10 Fool-Proof Ways to Stand Out in a Grad School Interview

Written by Grad School Center Team We are a passionate team of experienced educators and advisors at, dedicated to guiding students through their graduate education journey. Our experts, with advanced degrees across various disciplines, offer personalized advice, up-to-date program information, and practical insights into application processes.

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Updated: February 23, 2024, Reading time: 21 minutes

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Despite what you might have heard, high GPA scores are not all that is required to get a slot in your desired master’s or doctorate program! While this part is noteworthy, getting into graduate school requires stamina, commitment, and a desire to accomplish the journey.

Graduate school frequently brings with it angst and hope for aspiring students. Though it’s not always necessary, the graduate school application process may require an interview.

As soon as applications are finalized, the agonizing period of waiting to be called for one is just as stressful. 

Grad School Interviews fact 4

There’s no perfect method to nailing interview questions, but doing your due diligence before this can get you a long way. And lastly, always give your interviewers reasons to keep you and not exclude you from their list.

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Let’s go nail that grad school interview!

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Grad School Interview Tips

1. Avoid the jitters.

It can be stressful for those who are not keen on face-to-face interviews. Preparation to the key for this. Take this application process as a learning curve to build trust in yourself and what you can bring to the table. 

Brush up on your knowledge.

Part of your due diligence is exploring your chosen profession or degree of interest. It would be best if you had good reasons for wanting to get into the program. Current events, ethics, values, social policies, and other hot topics that the interviewer may point out.

Having previous knowledge about these topics shows them your deep interest and passion for their program. 

You snooze, you WIN!

Don’t neglect a good night’s rest. Several studies proved that your brain processes emotions as you sleep. The frenzy of all that preparation is taxing to your psyche, so giving your brain periodical rest will help it organize your emotions and thoughts.

After all, you need a positive boost before this momentous day. 

Cramming is failing.

Avoid the urge to cram. While the scheduled interview day is still far off, you can already practice answering questions they are likely to ask you. It doesn’t help to worry about perfecting your answers, either.

Cramming keeps you from thinking clearly and focusing on delivering the best application. 

Plan ahead.

If it’s going to happen out of town, take the trip two days before the interview day. You’d want to take time off to let your mind relax before the scheduled interview. Avoid engaging in activities that could derail your brain from taking a break before the ‘big day.’ 

2. Make a memorable ‘tell me about yourself’ answer.

This is one of those innocuous queries they might ask from you in an interview. Not only is this frequently asked, but it’s also usually the topmost question on their list. Keep in mind that you’re constantly being evaluated, so taking the time to find a meaningful yet creative answer to this could leave a lasting impression. 

Don’t be long-winded.

A proven way to answer this is to include a short narrative on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of your pursuit. Stories, when done right, are better retained than general and stoic answers. Your narrative should take your interviewer on ‘your journey’ to discovering this passion. 

Keep it short and sweet by finishing it within two minutes, containing enough details to capture their attention.

Just be yourself.

Be authentic and personable. You don’t have to be extroverted, outgoing, and pleasing at the same time. In answering this question, you can show pictures of the occasion using your phone. Just make sure to place it back after showing the pictures. Keep in mind to show the personality reflecting who you are today.

Practice, Practice, Practice.

Prepare for your interview beforehand and anticipate how to answer this query best. Polish your narrative and create a good structure. You don’t want to confuse the interviewer, especially if you’re not very good at storytelling.

Create a rough outline, including affiliated organizations relevant to this pursuit. Practice answering this question in a relaxed manner, projecting confidence and self-awareness. As you go along, answering this should come out naturally when the question arises. 

Grad School Interview fact 3

3. Take sufficient time to process your application.

Besides preparing for the interview, you need to accomplish other requirements essential for your application. Before deciding to pursue higher learning, you need to have enough time to compile all the necessary documents. 

Compile necessary paperwork.

Two to three months should suffice to compile all the paperwork. You can start with the easiest such as official transcripts, sending through an application form, and paying the fee. Look for mentors such as program directors, professors, or academic advisors who can give you letters of recommendation.

Take time to build your network and attend conferences and school events where you are likely to meet them. People you have worked with or supervised you in handling a certain project or research are ideal individuals to ask for a recommendation. 

Personal Statements.

Personal statements serve as windows for interviewers to know more about you. It serves as a ‘snapshot’ of who you are, what you have and can accomplish, and if you’re a suitable candidate for the program.

Other schools may also require a statement of purpose (also known as a letter of intent), a letter signifying all your academic and professional credentials, interests, and future research. 

