This article focuses on the process of gaining admission into graduate school successfully. It includes helpful tips on preparing for graduate school, as well as selecting and applying to graduate programs, with additional sources listed for college searches, financial aid, and scholarships. We encourage undergraduate students to begin this process early in their academic careers--exploring various avenues within the realm of psychology, involving themselves in the research process, and becoming familiar with the faculty and graduate students in their department--in order to identify their area of greatest interest and to take advantage of opportunities for professional growth.
On the path to becoming a scientist, practitioner, or scholar, many undergraduate students majoring in psychology are not adequately informed about the process--the steps necessary to reach their goal (Dodson, Chastain, & Landrum, 1996). The purpose of this article is to provide you with an outline of these steps in order to increase your chances of admission into graduate school.
As you look ahead to completing your baccalaureate degree in psychology, you will face many challenging decisions, with a surfeit of options upon which to decide. One option is to continue your education by attending graduate school. However, this choice involves (a) preparing for graduate school, (b) choosing a graduate program (or programs), and (c) applying to the program(s) you choose—a lengthy and complicated process that can be daunting and that requires considerable invested time. Students who plan to attend graduate school have to be disciplined, organized, and determined in order to succeed (American Psychological Association [APA], 1993).
It is also best to start early. If you are a junior or senior, don't be discouraged—it is not too late to take advantage of the information provided in this article. However, we encourage students to start preparing for graduate school during their freshman year in order to maximize their opportunities and obtain the experience needed to get into a competitive program.
With this in mind, let's take a look at the process from beginning to end, not comprehensively, but to gain an overview and a starting point for further exploration.
Preparing for Graduate School
Networking is an integral part of advancing your career and gaining valuable knowledge and experience. You should begin networking during your first year of college, introducing yourself to various professors and learning about their research interests. You should also make it a point to attend special events and actively participate in the various activities offered on campus and particularly in your psychology department. The people you meet and interact with may prove to be important contacts later on, and the greater your range of activities, the greater your chance of discovering open doors and new paths leading to advanced skills and knowledge. Indeed, networking can lead to many interesting and helpful opportunities.
If you are planning to apply to graduate school, you should become familiar with the research process early, beginning with your freshman year if possible. Start with simple tasks, such as data collection or data entry, which can lend valuable understanding to your knowledge of research. A small number of jobs—paid or unpaid, with or without credit--should direct you into starting your own independent research project. Most graduate programs, especially doctoral programs, require that new students have a thorough knowledge base and understanding of research methods. Also, students who seek to gain research experience or to develop related skills demonstrate that they have made an effort to associate themselves with the profession (APA, 1993).
Certainly, the completion of a thesis or dissertation is not all admission committees search for in their candidates. However, some of the very important criteria for gaining acceptance into a graduate program are research experiences resulting in a publication or a paper or poster presentation at a professional conference, and experience as a research assistant (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000). Although it is quite challenging for an undergraduate student to gain authorship on published research, it is not infrequent that students present their paper or poster at conferences. In addition, there are some journals, including the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, that publish undergraduate research.
Psychology Organizations and Leadership
Active involvement in psychology organizations, such as Psi Chi and your campus psychology club, reflects self-motivation, dedication, and versatility. In addition, attending the meetings of these organizations can be a critical part of your education. These meetings connect you with others of similar interests, expose you to a broader understanding of the field of psychology, and are often very informative regarding the process of preparation and selection of appropriate graduate programs (Buskist, 1999). Participation in these organizations also provides important opportunities for obtaining leadership experience, which can have an impact on your graduate school application. Whether you serve as an officer, chair a committee, or plan and organize a particular event or activity, leadership experience is an important aspect of your personal and academic growth.
In addition, you should consider student membership in other psychology organizations that reflect your academic and career interests. For example, if you are interested in social psychology, consider becoming a student member of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology (APA's Division 8). If you are considering a career in I/O psychology, you can become a student affiliate of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Division 14). By joining these organizations as a student, you identify yourself early on with your chosen profession and "jump-start" your career by exposing yourself to valuable information and networking opportunities.
