Preparing for the Grad School Admissions Interview

An interview is a formal conversation with a representative from the school that allows you to share your passion for the field, the story of your accomplishments, and your enthusiasm for the school. A grad school admissions interview will allow you to learn more about the school to make sure it’s the right place for you.

Not all schools require an interview. But if your target school does require one, or makes one optional, you should prepare for it as though it were a job interview. And remember that the interview is a two-way street. You should come away from it with a better understanding of the academic and social culture of the school (will you fit in?), the career trajectory you will have when leaving the school, and if this is the place where you can really grow your potential, focus on areas of professional and academic concern to you, and fulfill your intellectual curiosity. Will you find the future colleagues of your dreams here?

Sometimes admissions staff use the interview as a way to meet applicants who fall short in one area of the application, before deciding on their admission. According to Phillip S. Mack of University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, an applicant with a compelling application who doesn’t meet the minimum GPA requirements may be invited for an interview in order to determine the applicant’s seriousness as a student. If this is your case, it’s crucial to prepare for the interview and to use the opportunity to show that you are indeed serious about your education, ready for grad school, and that you thoroughly understand what you are getting yourself into, both with the school and with a career in the field.

If your interview takes place on campus, be sure to plan a full campus visit.

Action steps:

  • Thoroughly research the school, prepare your talking points about the school (which you can use in developing sophisticated questions, for example), and your talking points about your achievements, relevant skills, and applicable life experience.
  • Develop a list of questions that shows you are well versed in the school’s offerings and faculty, but that you need to know more about the school in order to make a good decision. Ensure they are answered, either by your interviewer, staff or faculty, or a current or former student.
  • Prepare the story of your accomplishments and major turning points so that you can offer supporting evidence of your commitment to the issue area, your skills, and your readiness for grad school.
  • To read more about preparing for an interview, read Chapter Nine of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers, available for free.
  • Always send a thank you note!

The admissions interview

Remember that the admissions interview should be a two-way street. You are also interviewing your admissions counselor. Know what you are looking for in a grad school, and prepare some questions to help you discern whether this school is truly suited for you. It’s fine to bring in a typed list of questions to serve as a prompt—but don’t read questions off the page and do maintain good eye contact with the admissions counselor.

Do your homework. As you would for a casual meeting with an admissions counselor, or for a job interview, come prepared already knowing quite a bit about the school. Make sure you understand its focus, degree options, and mission. Avoid asking the most obvious questions lest you be mistaken for an applicant who’s not serious about getting into the school.

Based on your research of the school’s recruitment priorities, prepare some talking points for yourself. List the qualities you sense the school is looking for—anything from your undergraduate course load and performance to your public service experience since graduating from college. Then, prepare some specific anecdotes that illustrate how you are a good fit for the school. Read up on sharing your story with the admissions team. Use these prepared anecdotes in response to questions about your experience and skills, and also as a springboard for posing your own questions. For example, “When I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, I worked on a Guinea worm eradication project with some public health workers from U.S.-based NGOs. I learned a great deal from them and am wondering how your school helps students transition to that kind of work after graduation.”

Find out ahead of time how long the interview is scheduled to last, and respect the clock during your interview. Avoid long-winded responses that skirt the question at hand.

An interview is a great opportunity to highlight your passion for social impact work, your key accomplishments, and your enthusiasm for the program.

Last but not least, don’t forget to send a thank-you note to your interviewer as soon as possible afterwards.