The purpose of the following bulleted lists is to provide students with a basic overview of some of the important steps in applying to graduate school in psychology. Even the best students are often unaware of the variety of factors that comprise an application to graduate school and the relative importance of these factors to graduate review committees. Many students do not realize that getting good grades is only one factor. Students most likely to be accepted into graduate programs will be those who are strong in several areas.
This information is most useful once you have decided to go to graduate school, have considered different types of degrees and careers, and have decided on a particular area of emphasis. It will not help you make these decisions. There are several more comprehensive guides to the process and these are listed in the last section. I strongly encourage you to review such guides. It is never too early to begin thinking about graduate school and never too early to get involved in activities that will result in a better application. It takes time to build a successful application for graduate school.
Obtaining Information About Programs
[See "Other Resources" at the conclusion of this article for further reference information and additional materials.]
Graduate Study in Psychology and Related Fields (published by the American Psychological Association) lists all graduate programs in North America and can be referenced by state and subject area.
Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology (published by Guilford) specifically highlights information about clinical and counseling programs.
Search the psychological literature (e.g., PsycLit) for journal articles pertaining to the area in which you are most interested. Note the names of the authors who are publishing in this area and the names of the universities with which they are affiliated.
Determine whether these universities offer the type of graduate degree that interests you.
If a professor is doing what you would like to do and there is an appropriate graduate program at that university, send that person a brief e-mail expressing your interests and asking whether they are looking for a graduate student to work with them.
If you can establish a strong link with a particular professor, you may have bought your ticket into graduate school.
Several psychology conferences offer the opportunity to visit with representatives from graduate programs, particularly the Psi Chi programs at national and regional meetings of the American Psychological Association and the meeting of the American Psychological Society.
If you will be attending a conference, determine whether any of the presenters are affiliated with a university that you are considering for graduate school. Attend their presentation. Introduce yourself and ask a few of those intelligent questions that you had prepared in advance! They just might be a member of the committee that reviews graduate applications.
If you intend to pursue an applied area in psychology (e.g., counseling, industrial/organizational, etc.), seek out professionals who are currently working near where you live. Ask them where they went to graduate school and whether they have any recommendations.
Apply for membership in Psi Chi and become active in your local Psi Chi chapter and in the psychology club at your school.
Get to know some senior psychology majors who are applying to graduate school.
Nearly all graduate programs now have information on the Internet.
You can often learn about the faculty members from their departments' websites.
Some graduate programs have their applications posted on their website.
Taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
What is the GRE?
When to Take the GRE
Preferably the summer prior to your senior year.
This often permits more study time prior to the test.
This allows for time to retake the GRE if necessary.
If you take the GRE after December of your senior year, you run the risk of missing application deadlines.
Determine which office on campus distributes GRE registration materials.
Obtain the registration materials several months prior to when you plan to take the GRE.
Select a date that does not coincide with other major events in your life (final exams, wedding, etc.).
Be sure to register before the deadline.
Should I Take the Psychology Subtest?
Studying for the GRE
Definitely do it!
Obtain a study guide (available in book form or on CD).
There are formal courses designed to prepare students, but these can be expensive.
Take practice tests to become familiar with the format.
Be sure to review your basic algebra and geometry.
Don't wait until it's too late.
Taking the GRE
Get plenty of sleep the night before.
Arrive early at the test site.
Use the skills and techniques that you learned from the study guide.
Retaking the GRE
Remember that graduate schools will see both sets of GRE scores.
Retaking the GRE will not likely improve your scores unless:
You did not study for it the first time.
You were ill when you took it the first time.
Completing the Application Form
Be Sure To:
Neatly type all information.
Sign the waiver, which releases your right to see the letters of recommendation.
Complete all requested information.
Additional Items to Include:
A brief cover letter that notifies the program of your intent to apply and expresses your interest in a particular program.
A resume that includes your educational background, work experience, volunteer experience, research experience, computer skills, other skills, and any awards that you have received.
Any application fee that is required.
What Are They?
How Are They Sent to the Graduate Schools?
Notify the registrar's office at each college or university that you have attended of your desire to have your transcripts sent to another university.
Provide the registrar's office with all of the names and addresses.
Pay the required fees (usually several dollars per set of transcripts sent).
When Do I Have Them Sent?
Obtaining Good Letters of Recommendation
Who Do You Ask?
Professionals who know you best.
Professionals who will be able to say good things about you.
Professors are best.
Employers are good if the work is related to your field.
Supervisors of volunteer work are good if the work is related to your field.
When Do You Ask?
At least two weeks before the first graduate school deadline.
Not more than six weeks before the first graduate school deadline.
Never after the graduate school deadline!
Plan to spend a few minutes with each recommender to share (with enthusiasm) your career goals.
What Do You Give the Recommender?
Your major and minor.
Class(es) you took with the professor, along with the grade(s) received.
Description of any projects completed for the course(s).
Cumulative GPA, psychology GPA, GRE scores.
Description of work/volunteer experience related to your field.
Description of research experience, including presentations and publications.
List of organizations (e.g., Psi Chi, etc.) and leadership positions.
List of conferences attended.
Brief description of each graduate program to which you are applying.
Any forms provided by each graduate school (with the waiver signed).
A stamped and addressed envelope for each graduate school.
Am I Done?
One week before the deadline, check with each graduate school to verify that your application is complete.
If letters of recommendation are missing, check with each recommender to verify that they have sent the letter.
Writing a Good Personal Statement
Be Sure to Include:
All areas requested in the application.
Your talents and strengths--now is not the time to be modest.
A weakness (only if requested)--should be the shortest section of your statement and should end with a positive statement.
Distinguishing accomplishments (awards, presentations, officer positions, etc.).
Any computer skills you have.
Evidence of your writing skills.
References to the particular graduate program (this will require some research).
Follow length guidelines in application (usually 112 pages single-spaced).
Be Sure to Exclude:
Emphasis on your weaknesses.
Misspelled words, typos, incorrect grammar, etc.
Negative remarks about any person or program.
The fact that your interest in psychology stems from your own disorder.
Before You Mail Your Application:
Have one of your psychology professors read it and provide feedback (preferably a professor writing a letter of recommendation for you).
Have one of your favorite English professors read it for style.
Print the statement with a quality printer.
Read it one last time to make sure it is correct.
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American Psychological Association. (2000). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author. [Available March 2000]
American Psychological Association. (1996). Psychology/Careers for the twenty-first century. Washington, DC: Author.
Appleby, D. (1997). The handbook of psychology. New York, NY: Longman.
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Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Landrum, R. E., Davis, S. F., & Landrum, T. A. (2000). The psychology major: Career options and strategies for success. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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Sayette, M. A., Mayne, T. J., & Norcross, J. C. (1998). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical psychology. New York, NY: Guilford.
Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.). (1997). Career paths in psychology: Where your degree can take you. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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Eddy, B., Lloyd, P. J., & Lubin, B. (1987). Enhancing the application to doctoral professional programs: Suggestions from a national survey. Teaching of Psychology, 14, 160-163.
Kohout, J. L., & Wicherski, M. M. (1992). 1991 salaries in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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Snepp, F. P., & Peterson, D. R. (1988). Evaluative comparison of PsyD and PhD students by clinical internship supervisors. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 19, 180-183.
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Career Encounters: Psychology, American Psychological Association, 1991.
Careers in Psychology: Your Options Are Open, American Psychological Association, 1990.
There are many sites on the Internet that provide information about careers, graduate programs, and tips for being successful. Simply conduct a search for the topic in which you are interested.