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 by Mark Bennett
, posted on 15 Jan '20

Preparing for a Postgrad Interview

Masters degree interviews are funny things. They're quite common for MBAs and other professional courses with competitive intakes and selective admissions. On the other hand, more academic programmes may seem to dispense with the interview stage.

But do they actually? Allow me to tell a quick story about my own Masters application.

A shoe-in for this course – my own Masters 'interview'

I had applied to a fairly specialised Humanities programme. The topic was fairly niche and the lead academic was very respected in their field, but nothing in the admissions criteria mentioned an interview and, sure enough, I wasn't invited for one.

I was invited for 'a chat' though, and duly travelled to the campus in order to meet said respected academic for 'a coffee'. We sat outside in the sun. We drank coffee. I made a joke about the slightly ridiculous 'heavy metal' boots I was wearing (as far from interview attire as possible). The conversation duly moved from boots to books.

And then it hit me. I was sitting, discussing books, with an English Literature academic I was applying to study with. It was a trap!

In the end, my interview-that-wasn't-an-interview was fine. I got a place on the MA and went on to work with that academic all the way through a PhD. I was also lucky though. I'd already read up on the course content and thought hard about my reasons for choosing it – all pretty crucial interview prep. I suspect things might not have gone so well had I simply turned the conversation back to my shoes. Or sat staring at my feet. Or both.

The moral of the story is that some sort of interview prep may be worthwhile even if you're not sure you'll face one interview for your Masters.

Know what to expect

As above, one of the first things to establish is how 'interview-ey' the interview is going to be.

Broadly speaking, there are probably three types of Masters degree interview:

  • The chat – Like me, you might simply be invited to visit the campus and meet staff face-to-face. You'll probably meet with course tutors rather than a full interview panel and the experience will be an opportunity to see where you'll be studying and get a feel for the university. There may not be any formal questions, but the occasion does help ensure you're a genuine student with a genuine interest in the course.
  • The panel – This is the classic interview format. You'll have an appointed time to sit down in front of a small group of interviewers who will ask a series of questions designed to assess your suitability for this particular Masters. These are more common for popular programmes with a restricted number of places, where admissions tutors need to pick the 'best' students from a number of eligible candidates.
  • The presentation – This is an extension of the panel format in which you'll be asked to prepare something specific to present or discuss at the interview, rather than just responding to questions. Honestly, a full presentation is quite unlikely at Masters level, but you might be asked to chat about part of a portfolio or writing sample that you've submitted as part of your application.

These days all of the above formats can be made to work online, so don't worry too much if you're an international student and worried about paying for expensive travel and accommodation. Universities will normally use Skype or other video-conferencing software to conduct interviews remotely; informal chats can take place over email, or you might be asked to take part in a virtual open day or campus tour.

Know who'll be there

Most interviews will involve a postgraduate course tutor or programme leader for your Masters (one of the academics responsible for delivering your course). This is likely to be the person you meet for an informal chat and they'll probably be part of the panel for more formal interviews.

Other panel members could include a postgraduate admissions tutor, responsible for checking applications to your department; someone representng any named scholarships or bursaries you've applied for, responsible for checking you fit its stated purpose and goals; or a representative from the international office, responsible for ensuring you get the support you need to study abroad on this programme.

All of these people will be looking to assess different aspects of your application and suitability. Knowing who they are will help you anticipate questions and prepare properly.

Know what to prepare

Once you know what format your interview / meeting will take and who will be there, you can prepare.

As my own story hopefully makes clear, you should put some thought into any kind of interview scenario, even if it's just 'the chat'. The fact that I only prepared for mine accidentally doesn't mean you can get away with not preparing at all.

Here are some simple steps to take:

  • Look over the course info again – You should already have done this when you found the course during your Masters search, but it's worth going through again. After all, the last thing you want is for someone to ask which modules you're most interested in, only to find that you can't remember what any of them are called. Needless to say, this step is especially worthwhile if you're in the process of applying to more than one course.
  • Read through your personal statement – It's safe to say that anything you include in your application materials is fair game for an interview question, and this is especially true for your personal statement. Remember what you wrote and be prepared to expand on the details of achievements, goals and interests. FYI, this is one of the reasons why 'bending the truth' on a personal statement is usually a mistake.
  • Think about potential questions – This is obviously important if you're attending a formal interview but, to be honest, it's a pretty good idea for more informal chats too. Knowing what you'll say if a particular question comes up won't just help you answer it: it will also help you feel more relaxed.
  • Decide what you want to ask – Interviews are a two-way street. The university wants to make sure you're the right fit for its courses; you want to make sure the course (and university!) are right for you. So don't be afraid to ask your own questions about the course timetable, dissertation options, the best coffee shop on campus. . .

It's also worth asking your 'interviewer' if there's anything specific they'd like you to prepare or bring with you.

Know what happens next

My chat ended with a polite handshake and an encouragement to complete the application and registration process. Formal interviews might conclude with more of a "thank you, we'll be in touch." Either way, it's good to have some idea what to expect afterwards – particularly if you're expected to take the next step yourself.

Don't be afraid to ask "what next" if things aren't clear. Remember too that this is also your chance to reflect on the interview / visit and make sure you're happy with this course and university.

. . . all that's left to say is "good luck!" – and try not to spend too much time talking about your shoes.

Editor's note: This blog was first published on 04/07/2019. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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