‘Your statement shouldn’t sound ‘rushed.’ Some students don’t give enough time to polish this document, thinking that it’s sufficient to ‘wing it.’ Program directors and advisors run very hectic schedules; making your application stand out from the rest can get tricky.

To start, indicate a clear narrative. Your letter should show that you’re noteworthy and a strong contender for the program. Adding personal stories, such as challenges you faced to achieve your goals, could speak about your resilience.

If you’re part of a research team or organization, how did you manage the tasks, and how did you overcome conflicts? This would also speak about your ability to work with a team and contribute to a cause or research. 

In creating a good outline for your statement, you should add examples to make it more specific. Use general statements sparingly and work on writing experiences you’ve had in the past that contributed to your overall goal of pursuing this higher education. 

Make room for improvements. You need strong writing to prove you’re worth considering. Communicating your ideas clearly with flawless grammar and spelling errors gives the impression that you’re assertive and disciplined.

Give ample time to work on multiple drafts and have trusted people give you honest feedback on improving your letter. Don’t add ‘gimmicky’ terms like ‘when I was a child.’ It’s highly likely for them to read only a few sentences, and they’ll be off to check another applicant’s letter. 

Build your portfolio.

If given the opportunity and time, you can look for a part-time job or internship while waiting. Take time to build your portfolio and add relevant working experience to your resume before applying to give you a leg up from the competition.

Graduate school interviewers prefer students who have high initiative when tackling challenges. If you’re going for medicine, look into internships in your local hospitals.

Volunteer for organizations or causes that are relevant to your field of interest. Not only will this add credibility to your pursuit, but it also shows your desire to help using your skills and knowledge. 

Involve yourself in school activities and organizations.

If you’ve decided to pursue a graduate school program early in your undergraduate studies, you have the time to get involved in school activities and organizations.

You have more or less 3 to 5 years to gain the skills and expertise in working with other people or a school advocacy campaign relevant to your field of interest. Make the most of your years as an undergraduate to gain all the necessary exposure.

Attend seminars and participate in training where you build your expertise and engage socially with like-minded people such as professors, future colleagues, and mentors. 

4. Don’t give generic reasons why you chose their program.

It’s a common question thrown by most interviewers to potential candidates. Again, avoid ‘gimmicky’ or generic statements. And most of all, avoid answering that the institution (or the program) is well-known.

There are a few elements to consider to nail this question right and get the best impression from your interviewers. 

Research the program.

Take a considerable amount of time researching the program. What is it about? What is the goal of the program? Who is the team behind it? Who is the director, and what is the research they have done (or are currently working on)? How does the program help you achieve your goals and interests?

Know your interviewers.

It’s also best to look into the advisers on board and see what research and other contributions they bring to the program. These are key elements to add to your outline to help your interviewer know more about your interests and how the program can best benefit from your skills and knowledge. 

Consider these factors and how you can best place these together in your response. Pay careful attention to details to show them that you have prepared and thought the idea through. And lastly, the conciseness of the ideas presented keeps you from going into unrelated topics. 

Be prudent.

Be prudent in divulging your thoughts about the program. Program directors prefer those who are honest but do constructively. If this specific school offers the cheapest rate for your desired program, don’t tell it as it is.

Instead, you can show them your dedication and interest and how you are a fit candidate aligned with the program’s goals and values.

Make eye contact.

Expect that most of these programs hold several interviews. You could be meeting a faculty member, program alumnus, or admissions counselor, to name a few. It could be one-on-one or a panel interview with 3- to 4-panel members. As is the case with most doctorate programs, they will likely assess your ability to work in a team.

Advisers and program directors are looking for congenial and disciplined individuals with an exceptional ability to connect with others. If you’re sharing your response in a group interview, making eye contact with every member of the panel as you answer keeps you connected with them. 

5. Know your “WHY”.

Graduate school entails time and effort for both the student and program advisors. Interview questions like these tend to filter out individuals with ‘half-baked’ goals. One way to check long-term goals is to calibrate the applicant’s career goals. 

Do your homework.

They could be asking this question to see your commitment to your future career. Some programs entail long periods of working hours or require additional educational pursuits to be qualified. You can do some research beforehand about the school program, such as mission, vision, and projects (past and current).

Look into their homepage and see what current events, gatherings, awards, achievements, and causes the school is involved in. It gives an impression of your dedication to understanding their work, future pursuits, and contributions to the organization. 

Be assertive.

Being assertive and knowing what you want shows you’re clear-headed and focused. They will also have a preliminary idea if you’re a fit candidate for the team.

