Applying to graduate programs in psychology can be a daunting task. With the transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal statements, and deadlines, the application process can seem like a full-time job in and of itself. Although the specifics of each graduate program differ, almost all graduate schools have some general prerequisites.
The application process is meant to be not only a vetting process for students, but also an indicator to the school as to what kind of student will be in its program. They want to know an applicant’s motivations for seeking the degree.
Most applications for graduate school are simply trying to find answers to a few general, but important questions:
- Why do you want to study psychology?
- Do you understand what kind of commitment graduate school is?
- Are you up to the workload and willing to challenge yourself?
- What can you contribute to the academic community?
- What do you plan to do with the degree?
- Will you be successful in this institution?
- Will you represent the institution well after graduation?
To answer these questions, most admission boards look for a number of common indicators that can reveal an applicant’s academic potential. Obviously, the primary factor that most graduate programs consider is a student’s previous academic record. Most graduate programs in psychology require an overall grade point average (GPA) of 3.2 or higher from college. In most institutions, that roughly equates to a B+ average or better. This is particularly important for recent graduates who don’t have as much “real-life” experience, which in many cases can be weighted to make up for lackluster grades among older students.
In addition to academic performance, graduate psychology programs consider Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores. Most psychology programs require a minimum GRE score of 600 to be considered for admission. For older students, or those returning to school after having worked for a number of years, the GRE score is particularly important, as it indicates current potential. The GRE score is also considered a better marker for most mature students’ academic potential.
Aside from the obvious numbers game, graduate programs also require their candidates to have completed a standard battery of coursework, ensuring all incoming students are on the same, general-knowledge page. If your undergraduate coursework didn’t include courses in psychology, physical and biological sciences, math, English literature and composition, history, philosophy, sociology and anthropology, and a foreign language, it may be wise to brush up with a few refresher classes at a local college before applying to graduate schools, just to make sure you come across as the well-rounded student you are.
In addition, psychology schools like to know who you are as a person. The application essays that most schools require are used not only to gauge writing ability, but also to understanding prospective students’ motivations, interests, and talents. They want to know what kind of passion, diversity, and experience you can bring to their community. Many schools want to hear about extracurricular activities and pursuits outside of the classroom, such as athletics, volunteering, and other ways you choose to spend your time. Some may even require an interview with one of their staff or faculty to determine if you’re a good fit for the institution. Your interview performance can be the make-or-break moment for admission to graduate school.
Lastly, one of the major components of nearly all graduate program applications is the letters of recommendation. Psychology programs use these written testimonials, provided by professors, supervisors, and/or colleagues, to hear from other people familiar with a prospective student’s capabilities and work habits, to objectively measure abilities and potential. Keep this in mind as you approach your recommenders, and make sure you’re asking yourself questions like: How well does this person know me? How eloquently can he speak to my abilities and potential? Am I sure he’ll have great things to say about me? Does he have the time to create a great letter?
Although putting together graduate-school applications is a time-intensive process, for students serious about a career in psychology, meeting these basic prerequisites will have a hefty pay-off in the long run.
Five Tips for Applying to Psychology Graduate Schools
Applying to graduate school can be a challenging, time-consuming process, but with a little patience and useful resources, the process will be easier. It is important that you start researching early to make the best decisions. This article will provide five helpful tips to get you started in applying to psychology graduate schools.
- Degrees and Areas of Psychology (clinical or counseling)When contemplating graduate school, it is important to know whether you plan to pursue a doctorate (Ph.D.) or Master’s Degree (M.A., M.S., M.Ed., M.S.W.). It is important to know the end goal because if you hope to have a private practice or teach at a university or college, you will need a doctorate. Some schools will only admit students if they plan to pursue a doctorate degree. In many cases, a student can enter a program with only a bachelor’s degree. The normal amount of time to complete a Ph.D. is four to eight years. A Ph.D. in clinical or counseling psychology will take one extra year to complete an internship. If you plan to provide counseling or work in a clinical setting, a master’s degree is sufficient if you are supervised by a psychologist or a psychiatrist. A master’s program will take about two years to complete and is less competitive than a Ph.D. program.
- Getting admitted (admission deadlines, applications)The most aspect of being admitted to psychology graduate schools is by maintaining a high GPA. Grades do make a difference in applying for college, especially in upper division courses. For example, the grade you receive in a statistics course will carry more weight than a physical education class. The admission committee will look for students who have a strong math and natural science background with good grades. This committee would prefer to see a B in math and science courses instead of an A in less relevant courses. Any research-related experience will strengthen your application. It would be especially helpful if you could conduct research in a psychology related field, perhaps under the guidance of a faculty member. This type of experience can be found through volunteering at a hospital or human services agency.
- Financial AssistanceThe financial support of your education is a major factor in the school you choose. Even if you meet all the admissions requirements, you will need the money to sustain your education. Financial support will vary by school, which can include student and parent loans, grants, fellowships, or financial aid. Some psychology graduate schools offer teaching and research assistantships as a way to earn money to pay for school. If you need financial assistance to attend school, do not be afraid to ask for it. Every school has a financial aid office that provides information and resources for its students.
- GRE and other testsAlmost every accredited graduate program will require the GRE. This test is administered by the Educational Testing Service, and scores must be submitted prior to the school’s admission deadline. The student should take the test no later than the October date, one year before entering a graduate program. The GRE contains three sections: verbal, quantitative, and analytic. Although most psychology programs do not mention the required analytical scores, they may be used to differentiate between applicants. Most schools do state the minimum score for verbal and quantitative sections and will publish the median scores of students admitted from the previous year.
- Personal Statement and Letters of RecommendationA personal statement on the application is your chance to appeal to the admissions committee as to why you are the best candidate to attend the school. Be honest and very specific as to why you should attend. Give tangible reasons such as joining committees, volunteering and enrolling in honors programs, to show why you should be chosen to attend the graduate school.
Locate Top Graduate Schools in Counseling and Psychology
Top graduate schools will have more stringent admissions requirements than less selective ones. Once you have achieved the grades and passed the GRE, you will have to research the kind of schools you will want to attend and the specialty in which you are interested. Specialties in psychology could be in the areas of clinical, counseling, social, biopsychology, industrial, or cognitive. One way to identify the best programs is to ask faculty at your current school. Review current journals in that specialty area to see where the published authors work. The best programs tend to attract the most applicants, so research the number of applications to available spaces and use this as an indicator.
If you are interested in clinical, counseling, or school psychology, the APA accredits these programs. Your chances of employment and internships will be greater if you graduate from an APA-approved program. Top graduate schools’ clinical programs tend to be more competitive than counseling programs in large cities. For example, some clinical programs receive 350 applications, admit approximately ten students, and only graduate seven of them. So what do you do to increase your odds of getting accepted into a top program?
Apply to other schools; sometimes called “safety schools”. These are schools that may be less competitive. Apply to master’s programs at less well-known schools which will give you the coursework you need to take with the goal of later applying to a PhD program. This is a good strategy for people who have low GPAs, GRE scores, or lack glowing letters of recommendations.
Grades and GRE testing scores are important factors to getting accepted to a top graduate school. The three sections of the GRE are verbal, quantitative, and analytical. The quantitative (math) section is especially important and is the area where studying and prep time can make the biggest difference. Reviewing and practicing formulas and strategies will make a difference on the test. Some of the top schools require the GRE subject test in psychology or the Miller Analogy Test (MAT). There are many resources to help prepare for the test. Books, computer programs, and courses at commercial schools can help you study for these exams.
Admission deadlines must be met. Most PhD programs admit students in the fall and master’s program students later in the year. The rule of thumb, according to the APA, is to apply to at least ten programs. This strategy will be especially good for students applying to top graduate schools for clinical and counseling programs where the admission process is more competitive. While the rating of the program you attend is important, the location of your school is also a factor to consider. You will spend between three to five years to complete your degree, so you will want to make sure you receive the best education, but are comfortable in your environment.
Top graduate schools will want to see at least three letters of recommendations. If you can obtain letters from psychology faculty members, that would be best. These professors should be able to attest to your research and academic abilities. Faculty members in large lecture type courses will probably be only able to vouch for your grades and ranking in class, whereas a faculty member in a smaller class will be able to get to know you personally and write a better letter of recommendation. Since the top schools are very interested in what other faculty members have to say about you, make sure you equip them with all the pertinent information they will need to write a strong letter. Let them know the program to which you are applying and your overall and psychology GPAs. Provide your GRE score, as well as any research and work experience you have obtained. Remind your recommender about any course-related papers you have written. All of these pointers will make the faculty member’s task easier. Letters from employers are good, but do not carry as much weight with the admissions committee.