10 small talk topics for graduate school interviews

Interviews usually start with some "small talk" (casual conversation) before moving to the main topic. 

If you're about to go to a graduate school interview in America, or in any other English-speaking country, you should prepare for small talk.

10 small talk topics for grad school interviews

Small talk topics for graduate school interviews in English

How do you prepare for small talk? Here's how:

Be able to answer questions

If you're about to go to an interview for graduate school program in America, or in any other English-speaking country, you should prepare for small talk.

  • Make sure you can answer these basic small talk questions.
  • Study current events, both in the country and the city where you're interviewing. 
  • You should be able to talk about your field – latest trends, general news, etc. 

Be able to ask questions

Answering questions is part of every interview, but asking them is also important, even during small talk. You don't want to have a long silence during the conversation. If your interviewer isn't talking, it's time for you to say something. A question is always good.

Write down a list of questions you can ask and look at it right before your interview starts or use the ones below.

10 topics you can ask questions about during small talk

*Topics to avoid: politics, religion, money, family

1. Work

How long have you worked here (the school)? 

Have you had a busy week?

2. Location: neighborhood/city/state

Do you live near here?

How long have you lived in _________?

Do you like __________ (the city)?

3. Books or articles

  • Focus on ones that are popular now with people in your field

Did you read the article about __________ this morning?

I read the new biography of ________. Have you read it?

4. Sports

  • Don't ask about soccer (football) since most Americans don't watch it
  • Keep track of what sports are played during which seasons in America, so you ask questions about the right one

Did you see the Red Sox game last night?

Make sure you know what sports are popular where you are interviewing. Remember, just because you like a sport does not mean that the interviewer will.

To be honest, if someone asked me in an interview if I'd seen the whatever game last night, I'd just laugh and say "No, sorry, I really hate basketball" or whatever. 

5. Arts and entertainment

  • Current TV shows or movies are usually safe although they may not watch it or have seen it

Did you see the last episode of Game of Thrones?

I've been watching a lot of Korean tv shows on Netflix. Have you ever seen one?

6. News

  • Anything happening in the news can be a good topic but avoid politics.

Have you been watching the Olympics?

7. Travel

  • Since you're not from the US, you can ask them if they've ever been to your country.

Have you ever been to Argentina?

Are you planning to travel this Christmas? this summer/this Thanksgiving - use this if there is a holiday approaching

8. Tech stuff

  • New machines or gadgets, like computers, apps, larger machinery, etc. There may be something new that everyone in your field is using.

Is the school using ________?

I hear you got a new __________ in your lab.

9. Random

  • This can be about anything, as long as it's a general and acceptable topic and appropriate for adult professionals like you.

I see you have a Starbucks downstairs. Do you like their coffee?

10. The weather

It's boring, but if you can't think of anything else, it works. I know it seems like a boring topic, but people really do talk about it. I always talk about weather with people in the elevator for some reason. 

Okay, now you have 10 ideas for topics you can make small talk about in your interview. As you can see, the questions can be about any topic as long as it won't make the other person angry or unhappy.

The main point is to keep the conversation going and keep the mood positive.

One of the reasons I started my business is that in my past career I interviewed many talented people who didn't get the job because they couldn't communicate with me comfortably. This wasn't just because of their English. I realized that it's very common for people to ignore the small talk section of the interview because they think it's not important. But then they don't get the job and they blame their English.

Your English is one factor in this process but it's by no means the only one.

I can help you work on your small talk skills so that you interview well. Email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers.