Graduate School Interview Guide

So, you’ve submitted your graduate school applications, and now one or more programs has invited you to come for an interview. Congratulations! You’ve passed the first hurdle. This means that the admissions committees have moved you on to the next round. However, if you want to get into the program, you’ll have to make a good impression at the interview. But what is a graduate school interview? How is it formatted? And how should you prepare? Below you’ll find answers to all these questions and more to help you have a successful interview.

What Is a Graduate School Interview?

A graduate school interview is a process in which an applicant is questioned and evaluated by the admissions committee, faculty members, and current graduate students in order to determine whether an offer of admission should be made. The program wants to accept applicants who they think will be a good fit, so the point of the interview is to see how you think, talk, and behave in person. Alternatively, you may receive an invitation to a recruitment event after you have already been offered admission in hopes of convincing you to attend the program.

When Are Interview Requests Sent Out?

Graduate school interview requests are typically sent out around 1-2 months after submitting your application. For me, the application deadline was December 1st (I submitted in November), and interview requests were sent in December and January for interviews the following month.

What Is the Typical Format of a Graduate School Interview?

The format differs depending on the program or your location relative to the university. Some interviews are conducted virtually, while others are in person. Typically, virtual interviews are conducted for people who cannot easily travel to the university. This is particularly common for international students. Virtual interviews may also be conducted for programs with limited funding.

In-person interviews are more common in my experience and may last an entire weekend. This is particularly the case for better funded programs and those that more rigorously evaluate applicants. Travel, lodging, and food at these interviews may be paid for or reimbursed by the program, or you may have to pay for these expenses yourself (my expenses were all taken care of by the programs I applied to).

How Is a Virtual Graduate School Interview Formatted?

A virtual interview is conducted through an online communications platform, such as Zoom, and may involve one or multiple video calls. Usually, there is a main call which includes three people: two people on the admissions committee plus the department chair. Then there may also be one-on-one interviews with individual professors who the applicant may or may not have had some say in selecting (these are often partially based on who you mentioned and what you stated your research interests were in your personal statement).

How Is an In-Person Graduate School Interview Formatted?

An in-person interview may be a single interview with the admissions committee or a faculty member you are interested in working under (and who may sponsor you for admission). More commonly, it is a 3-day event stretching from Thursday to Saturday. This is the typical schedule:


  • Itinerary will be sent to you
  • A student host/buddy (current graduate student) will often be assigned


  • Arrive on campus (you will be greeted/guided by your host)
  • Check in to lodgings
    • Usually either hotel or your host’s place
    • You may or may not be assigned a roommate
  • Attend a dinner
    • If organized by the department: attended by all hosts and applicants plus various faculty members
    • If organized by your host: typically attended by a few hosts and their corresponding applicants


  • Breakfast/welcome session (typically with talks from department/program heads)
  • 3-4 half-hour interviews (one with admissions committee, others with individual professors based partially on your personal statement)
  • Lunch (may include more current graduate students and faculty members)
  • Tour of facilities, campus, or entire college area (I saw greenhouses and took a bus ride around the college town to see where apartments were located)
  • 3-4 half-hour interviews
  • Possibly a wind-down event (poster session or drinks)
  • Dinner
  • After-dinner activities (typically going to a bar)


  • Taken to breakfast (often just applicants and hosts who are interested)
  • Leave

What Happens During the Interviews Themselves?

The interviews are usually the most stressful part of the whole interview event but they tend to go by pretty quickly. There are typically two types of interviews: (1) the admissions committee interview and (2) the one-on-one interviews.

Admissions Committee Interview

This interview is usually the most intense since there are multiple people asking questions and evaluating you. It is typically a three member team consisting of two faculty members on the admissions committee plus the department head. They ask questions based on your application to gauge your readiness for the program. They often evaluate you based on the following criteria:

  • Do you have sufficient background knowledge of the field?
  • Have you demonstrated skills that can help you succeed?
  • Are you able to communicate in an efficient, organized, and logical manner?
  • Are you passionate about the field, school, and program?
  • Do you make a good impression?
  • Are you likely to accept an offer of admission?

