deliver a final deliverable to them a full two weeks earlier than the delivery date that they had originally proposed.

    As you might be able to guess, I ended up having to rush my work throughout the entire project in order to be able to meet the pushed-up deadline that I had suggested. The final deliverable, as a consequence, was of a lesser quality than it could have been, had I agreed to the original deadline.

    I was enormously embarrassed, and I resolved then and there to never sacrifice quality for speed. In other words, I learned that it’s always worth it, in the long run, to take your time and put in your very best effort the first time around.”

  • Who do you admire? What are the specific qualities, abilities, or accomplishments that you find admirable in those people? You can learn a lot from a person by discovering who they admire and why. From the interviewer’s perspective, the central point of this question is to gain a clearer understanding of the values that you hold nearest and dearest to your heart, as well as the qualities that you aspire to emulate in your day to day life.

    As you prepare to answer this question, it will be ideal if you’re able to reference an individual or two that will be directly relevant to your field and familiar to the person who’s interviewing you. If you choose to discuss someone who’s too obscure, you’ll risk losing the interest and attention of your interviewer.

    At the same time, you can always choose to discuss someone significant to you, even if they’re not someone who’s famous within the field that you’re pursuing – your mother or father, say, or maybe an influential teacher that you knew back in high school. No matter who you choose to discuss, just be sure that you’ll be able to directly tie them back to your intent in pursuing a master’s degree and your long-term career goals.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “Viktor Frankl has always been one of the most towering and important figures in my life, from both an intellectual as well as an ethical perspective. His book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” absolutely changed my life when I was an adolescent and inspired me to pursue a career in law.

    It is thanks to Mr. Frankl that I have a firm ethical code that directs my life today. My father has also been an enormous inspiration throughout my life. A self-starter since a young age, he worked his way through law school and founded his own practice in 1979 at the age of 22.

    I intend to apply the lessons that I’ve learned from Viktor Frankl and from my father to advocate on behalf of downtrodden and underrepresented individuals who seek my legal counsel.”

  • What do you consider to be your greatest strengths? By asking you about your strengths, talents, abilities, your interviewer will be trying to gain a clearer understanding of how and why you stand apart from the crowd of other applicants.

    When you’re formulating your response to this question, do your best to avoid generic or boring answers. You may lose your interviewer’s interest, for example, if you respond by saying something along the lines of: “I’ve always considered myself to be a great team player because I get along well with others.” See what we mean?

    Being a great team player is a valuable quality, but it’s important to be as specific as possible when you’re describing how that quality sets you apart from other applicants in the particular context of the graduate school program that you’re applying to.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “I’ve always considered myself to be a great team player. I first discovered my unique ability to collaborate and cooperate with others when I began working as a lead product manager with Google.

    In that role, I was required to delegate a considerable number of tasks among dozens of employees and across multiple departments within the company. Gradually, my abilities as a communicator and delegator led me to discover my inherent talent and passion for leadership.

    This discovery initially inspired me to pursue my master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University.”

  • What do you consider to be your greatest weaknesses? On the other side of that coin, it’s equally important for an interviewer to understand your abilities to self-reflect and honestly recognize your flaws. To that end, they will almost certainly ask you to identify a few of your greatest weaknesses.

    Again, it will benefit you to be as honest as possible when you’re answering this question – just be sure to tactfully describe your shortcomings in a manner that will help you to come across as an asset. We know that that may sound paradoxical, but it can be done if you plan out your response ahead of time.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “My greatest weakness throughout my academic and professional career has probably been my inability to say “no” to new projects or responsibilities. I am incredibly ambitious and driven in my work, which often leads me to take on a heavier workload than I am capable of managing.

    I also strive to be a team leader and a role model for my colleagues, and this has been another factor that has frequently led to me biting off more than I can hope to chew. As a result, I’ve made it one of my many personal goals to work on being a more effective delegator, and to rely on my team members to the same degree that I depend on myself to get projects completed on time.”

  • How and why would you be a valuable addition to our graduate program? At the end of the day, any graduate school interview’s primary purpose is to identify those few applicants that truly stand out.

    To be a stand out applicant, it won’t be enough to simply point to your stellar grades or your illustrious resume (although both of those certainly won’t hurt your chances). You’ll also need to provide your interviewer with a detailed explanation of why you will be an ideal fit for that program in particular.

    In light of that, you should make it your goal with your response to this question to go into a bit more detail about how your experience, qualifications, and skill set will make you a particularly valuable asset to that program’s student roster.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “While studying environmental policy as an undergraduate, I learned to analyze and critique our nation’s growing body of environmental laws. As a consultant working with a prominent national environmental non-profit, I worked directly with some of our nation’s top polluters in an effort to hold them directly accountable for their blatant disregard for the current and future health of our ecological landscape.

    As a part of your program, I would apply the unique blend of skills that I’ve honed over the past five years to contribute a real-world perspective to my classmates and a sense of moral urgency to every project that I contribute to.”

  • Why are you interested in being a part of this program in particular? There are countless graduate schools and grad school programs out there to choose from. What was it about this school and this specific program that initially caught your eye and inspired you to apply?

    Again, the simplest and most effective way to respond to this question is to be direct and honest. It’s also an excellent opportunity to prove to your interviewer that you’ve actually put some careful thought into your decision to apply to this program and that you haven’t just selected it at random.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “The master’s in American history program at George Washington University has stood out to me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s faculty includes some of the most qualified and prestigious professors in the entire country. For another, I was extremely impressed by recent alumni’s achievements – in fact, many of these align closely with my own long-term career goals.

    Finally, the setting of the program in Washington, DC is perfectly amenable to my aspiration to eventually find employment as a history teacher in the area’s public schools.”

  • What books have you been reading recently? You can also learn a lot about a person by asking them what kind of literature they’ve been reading lately. A person’s literary tastes provide a reliable glance into that person’s personality?

    This question is also the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you have some background knowledge and interests directly pertinent to the graduate school program you’ve chosen to pursue.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “In order to prepare myself for this graduate school program, I’ve been reading a lot of classical-era literature, such as Homer’s “The Iliad and The Odyssey.” I’ve also been steeping myself in works of contemporary historical nonfiction to familiarize myself with the major historical events and characters that have come to define the classical era in the modern world.”

  • What other schools and programs have you applied to? From your interviewer’s perspective, this question’s main goal is to gauge how serious you are about pursuing the field and profession represented by their program.

    From your perspective, it’s crucial to be honest when you’re responding to this question – but you should also make it a point to emphasize how and why you’ve come to be interested in that program in particular.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “I’ve also applied to similar graduate school programs at New York University and the City University of New York to diversify my options. To be frank, however, your program has always stood out to me as being a cut above the rest.

    The other New York City-based programs certainly have a lot to offer, but the faculty and curriculum that’s in place at this program, in particular, is uniquely well suited to my career goals and interests.”

  • Do you have any questions about the program? This question’s primary purpose is to kick off an ongoing dialogue between you and the interviewer that will (hopefully) continue after the end of the interview.

    To make an optimal first impression, you should be sure to have at least three questions queued up for when this question inevitably arises at the end of your interview. This will show your interviewer that you’ve been giving some serious thought to the finer points of your decision to attend grad school in general and this program in particular.

    Here’s an example of a high-quality response to this question:

    “Actually, I do have a few questions for you. Thank you for asking! First of all, could you please provide me with some further details regarding your summer internship program? Secondly, how closely will I be working with the careers office throughout the course of the program? Finally, who will I need to speak with about financial aid if I’m accepted for the program?”

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Chris Kolmar

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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