“Could you repeat that?” Students offer their insights on navigating tough questions during the in-person interview

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By Katy Byrom, GA


After tireless networking and seemingly endless revisions to your CV and personal statement, you’ve arrived at the in-person interview. You’re sitting across from a potential supervisor, giving it your all, and trying to keep cool about the subtle, yet wondrous revelation that things are actually going rather well. Your answers are rolling smoothly off your tongue, and somehow, your research and clinical experience sounds more impressive today than usual. Better yet, you seem to have woken up on the witty side of the bed, as evidenced by the laugh track coming from the other side of the table. You almost start to enjoy yourself, when, all of a sudden, your interviewer throws a googly of a question your way and catches you completely off guard.

With a number of students having recently made their way through the application cycle for clinical internships and doctoral programs, we thought we’d do some espionage to find out the types of questions next year’s applicants might expect as they post their credentials for internships and coveted places within doctoral programs. So, we chased down some of our fellow Pepperdine students and scoured the internet to find some of the toughest queries our peers faced during the interview process, as well as how thy handled them. Here’s the breakdown:


According to Bobby, a current student on the MA track, one of the toughest questions he faced while applying to doctoral programs in Counseling Psychology came from the Chair of the department at his top choice school. “After asking a question that revealed an enthusiasm to be of service to others (not uncharacteristic of psychologists-in-training), my interviewer responded with a pointed question of his own regarding how I would effectively maintain my personal boundaries in light of others’ needs and wants.

While many people have already navigated this terrain, upholding my personal needs has proven to be a difficult area for me. I offered my best and most honest response, feeling a bit sheepish about its somewhat nascent articulation. The lesson is this: You are going to be interviewed by psychologists, and psychologists are (in my experience) quite skilled at seeing through to the core of a person. Be yourself, and plan accordingly.”


Says the author of the blog, How to apply to clinical psychology PhD programs: Practical advice for someone who’s done it…three times, “On one of my interviews, my potential advisor talked about how great my current job sounded, and wondered why the hell I would want to quit and go to grad school.

It really threw me off, because my real answer at that very moment would have been “Oh god, you don’t know the half of it, my job is terrible right now and this is currently my only way out!” No… wrong answer. I told her it was a good question, then took a moment to think about the real, logical answers why I’d want to go to grad school. Closer mentorship. More involvement in data analysis and interpretation. More opportunities for theoretical, rather than just practical learning. There were better answers, and I just gave myself a moment to find them. The point is, anticipate that there may be tough questions, just keep your cool, come up with the best, most succinct answer you can, and move on.”


Says recent MA in Psychology graduate Larissa, “I think I went into the interviews prepared for the general questions regarding my different experiences and work history, why I wanted to study counseling psychology and what I wanted to do after completing the program.  I didn’t plan for the following two questions:  1) What would your dissertation title be and why? 2) What population do you think will be the most challenging or difficult for you to work with?

The first question was the hardest because I had never really thought about dissertation topics.  It seems so far in the future and is something that is going to change depending on where you get in, who you are working with and what other experiences you have during the course of the program.  Unfortunately, I had to scramble up something on the spot.  I wish I had prepared to talk about a more precise and specific area of interest (e.g. PTSD and substance abuse in college-aged women) within the larger area of interest (e.g. substance abuse).  It is really important to be clear in your exact interest and goals and make sure the programs you apply to fit these goals. The research projects that faculty are working on now and have lined up for the future are what are relevant, not what they have done in the past.  They are looking for those who share their research interest and can discuss that particular area of research with a deeper level of understanding.”


For my part, I can recall a potential supervisor who asked, simply, “Dog, cat, or cow?”

I get it…now. The interviewers were bent on administering Rorschach, the results of which would reveal whether I was fun-loving and loyal, sassy and demanding, or hardworking and practical. But in truth, the barnyard metaphor didn’t speak to me, and I struggled to answer the question in those terms. In retrospect, I wish I had had the gumption simply to say that I prefer the intellectual and physical companionship of other humans to those of the bovine, feline, or canine variety. During the actual interview, however, I got stuck in the moment and sputtered an inarticulate and much too sentimental response about coming from a family of cat lovers. (I was about 4 words into my anecdote before I clued into the strong signal my interviewers were giving off that they were dog people. No question about it.). My answer fell flat, and I lost the audience. Disheartened, I stumbled through a few more questions before the lead interviewer abruptly ended the session, glancing at his collaborator and stating, disinterestedly, “Well, I’m good. You?” Her complicit nod told me there would be no solicitation of questions from my side of the table, nor would there be a sympathetic offering of hope that generally comes in the form of, “We’ll let you know.” Clearly, this door was closed. Forever.

On the way home from the interview, I went through all the stages of grief – denying the fact that I would have wanted to work there anyway, blaming my failure to land the gig on the interviewers’ inane line of questioning, and getting angry with myself that I had offered such lame responses. As a method of self-soothing, I thought of at least 12 different answers I could have given to the cat/dog/cow question, all of which would surely have knocked their socks off. Then I got a bit more realistic in coming to terms with the fact that what had been missing from the interview. In truth, I had been uncomfortable from the beginning. The office gave off a vibe that seemed a bit too immaculate and cold to me. There were no smiles or even acknowledgements from the passersby in the reception area. I entered the interview room already doubting my fit for the place. Clearly, I didn’t show my potential supervisors what they were looking for in a candidate, but I didn’t really show them much of who I am was, either. Therein lay the missed opportunity. Somewhere on my 30 minute drive home, I realized that I had been checked out of the interview from the beginning, voicing answers to their questions, but not responding to them authentically. C’est la vie.

Coming to a point of acceptance, I turned my cognitions toward the future. I thought about what I would do the next time I came face-to-face with the interview questionnaire version of a grizzly bear. Now, I’d like to think I would rise to the challenge simply by being where I was, even if this meant saying, in response to whether I was a cat, dog, or cow (or wolf, sheep, or goatherd, etc.), “I’ve never thought to align myself with any of those labels. Let me think through the repercussions a bit. Here goes…”

In the time since the barnyard incident (as I’ve since begun to refer to the “cat, dog, or cow” exchange), I’ve braved interviews with similarly daunting questions (e.g., “Tell me something about yourself that you don’t want me to know.”). I’ve even landed a position or two. I suppose that the difference between then and now – likely as a result of my time at Pepperdine – is that I have learned to be more authentic, which sometimes means stopping for a moment to think things through. With that in mind, I don’t experience many qualms about taking a beat – even during an interview – to think about my response to a tough question. Nor do I hesitate to reframe a query using terms in which I am more naturally inclined to speak. Not surprisingly, my comfort level during an interview grows with the level of authenticity both parties bring to it. Chances are, if I’m not feeling comfortable during the interview process, I’m not a proper for the agency, and neither are they a good fit for me. I’ve learned to take it in stride that I won’t be right for every position, trusting that I will be right for the right job.


As students, we may not be prepared for every question our interviewers will throw our way as we audition for a doctoral program or traineeship, but there are certain strategies we can keep in mind to help us maintain our composure when thrown a curve ball. From brushing up on hot topics in psychology to having a few impactful clinical experiences in mind, the following resources provide a wealth of advice for nailing the in-person interview:



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