Getting Into Graduate School in Psychology
Getting into graduate school in psychology is a stressful experience, one that may prepare you for many aspects of graduate school life: it's hard, it's a daunting proposition, and there are no real rules. However, it shares other similarities with graduate school -- there are ways of making it easier. If you know what you've got going into the whole endeavor, you'll have a better chance of knowing what you'll end up with.
There are many factors that influence whether or not you will get an offer from a school. Below is my list of what I think are the ingredients to a winning application. This information in no way represents any "insider info" or anything like that -- it's just my impressions based on my own experiences and the experiences of other people I know. Of course, these "guidelines" won't apply to all programs, and some programs may take a quite different philosophy, but I think that this stuff is all good to know.
Before you send them anything: Before you send anything to anybody, you should be ready. You should have researched all of the schools you will be applying to and you should be prepared to present yourself in a saleable way. This whole process will take months and months of hard work, so make sure you have the time.
Get Experienced : Before you apply anywhere, you need to have experience doing research. You need to have done some independent studies and worked in at least one lab. There must be at least one faculty member that you feel especially close to, who can serve as your "mentor" through the process -- someone to advocate for you.
Finding Faculty: Before you start looking for the school you want to attend, you must first find faculty to work with. This is because, despite what you may think, you are not applying to a school -- you are applying to a faculty member, who just so happens to be working at a school. Talk to people you know at your lab or do a literature search on the topics you are interested in, and see whose names keep showing up. See where they are. Those are the schools you will want to apply to.
Researching Schools: Now that you have a tentative list of schools to apply to, based on the faculty adviser you are choosing, you need to start researching those schools. Do they have a graduate program in psychology? What is that program like? What is the school like? Go to their website and print out all the information you need to figure out how their program works, as no two programs will be the same. See what requirements there are. Also, print out a list of faculty and see who else works there, to get an idea of the climate of that school.
Preparing Yourself: Now that you know where you want to apply to, you need to get yourself ready. You need to study for and take the GREs, but I'll go over that later. There are other things, though, that you need to do. You need to write a resume. Although this is almost never asked for, you should include one in every application unless they tell you not to. The resume should be formatted nicely and list pretty much everything you've done. Another thing that you should do, which is perhaps more important, is to prepare your CV. A CV (which stands for Curriculum Vita or Vitae) is basically an academic resume, stating (or maybe slightly overstating) everything you've done in the academic realm. For some ideas of what a CV should look like or include, you can look at mine. Another thing that you should prepare, if you can, is a website. If you have any website skills, now is the time to advertise yourself. While you may find it expensive to get a domain name and all, it's nothing compared to all the rest of the money you will be spending on application fees. This accomplishes a few things. First, it makes you memorable -- not many people will have one. Second, it makes things like your CV and resume available to all the people you are interested in working with, available any time. Third, it boasts a skill that is in pretty high demand. Finally, you should prepare your generic personal statement. Even though each school will demand a different statement, it's good to have a general one to work with and pare down.
Getting Materials: Now is the time to get all your application materials from all the schools. Many schools have online applications. Make sure you keep all your applications organized. Make sure you know all the deadlines and get all the materials ahead of time. Make sure you ask for letters of reccommendation from faculty that know you well far in advance, to give them plenty of time. Also, make sure you order plenty of transcripts and make sure they are sent to the right places.
Organizing Information: You should keep your materials very organized. I reccommend a file box with folders for each application, so that all materials for each school can be kept together. This may seem like over-obsessiveness, but it is very useful in the last few hectic weeks, when things need to be very organized or a very important document might get lost.
First Contact: As a general reccommendation, it is always nice to know that a particular school is waiting for your application. As you finalize your list of possible advisers and mentors, you should email them. Introduce yourself, say that you are applying to their program and attach a copy of your CV to the email. Giving them your website address also helps. Let them know, on perhaps a more personal note, why you want to work with them and why you think that their program is right for you, and why you are right for their program.
