frequently struggle with the question of which undergraduate psychology courses
their students should take when preparing for graduate school. In a world of
finite credits and time, the chorus of "Which course, which course?"
from both inquiring students and curriculum committees demands crisp answers.
Although graduate programs will differ slightly in the courses they prefer
students to have taken prior to admission, aren't there some "core"
courses that nearly all require?
This article responds to
this pressing question by summarizing the answers provided by 559 departments
and 2,023 graduate psychology programs in the United States and Canada. Our
study analyzed all the numerical data in the 1994 edition of the Graduate Study in Psychology (American
Psychological Association, 1994), which reports information from the 1992-93
academic year. Details and limitations of the study are presented in our
lengthy American Psychologist
article (Norcross, Hanych, & Terranova, 1996). The aim of this brief
article, and the other two in this series, is to highlight information from our
study that will enhance informed and data-based decisions on the part of
graduate applicants and their academic advisors.
Directors of graduate programs reported their psychology admission
prerequisites by specifying a minimum number of psychology credits, specific
psychology courses, an undergraduate psychology major, or some combination
thereof. Ninety-one percent of the programs (1,854 of 2,023) contributed such
information; we were unable to determine whether the remaining nine percent of
graduate programs had no prerequisites or simply failed to provide the
presents the frequency and percentage of the 1,854 graduate programs that
specified each type of psychology prerequisite. Overall, master's programs and
doctoral programs required very similar types of undergraduate preparation. The
sole exception was that doctoral programs were more likely to require an
undergraduate psychology major than were master's programs (16% versus 11%).
Approximately one half of the graduate programs required specific psychology
courses, and approximately one third required specific psychology courses plus
a minimum number of credits in psychology. The minimum number of psychology
credits averaged 16 for both master's and doctoral programs (median and mode =
presents the psychology courses most frequently required (first column of numbers),
preferred (second column), and required or preferred (third column) for
graduate admission into those programs listing all such courses. (Introduction
to Psychology was presumed to be a prerequisite for these advanced psychology
courses and was therefore omitted from the analyses.) As seen in this table,
statistics and research methods/experimental design courses were the most
common. In descending order of frequency, other commonly required courses were
abnormal, personality, developmental, testing, learning, lab course,
physiological, history and systems, social, cognitive, and sensation and
perception. Bear in mind that these figures underestimate the true percentage
of programs requiring these courses since they do not include those graduate programs
requiring a psychology major as a prerequisite and thus probably requiring most
of the courses listed in Table 2.
No other psychology course was required or preferred for graduate admission by
even 1% of the programs.
In sum: Graduate admission
will typically require, at a minimum, the equivalent of a rigorous minor in
psychology, one that certainly includes courses in statistics and
experimental/research methods and one that probably includes a smattering of
courses from abnormal, developmental, personality, learning, physiological, and
Completing these courses to satisfy graduate admission requirements is only the
first step. If at all possible, you should complete more than the minimum
required courses both to meet admissions criteria and to improve your GRE
Psychology Test score. Doctoral programs typically require more courses on
average than do master's programs (Smith, 1985). The safest plan, of course, is
to complete a rigorous undergraduate major in psychology to satisfy all these
courses, but a well-planned minor in psychology may suffice.
Beyond these psychology
classes, what other undergraduate courses might an academic advisor recommend
for graduate school preparation? Our literature review (Norcross, Sayette,
& Mayne, 1996) identified the following consensual tips:
Computer science courses. Not only will these courses
accustom you to the workings of computers, which are standard research fare,
but they will also serve as a springboard for learning the upper level
languages used for data analysis. Computer proficiency is rated a moderately
important admission variable by doctoral programs (Eddy, Lloyd, & Lubin,
A broad undergraduate background in the arts and sciences. Biological sciences, math
competency, and verbal skills are highly valued (Keith-Spiegel, 1991).
Public speaking courses. If you are anxious or phobic
regarding oral presentations, then by all means complete a public speaking
Composition and writing courses. You may well face three or four
major papers each semester in graduate school. Get ready now!
Advanced or graduate statistics course. Statistical acumen is highly
regarded, especially in research-oriented programs, and advanced knowledge may
pave the way for funding as a graduate assistant or research assistant. A
related suggestion would be to take a course specifically focused on one of the
data analysis programs. Learning one of the major statistical
packages--Statistical Analysis System (SAS), Statistical Package for the Social
Sciences (SPSS), or BioMedical Data Package (BMDP), for example--is a definite
Learning about psychology and achieving good grades are important components of
your undergraduate career. But courses are also important in that they provide
you with the opportunity to become acquainted with and form relationships with
Why meet faculty in terms
of the graduate school application process? There are at least three compelling
reasons. First, having a mentor to advise you in your growth as a future
psychologist is invaluable. When you apply to graduate school, having a
professor to guide you through the process is one of the biggest advantages you
can have. Second, you will eventually need faculty to write letters of
recommendation on your behalf. Whether you are applying to graduate school or
for employment, everyone wants a few references regarding your performance and
responsibility. Occasionally faculty members are asked to write a letter for a
pupil who has taken a lecture course with 100 or more students--the professor
may not even know the student until the time the student requests a letter! It
makes a huge difference if you have spent some office hours or time after class
with a faculty member, and he or she knows you more personally. And third, once
you get to know professors, you may have the opportunity to work for them on a
research project or as part of clinical activities. You will be working closely
with your major professor in graduate school, and you might as well begin as
soon as possible as a colleague-in-training.
All this is to say that,
beyond completing and excelling in your undergraduate courses expected by
graduate schools, simultaneously consider the coursework as an unparalleled
opportunity to cultivate a warm and working relationship with your
Psychological Association. (1994). Graduate
study in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological
Eddy, B., Lloyd, P. J.,
& Lubin, B. (1987). Enhancing application to doctoral programs: Suggestions
from a national survey. Teaching of
Psychology, 14, 160-163.
Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission.
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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 Press.
Smith, R. A. (1985).
Advising beginning psychology majors for graduate school. Teaching of Psychology, 12, 194-198.