Graduate School Interview Questions (With Example Answers)

By Chris Kolmar
Jul. 14, 2022
Articles In Guide

Find a Job You Really Want In

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.

Attending graduate school is a major opportunity for growth. In graduate school, you’ll learn to apply the skills you acquired in your undergraduate career to the specific field of study you’ve chosen to pursue. With a master’s degree in hand, you’ll be far more likely to catch the eyes of prominent employers down the road.

If you’re thinking about applying for graduate school, it will be essential for you to understand the various stages of the application process.

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. This stage in the process can be stressful, and it tends to make many grad school applicants feel nervous, but fear not! With preparation you can succeed in this situation.

Key Takeaways:

  • Graduate school interview questions will test your commitment to the program, so make sure to show your resolve in your answers.

  • Clarify ahead of your interview what the process will be because every school has a different interview process.

  • Practice the STAR Method to prepare for behavioral interview questions.

  • Stand out in a graduate school interview by being appropriately authentic in your answers.

Graduate School Interview Questions (With Example Answers)

10 Common Graduate School Interview Questions (With Example Answers)

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):

  1. 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.”

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.”

  6. 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.”

  7. 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.”

  8. 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.”

  9. 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.”

  10. 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?”

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Apply for Grad School

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:

  • 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?”

Graduate School Interview Process

It is important to become acquainted with the application and interview process of graduate school. Note that some programs won’t require a meeting with an admissions officer or someone from your program, so be sure to research the steps in the specific program you’re interested in.

The good news is that today’s world has become very accustomed to remote interviews, so even if your school of choice is far from where you’re currently living, you should be able to arrange an interview without having to buy plane tickets.

Regardless of the setting of your interview, there are a few people you might meet with. It could be the head of the department, a program director, a dean, or an entire admissions committee in a panel interview.

Or you might meet with a series of interviewers throughout the course of one or more days. You might even partake in group interviews with other candidates, depending on the nature of the program you’re interested in.

We recommend researching and speaking directly with a representative of a school you’re interested in to learn more about the ins and outs of their application and interview process.

How to Prepare for a Graduate School Interview

While no two schools or graduate programs are alike, there are some steps you can take to succeed regardless of where you’re interviewing:

  • Research the program. Just as you should brush up on your knowledge of a company before applying for a job, you should do your homework on the program you’re applying to. Learn about the coursework, the opportunities available for students, the research topics, and the staff.

    Pay special attention to the team of professors you’d be working with, as this can be your most valuable asset in the interview. If you’re able to speak about specific goals you have with a certain professor whose interests perfectly align with your own, the admissions team may be excited about connecting the two of you to start producing impressive work together.

  • Study relevant materials. No matter what program you’re applying for, it pays to do a study session on the topics that every applicant should know at an absolute minimum. Otherwise, you run the risk of being caught off guard and looking like you don’t have a firm grasp on the subject matter.

    Don’t go crazy with this, as you probably won’t be asked anything too intense. A quick refresher course through your college notes should be sufficient.

  • Study common interview questions. The most common interview questions for jobs are also quite common at graduate school interviews. You can either perform mock interviews with friends or family or just run through some answers on your own. It’s important that you don’t write or follow a script, though.

    Think of your answers like bullet points. That way, you’ll hit all the key points without sounding overly rehearsed.

  • Practice the STAR method. Behavioral interview questions are among the most common tools in an interviewer’s arsenal. These questions ask you to examine your past behavior as a way of predicting how you’ll act in the future. They typically start with phrases like “tell me about a time” or “give me an example of a time when.”

    To answer these questions, use the STAR method. STAR stands for situation, task, action, result. By organizing your story in this neat way, your interviewer can appreciate your impact in whatever example you choose to give.

  • Bring everything you need. Copies of your resume, something to write with and on, and any other documents that you think will help (like a professional portfolio) are all things on your “bring to the interview” list.

  • Dress well. For most programs, opting for a business casual look is probably the right call, but check out pictures of students online if you can. If it looks like a more formal setting, you might want to err on the side of caution and wear business professional attire.

Questions to Ask the Interviewer

Answering all your questions perfectly at a graduate school interview is a good start, but you’re also expected to show up equipped with questions of your own. The questions you choose to ask say a lot about what you’re most interested in and what you’ll bring to the table as a student, so think carefully about a handful you want to ask before the interview begins.

As your conversation carries on, don’t be afraid to ask questions at appropriate moments. There’s no rule that says you have to reserve all of your questions for the end of the interview. Plus, you’ll probably think of a few questions during the interview itself.

In any case, here are a few good starter questions to get you thinking:

  • Do students in this program often publish papers? What publications do they commonly appear in?

  • What careers do past graduates typically enter into after graduating?

  • Are there opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning?

  • Do students have the option to participate in teaching assistantships and adjunt positions?

  • Are there internship programs affiliated with this graduate program?

  • Can you tell me what research opportunities I’ll be involved with?

  • What is the culture like on campus?

  • What issues have students had with succeeding in this program in the past?

  • What are you looking for in your ideal student?

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How do I prepare for a graduate school interview?

  2. To prepare for a graduate school interview, do your research. Study the program, relevant materials, and common interview questions.

    Also be mindful of the logistics of the interview. Make sure you have communicated fully with the program and know exactly when and where the interview will take place. Finally, dress appropriately and bring all the materials you need.

  3. How do you introduce yourself in a grad school interview?

  4. To introduce yourself in grad school interview, provide a brief, polite explanation of your interests that lead you to apply in the first place. Doing this allows you to seamlessly move into the topics of the interview. Note that it is important to talk about yourself in a natural way. Don’t try to “force” the conversation into the topic of the graduate school interview.

  5. How do I stand out for a grad school interview?

  6. To stand out in a grad school interview, along with all your preparation, be authentic and try to relax. You want to show the admissions interviewer who you are as an individual. This could be underscoring your unique interests, thought processes, or takes on the program itself. Just make sure to keep your answers relevant and appropriate.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating / 5. Vote count:

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Articles In Guide
Never miss an opportunity that’s right for you.


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.

Related posts