Heading into an interview, you need to be prepared for a few different kinds of questions.
First, technical or skill-based questions. These are questions based on your academic training or professional experience in the specific field. You can’t do much to prepare for these in advance. You’ll either know the answer or you won’t.
For example, a game design major interviewing for a job at Electronic Arts might be asked “Describe the differences between Unreal and Unity game engines and which would you choose to develop a 3D game?”
It should be noted that in cases like this where you would be expected to know the specific answer, there are ways to answer even if you only have partial knowledge by answering as a hypothetical or referencing only the knowledge you do have. Let’s say in the above example you’ve used the Unity engine to create games in the past. You’ve heard of Unreal, but never used it and don’t know much about it. You wouldn’t want to say “I don’t really know anything about Unreal”. Start from the knowledge you do have and talk about your ability to learn. A sample answer here might be:
“I’ve done all of my development work using Unity, which I like a lot. I’ve been able to produce some great content for 3D games with it during my senior capstone and internship. I’m not as familiar with Unreal, but I’m confident I could pick up the basics fairly quickly if that was the preferred tool here. I was able to teach myself how to use Unity in a few weeks”.
Second, questions about your previous experience or education.These are typically pretty straightforward and based on the information you provided in your resume and/or cover letter. For example, “I see you interned with ABC company last year. Tell me a little more about what you did there.”
In these cases, use the vagueness built into the question to provide details about the things you want them to know. Remember the work you did analyzing the job description? Think back to that now. What skills were they most interested in? Did you use any of those skills in the position they are asking about now? If so, make sure that becomes the focus of your answer. In any given job or activity from your past you can probably talk about five or six different things you did or learned. Don’t list them all, and don’t focus on the stuff you did most frequently just because it was your most frequent task. Tell the stories from your experience that illustrate the skills you knowthey want. For example, let’s say one of the skills you think the employer is after is communication skills. If that was a part of your work in your internship at ABC company, even if it was only a small part of what you did—for example, a weekly meeting with the rest of your team—focus on that. Try to give some context and tell the story that showcases you best for this position.
“I see you interned with ABC company last year. Tell me a little more about what you did there.”
“My internship with ABC company was a great opportunity for me. I got to work with the design team. I spent most of my time conducting research on how competitors marketed their products to millennials. But, my favorite part of the week was our team meeting every Friday. I was able to present my research from the previous week to the rest of my team, as well as senior leadership—about 25 people. I really enjoyed getting to present my work to people at all levels of the organization and answer their questions. Those meetings would often result in additional conversations with different department leads the following week, which helped me focus my research based on the feedback I received. It was great for me to get feedback that helped me do my work more effectively and I felt like my work made a contribution to the team.”
Third, the “typical questions”.These are commonly asked questions that you should always be ready for at any interview. Some are more straightforward while others are “behavioral” seeking specific examples from your past. Even if you are not prompted for a specific example, answers that offer specific examples are typically better received by interviewers.
**NOTE: Below are a mix of example questions some of which might be applied in an employment and others which might be used in a grad school interview. While some are very obviously related to a graduate school interview and would be unlikely or out of place in an employment interview (i.e., “What will you do if you don’t get into graduate school”?), simply replace the word or concept of graduate school and practice your answer to the implied question. This example is really a question about failure and how you respond. This could easily be a job interview question with only a slight change in phrasing. Try to read between the lines to the concept behind the question and think about how you would address that concern.
Tell me about yourself.
(Interviewers may ask this in different forms. Some different phrasings for this same question include: “I have your resume in front of me, but tell me more about yourself”; “Walk me through your experiences”; “Tell me a little more about your background”)
Don’t recite your resume! This answer should share key parts of your background as it relates to the specific opportunity for which you are interviewing. Basically, the interviewer wants to know three things: 1. Can you do the work? Spend 15 seconds talking about your training, skills, accomplishments, and your ability to learn quickly. 2. Will you do the work? Spend 15 seconds showing that you are a hard worker and give a few examples from your past to prove it. This can also touch on your “Why” – what is your motivation to be in a role like this? 3. Are you a fit for the company/program culture? If you were able to find hints about the company culture through your research, try to relate that to your past experience if there is a match. If there are specific skills/experience that you know the company/program requires, be sure to work those into your answer. If you can’t do either, spend 15 seconds explaining that you are a team player and that you can work well with practically anyone.
(An alternative way to think about how to answer this question would be to think about how you might answer the question “Why should I hire you?”. Answering this question from that perspective can be a helpful way of framing your answer to highlight your key skills and experience and relate it succinctly to this specific position.)
What are your career goals? How will this grad program/job help you achieve your goals?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
These questions are both after roughly the same information. Where are you headed in the future? What do you want to do? How can this program/job help you advance towards that eventual goal. Be specific about the skills/experience offered by thiscompany/program rather than general benefits (“I need a Master’s/PhD to get the job I want”). If you are applying for a job, a combination of ambition and humility is always a strong answer: “In 5 years, I hope to have advanced as far as my performance and opportunity allow.” If you know what job title might be typical for that organization 5 years in, speak to that as well.
Why do you want to be a ________ (insert appropriate word like HR manager, psychologist, game designer)?
Tell your story. What initially sparked your interest? How has your education/internship experience solidified that choice? Use specific examples.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Strengths: Pick one or two things you do really well and tell a story that demonstrates those skills. Be specific, but concise. Ideally, pick strengths that are strongly related to the job/focus of the program.