Volunteer and Job Experience
Graduate programs often look for volunteer experience with a campus or community group. Although such activities have weak power to offset other important credentials (e.g., standardized test scores and grade point average), volunteering or acquiring a job, such as working in a psychiatric clinic, demonstrates your initiative and willingness to learn and succeed in your chosen field (APA, 1993). Graduate admission committees do not emphasize these experiences as much as standardized test scores, excellent grades, and an extensive background in research. Nevertheless, these committees decide upon many applicants for a relatively small number of slots, and additional experiences, skills, and knowledge all contribute to a more competitive application (Peters, 1992).
Course Selection and GPA
If you want to make yourself attractive to a graduate program, you should demonstrate that you are capable of taking challenging courses that expand your knowledge base. A well-rounded education, especially in the physical sciences, mathematics, and social sciences, can lend useful information in the many tasks required of graduate students (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000; Kinder & Walfish, 2001). Also, obtaining a high grade point average (GPA) in your freshman year and maintaining it is exceedingly important. As you progress through your undergraduate education, it becomes increasingly challenging to keep a high GPA. It is also essential for you to meet with your advisor to plan the most effective program of study. For example, you should typically take a research statistics and methods course in your second year, because the knowledge gained in this class will apply to most of the psychology courses you take thereafter.
By the time you reach your sophomore year, you should begin to use Graduate Record Exam (GRE) practice books and software on a regular basis. The GRE is a standardized test that graduate school candidates must take prior to the application process. The GRE general test is now only given on a computer, so it is important that students use a software package for practice. The general GRE is composed of three different subscores: verbal, quantitative, and analytical. You should be aware of the subscores that are emphasized in the specific programs to which you are applying and be sure to concentrate upon those areas when studying. This test is one for which you cannot cram. It won't work! Studying long term and on a regular basis will yield the highest score. You may choose to take the GRE twice in hopes of an increased score; however, many schools will accept only the average of the scores (Kinder & Walfish, 2001). Before the scores are given, the general GRE system will give you an option of either deleting their test score from the record or keeping it on file. If you feel you have not adequately prepared for the exam and plan to take it again, deleting the score is an option that should be considered.
Some graduate programs also require that candidates take the GRE subject test in psychology. This exam focuses on the student's broad knowledge of psychology and is not administered as often as the general GRE test. Currently, the GRE subject test is a paper-and-pencil-based exam, which covers all facets of psychological knowledge. For practice purposes, you should try to keep your textbooks for general psychology, history and systems, theories of personality, abnormal, research and design, and statistics. Also keep in mind that the GRE is updated regularly; be sure to check the GRE website and materials for the latest information (e.g., as of October 1, 2002, the analytical section will be given as an essay test; see www.gre.org/faqnew.html for details).
You can amplify your chances of gaining admission into graduate school by developing good relationships with professors and work managers (this is significant for establishing good recommendations), actively and continuously working on a research project, obtaining an expansive background in psychology and related fields (e.g., math and statistics), receiving good grades (especially in upper division classes), and achieving a high score on the GRE. More importantly, "most graduate schools weight the GRE and grade point averages (GPA) the heaviest of all admission criteria" (Dawes, 1971, 1975; Goldberg, 1977; Ingram & Zurawski, 1981; Kaplan & Saccuzzo, 1982; Robertson & Nielson, 1961; Taylor, 1975; all as cited in Chernyshenko & Ones, 1999, p. 952). Maintaining a high GPA and testing well on the GRE will provide you with an advantage over the competition, but as a serious applicant you should have a combination of all these educational areas.
Selecting Graduate Programs
Following your freshman year, you should become familiar with the different components and facets of psychology. This will prepare you to begin focusing on a particular area of interest or branch of psychology. If you have not put enough thought into what type of psychology program you want to pursue, you will not have an easy time selecting the graduate programs that best suit your needs. There are some fundamental questions you should consider when selecting a domain of psychology that is most interesting: Do I want to work in a clinical setting? Do I want to work in a research lab? Do I want to stay in academia? Do I want to have a vocation in social policy? Do I want to have an occupation in the business arena? What skills do I want to utilize the most? What do I enjoy doing?
