Planning for graduate school? Start early. Although it is common to feel overwhelmed when preparing to apply to graduate school, just remember that you are in control of many vital parts of the application that admissions committees will review. The actions you take in years immediately prior to applying to graduate school can determine the quality of your admissions application. You have direct and indirect control over such elements as course grades and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, as well as others’ perception of you as manifested in letters of recommendation. Avoid the pitfalls. Consider the following tips.
Protect Your Grade Point Average (GPA)
Protect your GPA; once "broken,” it cannot be fixed easily. Some seniors regret their early years in college and the less-than-stellar grades. Freshman year for many students is a period of adjustment and exploration, and many students have stories about how coursework was not their primary focus in that first year. Unfortunately, by averaging early weak grades with those of more recent college years, an overall GPA below 3.0 (a ‘B’ average) can jeopardize an entire application package, especially if you are applying to a doctoral program. Why?
In graduate school, only two grades exist—A and B—rather than the A through F grading system. In a masters program, professors expect from you the excellence and mastery represented by the ‘A’ grade. In graduate school, you will also encounter a standard minimum grade requirement of 3.0 for all semesters. So an undergraduate GPA below 3.0 weakens your application package because the admissions committee reasons that if you cannot meet this ‘B’ standard at the undergraduate level, it is unlikely you’ll suddenly meet it at the graduate level.
The good news is that even with moderately poor performance in the freshman year, all is not lost. In order to present yourself in the most positive and accurate manner, highlight your improved skills by reporting four grade point averages in your application package:
• overall GPA for all college courses,
• a GPA for courses in the psychology major,
• a GPA for courses in your minor, and
• a GPA for the most recent four semesters prior to applying to graduate school.
The GPA in courses for your major and minor should be your highest—close to straight As—since these courses were chosen by you as your favorite college topics. Admission committees also want to see a steady increase in overall semester GPA in your junior and senior years and, in particular, strong academic performance in your junior and senior year psychology courses.
Take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) Seriously
Your single GRE score has far-reaching implications for your graduate school future. Seen as the entrance exam to graduate school, the GRE is a common measure for comparing individual applicants. The GRE General Test is designed to measure the verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills developed in the course of an academic career. The exam is credited as predicting graduate school grades and performance.
In practice, scores are used to determine eligibility for merit-based grants and fellowships, to award teaching and research assistantships, and to determine financial aid offers (American Psychological Association, 2007). At highly-competitive universities, the GRE score is purportedly used as a filter (i.e., the applicant must achieve a certain score or above to even be considered for admission by the committee). A high score can open doors to elite universities and even scholarship offers. A low GRE score denies opportunities to otherwise well-prepared and capable students.
Because the GRE is a nationally standardized test, your score can actually impact your application more than your overall college GPA when applying to high-quality competitive graduate programs that draw applications from a national pool. College grading standards, and therefore GPA, may vary widely at different universities depending on coursework rigors, and admissions committees are aware of this. In contrast, the GRE is a standardized neutral playing field with everyone taking the same test under the same conditions, thereby providing a better comparison between individual applicants. Unlike other components of the application package, the GRE score is unambiguous: A high score is always impressive, and a poor score makes any student look less capable.
It can be difficult to excel at studying for both coursework and the GRE in any single semester, but for 3 months prior to the test date, strive to make the GRE one of your highest academic priorities. While individual course grades for one semester contribute only a little to improve your overall college GPA, a single great GRE score can boost your entire application package. For example, consider a junior undergraduate student with 75 credit hours earned, who has a GPA of 3.2. Studying intently for courses all semester, the student adds 15 new credit hours of straight A grades (for five courses taken) this semester, but it only increases the overall GPA to 3.3, a respectable but only slight improvement from 3.2. Instead, had the student studied intently for the GRE all semester and produced an outstanding GRE score of 1400 (Verbal + Quantitative combined), the admissions committees undoubtedly would have taken notice. Alongside a strong GRE score like this, the small difference between a GPA of 3.2 or 3.3 becomes comparatively insignificant.
Don’t limit your future opportunities. Take the GRE seriously. Make studying for the GRE one of your highest academic priorities in the months leading up to the exam. No one likes to be evaluated in a standardized test, but look at your performance on the GRE as a chance to show the graduate programs what you have to offer as a scholar.
