The pervasive but unspoken anxiety of most undergraduate psychology majors contemplating application to graduate school is whether they possess the "right stuff." By this they refer to academic credentials, principally the dreaded Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores and grade point averages (GPAs) valued by graduate admission committees. I have met and counseled hundreds of prospective graduate students over the years who cling tenaciously to such anxiety-provoking myths as "You need at least a 3.7 and a 1,300 to get into a doctoral program" and "It's not even worth applying to graduate school if you only have a 3.2 GPA." Unfortunately, the anxiety is magnified by the paucity of published data on what graduate programs expect from their incoming students in terms of grades and entrance examination scores.
This article, the first in a series of three, summarizes recent information on the graduate application process in an effort to enhance informed and data-based choices on your part. Our study analyzed all the numerical data in the 1994 edition of Graduate Study in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 1994), which reports information from the 1992-93 academic year. A total of 458 institutions, 559 departments, and 2,023 graduate programs in the United States and Canada were included in our analysis. Details and limitations of the methodology are presented in our lengthy American Psychologist article (Norcross, Hanych, & Terranova, 1996).
Indeed, we discovered that the two most heavily weighted numerical or "objective" variables in the graduate admissions process are the applicant's scores on the Graduate Record Examination and grade point average. Following are the general rules of this numbers game.
The entrance examinations refer primarily to the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and secondarily to the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Ninety-three percent of reporting doctoral departments and 81% of the master's departments required GRE general test scores. Forty-nine percent of doctoral departments and 32% of master's departments required GRE psychology subject test scores. Twelve percent of reporting doctoral departments and 15% of master's departments required MAT scores. We did not conduct any further analyses on MAT scores given the relatively small number of schools requiring them.
Table 1 presents the minimum required and actual GRE scores of incoming graduate students in psychology. These statistics are displayed separately for master's-only and doctoral departments. The minimum required Verbal plus Quantitative score averaged 1,090 for doctoral departments and 984 for master's departments. The actual Verbal plus Quantitative scores of incoming graduate students averaged 1,206 for doctoral departments and 1,033 for master's departments. Less than half the number of departments providing data on GRE Verbal and Quantitative scores reported GRE Analytical scores, but they averaged 638 for students entering doctoral-level departments and 555 for students entering master's-level departments. The actual GRE psychology test score averaged 624 for incoming doctoral students and 549 for incoming master's students.
Inspection of this table reveals a number of interesting patterns between master's and doctoral departments. Doctoral departments required higher minimum GRE scores and secured higher actual GRE scores among their accepted students than did master's departments. For required minimum scores on the GRE subtests, the average difference was 57 or 58 points; for actual scores on the GRE subtests, the average difference was approximately 80 points, again favoring the doctoral departments. Similar trends were evident on the GRE psychology subject test as well.
Graduate departments also regularly required grade point averages in making admissions decisions. In fact, over three-quarters required the overall or cumulative undergraduate grade point average. Fewer departments required psychology grade point averages (50% of doctoral departments, 55% of master's departments) and last-two-years grade point averages (54% of doctoral departments, 57% of master's departments).
Table 1 also displays the minimum required and actual grade point averages for first-year graduate students in psychology. Incoming doctoral students averaged a 3.5 overall GPA and 3.6 psychol-ogy GPA, whereas incoming master's students averaged a 3.2 overall GPA and a 3.4 psychology GPA. The mean and median GPAs required for admission consideration hovered around 3.0 for both master's and doctoral departments.
To sum up: The vast majority of graduate programs in psychology will require GRE scores, and the minimum expected Verbal plus Quantitative score is 1,000 for master's departments and 1,100 for doctoral departments. The mean scores of incoming students are about 1,040 for master's-level students and 1,200 for doctoral students. Incoming doctoral students average a 3.5 undergraduate grade point, incoming master's students, a 3.2.
Of course, you will need to employ your hard-earned statistical sagacity in interpreting these findings: means and medians need to be interpreted in terms of variability, and I do not wish to dissuade anyone from pursuing their calling because of an occasional low score (Norcross, Sayette, & Mayne, 1996). Nonetheless, your knowledge of the numbers game in the admission process is indispensable for making informed choices about your graduate education and career goal--not to mention reducing that anxiety level!
American Psychological Association. (1994). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Norcross, J. C., Hanych, J. M., & Terranova, R. D. (1996). Graduate study in psychology: 1992 - 1993. American Psychologist, 51, 631-643.
Norcross, J. C., Mayne, T. J., & Sayette, M. A. (1996). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology. New York: Guilford.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John C. Norcross, PhD, is professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, where he has served as Psi Chi faculty advisor for the past 10 years. The following feature article (the first in a series of three) is based on his recent American Psychologist article, "Graduate Study in Psychology: 1992-1993." Dr. Norcross also is the senior author of Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology (1996).
Winter 1997 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 10-11), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1997, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.