Weaknesses: Everyone has flaws. What you need to show is that you have personal awareness that your flaws exist and that you can manage them in such a way that they won’t impact your work. The best answers identify a weakness but offer an example that shows you have actually corrected it or are actively working on correcting it.
If you’re not accepted into graduate school, what are your plans?
Programs may be interested in determining if graduate school is an intentional choice/goal, or simply a backup based on failure to find employment. They are also interested in seeing how you handle setbacks. Talk about your long-term goals and how graduate school fits into the picture. Let them know that you would be disappointed, but that you would re-apply in the future since it is necessary to meet your goals.
What do you know about our program/company?
Go back and review the “Research” section of this guide. Before you go on the interview, visit that company’s/program’s website. Get an overview of the company’s key products and services. Google the company name for news. Find out who they are, what they do, and why they matter to you. For grad programs, be sure to highlight specific research projects, faculty, or areas of focus that interest you.
Why did you choose to apply to our program/company?
The key word here is “our”. This is the same as “Why do you want to work for our company?” Your answer needs to be specific. Base your answer on the research you have done in advance and a specific reason or two that this opportunity is a fit for you. They want to understand that you want to work/study with them not just “I need a Master’s to get licensed” or “I need a job to pay off my loans”. They want to know that you “get” them and will be a good fit for the program/job.
What other schools are you considering?
This can also be asked about employment: “What other companies are you applying to?” Everyone likes to know how they compare to others. If you have applied to a number of their competitors it is a signal that you are a “hot commodity”, and for employers some may ask to know how long they have to make an offer. The safest bet here is to be honest that you are interviewing in other places, not get into too much detail, and reiterate that thisis your first choice.
In what ways have your previous experiences prepared you for graduate study in our program?
This is another way of asking “Why should I hire/admit you?” Toot your horn and focus on your strengths. If you have a really good GPA, talk about your coursework and overall academic preparation. If you have great research/internship experience, talk about that. In addition to that, however, be sure to highlight a few other attributes that would benefit them – you’re a team player – you’re not afraid of hard work – you’re a quick learner – you’re reliable (you only missed two days of work last year). Tell a story or two to illustrate those skills. Then, steer it back to the company and be sure to relate why you want to work for thiscompany/come into thisprogram
What do you believe your greatest challenge will be if you are accepted into this program?
This is another self-awareness “weakness” question. Identify something from your background that could use improvement (lack of research experience, etc.) and talk about how your other skills and experience can help you overcome that weakness. Give a specific example of how you overcame a similar weakness in the past.
In college, what courses did you enjoy the most? The least? Why?
For graduate school, if your favorite class wasn’t one relevant to their program, that could raise red flags for the interviewer. By the same token, if your least favorite class is relevant, that is just as bad. Interviewers want to see that your interests match their needs. If you enjoy what you do, you are more likely to do well and to work through setbacks along the way. For an employer, being able to tie whyyou enjoyed a course back to the job can be helpful. For example, if your favorite class was one that required you to read and analyze a lot of data, and analytical skills are a key skill in the job, this can be helpful to point out.
Describe any research project you’ve worked on.
What was the purpose of the project and what was your role in the project?
These two go together. Answer with specifics: What were the goals of the research? How did you contribute (individual contributions and things you assisted with)? What were the results of the research and what skills or insight did you gain, beyond the results themselves?
How would your professors describe you? How would you friends describe you?
There are probably any number of answers you could offer, so choose strategically. Think about the job/program and the skills that are most important. Focus on a few of those and follow up with a specific example of how you have used/developed that skill. For professors, stay more focused on “professional” skills. For friends, you can get more personal and focus on positive personality traits.
What are your hobbies OR What do you do in your spare time?
Be honest, but if you do spend any personal time on things related to the work you do (reading about your field, volunteering in a related environment) that is always a good thing to discuss. How you spend your personal time speaks to your priorities and if your personal interests coincide with your professional goals that demonstrates strong motivation to be in the field.
Explain a situation in which you had a conflict and how you resolved it. What would you do differently? Why?
Details are important here. Describe the situation you were in, what caused the conflict, how you analyzed it to understand the possible paths to resolution, who you involved in the decision making (you alone, consulted your professor/boss), what you actually did and the result. What did you learn from the experience? Even if there was a negative outcome, learning from the experience demonstrates personal growth.
Describe your greatest accomplishment.
The accomplishment itself matters less than the description. Remember, it is only an accomplishmentif there was a struggle to get there! Don’t pick something trivial or common (getting into college may have been a big achievement but if you are interviewing for graduate school or most full-time jobs in a professional field, every candidate will also have that same story to tell, even if you faced hardship to get there). In describing your accomplishment, identify why it was a challenge, the steps you had to take to overcome it, and what you learned from the experience. Be specific!
Tell me about your experience in this field. What was challenging? What was your contribution?
Similar to the “greatest accomplishment” question and the “research project” question. Be specific and use examples from your resume.
What skills do you bring to the program? How will you help your mentor in his or her research?
Approach this the same way you would the “In what ways have your previous experiences prepared you for graduate study in our program? “ question. Focus on your strengths.
Are you motivated? Explain and provide examples.
Money is not a good answer. Talk about your interest in the field, taking the same approach as the “Why do you want to be a _______” question.
Why should we take you and not someone else?
This is really just a re-stating of the “In what ways have your previous experiences prepared you for graduate study in our program?” question. Take the same approach and focus on your preparation and strengths.
What do you plan to specialize in?
Discuss your goals for the future and be sure to relate it back to the program/job. How can this specific experience help you in the future?