Are you looking to take higher education to become a professor? Do you want to take advanced work for an organization you’d want to be a part of, or are you currently working on it? Whatever the case may be, the clearer you are in presenting your plans, the more likely they will consider you.  

Practice the “Where do you see yourself…?” question.

This question may also be asked as ‘Where do you see yourself in the next five years?’ Keep in mind your long-term and short-term goals should be time-bounded but realistic.

If you’re unsure about your long-term goals, it’s okay to be honest about it. But stress that you are open to possibilities where your short-term goals will help you achieve long-term ones.  

For graduate placement, they still expect you to have your options. It could mean that you’re considering careers in certain sectors where taking part in the program will help you make that important decision.

Broad rotational graduate programs are designed to help you streamline your options. Be open about your career choices and let them know that being part of the program will help clarify that path.

Mention what kind of work and training you’ll be doing. Stress that this mentoring will help in your career progression for that specific cause, organization, or institution.

Grad School Interviews fact 2

6. Emphasize what exactly you can bring to the table.

Your talent, skills, training, and education are relevant to the program. Up to this point, you’ve probably been thinking more about how to benefit from the institution.

Cheaper rates, resources, funding, scholarly mentors, prestige, and even being among the ‘gifted’ few individuals enrolled could be why you may be choosing this specific school. But just as much as you’d be taking out from the school, they’d also be taking a lot more from you. 

The teaching you do or the research you will be participating in will greatly impact their credibility. Upon completion, you become an ambassador for this program as you apply for work or become part of an organization.

With this on the line, an impressive application is not sufficient to hold their attention. You need to bring new ideas and skills that set you apart from other applicants. 

Bring up new ideas and skills.

You should not go into the room without a preliminary idea about the tasks and related activities involved in the program. Go back to the school’s mission statement, including the department’s priorities. From here, you should evaluate if you have the right skill set and personality that fits the qualities they’re looking for. It’s also good to know their direction and the types of research they usually support. 

Standout applicants have strings of academic interest that complement the program. You can also share educational and research pursuits that interest you. Also, cite research and opportunities from the academe that appealed to you. Expand on these ideas and let them know how this helps support your future goals. Specify the opportunities you are particularly excited about. 

While being congenial makes you more pleasing, it’s not wise to mention that you’re only going to this specific school because of superficial reasons—including its geographic location.  While beach parties could be a constant occurrence in that institution, they shouldn’t be considered a ‘highlight.’ 

7. Show your enthusiasm. 

Treat this like a professional job interview. The interviewers are looking for committed individuals who can stick it out with the demands entailed with finishing the program. When you’re pursuing a master’s or doctorate program, it’s presumed that you want to go deeper in this field of interest. 

Show your passion.

Each program carries its own set of challenges, so loving what you do will make this next journey rewarding. Learn what others experienced. Know the mental demands of a master’s or doctorate program you’re interested in. It’s good to calibrate whether this pursuit is something you can endure for a long time (roughly 2 to 4 years). 

Be passionate about your answers. For Ph.D. programs, it’s important to build your portfolio and stock on knowledge and experience to help you prepare for specific questions they might ask. Doctorate programs are particularly tricky to get into, so it’s good if you have extensive academic and research exposure. 

Anticipate being asked what you will do with the degree. Instead of being caught off guard, outline possible angles in which the degree will benefit the institution as you advance your career choices. 

Highlight current events.

Current topics and issues related to your chosen field could help build your credibility as a potential applicant for the program. Highlight recent events wherein having this educational background or skill set could help improve a situation or crisis. 

Point out specific details about the program that are unique. There could be disciplines that complement your ideas and background. You could mention faculty members who have been a driving force in your choice of field. Other highlights include student diversity, curricula, and job opportunities. 

Grad School Interview fact 5

8. Interviewer may ask if you have other options.

Many applicants find this question tricky to answer. This flustering question is a weighty one for aspiring candidates looking to earn a spot in the program. 

One of the underlying reasons is marketing. It could be they’re also looking for information from competing institutions providing the same program. There’s also a possibility of refining their strategies in recruiting qualified candidates. 

Many institutions believe that a good indicator is the yield of students enrolled in that particular program after the application. If you say you’re applying for high-ranked institutions, they won’t likely admit you to keep their yield rate. It could also be that they are trying to check where else you’ve been accepted.

Being admitted to a higher-ranked institution can diminish your chances of getting into their program. In the same way, lower-ranked institutions may also not accept you to maintain their yield. 

