Let me share my experience with you. I had the privilege of attending the interview for two departments at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Well, I had applied for 3 departments- Aerospace, Mechanical and Material Science, but I could only attend the first two, because the time slots of Aerospace and Material Science overlapped and I had to choose one over the other.
I had my Mechanical Engineering interview in the afternoon, but it was already evening (past 6 pm) by the time it was my turn to be interviewed. Actually, I was the last candidate for the day. The interview was being held in one of their conference rooms in the ground floor, you know, where they have those long tables with seating on either side? Something like this:
It was a different experience to be interviewed by more than two people (I had been to campus interviews before where there are two interviewers usually- HR and tech). Looking back, I still don’t know how I walked into that room that day and yet not get overwhelmed facing some of the top minds in my field. There were at least 7-8 Professors on the panel.
I was already exhausted from the long wait (close to 3 hours). The Professors must have interviewed around 50-60 candidates before me. Everybody was exhausted and wanted to get it over with. But I was pleasantly surprised by their attitude toward me. They showed no signs of fatigue and smiled with so much enthusiasm, as if I was the first candidate for the day. I suppose that was their way of putting me at ease.
After the initial round of introductions which put my jitters away, I was asked to explain a few basic concepts on the blackboard. I don’t recall the exact details anymore (it was many years ago) but I remember being asked to plot the stress-strain curve for aluminium and rubber, and explain the difference. I was asked about my strengths (among the vast topics that Mechanical Engineering covers) and also about my final year project.
Basically, they wanted to test my aptitude and curiosity to learn new stuff and apply it. I guess that is the major difference compared to a job interview. They’re not looking to “hire” you, so don’t try to “sell yourself”.
I had my Aerospace Engineering interview the very next morning. I arrived early. This time we were asked to fill out a form. It required me to assign preference to the four specializations being offered by the department, and whether I was be interested in being considered for MS or a direct PhD. I was the third candidate to be interviewed this time, and it was in one of their first floor classrooms, above the main office.
I was a little more confident from the previous evening, and it probably showed in my voice and body language as well. The Professors occupied the front row of the seats while I was asked to sit at the teacher’s table. It was very similar to the previous day’s interview, except this time I was asked to solve a Heat Transfer problem. A few questions later, they asked me why I had opted for MS while there was a direct PhD option.
Both interviews lasted for about 40 minutes each.
A few things I would say would definitely work:
- Be clear on your basics. The rest hardly matters.
- Be genuine and firm in your answers. You have to give the impression that you know what you are talking about.
- Be well dressed and look confident.
- Back your answers with illustrations and examples, if needed. You are provided an empty blackboard for a reason.
As for me, I managed to clear the interview in both departments. I was offered MSc. (Engg) in Aerospace Engineering because that was my first preference. I was told I came 2nd among 60 shortlisted candidates. So, yay!
Original answer on Quora here.