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5 Secrets to Ace the Graduate School Interview

Updated: Aug 9, 2018

Interviews can be 1:1 or panel style.

A great first impression is critical and will set the tone for the duration of an interview. One of the easiest ways to aid in a great first impression is having confidence. Self-assurance is the most attractive quality about any person in an interview; however, for some, having faith in our abilities to do well in an interview is not something simple you can put on, like a new shirt or dress. Nonetheless, being knowledgeable and well prepared can help you promote, increase, and exude confidence in interviews. Confidence can stem from how we dress and spill over into our verbal and nonverbal communication. Finally, being prepared and asking thoughtful questions can set you apart and show that you are interested in the position.

1. Dress for success

Before getting ready for an interview make sure to budget enough time to get ready so that you arrive 15 minutes before you are scheduled to meet. Promptness shows you are a serious candidate and cognizant of others’ time.

“For every meeting and interview that I have had, I was/am always 15 minutes early. My stepfather always told me ‘When you are 15 minutes early, you are on time. When you are on time, you are late.’ Following this mantra, it has always been impressive to those who I was meeting with because there was no chance that they would be waiting for me. It also helped me to prepare myself even further for the particular meeting/interview.”

No matter what job you are applying for, dressing well will be positively noted. For interviews, wear appropriate business attire, unless other suggestions are given for the interview day, avoid jeans, flip-flops, or similar attire. The results between looking sharp and climbing out of bed and directly going to an interview can be staggering. Dressing sharp and for the part builds confidence, draws attention, and sets you apart from the competition. Keep in mind that the nature of the company where you are pursuing a position may dictate what attire is considered to be appropriate. It may be helpful to err on the side of the business, whether you are applying to Taco Bell or for a CEO position at a fast-paced tech company. It may also be helpful to ask a friend who works in that field what attire is appropriate as well as a gut check before the interview.

“When I need a confidence boost or know that I am in an arena, such as an interview, I always dress to impress. I always feel like when you look good, you perform better.”

Although men and women have different styles, the general attire should be the same. For women, a skirt or slacks that match a sports coat with a button up shirt always looks sharp. High heels or dress flats are ok, but comfort is the priority. You want to be comfortable and relaxed to make sure you are presenting your best self at the interview. If you are lucky, sometimes the interviewer gives you instructions on what not to wear. For example, if you are going to tour a lab they might request that you wear closed-toed, flat bottom ( <1”) shoes (not high heels).

For both men and women, make sure you have tidy hair and for men make sure your beard is shaved or trimmed. It is never appropriate to go to an interview wearing wrinkled or dirty clothes. This can cause people to perceive you as messy and disorganized. For men, make sure that your pants are long enough not to expose any leg, or have socks long enough to cover this space. Women’s skirts should be knee length. As for what goes on your feet, wear clean dress shoes and if possible shine them.

One of the least apparent but essential aspects to think about before an interview is your smell. Always shower and wear deodorant before an interview. Wearing a little cologne or perfume is ok, but the, the less is better, smelling too strong can be very off-putting. Also, it may not be obvious, but some people are allergic to these sprays and therefore may not be advisable to wear.

“Business casual is what I wear to work, but for an interview, I dress prepared. When I was interviewing for a job at Cornell University, I wore business formal: dress shoes, argyle socks, slacks, button up shirt, a red tie (school color), and a sports coat. The sports coat, shoes, and belt should all match or be similar in style. I do not recommend bright, distracting colors like pink or lime green. A bright, clean white buttoned-down dress shirt and a red tie always attract attention in the right way.”

2. Engage the interviewer

During the interview, you always want to make sure you are positively engaging the interviewer. This includes but not limited to making appropriate eye contact without inappropriately staring. You also want to make sure you are showing positive modes of engagement including positive facial expressions and genuinely nodding when appropriate. If something resonates with you, a head nod is appropriate; however, try not to nod just for the sake of nodding because you don’t want to look like a bobble-head or disingenuous.

3. Answer and ask questions correctly

Always be honest when answering questions and provide details; it is impossible to know what is going to be asked in an interview. However, we can prepare ourselves by going over practice questions such as our previous work history, future career goals, and objectives. Keep in mind that a good employer will not be asking you yes or no questions, they want detailed answers. Interviewers may inquire when was a time where one showed leadership skills or independently took the initiative on a project. It might be hard to think of a time when you went above and beyond the expectation at a previous job during an interview because this process can be very nerve-racking. The best way to alleviate some of this stress is to prepare by practice answering practice questions like this beforehand. This is where the practice of just answering the questions, while still being honest, but giving an answer regardless is essential.

I was asked, during an interview, “Describe a situation where you demonstrated initiative and took action without waiting for direction. What was the outcome?” My answer was, “When I was younger, I would rally up my brothers to clean the house before our mom got home. We clean the house, and she was satisfied upon her arrival.”

This may not be the best answer as I was applying for an Operations Manager position. However, I needed a quick response and this worked. I had trouble describing the time I generated historical financial data from previous conference sales before a big meeting to demonstrate the revenue coming in had been declining due to lower and lower registrants from a specific group. The data was used to direct the meeting, illustrate a problem, and the attendees decided to focus on marketing for that particular group.

This may have been the more appropriate answer but the point is to sound confident and to have your answers flow. This structure is known as the STAR method, essentially answering questions in a specific order.

“A moment of silence to think about your answers is ok but if you stumble over your words and have a hard time answering or forget the question this can be seen as a sign of a weak candidate.”

I suggest you print a list of practice questions. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sample questions on the internet. This book called, “How to Answer The 64 Toughest Interview Questions” is very helpful for preparing for an interview. Have someone you know ask you the questions and practice answering with them. There are no perfect answers. The interviewer is trying to get to know you and see how well you act under a little pressure.

4. ALWAYS have follow-up questions

Although this may not always be apparent, the employer is always expecting you to have follow-up questions before the end of the interview. It is important to have questions because this shows that you are genuinely interested in working there and can see yourself as a colleague.

Try to come prepared with three prepared to ask that you do not think will be addressed during the interview. The inquisitive questions will be memorable for the person who will be interviewing you. This link is helpful for knowing what kind of questions to ask during an interview. Asking questions may result in the interviewer spending 20 - 30 minutes talking about the job and could lead to you asking more questions. The interviewer will remember this and be led to thinking you are a great candidate. For more on this read “How To Win Friends And Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.

5. Be Prepared and Address People Appropriately

Come prepared with a pad of paper and a pencil; this shows you are capable of thinking ahead. I carry a leather binder, with writing paper, and a pen tucked neatly inside. This always seems to be received well. I have noticed other employees copying my strategy after I have been hired. It is also important to address people formally.

Always call your potential boss by their last name, “Mr. Smith, or Mrs. Jones, or Ms. Doe” and be sure to say, “Yes Sir, or Yes Ma`am” when appropriate. Most people will correct you and ask that you call them by their first name. The select few who do like to be called, Mr. and Sir will see it as a sign of respect and appreciate it.

There are also phrases that you should be aware not to say; for example, instead of “Yeah” say, “Yes.” And do NOT say “Like” or “sorry.” This is more of an overall philosophy; however, saying sorry can be perceived as a sign of weakness and an invitation for people to walk all over you. Be sure to stand your ground, if necessary say, “I apologize for …… only printing one copy of my resume” and move on. You want to own your mistakes but do not give anyone the upper hand by appearing weak.

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