Get Noticed in the Classroom and Meet Your Professors
Every graduate program wants a few references regarding your performance and character. Professors are in a position to write strong letters of recommendation for students they remember as ones who showed enthusiasm and inquisitiveness, so help your professors learn what a great student you are. Participate in class by getting involved in class discussions and asking and answering questions. Go to your professors’ office hours outside of class time. It makes a huge difference if professors get to know your academic and career goals. Informative comments about your classroom performance combined with a character reference make the strongest letters of recommendation.
Further, the single largest contributor to preparedness for graduate school is your interactions with faculty members at your undergraduate institution (Mayne, Norcross, & Sayette, 2006). Having a mentor to advise you in your growth as a student and a future psychologist is invaluable. There is no better way to learn about the vast world of psychology than in a one-on-one, mentoring relationship.
Manage the Impression You Make in Your Personal Statement
In the application package, the personal statement is your only chance to "speak” directly to the admissions committee (Stelzer, 1989). Invest time in contemplating the contents of a powerful personal statement that accurately and concisely represents both the scholar and the complex person you are. Carefully state a core belief that guides you through life and dictates how you conduct yourself in professional situations. For example, your motivation for pursuing the PhD may be your belief in helping others and improving the community. Beliefs here should be secular, not spiritual. Your goal is to show the maturity and insights that result from a contemplated purpose in life. Be prepared to talk briefly about the person you want to become, not just the professional you hope to be, as this is a sign of your maturity and readiness for a career in psychology.
Articulate experiences that strengthened you intellectually and personally. Consider any experiences that helped you know that this field is the right one for you, but only describe experiences that you could discuss comfortably with a stranger during an interview. Writing about yourself can be difficult. Set the tone of your writing by balancing your strengths with humility. This statement of your measured self-perception is part of the application for a reason: this essay task helps the admissions committee weed out the obtuse people who lack self-awareness, the narcissists who lack any measured humility whatsoever, and the immature too absorbed in the moment to pensively consider their larger purpose in life.\
Start Your Professional Life Today
Your life as a psychology scholar begins today as an undergraduate, not when you arrive on campus for the first day of graduate school. You are responsible for developing the personal characteristics and skills of a successful graduate student. Remember that the key characteristics of academic success— delayed gratification and self-discipline—are developed over time, not inborn traits. Develop these characteristics by striving to excel in all your classes. Study because you’re a scholar, not because there is an impending test. Even if you find a class uninteresting, prove that you’re an excellent student and get an ‘A’ grade anyway.
In your daily life, give special attention to developing good habits and special skills that will serve you well in graduate school. Improve your time management abilities and learn to fight procrastination. Learn to study efficiently, a practiced skill essential to managing the increased workload of graduate school. Refine and vary your use of library resources beyond articles from research databases to include e-books, archives, and technical reports. Refine your writing skills and take every opportunity to practice scholarly prose, remembering that writing a scholarly literature review is a basic skill in graduate school.
Your "academic” performance is not limited to exam grades. In your everyday interaction, professors—several of whom may submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf someday—also assess your interpersonal skills, verbal ability, and professional commitment to scholarly work. Therefore avoid undesirable interpersonal behaviors such as silliness, arrogance, and hostility in any interactions with your professors (Mayne, Norcross. & Sayette, 2006). Also be aware of the importance faculty attach to good questions, genuine attentiveness in the classroom, respectful disagreements, office visits outside of class time, a mature disposition, and interpersonal responsibility. These are the characteristics a student heading for graduate studies should manifest inside and outside of the classroom (Keith-Spiegel, 1991).
With early planning you can avoid common pitfalls, missed opportunities, and other mistakes that can lead to regrets. Taking responsibility for the elements of your graduate school application package is clear and convincing evidence that you are indeed starting your professional life today.
American Psychological Association (2007) Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: APA.
Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, NJ.
Mayne, T. J., Norcross, J. C., & Sayette, M. A. (2006) Insider’s guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology, 2006/2007 edition. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Stelzer, R. (1989) How to write a winning personal statement for graduate and professional school. Princeton, NJ: Peterson’s Guide.