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Graduate School Interviews: It’s All About ‘Fit’

The holiday season in Baltimore sees a flurry of activity on campus as graduate programs prepare to welcome prospective students for interviews in early 2016. Interviewees have not yet been accepted into a graduate program, but they have been selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants, and as many as half will ultimately be offered admission.people sitting in line waiting

The interview is the final step in a rigorous process, a chance for the university to put a face and personality to your paper application. It provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate qualities that can’t be fully captured by your written application: professional presence, passion and a disposition that will enable you to succeed in the upcoming challenging academic journey, as well as contribute to a collaborative research community.

Equally important, however, is the opportunity for you to experience a graduate program’s unique “personality” and other intangible factors that you can’t glean from the website. But what types of information should you look for? I sat down with Meredith Stone and Donna Dang, two Ph.D. students in the cellular and molecular medicine graduate program, as they offered advice to help prospective students make the most of the interview process.

Dang suggests trying to avoid preconceptions. When interviewing at a prestigious school like Johns Hopkins, some prospective students worry that the environment will be cutthroat or competitive. “I felt tempted to overcompensate and go in with my chest puffed up,” she remembers. Instead, she was surprised to discover that the environment was actually down-to-earth and collaborative.

“You’re looking for fit,” advises Stone. “It’s as much a chance for you to learn about the school as the other way around.” Ph.D. programs can average from four to six years, which is a long time to spend in a work environment where you don’t feel at home. Maybe you excel in an environment where fierce competition drives you to do your best. Or maybe you prefer to do great research but stay out of the spotlight. Be honest with yourself about where you can succeed, and be open with students and faculty members about your questions and concerns. Knowing these things about yourself ahead of time will make determining which program is right for you easier.

Beyond evaluating the programs, Stone recommends you come ready to answer questions yourself. “Be prepared to answer the question, ‘Do you have any questions for us?’” It’s something you’ll likely hear dozens of times. One great response she suggests is, “What made you decide to come to Johns Hopkins?” The answers, from students as well as faculty members, who have chosen to build homes and careers here in Baltimore for decades, can be enlightening. Asked what the most common response is, Stone replies, “the collaborative and supportive environment” of research at Johns Hopkins.

If you’re interviewing at Johns Hopkins this winter, congratulations! Ultimately, remember that the interview process goes both ways; use it to find your perfect fit.