Prospective graduate students are sometimes interviewed before a final admissions decision is made, usually when the admissions committee is split on opinions. If you are invited for an interview, it may be because they want more information about something in your application package, like a low grade or a gap in your educational history. The way you answer may mean the difference between gaining admission and being denied.

Imagine you are on an admissions committee and you ask a prospective student about a failing grade, an imperfect GPA during a semester or how a class project went. Now, how would you feel if you heard any of the following responses? Would you have the concerns listed after each one?

  • Answer: The class was just really hard for me. (Concern: If the student found undergraduate classes difficult, how will s/he fare in graduate school?)
  • Answer: I just started school and I couldn’t keep track of my deadlines. (Concern: Has this student learned to manage her/his time?)
  • Answer: We didn’t do well on the project because the team didn’t get along. (Concern: Was this student the cause of the conflict?)

Even if you are being honest and sincere, the admissions committee may have second thoughts about your potential as a graduate student. How can you do better? Let’s take the last item as an example.

If you say, “We didn’t finish the project on time because the team didn’t get along,” the answer is open for interpretation. Were you the cause of the conflict? Did you try to help resolve the issue? What kind of disagreement occurred? With all of these questions remaining, the admissions committee may doubt your suitability for graduate studies.

The best technique for a question that requires a less than positive answer is ‘the sandwich.’ Sandwich the negative between two positives, and you come out sounding positive. For example, “I am a team player and take my commitments seriously. However, my team included an underachiever who barely contributed at all. Although I tried to motivate him to get his tasks done, our combined grade suffered for his minimal effort. I approached the professor to explain what happened, and she wasn’t surprised. Those of us who were penalized were able to do extra credit work to raise our grade in the class.”

An answer like this demonstrates that you are a team player, a leader, and that you take the initiative to look out for others. This is a memorable story that will stick with the admissions committee, and although your project was not successful, the overall outcome was positive.

This method can be used to respond to many dreaded interview questions like, “What is your greatest weakness?”, “What did you like least about your _____ experience?” or “If you could improve one thing about yourself, what would it be?” Beware, though! Even with the sandwich technique, you can ruin your chances if you bring up the wrong topic. For example, if you are asked what your greatest weakness is, you can theoretically pick anything. But think about the difference between these two answers:

  • I know the importance of being punctual, but I seem to be late all the time. I am trying to improve by putting alarms on my phone to give me ample warning to get going.
  • I always try to be helpful, so when people ask me to pitch in, I almost automatically agree. This sometimes results in an overabundance of commitments. I always get everything done but I am learning to assess my workload before I agree to take on more so that I am not stretched so thin.

The first example attempts to address the issue of being late, but it isn’t clear whether the person has successfully mitigated the problem or not. In the second example, not only does the person choose a ‘weakness’ that can also be seen as a strength, but also implied within the response are favorable characteristics such as the tendency to be helpful and supportive, self-awareness and approachability. Whom would you rather admit to a graduate program?

About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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