I am continually surprised by the number of undergraduates with whom I talk each year who believe that getting into graduate school in psychology is just like getting into undergraduate school. One day you want to go to graduate school, you send away for application forms, fill them out, mail them away with a check, and voila—you're in! Unfortunately, getting into graduate school is not that easy. Being accepted into a graduate program in psychology generally requires a large investment of time, highly efficient organizational skills, and a lot of legwork. In addition, depending on the schools to which you're applying, the process can be highly competitive.
To help undergraduates at Auburn University gear up for the application process, I offer a Psi Chi-sponsored workshop each semester on preparing for graduate study in psychology. This workshop centers around seven guidelines on how to prepare the "successful" application. These guidelines are briefly reviewed below. Following these guidelines will not guarantee your acceptance into a graduate program, but they may help your chances.
1 Be Planful
The first step is perhaps the most important: familiarize yourself with the application process. The application itself consists of specific demographic forms that typically vary from school to school. Most often, you are asked to write a personal statement or letter of intent, submit letters of recommendation from three or more professors, and send in your academic transcript and GRE scores. Successfully applying to graduate school requires careful advance planning—you need to know what it is you want to do professionally, which schools have the best training programs in your area, and what the application process involves at such schools. As a general rule, here are some questions you must consider prior to submitting your application materials:
- What undergraduate courses are required for admission into these programs?
- When should I take the GRE and what is the best way to prepare for it?
- How do I get involved in undergraduate research?
- What kind of work do I want to do in psychology—in what subfield should I specialize?
- Where are the best training programs for what I want to do?
- Which professors will I ask for letters of recommendation?
- What should I say about myself in my letter of intent?
Contemplating potential answers to these questions in your sophomore and early in your junior year will give you a huge head start on the application process, which most often begins in earnest early in the fall semester of your senior year. Most deadlines for applications fall between January and April of the following semester. Thus, it is imperative that you take the GRE, secure letters of recommendation, write a letter of intent, and complete all of the other paperwork prior to the deadline.
Another very important consideration is deciding on how many graduate schools you should apply to. Applying to only one is not a good idea, particularly if it is a highly competitive program. I generally advise undergraduates to apply to 6-10 schools. One or two of these schools should be your "dream" choices, and the others should be schools that you are moderately to strongly confident will accept you and ones that you would be happy to attend. Don't apply to a school unless you think that you would be happy doing your graduate work there.
2 Develop Competencies as an Undergraduate
Here's a telling question to ask yourself: What skills do I have now that I didn't have when I first started college? Your answers to this question will figure prominently in your letter of intent. Admissions committees look for prospective students who can bring particular strengths to their programs. These strengths become especially important when your numbers (GPA and GRE scores) rival those of other top applicants. Thus, the skills you have developed as an undergraduate may determine whether you or another, otherwise equally qualified, applicant are accepted into a particular graduate program.
What kinds of skills should you strive to acquire as an undergraduate? What skills should you highlight in your letter of intent? Here's a list of the most important ones:
- Writing skills
- Statistical, methodological, and analytical skills
- Computer and technical skills
- Clinical skills
- Teaching skills
- Foreign language skills
3 Settle on a Specialty Area
It is impossible to prepare a successful application if you are clueless as to what you wish to do as a future psychologist. When you apply to graduate school, you are really applying to a specific program within a psychology department, even at the master's level. Prior to completing your application, you must do some serious thinking about what you want to be when you grow up, so to speak! This means that you must study psychology with passion and purpose. Each psychology course you take, then, provides you invaluable information regarding potential career avenues. In thinking about such matters, ponder the following questions:
- What is it that I want to do with my knowledge of psychology?
- What kind of career in psychology will make me happy?
- Which career choice will provide a satisfactory income?
- Which career choice will provide optimal flexibility in pursuing my other interests in life?
4 Involve Yourself in Undergraduate Research
One of the most important activities in which an undergraduate can participate is research, which usually entails assisting a professor or graduate student in conducting a psychological investigation. The earlier you become involved in research, the more experience you will gain, and the greater the chance that you might be able to submit a paper for publication or present a poster at a scholarly conference. Doing either—or both—can truly enhance your application. Most PhD programs and many master's programs place a premium on research activity during graduate school. To the extent that you are involved in research as an undergraduate, you are in all that much better of a position to make the transition to graduate level research. In addition, your strongest letters of recommendation are most likely to be written by professors with whom you served as a research assistant. Here are some useful suggestions for how you might get involved in research as an undergraduate:
- Be proactive—find out what research is being conducted in your department.
- Approach those professors whose specialty areas interest you the most; talk to them about their work, and ask to become involved in their research programs.
- Be responsible—if you join a research team, be sure to do what you say you will do when you said it would be done.
