Postgraduate interview questions

Professor Gareth Griffiths, Postgraduate director of studies
June, 2018

Not all institutions hold postgraduate interviews, but if you're applying to a prestigious university or popular course, it's possible that you'll need to complete one

Admissions tutors use postgraduate interviews to establish whether you're committed to, and prepared for, study at Masters or PhD level. Academic interviews are generally less formal than job interviews, but you still need to take them seriously - your ambitions to pursue further study could depend on your performance.

You'll be asked a variety of questions focusing on your preparedness for postgraduate study. Below are some of the most common postgraduate interview questions.

Can you tell me about yourself?

This question gives you the opportunity to emphasise things that perhaps you didn't articulate very strongly in your CV or initial postgraduate application. You can discuss your education and work experience, highlighting your achievements and qualifications.

Avoid talking for too long and don't go into great detail about your social life. While the interviewer isn't interested in a long list of your hobbies, you can explain how your non-academic background - in combination with your undergraduate degree - has prepared you for postgraduate study.

This may be by showing initiative in setting up an event, raising money for a project, demonstrating determination in completing an activity (for example, a marathon or climbing a mountain), doing something that receives media attention, or implementing something from your undergraduate studies such as generating a business idea and engaging with a business in its implementation.

Ultimately, this question allows you to set the agenda and explain anything unusual about your application - for example, if you're choosing a subject that's quite different from previous studies.

What are your strengths?

Here, you can talk about anything that will make your application look positive. Mention your soft skills, such as teamwork, organisation, and ability to remain calm under pressure.

Anything that highlights how you've overcome a challenge is particularly useful, as this shows what type of problem-solver you are. Remember, though, that you must have concrete, practical examples of every skill that you mention. For example, ways in which you assisted team members to perform effectively in a club, society or sports team or a time when you've persuaded others (such as in a sales environment or negotiation situation, maybe in a part-time job environment, or a time when you made an effective presentation).

It's always good to demonstrate the skill of leadership and give details to show the depth of your commitment. You don't have to hold an office or a title to display leadership - it can be demonstrated in many different ways. Describing how you organised something or motivated a group of people is just as impressive.

You shouldn't mention anything that is irrelevant or obvious, or things that a graduate in any discipline should have, such as the ability to use email, social media or word processors. You need to sell yourself here, but make sure you don't sound too boastful either.

What are your weaknesses?

This is a classic postgraduate interview question. Choose a weakness that you're currently succeeding in overcoming. For example, you could answer:

  • 'I used to stress about deadlines, but now I allow myself plenty of time before a deadline to make sure that I don't leave everything to the last minute.'
  • 'I tend to be disorganised, but the calendar on my phone is helping me to stay organised so I can be truly effective.'

Try not to say silly things that can really act against you, or sound corny or banal. Also, never say that you don't have any weaknesses - we all do.

Do you think that your undergraduate record accurately reflects your effort and ability?

This gives you the opportunity to explain a poor grade or a bad semester. You need to be very careful here, and certainly don't want to come across as a moaner by blaming other people - for example, your tutors.

However, this is your opportunity to let the interviewer know if you really did have extenuating circumstances. It would be unusual to explain a whole year of poorer marks without serious mitigation, and an interviewer would easily see through waffle and excuses, but an out-of-line mark that you feel doesn't reflect your knowledge and ability could be highlighted. Ensure that you rehearse your answers with other people beforehand.

Which academic or businessperson do you most admire and why?

When interviewers ask this question, they're trying to learn something about you through the person that you admire most - so it's important to explain your choice. It's not enough just to give a name - you need to know something about the person and why they inspire you. Try to avoid well-known figures, unless you can say something original about them.

A variation on this question could be 'what is your favourite book and why?' Again, the interviewer is not looking for a detailed report. What they want is to learn more about you from the books that you read. This is because your answer can indicate your interests, beliefs or goals.

What questions do you have for me, or about the course or university?

You need to do your homework here, and show that you're a serious candidate that has carried out some research. Avoid asking anything that's already explained on the institution's website, and try to come up with some probing and focused questions, such as:

  • 'What would graduates say was the most valuable thing about the postgraduate programme?'
  • 'I read that there is the opportunity to study abroad or an internship - can you tell me more about that?'

You certainly shouldn't say that you have no questions. If you had questions, but they were involuntarily answered during the interview, you may say something along the lines of 'I had a couple of questions but you have already answered them'. However, you should really have some follow-up options in reserve.

Finally, don't ask about how much spare time will you have, how long the holidays last for or whether there are lectures and seminars every day - this will make it look like you want an easy life.

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