This Is How You Prepare for Grad School Interviews: 4 Steps to Get Confident and Make a Killer Impression
So, you got a grad school interview, or maybe 2 (or 5? You’re going to be tired!).
First of all, huge congratulations! Tons of people apply to each graduate program and just the fact that you got an interview is already a great sign.
But now you might be feeling nervous because now you’re actually going to be meeting the very people who will ultimately decide whether you get to go to grad school.
Don’t think you’re alone and don’t take your nerves as a bad sign. Not feeling very confident is not a sign that you’re worse than everyone else! You’ll feel better when you’ve done some prep work. You’ll also feel better when you really take to heart that low confidence is incredibly common among talented people.
So I’m going to tell you:
How to prepare for grad school interviews
Disclaimer: This is based on my experience and experiences I’ve heard about. I’m most familiar with interviews for programs that are:
- life sciences
- PhD program
- rotations-based (you try out different labs before choosing one)
- on the West Coast
- where recruits aren’t admitted till after interviews
If you have experience with other types of interviews or your interview experience is different than what I describe, please comment or email me about your experience and advice.
1. Prepare yourself for imposter syndrome
Grad school interviews are a perfect breeding ground for imposter syndrome [see note 1].
You may have been one of the best students at your undergrad college, and suddenly you’re among the other students who were also the best at their school.
Or maybe you don’t think you were actually that great of an undergrad student and now you’re feeling like they must have invited you to interviews by mistake.
How will you convince them to give you one of the limited spots, when you’re not even that sure yourself that you’re good enough?
Stay tuned for a separate blog post about imposter syndrome at recruitment but in the meantime, here are a few tips:
- prepare as much as possible. You’ll feel less afraid if you know you’ve prepared
- remember that everyone is putting their best foot forward
- “never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides” — author Anne Lamott
- be open about the fact that you’re not feeling very confident (talk to your undergrad mentors, friends, and family before you go. If you want extra bold points, you can try talking to fellow recruits or grad students about it at interviews [but first, see note 2]
- remind yourself you don’t have to be perfect to get into grad school
Now, let’s talk about the actual dynamics of interviews. Most interviews will be 30–60 minutes (and you may have ~3–8 interviews per recruitment weekend). You’ll spend part of the time talking about your research; part talking about theirs. To be ready, you’ll want to:
2. Practice explaining your research
The most important part of your prep work is making sure you can talk about your research project(s). Hopefully you’ve been working on a research project for a while and have a general understanding of the background of it. You may be worried that you don’t know it well enough, but don’t worry, you just have to review a few key things.
Grab a piece of paper (or follow my example and use an Excel spreadsheet to set it up) and make categories:
- what was already known before you started (or before the lab started the project)
- why the project matters — what will the project help us understand better? E.g. if you’re studying a gene, what cellular pathways are you helping us understand?
- big picture significance — relate it to what even a non-scientist would care about (E.g. does the gene have some tangential relationship to Alzheimer’s disease? Does the process you’re developing relate in some way to smartphone technology?)
- what we planned to do
- what we did — what did you actually get done (this may differ than what you planned because of unexpected results or because you ran out of time)
- what was your role — this is especially important if you were working in a team or were helping someone with part of their project
- conclusions — what can you infer from your results? Are you particularly excited about some part of it?
- next steps — what are you going to do when you get back from interviews, or what would you do if you could keep working on the project (or what did the people who picked up the project do next)? Think of some immediate next steps and some loftier ones [see note 3].
Make bullet points next to each one to fill in as much as you know. Don’t worry that you don’t know all of the answers; you now have a very good sense of what you know and what you don’t know.
To fill in the blanks:
- look back at the papers you were given when you just joined the lab
- find new relevant articles
- do some googling
- talk to people in your lab
And don’t feel like you need to have all the answers because:
- it’s ok to not know something
- you’ll have multiple chances:
You have lots of interviews (~3–8 faculty members per recruitment weekend) so you can course-correct if you realize there’s part that you didn’t prepare. Can you ask your mentor in lab to try to stay available by text for any last minute questions?
You’ll likely have at least a few minutes between interviews and while the time is best spent finding your next interview and taking some deep breaths, you can probably do a bit of googling to find the answer you suddenly realized you needed. (Though honestly, the deep breathes might serve you better.)
If it’s possible to set up your interview schedule so that the first program you interview at isn’t your dream program, this can give you a great chance to practice before it really matters most.
Now that you have your cheat sheet mostly filled out, what do you do with it?
You’re going to want to prepare different versions of your explanation:
A. 1 sentence — simplified, bigger picture
What’s the general topic of your project? It may be helpful here to relate your project to areas that even people outside the field know a lot about.
This is most useful for brief interactions with other recruits or when meeting professors or grad students at low-stakes social events. This is your research elevator pitch.
B. 1–2 minute — a basic explanation of your project
- Why does it matter?
- What (broadly) did you do?
- What did you find?
This is most useful for expanding if someone seems interested after you give your 1 sentence explanation.
This is also a great starting point for when a professor who’s interviewing says “tell me about your project.” It gives the main point and gives the other person the opportunity to ask more questions, possibly leading to:
C. 4–5 minute — a more in-depth explanation
For this longer explanation, practice giving an overview using any and all aspects of the sections you outlined in the exercise above. Although you may practice going through this whole thing, remember that everything you’re practicing here will be part of a conversation, not a monologue.
Be prepared to be interrupted, and don’t expect to go in order. If you memorize this like a script you might be thrown off when the person you’re talking to cuts in to ask clarifying questions or to throw in their own ideas, so think of this as more of a collection of ideas that you can pull from.
Practice each kind of explanation (A, B, C) until it feels comfortable. The next blog post will give you more info about how to deal if you realize you can’t answer a question, but the takeaway is: don’t panic! You don’t have to know everything. In fact, I bet most professors are way more interested in how you respond when you don’t know the answer than how many answers you know.