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.

This shows you some of my prep work for grad school interviews. (I blurred out the text and moved sections closer together for a smaller image.) Note that I never filled in one of the sections and that's okay--this exercise will be helpful even if you don't have a chance to do it 100% of the way.

This shows you some of my prep work for grad school interviews. (I blurred out the text and moved sections closer together for a smaller image.) Note that I never filled in one of the sections and that's okay--this exercise will be helpful even if you don't have a chance to do it 100% of the way.

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
  • results
  • 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.

3. Prepare to talk about yourself

Whenever you're going on interviews, regardless of whether they're for grad school or “real world” jobs, you need to be prepared to give a brief introduction to yourself. This is another elevator pitch that you should have ready.

When we're asked about ourselves, it can feel awkward—how can we possibly sum up the complex being that we've become after ~25 years on this Earth? But the person you're talking to wants to get to know you, and it's up to you to help them [see note 4].

A few possible topics you might consider sharing about yourself:

  • where you come from
  • what you majored in
  • what topic you're interested in studying in grad school (if you aren't sure, don't panic [and see note 5]! Choose a few topics you find more interesting than others and be honest about the fact that you're still open to different topics)
  • how did you become interested in that subject
  • what do you do for fun/to relax

Many interviews with faculty are much more like a casual conversation than a formal interview so be ready to chat with them how you would any human you're making polite conversation with.

4. Prepare to discuss the faculty members' research

A lot of people worry about how much they need to know about the professor's research. You likely can request the faculty members you want to meet with and get a list of who you'll be meeting with ahead of time. This is great, you get all this information so you can prepare ahead of time!

Uh wait, if you have all this information ahead of time, does that mean you need to become an expert on all of their research? No. That is absolutely not the expectation.

So how much should you prepare?

First of all, most interviews will be fine even if you don't know anything about their research. They probably don't expect you to know their research because:

  • many faculty don't have a good sense of how interview weekends are set up, so they may not know if you had advance notice
  • while most programs will try to match you with people you're interested in, you'll also end up with a few people you didn't ask for (note, these can either be truly random people or they may be on the admissions committee)
  • they'll be telling you about their research anyway

However, if you want a truly rich interview, it's a great idea to know at least a little about the research of your interviewer.

First, let's talk about how to prepare for people you're meeting with who you LOVE—those dream professors who are the whole reason you want to go to that program in the first place [but see note 6].

For these professors, I would recommend reading several abstracts and/or a full article of theirs in some depth. No, you don't need to understand all of their methods (in fact, asking them about a method you didn't understand is a great conversation jumping-off point).

But with those extra special professors, you want to show them that you're really invested, that you've thought about their project, and that you can think critically about research.

How to prepare for most faculty you'll meet with (these are the ones who you're open to working with but don't feel super strongly about)?

For these, it's usually sufficient to read their research descriptions on their website. (Though keep in mind that lab websites are notoriously out of date, so you may be reading about research they aren't doing anymore. But that doesn't matter because they'll still see you cared enough to prepare.)

You should at least be able to say from memory what their topic is (especially because other recruits and grad students will ask and it's a bit awkward to have no idea what to say in response).

Whether you read a whole paper, a few abstracts, or just a research description, you want to come ready with some questions to ask. Possible ones:

  • Why did you use [technique/cell type/etc]?
  • How does ___ relate to ____
  • I remember learning about ___ in my classes. How is this related to that topic?
  • What did you do next?
  • Have you thought about doing ___? (note that this is a varsity level question! If you can't think of anything to ask in this form of question, it's ok!)
  • Would [other method] have also worked to answer this question?
  • Why did you choose this area of study? (Note, I would say this is probably the weakest question in the group)
  • Was this done all in your lab or do you collaborate at all with other labs?

Arguably the hardest part of each interview is when the professor tells you about their research project. Some of them are awesome at explaining it for people outside the field; others are not!

Don't beat yourself up if you have a hard time with this part. We're very used to passively taking in information in class. It's a whole different ball game when a professor tells you about their research and suddenly you're having an impromptu discussion about it.

What do you do if the professor says something you don't understand?

  • Nod along, pretending to know?
  • Interrupt?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. You can't really interrupt them constantly, and sometimes their next sentence will address your question. But you do have to get used to interrupting them a bit, or at least showing on your face that you don't understand. It's going to get awkward at some point if you're totally lost and you don't admit it.

You can practice with a friend or a lab mate: ask them to tell you about a topic that they know more about than you do, and practice politely interrupting when you aren't sure what they mean. You can also switch roles so that you

  • get used to being interrupted and having questions asked
  • see what it's like to be interrupted so you can determine what feels polite and what you should avoid

When you're in your interview, don't be nervous if the professor is writing while they're talking to you, or even if they're filling out a form. Don't assume they're making a list of everything you're doing wrong! They're meeting with a lot of students, and the notes are there to help them remember how awesome you are!

This blog post was about how to prepare ahead of time for interviews. Stay tuned next week for tips for how to behave when you're actually there! Future blog posts on this topic will address:

  • dealing with imposter syndrome at recruitment weekends
  • what to do if you didn't get into the program of your dreams (or even anywhere)
  • how to decide if you should even go to grad school
  • other topics you ask me to write about

Now it's your turn to weigh in!

Are you about to interview?

  • What questions do you have?
  • What are you most nervous about?
  • What are you most excited about?
  • What are you doing to prepare?

Just went through the process or did a while ago?

  • What was your experience like?
  • What advice can you give?
  • What do you wish you had done differently?
  • What did you do that worked well?

Notes:

1. Imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling unprepared for the job that you have or for the one you're trying to get.

2. Just be careful to not put yourself at a disadvantage by talking as though you actually are worse than others. For example, say “I don't feel very confident because all the other recruits seems so impressive!” rather than “I don't feel very confident because I have so much less research experience than everyone else and I wasn't a very good student in college.” Also don't be surprised if the person you're talking to doesn't open up the same way. In my experience, most people will be very open about their own experiences with imposter syndrome if you share first. However, some people may not feel comfortable opening up themselves. (Or you may be meeting one of the rare people who don't get much imposter syndrome. Yay to them for escaping the awfulness of low confidence! Don't let yourself feel worse about yourself as a result.)

3. For example, an immediate next step could be to troubleshoot something, to do a similar experiment but with one key change (such as use a different gene knockout), or to search in the literature for something you need to be able to proceed. A loftier next step is something that is more out of reach or would take a lot more planning/money. For example, set up a collaboration with someone who works with a different model organism, use some equipment that your lab can't actually afford now, or create a whole new protocol.

4. As an aside—this is also something that comes up in dating profiles. Some people will write in dating profiles that rather than giving a summary of themselves, they invite everyone who sees the profile to ask them questions. That's not a great start to an interaction. You're basically requiring the other person to get to know you without any context to start with.

5. There's actually an awesome (NSFW) podcast called Don't Panic Podcast. I kept thinking of it every time I wrote "don't panic" so I had to send you towards it. Just be careful--at the time of this writing, the picture on their homepage is a tad NSFW (not safe for work). It's not about grad school but it is about honest conversations about dealing with what life throws at you (mostly focused on dating and sex, but also about mental and physical health).

6. Be wary about joining a graduate program to work with a specific faculty member if there's not a guarantee that you'll be able to join their lab. Lots of people find they can't join the lab they dreamed of and you want to make sure there are at least a few labs you'll be happy in.