This is generally not an antagonistic interview. The interviewers will try to make you comfortable and relate to your experiences. For instance, I applied to a plant-focused program but had little experience with plants as my undergraduate experience was more focused on animal and bacterial biology and biochemistry, and the department head told me that he too came from a biochemistry background and thought the transition was manageable (although the interviewers did suggest I read a plant biology textbook before attending the program).

One-On-One Interviews

These interviews are usually more laid-back and conversational, although each professor has a different style. Typically, they start by asking you about yourself and your background, what relevant experiences you have, and what research you are interested in conducting. Then they will often tell you about their research (this can take the entire rest of the interview if you have nothing else to talk about). They may also show you around their lab (if applicable) or introduce you to some of their post-docs or current graduate students. You may even get a few moments alone with current graduate students to ask questions prior to the start of an interview.

Typically, you are evaluated based on the following:

  • Do you have relevant background experience?
  • Do you seem interested in their research?
  • Do you have any useful skills or knowledge that may benefit the professor’s research?
  • Are you attentive?
  • Do you ask questions?
  • Do you make a good impression?

If you do talk to current graduate students and post-docs (including during meals or tours), they will also evaluate you and provide feedback to their advisor or department. Generally, this evaluation is mostly based on your impression and whether you seem interested/passionate about the research.

How Should You Prepare for a Graduate School Interview?

To prepare for your interview, you should first re-read your application and personal statement and practice responding to potential questions based on your background. Pay particular attention to areas likely to be scrutinized – poor grades, low test score, missing research experience, etc.

Second, make sure you have a cogent idea for your proposed research topic. This can be broad, but it should be well-defined. You will be asked questions about this, so make sure you have answers ready to go. What do you want to study? Why do you want to study it? How do you plan to go about studying it? Have you done any research/read any academic literature to prepare?

Third, at a minimum, look up the research topic of each of your faculty interviewers. For those you are most interested in, read a couple recent papers and come prepared with a few questions.

Finally, make sure you also come up with generic questions about the program and campus. You will want to show your interest by asking questions of pretty much everyone you meet. Ask your host about the school, the program, and the graduate school experience. Ask current grad students about their lab, research, and advisors. And ask the admissions committee about the program, graduation rates and time tables, and expectations.

What Should You Wear for a Graduate School Interview?

Clothing choices vary based on the program. STEM programs tend to prefer more informal clothes, while humanities tend to dress up. Typically, business casual is fine across the board.

What Are Some Tips for a Successful Graduate School Interview?

  • Assume everyone is evaluating you. Don’t let your guard down around your student host or if you’re alone with current graduate students. They will keep tabs on what you say.
  • It’s okay to joke around if that’s part of your appeal, but don’t take things too far.
  • Although alcohol is almost always offered, you do not need to drink. It will not hurt your chances to turn down a beer, although going overboard may.
  • Keep in mind that you are also evaluating the school/program. Is it a good fit for you? Do you actually want to go there? Try to find out information that is important to you.
  • Ask your host a lot of questions. They are typically the most honest person about the program/school, especially if they are towards the end of their graduate school experience. A fifth year or later graduate student will often be quite negative, and you can find out a lot about possible issues from them. On the other hand, a graduate student who recently joined the program will typically be more positive and can tell you about fun activities in the area. Make sure to ask about the stipend (if one will be provided). You don’t need an exact number (since it varies by year, department, funding sources, etc.), but ask whether it is sufficient to live off of or if current graduate students are struggling. You can also ask about where they live, which can give you an indication of the general quality of life for a graduate student.
  • If you’re struggling during a one-on-one interview, ask a generic question about the professor’s research. Professors usually love to talk about their research and can easily fill up the entire interview (and run over the time) just talking about what they are currently working on or notable works they have published.
  • Be friendly towards the other applicants. Some of them are likely to be part of your cohort in the future.

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