Application Phase 1: Now that you've submitted your application, there will be a few stages your application will have to pass before it gets to the final "offer" stage. The first of these is a general, nameless perusing of your vital statistics. I would guess that about 75% of all applications are eliminated by this stage. I could be wrong, but this stage seems to me to be a simple way to reduce 400 applications to 40.
Application Packet: Make sure everything is in on time and none of your application fee checks bounce. As a matter of fact, use money orders, so that you know that this won't be a problem and so that there can be no unneccessary delay of your application. It's OK to use Express Mail or other Overnight or Rush procedures; I don't think it makes you "look bad." Make sure your application is super neat. I reccommend getting Adobe Acrobat software and filling out all forms on your computer and using PDFs of the applications or scan in all pages of the application and convert them to PDFs. That way, your applications will be outstandingly neat and professional-looking.
GRE: Make sure you study for the GREs before you take them. Let me rephrase: study a LOT. Get the ETS's own study materials and get materials from at least two other sources. For the verbal section, drill vocabulary more than everything else. For math, make sure you take some practice tests and do OK to see where your math skills are. Remember, these are like SAT math questions: much of the math will be basic high school level stuff, but the questions might be tricky. For analytical, just make sure you can bend your brain around the questions and learn to use your scratch paper. As far as scores go, make sure your V + Q is over 1000. As a matter of fact try really hard to make it over 1200, since many programs use this as their cutoff. As long as your score meets the cutoff, it will neither help or hurt your chances; however, if your score is very high (over 700 for subtests), it can only help you. This is one of the ways to get noticed.
GRE Psych: Similar to the GRE, study for and take this test. Do very well on it. The test is very difficult and you will need to study a lot. Some reccommend to study an intro Psychology text, since this is the primary source of material, but I have a better idea. Get a good GRE Psychology test prep guide. The one I used was Princeton Review -- I memorized as many of the factoids in the book as I could, and that allowed me to score very well. As long as you score above 500-600, you'll probably be fine. But try to score as high as you can. It will help you get noticed.
GPA: Your GPA is more important than many people think, but for a variety of reasons that may not, at first, be obvious. As long as you meet the GPA cutoff, you're fine. An extraordinarily high GPA (over 3.7 or 3.8) will get you noticed. If, however, you went to an ultra-prestigious school (such as an Ivy League school), a very high GPA may be ignored, due to the typical grade inflation that occurs at many of those schools.
Where you went to school: This is a factor. If you went to a really prestigious school, it will reflect better on you (except sometimes in terms of GPA). If you went to a non-prestigious school, it might be a slight disadvantage, unless you demonstrate that you did good work where you went and took advantage of what they had to offer.
Application Phase 2: Now that you have made it to this stage, all of those things that took you so much time to prepare will actually get looked at. This stage will answer the question "Do we want to make them an offer?" so it is very important.
Main Letter: Of your letters of reccommendation, one will stand out. This will be the one from your main "mentor" and will be given a great deal of weight. There's not much to say here, because you won't be able to write these, but make sure you pick people carefully, so that they will say plenty about you. They will give the impression of how good you were to work with and what your promise may be.
Other Letters: While these letters will be alongside the main one, they may carry much less weight, with the assumption that the people who are writing these don't necessarily know you as well. Also, they give another general impression of you.
Personal Statement (Writing): The personal statement serves two functions. First, it demonstrates your writing ability. How well do you write? How clear? How is your information organized? Is all the information appropriate? Stuff like that.
Personal Statement (Match): The other main purpose of the personal statement is to match you with a possible adviser. If you already know who you want to work with, then you're that much ahead of the crowd. Even though they may not ask for it, include a short paragraph identifying each mentor, why you are interested in their work, and why they should take you.
Research Experience : For the types of psychology programs that stress research, this is very, very important. It should be evident from your personal statement, resume and CV. You should convey what research skills you have acquired and under what settings.
Clinical Experience : This may not be so important, as many people don't get much of this until graduate school. I would see this as more of a matching issue, where the mentor you're planning on working with may request these skills for the work they plan on giving you. So, if you have this, you will probably be seen in a better light, but it is not necessary.
