The goal of this type of presentation is to allow your audience to see and hear your current level of communication skills along and your professional interests as they relate to research. The nature of PhD application packets is they are surprisingly large, yet surprisingly low on clear, reliable information content. This is a great opportunity to make up for that fundamental weakness in the system.
One big issue for the people interviewing you is that many people have a CV that probably looks a lot like yours in many ways. Lots of people mention they had some previous experience with a project of some kind, and it is completely unclear what their actual involvement was. So this is your chance to make it so they have a much clearer understanding of what your level of involvement and understanding of that project was.
Questions to Prepare For
There is no standard script, but you should prepare to answer questions like:
- What part of this project was the most challenging/hard/interesting?
- If you were going to do this project again, what would you do differently?
- Is this project the kind you would like to work on in the future?
- Do you have any experience with X? (you may have never heard of that before, ask if you don't know)
- Tell us more about your experience with X? (where X is generally pulled directly from your CV or personal statement - you should be prepared to talk in more detail about anything you put in your application materials)
- Why did you choose [some aspect of the project]? Ex: Why did you use multiple t-tests in the analysis (if you did stats)? Why did you make this as a web/phone application? Why did you choose to focus on revolutions in the 15th century? etc
- If you had your choice to work on any type of project in your first semester in the program here, what would you work on?
- Do you have any questions for us? (you don't have to have any)
They will not necessarily ask any/all of these questions - but I would expect you to be able to answer any of them on the spot reasonably well in such an interview.
General Short Presentation Outline
You can reorder things as you like, but in general I would expect for a short talk of only 4 minutes that you would cover:
- ~30 seconds: basic intro of yourself like name, university and major you are coming from, and where you work if you are not coming directly from college (and assuming it is relevant to research - no need to mention if you are working in a restaurant now, for example)
- ~30 seconds: background/motivation for the project you are talking about. Why was this project done, what reason would there be for anyone to care about it?
- ~1 minute: what you did on the project
- ~1 minute: what was the big takeaway, lesson learned, result, impact, whatever
- ~1 minute: how do you think this project (and or other projects you've done) prepare you for advanced studies? It should be clear how the skills and interests involved in this project directly relate to what you want to do during your graduate studies
The hardest part of short presentations is just how short they are. Generally I find I need to prepare double the material, or enough for about a 10 minute talk on my first personal practice attempt, to start with. Then I have to cut, cut, cut, and revise to get it down to 5 minutes, and that ends up being too much. You know it's too much when as you look at the time while you practice you feel you have to rush because you are running out of time. Don't rush - remove material.
I find it helpful to say the talk out loud quietly to myself, with a stopwatch running (clock app on your phone/computer works fine for this). This helps you practice what you want to say and how long it takes. The timing dictates you do not have time to get into very low levels of detail, because there is too much you would have to say - that's how these talks work, if they want details they will ask.
The project you pick should be as clearly related to your reasons for applying for a PhD and wanting to do research as possible. Applying for a Computer Science program to work in computer vision and then presenting a group project where you did a literature review for the historical legacy of Marxism in Eastern Europe would be...hard to pull off well.
Finally, do not worry about your English skills. Seriously. Focus on clarity of your communication, taking deep breaths to calm yourself before the interview helps most people, and try to speak in a steady and clear way. Many students are not especially confident English speakers, and in fact there are often professors at most Universities that aren't either. No one is tut-tutting your grammar or demanding you use exactly the right word for everything. Besides, your current level of skill is just your current level of skill - there really isn't any hiding it, so no sense in trying. Just try to be clear, speak in a measured and calm way, and this will help both you and your audience to get what they need from the presentation.
Oh, and one last thing, in case it may help - no one expects perfection here. Academics, as a group, give some of the worst presentations on the planet, even at very high levels of achievement and seniority. I have seen middle-school students give presentations that were more clear and pleasant than some of the talks given at the most prestigious conferences in the field by highly accomplished authors. This is not a TED talk, you are not interviewing to be an entertainer or orator. Focus on clarity and telling a story that shows you have applicable skills and reasonable, thought-out, applicable interests to the program you have applied to, and you will be fine. You will have to prepare and practice, but it should not be seen as a great obstacle - its just a chance to talk about one piece of your experience and your interests in a way that would be otherwise impossible to communicate in a typical 2 page application statement.