- Go all the way—become involved in research to the extent that you are able to make conference presentations and submit manuscripts.
5 Do Homework on Potential Graduate Schools
Selecting the graduate school that is just right for you is an arduous and time-consuming task. An excellent starting point is APA's Graduate Study in Psychology (2001). This book is organized alphabetically by state and then by institution. Just about everything you could ever want to know about graduate study in psychology at the PhD level will be found in this book. Here's the sort of information you will find: a description of graduate programs, admissions requirements, average GPA and GRE scores of recently accepted students, availability of financial assistance, and points of interest in the surrounding community.
Once you have identified the graduate schools to which you will apply, the next step is to go to the Internet and do a bit of research on those schools. Just about every academic department in almost every college or university has a webpage that lists, among other things, admissions requirements; graduate programs and course descriptions; faculty vitae, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses; departmental resources; and application information. Departmental webpages provide more specific information about faculty and curricula than does the APA guide, which you can use to determine the "fit" between your professional interests and various graduate programs and faculty orientations. The Internet also provides you with another interesting possibility: the opportunity to introduce yourself via e-mail to faculty—potential mentors—whose interests are similar to yours.
6 Identify Potential Major Professors
One sensible way of reaching a decision about which graduate programs will be best for you, given your areas of interest, is to identify individuals who conduct research and publish in those areas. Ostensibly, these people are experts in these areas and represent graduate programs in which you could develop your own expertise. The simplest way to identify individuals under whom you would like to study (better known as a "major professor") is to scour the scientific literature in these areas and see who the "big names" are in these areas. Use the Internet to look up their schools and departments. Check to see if these faculty have personal webpages, and read what these faculty have to say about themselves. Also read what faculty have published to see if this is really the kind of work in which you'd like to be involved.
Assuming you do find the work interesting, you may wish to contact one or more of these individuals and introduce yourself, noting that you are interested in applying to graduate school at his or her institution. One advantage of this strategy is that your name will stand out in this person's mind when your application is evaluated. Be careful, though—make sure you are able to speak intelligently about the research these individuals have conducted if you bring it up. Not being able to speak articulately about such research may cause this person to evaluate your application negatively. Also be careful not to overdo things—you don't want to make yourself a pest by continually calling or e-mailing faculty. One or two e-mails or phone calls is enough to be noticed.
Remember this: In choosing a major professor, you are selecting a mentor. An effective mentor is someone who is active in the field, well respected by peers, and whose interpersonal style is acceptable to you. You may find a mentor who publishes frequently and is highly respected by other psychologists, but if this person is not someone with whom you can get along, you should look for a more suitable potential mentor.
7 Write an Outstanding Letter of Intent
The letter of intent is your only opportunity to personalize your application and market yourself to graduate programs. Craft your letter thoughtfully and highlight unambiguously your aspirations, skills, and personal strengths. You may find the following list of "do's" to be especially helpful in writing an outstanding letter of intent.
- Do be specific about your interests in psychology.
- Do describe why a career in psychology appeals to you.
- Do detail your specific strengths and skills.
- Do discuss your career goals and aspirations.
- Do describe why you are applying to the particular program.
- Do mention a specific faculty member with whom you might like to work (and why).
In addition, there are several "don'ts"—things that you do not want to do in your letter of intent:
- Don't be chatty.
- Don't tell your entire life history.
- Don't come across conceited or arrogant.
- Don't forget to proof and reproof your letter.
Some Final Tips
Before actually applying to graduate school, think about what it is you hope to accomplish by going to graduate school, what kind of program best suits your interests and abilities, and perhaps most importantly, whether an advanced degree in psychology is really what you want to pursue over the next several years. Careful consideration of the following questions will provide some insight into how you should approach the application process:
- In which area(s) of psychology do I wish to specialize?
- What degree should I seek (master's, EdD, PhD, or PsyD)?
- Which schools have programs in my area(s) of interest?
- What are the reputations of these schools?
- Are the psychology faculty at these schools well known and respected?
- Can I get along with these faculty?
- Am I academically prepared for these programs (do I meet their admissions criteria)?
- Are there other benefits—intellectual, social, cultural, or athletic—to these schools?
- Are teaching, research, or other types of financial assistance available?
- Even if so, can I afford tuition, fees, and cost of living at these schools?
- Is the geographic location suitable or acceptable to me?
The process of gaining acceptance to graduate school takes a lot of time and hard work, and there is stiff competition for the openings available. However, if you are willing to put forth the effort, use your organizational skills, and follow the tips I've outlined, your chances of being accepted should increase dramatically. May you have great success in your academic journey!
American Psychological Association. (2001). Graduate study in psychology: 2000 edition with 2001 addendum. Washington, DC: Author.