February 5, 2013

Secrets to making a great impression during interview weekend

By Stella Hartono

This year I have the honor of serving as a student committee member for MD/PhD program at Mayo Clinic. It certainly brings back a lot of memories from the time when I was in the shoes of the candidates! Having been on both sides of the equation, I would like to share some “guidelines” that came up during our panel discussions on how to prepare and ace those graduate/medical school interviews:


Before the Interview

  • Know thyself

The interview is the time for you to sell yourself, and in order for you to do that well, you have to know yourself first. Take the time to consider what your long term goals are (academia vs. industry, what research area you would like to specialize in, where you see yourself in five to ten years, etc). Another exercise I found beneficial is to create a self-inventory. Make a list of what makes you a great candidate, and then think of a story that illustrates each point on your list.

  • Review your application

It’s probably been a while since you last read your application, your personal statement, or your transcript. As most of your interviewers will be using these documents as starting points, you should take the time to review them. Be prepared to explain any “glitches” in your transcripts and make sure your explanation does not contradict is what you have stated in your personal statement. Prepare copies of your CV, abstract of your project, and a mini-version of your most recent presentation and bring them with you on your interview.

  • Do your homework!

There was a reason you applied to this school and chose this field, and you need to convey that during the interview. This is the time for you to use your web research skills and get to know the school and the program where you will be interviewing. Check out the faculty; especially those that you want to work with. Use your networking skills and talk to the current graduate students (in person or via email) to get the real scoop on the school and the faculty.


There’s a reason why people say “practice makes perfect.” Use resources such as Advising Services or ask your faculty mentor or your PI to give you a mock interview. Anticipate questions related to your field of research and questions about challenges you face in school / research / life in general. Come up with lists of questions commonly asked during interviews and ask anyone who is willing to sit with you to  pepper you with these questions randomly so you are used to answering questions. You can even record yourself during these practices to see if you appear nervous or confident. 

Interview wish

I am sure we all think this way sometimes....

During the Interview

  • Dress to impress

This does not mean you have to wear the most expensive Italian suit you can afford and pile on the bling. Still, first impressions are meaningful. You need to convey self-confidence, so make sure you look neat, professional, and comfortable. Do not wear clothes that make you fidget as you might end up looking nervous.

  • Be on time (if not early)

At Mayo, the current students will escort you from one interview to another but other schools might just give you a schedule with a campus map before sending you on your own. If that is the case, make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to get to where you need to go.

  • Follow the cues from the interviewer

Be professional and courteous. Address the interviewers with respect and use their title unless they invite you to address them otherwise. Watch the timing of introductions and conclusions; never try to cut off or extend the interview. Ask the interviewer to repeat or clarify the question if you’re unsure of what’s being asked or if you need some extra time to process and respond. Never interrupt or cut the interviewer short.  

  • Have questions prepared for the end of the interview.

At the end of the interview, you usually will be given a chance to ask your own questions. Use this opportunity to ask meaningful questions that demonstrate that you have checked out the department and field carefully, as well as ones that show you’ve been listening to the interviewer.
After the Interview

  • Write a thank you note or e-mail

Send a letter or e-mail thanking each interviewer for the visit and interview. Also, do this for the administrative staff that helped you with your interview arrangements. Use this opportunity to again stress how well you fit with their program. Just remember to be brief.

  • Follow up

The admissions office usually gives you a period of time during which you can expect to hear from them. It is ok to call the admissions office if you do not hear from them by the date originally given to you. Just don’t pester them!


That’s all I have. Here are some great tips and suggestions from our current MGS Students:


“Just relax, be yourself. You are there to sell yourself and show that how awesome you portrayed yourself to be in your application is really true. Don't be afraid to let them see you be excited about a career in science and/or medicine. You are applying for these positions because you have obviously come to the conclusion that this is your career choice and no other option will do, let them know that! It may all seem trivial and you may be wondering what to say in order to show that, just be yourself and all that will come flowing out! Honesty is the best route to go...always.” – Robin C. Willenbring (Virology and Gene Therapy).

 “Actions: Smile, wear appropriate business - casual apparel (you will be on a tight schedule), portray your confidence and enthusiasm with appropriate body language, offer a solid hand shake and appreciation for meeting at the beginning and the end.

Words: Be honest and concise (if they want to know more they will ask); think of this as a meeting with a friend you have not seen or heard from in years, so do a quick recap on your past, and focus on your best experiences and qualities. Always emphasize why you are so very interested in/ have a desire to be at that specific university/program, try and convey your interest in their work EQUALLY as much as you explain your experience! And ask questions about the program, university, current student’s success, their opinions ... etc. Remember this interview is not just about what the university can do for you, but what you can do for them.

 Intent: Even if it isn't a school you initially were interested in - treat it as your #1, because this isn't only about your PhD; it is about portraying your best qualities and learning from this experience. You may end up collaborating with them, attending their lab for your post-doc, or changing your mind in the course of your interviews. 

 - Be proud that you have been chosen to interview, get a good night’s sleep, eat healthy meals, and remember you are always under the microscope by students and faculty alike, even if you have already finished your interview!

 - Be relaxed (remember to breath and drink water - you will be talking a lot) and don't force yourself to be someone you are not.” – Danielle Hernandez (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology).

 For more tips and suggestions from other current MGS students, post-docs, professors and deans, click here. Good luck and enjoy your interview season!

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