Grad School Interview 101 (Hidden Curriculum #12)

You just got invited for a grad school interview – now what??

When I was applying to graduate programs, I attended two campus visits and they couldn’t have been more different from one another.

I visited Ann Arbor for a grad school interview. Black woman wearing black hat, black coat, and jeans, in front of sign that says 'Welcome to Ann Arbor'

One was an “accepted students weekend” – less of an interview, more of a get-to-know-the-program situation. The other was more of a full-blown “interview” – my days were a mix of meetings with faculty, heads of departments, and informal socializing with students.

It’s helpful to know what kind of weekend you’re getting into before you go.

In this post, I talk more specifically about preparing for an “interview” weekend, but a lot of this advice will be helpful for any kind of recruitment situation.

1. Choose 2-3 faculty you might want to work with

I highly recommend doing this a few weeks before your visit.

It’s a super important step because the faculty member(s) you want to work with are probably one of the key reasons why you would choose one program over another.

My own experience was a little more complicated because I applied to both philology and archaeology programs. Undergraduate me was super indecisive about her future as an academic. I quickly learned after one visit that I was never going to be the kind of person who could sit through multi-hour seminars translating ancient languages.

Brainstorm some of the things that you:

1. are working on now or have worked on in the past that genuinely interest you, and

2. would like to work on in the future

Keep in mind that this list (nor the list of faculty members you might want to work with) is not a binding contract. But it should help guide you in the next step of the process: choosing faculty you do want to work with.

Ideally, you’ll choose multiple people to chat with. Multiple people equal multiple potential research topics. It could also mean multiple perspectives on the same topic.

Okay, Nadhira, but where do I start??

Check out the program’s webpage! Navigate to the faculty listings, peruse their biographies, blurbs, curriculum vitae, and courses taught. Then compare the faculty with your own list of interests.

Once you have a few matches, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Request to meet with them during your visit. Sometimes this is done for you, but frequently there are people that you want to meet that were overlooked by the people organizing your visit.
  2. Send them an email. I know – cold emailing faculty members can be downright scary as an undergraduate student! But doing so will put you on your prospective mentors’ radars, which is well worth the stress of sending an email to a stranger.
  3. Create a list of 2-3 questions to ask faculty members you are going to meet with. These should ideally be questions relating to their research (including something you’ve actually read), future projects, and their relationship with students. Having a couple of questions on had is also a good way to avoid the awkward silence when asked if you have any questions in your interview.

2. Prepare 1-2 questions you could ask anyone in an interview

Another thing that I found helpful in preparation for my campus interview for graduate school (and also for job interviews!) was preparing questions I could use in various interview sessions.

Have these questions on hand! I kept a little cheat sheet on a sticky note that I affixed to the inside of a folder of information I was given on the first day.

It’s okay to refer to your questions when prompted (and they will ask if you have questions, trust me) – you don’t need to memorize them all.

The questions you could ask about a grad program – and about grad school in general – are infinite. I seriously couldn’t list them all here if I tried – and I’ve already given a few suggestions here and here in the past.

In keeping with the annual tradition, here are a few more, helpfully organized by context:


How much emphasis is put on teaching?

Are there any teaching opportunities?

What does a typical semester of teaching look like for grad students?

How are graduate student instructors trained and supported?


How long do most students take to graduate?

How many years of coursework are required?

How are mentoring and advising relationships established? Are any advisors assigned?

What are the requirements for graduation?


Do you financially support student travel to conferences?

Are students supported in the summer? How? If not, what do most students do to cover their living expenses?

How are students funded? What kinds of funding opportunities are there for students?

Student Life

Do most students live near campus?

What is it like to live in this area as a graduate student?

Do people get along professionally and personally within the department?

Do people socialize within the department? How?


What do the department’s graduates go on to do when they finish?

What is X like as an advisor?

How much do students typically publish?

Do students collaborate often with faculty on projects?

3. Ask your current professors what they recommend

Obviously, you came to this post for a reason.

For most of my academic career, when I needed to find something out, I consulted the internet before asking anyone I actually knew. I like to chalk that up to my natural curiosity and propensity for research.

But I am willing to admit that mine is just one perspective, and it is not exhaustive.

My undergraduate professors played a huge role in preparing me for not only applying for graduate programs but visiting them as well. You may be surprised by what advice they offer – when I found out I was visiting Michigan, one of my professors recommended ordering a local beer at dinner, since Ann Arbor is known for its microbreweries. That’s not something that would make-or-break a visit, but it was a quirky tip that I did follow through on!


For those of you who are in grad school or already finished, what’s the best advice you got before your campus visits?

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