Skip to main content

Graduate Admissions Interviewsinterviews

The final stage of the graduate admissions process – in other words, the final hurdle before potentially being accepted – is the admissions interview.  Many programs invite a select group of the most promising applicants to visit, during which they interview with faculty and participate in departmental events.  The process may be called “Open House”, “Recruitment Weekend,” “Interview Day”, or other names. 

Although such interviews can be a mere formality (where all invitees have been provisionally accepted), in most cases the interviews are decisive in determining whether an applicant will be accepted or not.  Thus, applicants should take admissions interviews seriously by preparing beforehand and by making efforts to perform well during them.  Here we discuss ways to increase the chances of successfully interviewing for graduate programs.

Note: depending on the program, you may or may not be financially reimbursed for the cost of travel.  This may affect your decision to accept an interview invitation or not.  However, all else being equal, accepting an interview and being physically present at that interview will help your application chances more than not being able to interview.

Before the Interview: Review, Research, and Practice

It is absolutely critical to prepare for each interview.  As described in this section, there are at least three phases components to that preparation: review, research, and practice.  Here we describe each in turn:1,2

Step 1. Review

  • Examine your application materials – in other words, what you wrote and the information that you provided. Keep in mind that the admissions committee, potential faculty of interest, and the program you are applying to have examined that information specifically.  Your application comprises their current picture of you; interviews can verify, expand upon, or disconfirm that information.  It is possible that interview questions may be drawn from your application materials.  You may also wish to elaborate upon details or themes in your application materials.
  • Think of your goals, your overall match with the program, and any issues with your record that you may need to explain (and come up with satisfactory answers for those).
  • Refresh your knowledge of the program. Presumably you became familiar with details of the program when you applied, and also potential faculty of interest.  Now that you have been invited to interview, you should review those details.

Step 2. Research

  • Go beyond your initial examination of the program, department, and faculty of interest by doing a more in-depth examination of the program. Detailed reading of department, faculty, and lab websites, as well as research papers written by faculty of interest, is in order here.  By arriving at the interview equipped with this information, you will be able to better interact with individuals at the program, ask informed questions, and more.
  • As you complete your research, prepare a list of questions that you may have for the department, faculty, and others. Ideally you can pose some of these questions during your interviews.  Having relevant questions is a way of conveying your serious interest in the program; it can also help improve the tenor of conversation in the interview.
  • Find out the format of the interviews that you will participate in. Will they be one-on-one, group interviews, panel interviews, or something else?  If the interview format is unclear, you can politely contact the graduate coordinator or other program representative and request further details.

Step 3. Practice

  • Look over lists of potential interview questions (for examples, please see the links below), prepare answers, and practice those answers. You may be asked such questions as:
    • “Why are you interested in this program?”
    • “Tell me about your research interests?”
    • “What are your long-term goals?”
    • “Why did you choose to pursue this career path?”
    • …and more.
  • It is not necessary (and in fact, typically not recommended) to have memorized answers (these do not sound natural). Rather, have key points that you may wish to emphasize when responding to specific questions, and articulate them in a conversational manner.
  • Practice interviewing. You might try a mock interview with a mentor, friend, or at a career center.  Recording the practice interview on video may be helpful.  Practice speaking in an articulate, intelligent manner.  Avoid sounding too casual or too rehearsed.

During the Interview: Making a Positive Impression

The interview process itself can be exciting, nerve-wracking, stressful, and fun.  It is normal to experience a certain level of stress.  Here are some tips for maximizing your success when visiting the program of interest.1,2 

  • Be aware that everyone you meet may influence your chances of admission. Be on your best behavior throughout the interview process, and treat everyone (from staff to students) with courtesy and respect. 
  • Dress appropriately. It is typically safer to be overdressed than underdressed, but overall, being appropriately dressed is key.  Professional, business-style attire is commonly recommended.
  • Turn off your cell phone. Keep it silenced or off completely to avoid embarrassing distractions and to stay focused.

Interviews are typically scheduled for 20 min., but may go longer.  A typical interview structure commonly involves an initial set of introductory/icebreaking questions, questions from the interviewer, the opportunity for the applicant to ask questions, and finally some closing discussion.  To maximize your chances of success, consider doing the following: 1,2 

  • Arrive early for your assigned interview time. However, do not barge in and create a disturbance if there is another interview ahead of yours.
  • Be warm and friendly from the outset. This often begins with eye contact, a smile, and a firm, welcoming handshake.
  • Answer questions in detail and cite examples. Emphasize your qualifications, your fit to the program, and your experiences.
  • Express interest in the program. This will increase perceptions of your suitability for the program.
  • Be honest. Avoid misrepresentations of any kind.
  • Avoid sounding negative or being critical. The goal here is to be viewed in a positive light.
  • Be mindful of body language and nonverbal cues. Try to appear confident yet relaxed, even if you are nervous inside.
  • As the interview ends, thank the interviewer. To leave with a positive impression, express appreciation for the opportunity to discuss shared interests; end the interview with a smile and a handshake. 

After the Interview: Follow Ups

Following up with a thank you note after the interview is optional.  According to surveys, slightly less than half of interviewees send thank you notes to the faculty that they interviewed with or other members of the program of interest.1  A thank you email or note can run the risk of appearing manipulative; alternatively, thank you notes can serve to communicate your interest in the program.  

Additionally, although the interview is typically your final opportunity to make a positive impression on the program of interest, it is also your chance to gauge whether, if accepted, you would choose to attend that program.   Accordingly, post-interview, you might wish to reflect on what you learned during the interview, and perhaps take notes on relevant information and details.

Workshops and Downloadable Resources


  • For in-person discussion of the process of applying to graduate programs in psychology, neuroscience, and related fields, please consider attending this department’s “Paths to PhDs” workshop and other related events (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).


  • Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Psychology (a brief summary) [PDF]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

Books with Lists of Example Interview Questions

Lists of Example Interview Questions

APA Videos on Graduate Applications

Further Resources


Norcross, J. C., & Hogan, T. P. (2016).  Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: 12 modules. American Psychological Association [video workshop].
American Psychological Association (2007).  Getting in: a step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology
Graphic adapted with permission from Construct under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.