Graduate school admissions interviews in English: checklist

Do you have a graduate school admissions interview soon?

If you do and you're a non-native English speaker, keep reading.

This checklist is written to help non-native English speakers interviewing in America or other English-speaking countries do well in their admissions interview so they get into their top choice school.

How to succeed at a grad school interview

What To Do Before The Interview

1. Research the school and program

Use their website, social media accounts, Google, and any hard copy admissions materials that you have.

  • This will make you stand out from other applicants who didn't do research and will also help you answer the potential question: Why do you want to go to our school?

  • This includes researching the professors in your department who are well known and/or who do want you plan to study. You should have read their articles and books and be able to ask and answer questions about their work.

2. Research the competitors (other similar schools with similar programs)

If you're interviewing at the University of Michigan in the Biology Department, for example, you should know what similar programs at similar schools are. You will probably be asked a question like, "Why do you want to go here, and not to the University of Wisconsin?" If you don't know anything about the other school, you'll have a hard time answering this question.

  • Of course, this should also be part of your application process - by the time you have an interview, you have probably (I hope) researched all comparable programs and so will know this.

3. Research the interviewer

You may know the name of the person interviewing you and you may not. It's more common to know their name if it is an alumni interview. If you do, you should research them so you know what their interests are. This may be useful during small talk.

Use LinkedIn and Google.

4. Practice answers to common interview questions

  • General questions

  • Behavioral questions

  • Field-related questions

If you're applying to graduate or professional school, many of the interview questions will be about your specific field.

Write your answers down and then say them aloud in  front of a mirror or video camera. If you both write and speak the answers you will know better how the answers sound and you can fine-tune them.

Do a mock (practice) interview with someone.

6. Prepare a list of questions to ask the interviewer

7. Prepare for small talk

  • Read the news

  • Think of a list of questions you might ask if conversation is slow

Remember, the interview tests your social skills. It is a place to show your personality. If you can't talk about small talk topics, the interviewer will not be impressed.

8. Evaluate your English

You've prepared for the questions and the small talk. How did you do? Were you able to say what you needed to say in English? If not, you may need to do a quick intensive review of your English before you go for the interview. Get out your old English textbooks and study or work with a teacher for a short-term practice session. Don't let English problems keep you from sounding professional.

9. Prepare your clothes

They should be appropriate for your field. MBA programs, Law school, and other conservative programs require conservative clothes, which means a suit for an interview. However, suits are too formal if you're interviewing in a tech field or a liberal arts field. A jacket without a tie will be fine for these, and the equivalent for a woman. 

Everything should be clean and without wrinkles.

Don't wait until the day of the interview, because your clothes will be the first thing they see.

10. Confirm interview logistics

  • Plan your route

  • Will you drive?

  • Is there parking?

  • Double check the interview time

11. Get a good night's sleep the night before

The Day of the Interview

12. Don't put on cologne/aftershave/perfume

Many people are sensitive to fragrances, especially in small offices.

13. Don't smoke

Many people don't like the smell of cigarette smoke, so avoid it.

14. Arrive about 10 minutes early, but no more

If you're late, phone the company.

15. Greet the receptionist or assistant politely

Remember, once you walk in the building you're making an impression.

16. Turn your phone off and keep it hidden in your purse or your pocket

Don't take it out and look at it, even while you're waiting.

17. Wait calmly

  • Don't fidget or look at your phone

  • Try to relax if you're nervous. Take some deep breaths.

In the Beginning of the Interview

18. Give a proper handshake

Use a firm grip. If you are not used to shaking hands when you greet someone, practice this beforehand.

19. Give a polite greeting, while you're shaking hands or just before or after

20. Make eye contact

21. Smile

22. Seem confident and professional

23. Sit down only after you're offered a seat

24. Be aware of your body language

Sit upright and don't move around.

25. Be prepared for small talk

The interview may start off with some small talk and it may not. Americans do usually do a bit of small talk before turning to business, but it depends on the personality of the interviewer.

During the Interview

You'll be evaluated on what you say and how you say it. This means you have to think about the content of your speech but also how you look while you're speaking.

26. Avoid negativity

Don't say anything bad about your past jobs or colleagues.

27. Stick to safe topics

No politics, religion, personal problems, or family issues. Don't bring up family unless you're asked a direct question about it. Here in America, we don't talk about our families with strangers (this definitely includes interviewers). Be aware of this, especially because it may not be the same in your country.

Obviously, if your interviewer asks you about an unusual topic, you are free to answer if you feel comfortable doing so, but don't bring one up yourself.

28. Give short answers

30 to 45 seconds per answer is best. You should have practiced your interview questions so there shouldn't be any surprises.

29. Keep your answers focused

Are you the kind of person who can talk and talk about something and never get to the point? Don't do that here. Know what you want to say and say it. If they want more information, they'll ask for it.

30. Brag about yourself

The point of an interview is so that you can tell and show that you're the best person for the position. You show this by wearing the right clothes and having the right body language, etc., but you also have to tell.

I know for many people, especially women, it's difficult to talk about how good you are at something.

Also, in many cultures it's considered impolite to focus on yourself instead of the group.

American interviewers (and also ones from other English speaking countries) expect a candidate to be able to talk about their strengths and accomplishments in their interview. If you don't, they won't know how perfect you are for the opening.

31. Ask questions

You don't have to wait until the end of the interview to do this. In fact, you should be asking questions as you go. If you don't ask any questions, you'll be showing a lack of interest. Even if the interviewer has already told you everything you want to know, you need to ask other questions. You should have prepared a list of questions before the interview, about the department, your future colleagues, or the school.

32. Don't ask the wrong questions

Don't ask about financial aid or stipends, benefits, vacation, or any other detail like this. Also avoid asking about the typical hours the students and faculty work. You can discuss this if the interviewer brings it up, but if you ask about it yourself you will make a bad impression.

33. Body language:

  • think about your posture - sit up straight

  • keep your gestures minimal

  • don't cross your arms

  • don't fidget (move around)

  • look interested

  • lean close, but not too close

  • face your shoulders toward them

  • maintain eye contact

  • smile at appropriate times

34. Pay attention to your language

  • Avoid saying um, uh, like, you know, or using other filler words.

  • Avoid slang.

At the End of the Interview

35. Ask any questions you haven't already asked.

You should have been asking them during the interview, but you should probably ask one or two now, so that you seem interested and so that it's clear you did research.

36. Say that you're very interested in the program and ask about the next steps in the process.

37. Say thank you to the interviewer and shake their hand if they offer theirs.

Some people will want to shake again when saying good bye but some won't, so follow their lead.

38. If you don't already know their name and contact info, ask for their business card now.

After the Interview

39. Send a thank you note within 24 hours to everyone you interviewed with.

40. Relax and wait to get your acceptance letter.

I know that interviewing in English is difficult for non-native speakers, but if you prepare ahead of time you can succeed in the interview and get admitted. 


 I’m happy to say that after working with me, my clients have done well in their interviews and gotten into the school they wanted.

If you’d like to work with me to prepare for your interview, email me at to schedule a free 15 minute consultation or a full interview prep session.

Interview Genie is an American interview prep company specializing in interviews at American companies and schools.