This question is technically not allowed according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. But with this said, many schools innocuously insert this during the interview process.

If asked, be vague.

One way to do away with this query is not to answer it, especially for a supplemental essay. For face-to-face interviews, give a vague answer by not naming the institution. You can talk about the general characteristics of the institutions you’re applying for and highlight standout qualities from the one asking you the question.

If the interviewer pushes for a direct response, you can redirect the conversation by talking more about the institution’s qualities from the institution doing the interview. 

When it comes to this question, the most important thing to remember is to avoid giving them the list of schools you’ve applied for. It’s just as important to avoid answering this directly once you’ve been accepted into that institution.

Prepare for possible angles this query might be asked and make this an opportunity to talk about your interest in the school to cement your acceptance.

9. Remember: your work and study style matter!

Admission to higher education, such as a master’s or doctor’s degree, will require rigorous and long research and studying hours. Admission advisers look for individuals who are committed to their craft while upholding the values of the school. 

As expected with graduate programs, professors expect you to do more digging and less memorizing. A noteworthy quality of dedicated candidates understands the provided information with less rote learning. You are expected to interpret, do your research, and synthesize all this information with little to no supervision from your advisors. 

Potential candidates need to exhibit high discipline in their schedules and workload. Whether you’re a kinetic, visual, or auditory learner, it all boils down to how you manage your time. Admissions officers might also look into how you divide your time, especially if you’re taking a job or internship in between.

Provide an outline.

Nail this question by giving them short-term and long-term goals when you handle challenging tasks. Giving them an outline of your learning methods helps them evaluate your efficiency. Compared with earning an undergraduate degree, graduate students are expected to keep on time with their deadlines since rebounding could be difficult. 

Professors could be looking into your organization’s strategy. They might ask you how you keep notes as each course can get more complex (and confusing). There’s more reading to be done, so they could be looking into how you digest immense amounts of information.  

Let your personality shine.

The school is considering applicants who fit in not only with the program but also as a team. Take this opportunity to show them your personality and share how you overcame school or work challenges. You can share an experience (or two) of a time you’ve failed and how you recovered from this crisis.

One example you could use for this is to talk about a time when you had to work with a difficult classmate or colleague. It’s also beneficial to disclose how you work on complex tasks on your own. Working in a team and working individually will show them your work ethic. 

It might get personal.

It’s easy to overlook the rest when you’re juggling many things at once. That is why they favor individuals who know how to balance their schedules—including downtime. Interviewers might ask about your hobbies outside academic work. Having a good work-life balance will mean you have good organizational and time management skills.

Engaging in meaningful activities early on in this journey will help you get through tough times and long hours in academia. They might also ask about your personal life, such as where you usually hang out with your friends and other activities that pique your interest outside school and work. 

Grad School Interview fact 1

10. Post-interviews matter, too!

So you’ve prepared and delivered your best. But you’d still want to be sure to leave a lasting impression. Nailing the post-interview could still ‘salvage’ your application. 

Asking great questions allows them to calibrate your understanding and interest in the program. When you’re given this opportunity, you will be given a chance to assess whether the program fits your educational and professional goals. 

Prepare to ask questions.

If you’re familiar with the person’s research program, you can ask about their current research interest. Given a chance, you were informed in advance who would do the interview. You can look into their publications and ask relevant questions about them.

Engaging in this conversation might lead to more interesting conversations that could make an impact on your application. 


You can also ask for teaching and research assistantships if this is something that interests you. Use these assistantship details to help in planning your doctorate goals in academia should you get accepted. Determine the number of years (or semesters) where assistantships are given to students.

Some schools may have a limited duration for assistantships. You’d want to look into options as to how students are supported for the extra duration. Ask if travel meetings such as AGA and ASU are supported as well. 

Ask general questions, such as the typical duration for accomplishing the program. Be curious about how their students fare after completing the graduate program. You can also ask about the type and location of their library resources.

The Bottom Line…

As more graduate programs require interviews as part of their application, it’s still predominantly required for those taking a doctorate.

Primarily, the number of students enrolled serves as a threshold to indicate the success of their program. Two programs offered in the same institution will have varying results depending on these thresholds. 

The truth is that quantitative measures don’t speak so much about your credibility regarding how you handle the interview. They may throw you innocuous questions that you can answer easily but could have a huge impact on your application.

You can also answer them in a congenial and relaxed manner, but you need to be extra attentive since you’re constantly evaluated.

If you prepare for your interview with a vengeance, you will nail it! Believe in yourself, follow our valuable advice, and make your dreams come true!

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