Applying to graduate school is a stressful time for most students, but it doesn’t have to be with the right information. The time, money and preparation required can be quite extensive. As a professor, I have seen students go through this process without the desired outcome or acceptance into a graduate program. However, many factors contribute to gaining acceptance into graduate programs. The key is preparation, planning, and homework. This article will provide some pointers for maximizing your likelihood of success.
Planning for graduate school should begin as early as possible during the undergraduate program. This will allow you to round out your application. Because psychology is a popular degree, it is important to distinguish yourself wherever possible. For example, getting the best grades you can to enhance your GPA cannot be underestimated. You might also consider taking a minor to supplement your training. Taking classes such as Research Methods and Statistics can provide you with a unique skill set and can lead to the development of independent research you could present or publish. You can also take advantage of extracurricular opportunities such as honor societies and clubs. Going a step further by taking leadership roles as an officer in these organizations shows initiative. Internships can help to focus your interests in specific areas of psychology and develop relationships with faculty who may eventually write your letters of recommendation. The importance of each of these criteria in gaining acceptance varies by program. However, all of these can be used to strengthen your statement of purpose which has gained importance in the graduate school process.
Decide as early as possible on what your long-term goals are and, based on your scholastic ability, which path is best suited for you. In general, clinical PhD programs have lower acceptance rates. However, if your primary goal is to be a clinician, you can look into PsyD, counseling PhD, or school psychology PhD programs, which can have higher acceptance rates. You can also be a therapist with a master’s degree (e.g., marriage and family therapist or licensed professional counselor). The lesson here is to match your long-term goals with your abilities and academic record. There is a graduate program out there for everyone; the key is to find programs that are within your reach.
According to 2010 Graduate Study in Psychology Snapshot by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2010), there were 1273 doctoral programs and 27 masters programs in the United States. Overall, acceptance rates for doctoral programs were 20%. For master’s programs (275), the acceptance rates were 51%. These numbers are averages, and acceptance rates vary by program type and area. The study also showed the acceptance rates for both doctoral and master’s programs were higher in private programs versus public programs. Interestingly, more students apply to public institutions. You should make it a point to apply to both public and private schools to improve your chances of acceptance. Public institutions do offer more opportunities for cost deferral such as tuition waivers and teaching assistantships. Furthermore, there are programs to help with repayment and, in some cases, forgiveness of student loans including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (United States Department of Education, 2011).
Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores and GPA are important criteria for most programs. Each program will vary on the median GPA and GRE for the last group of accepted students. Some programs place more emphasis on the GPA in the last year of your undergraduate education. By getting a baseline score, you can determine where you need to place emphasis in terms of studying. A good place to start is at www.gre.org by downloading the Powerprep software created by ETS (Educational Testing Service). The software presents two computer-based versions of the Quantitative and Verbal tests and gives a score upon completion. You can use this to focus your studying prior to spending over $100 to take the test. If your score is very low, you could consider taking a course to help prepare for the test offered by organizations like Princeton Review and Kaplan because you can retake the GRE. However, some programs will average your scores and others will take your most recent score. Take note of these details and whether the program requires the subject test, which is offered less frequently than the general GRE test.
Using your GPA and estimated GRE scores, you can begin to narrow down the programs that you might apply to based on your fit with the program requirements. APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology Online (APA, 2011) offers a searchable computer database where you can look at programs by type, area, and qualifications. A crucial suggestion to all students is to look at programs outside of your home state. Once you have identified programs of interest to you, I would recommend visiting the program’s website to confirm your interest in the location, faculty, and curriculum of the program. All of these details will give you information to use in your statement of purpose based on your fit with the program and/or a faculty member’s research. This final step should be used to create your short list of schools.
To how many programs should you apply? I recommend applying to somewhere between 7 and 10 programs. Keep in mind the cost of graduate school applications and do what is manageable for you. Plan to submit applications to more programs that match your qualifications. However, you could also apply to one or two programs that are a bit beyond your qualifications if you have a well-rounded application. Finally, have a "plan b” such as one or two terminal master’s program that would better prepare you for a PhD program.
Once you have identified the programs you will be applying to, begin collecting your applications and focus on writing your statement of purpose. There are many good sources on how to write a statement of purpose such as The Psychology Major (Landrum & Davis, 2010). There are also many good websites with guidance. Do not be afraid to ask your professors, advisor, or mentor for assistance or to review your statement of purpose prior to sending it out. Make note of all deadlines and allow yourself time to do the best job possible on your applications.
My final comments are related to letters of recommendation. You should ask your professors as early as possible. I ask students for whom I have agreed to write a letter of recommendation to supply me with the following information: C/V, statement of purpose, transcript, what courses they have had with me and their grade, and finally a writing sample. You should also provide professors with addressed and stamped envelopes, any forms necessary, and deadlines for all programs. As professors, we teach many students and are asked for many letters of recommendation. Providing your professors with data on which to base their letters is essential to their writing well-balanced letters.
Doctoral program applications are due in the fall for the following fall. Getting a head start on your preparation and deciding on your long-term goals is the hard part. But by preparing early and collecting as much data as possible, you can maximize your opportunities for gaining acceptance into a graduate program without spending hours figuring out where to begin. With this knowledge, graduate school preparation will be a more manageable feat.
American Psychological Association (2010). 2010 analysis of data from grad study in psychology. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/workforce/snapshots/2010/ faculty-grad-study.aspx
American Psychological Association (2011). Graduate study online. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/databases/gradstudy/index.aspx
Landrum, R.E., & Davis, S.F. (2010) The psychology major: Career options and strategies for success (4th ed. ) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. United States Department of education (2011). Retrieved from http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/PSF.jsp .