Other Experience : Extra-curricular experiences and other types of experiences are usually seen as irrelevant. However, like clinical experience, if there is something that sets you apart or identifies a skill that you have that would be applicable, don't hesitate to mention it.
Posters: You will probably be expected to have presented at a major conference at least once. The more the better -- it is indicative of a number of things, but it generally shows that you are involved in research and that your research is making an impact on the field.
Publications: While these are quite rare in applicants, they are increasingly in demand. They will help you for obvious reasons, and you should at least list a few "in preparation" publications based on poster presentations to show that you know that posters are meant to be written up into papers, and that publishing is a priority of yours.
Personal Characteristics: These usually don't enter the formal application process, and there are few places to even bring them up. If, however, there is something about you that draws particular attention, it may help or hurt your chances as much as any attention-drawing factors.
Match: This is probably the most important factor in your application, above vital statistics. You want your prospective mentor to want to accept you. You want to show that you are familiar with their work, and that your interests are parallel to theirs. You should show that your abilities match the capabilities of their lab and that your aspirations match projects that they are currently working on or are willing to work on. You need to make a personal connection with that possible mentor and and meet them on a person-to-person basis, so that you may feel like you know each other and that you are personally invested in each other.
Taking Students: In addition to factors such as matching your research interests, you need to make sure that your possible mentor is accepting students. There are many factors involved here. Assuming you meet all other characteristics, they may simply not be able to afford you. Also, especially in more selective programs, it may not be "their turn" to take a student if they've already taken one in the past year or two, even if they can afford you.
Application Phase 3: At this point, you have passed all the requirements for admission. If you have been invited for an interview, then that school, you can be sure, wants to accept you. The only thing is, they want to accept more people than they can handle, and this interview may be that final decision-making point. So if you get called, you really don't have to prove anything mentioned above -- you already have. At this point, you need to do two things: connect with your mentor and don't screw anything up.
Interview (target faculty): This is probably the mort important part of your interview. You will see if you and your mentor connect on a personal level that would make both of you comfortable in investing so much time and money in each other.
Interviews (other): These interviews, with other faculty and even possibly students accomplish two things. First, they get to answer questions of yours so that you have a better idea of what you would be in for if you came to that school. Second, it gives the people involved a personal connection with you. If they generally like you and would like to work with you for the next several years, then your chances are better.
Do they think you'll actually come: This is actually an important factor. Even if they would love for you to come, if they seriously don't think that you'll accept an offer, they may prefer to offer admission to someone else.
Diversity: In some states, it is illegal for this to be an issue, and sometimes this is mandatory. If you are in an underrepresented population, don't be afraid to say so -- it will probably help you no matter what.
Flip of the coin: When it comes down to it, they may have a list of 10 people they really want to accept and only 7 spots. How do they choose at that point? Assuming that you have passed all the requirements above, the tiniest thing can tip the scales -- the influence of your faculty, how much you personally connect with your mentor, etc. -- but don't be too upset, because many of these factors are largely out of your control, especially if you have covered all your bases to this point.
The offer: So now, the time has come -- eithey you get the happy letter or the sad letter.
If you don't get an offer: Don't be too disappointed; if you did well throughout the process, remember that there are many factors that are totally outside of your control. If you don't get in to a program you really feel strongly about, you may want to contact the faculty you planned on working with (only if you established a good connection with them) and ask why you were not accepted. It may be that they couldn't take a student this year, but they could take you next year if you applied. You never know.
If you get an offer: Congratulations! If you get in where you wanted, you're all set -- start looking for a place to live.
Other Online Resources:
APA's Guide to Getting Into Graduate School
Graduate School and Careers in Psychology (Rider University Handout)
Graduate Student Resource Page (by Dan Horn)
Getting Into Graduate School in Psychology (by W. J. Wilson)
About.com: Graduate School
Pursuing Psychology (by Linda Walsh)
Getting In (by NC State Univ Psi Chi)
How to Get In (Columbia Univ)
Graduate Study in Psychology
Thinking About School Psychology (UC Berkeley)