Once you recognize an area of specialization in which you'd like to be engaged, you will have to evaluate the various graduate programs extensively. Furthermore, you must determine the type of degree you wish to pursue (e.g., PhD, PsyD, EdD, MA, MS, etc.). This process can begin the first semester of your sophomore year and last until the commencement of your senior year.
An additional question that should be answered is: What should you, the potential graduate student, consider when evaluating programs?
Is the program in an environment that suits you? You might find it difficult to concentrate or perform at your best in certain environments. Ultimately, this can hinder your education and have a diminishing effect on your attitude and mood. It is vital to understand what environment will best match your needs and to feel comfortable in the community in which you work. Also, are you willing to relocate, and if so, to what areas of the country or types of communities?
Does the program offer the training you want? As an undergraduate, start keeping a record of your research activities and ideas. Write down interesting theories, problems, potential solutions, random ideas, and references, and keep an ongoing outline of papers to write. Read back through this material periodically. You might observe that the bits of random thoughts start to amalgamate to form a pattern; often these ideas can turn into a research project. Some programs emphasize more extensive involvement in research than others. If it is important for you and for your career to have the research knowledge, then you should choose a program that offers the kinds of resources you need.
Do the faculty research interests match your own? Many programs don't accept applicants based solely on the fact that they couldn't match the student with a faculty advisor. Faculty members will seek students who can contribute their knowledge, interests, and efforts to the current research at that institution (Kinder & Walfish, 2001). In addition, you don't want to attend a program where your interests won't be encouraged. Success in graduate school can be determined by the degree of fit between the student and the program (APA, 1993). Finding a program with faculty members who share your research interests is key to flourishing in your intended area of study.
Contact faculty members and graduate students at the schools that are of interest to you. Tell them about your background and interests and inquire about their current research. A proficient advisor will be willing to answer these kinds of inquiries. Asking these questions will help narrow your choices, and if the professors you contact become interested in working with you, this may enhance your chance of admission. A good way to do this is via e-mail, which is easier than surface mail and yields a quicker response. However, when beginning an e-mail correspondence, you should ask if the recipient (particularly if it is a professor) minds communicating via e-mail--some do and some don't. Ask about which method of communication the professor prefers.
Finding the right advisor can help you considerably in the successful completion of a graduate degree. The ideal advisor should have interests that match the area in which you are interested, should be actively conducting high-quality research, should be involved in and respected by the research community, and should be someone with whom you can get along. Make sure you read the publications of a prospective advisor, and, if you live in the same area, try to attend discussions and/or audit courses given by this professor. Talk to other graduate students and recent graduates. Ask them how their relationships with their advisors are, how quickly their advisors' students graduate, and how successful their research is.
Does APA accredit the program? Although there are some types of programs that APA does not accredit, be sure to find out if the program(s) you are interested in are eligible for APA (or other) accreditation, and the history and status of that accreditation. To find out more information, refer to the APA website at www.apa.org.
What types of financial assistance are available? It is a good idea to start thinking early in your search for graduate programs about sources of funding. Sources of funding include scholarships, fellowships, research assistantships, and teaching assistantships. Funding can also be administered through student financial services. Deadlines for applications vary, so it is important to begin this process early.
The earlier you begin the process of selecting graduate programs, the more organized and efficient the process will be. First, you should do a college search online or through your institution's career services. Secondly, you should make folders for all the schools that are of interest. In each folder include (a) a brief description of the program, (b) the application deadline and fee, (c) the application itself (if online applications are not available), (d) a list of the faculty with their research interests and contact information, (e) financial aid information, (f) tuition and fee information, and (g) application instructions. Not all schools have online applications, but if one is provided, it will be useful to have a hard copy of the instructions when it is time for you to apply. In addition, most programs require two applications; make sure you obtain the application to the graduate school and the application to the psychology department.
Once you determine to which schools you would like to apply, you should contact the professor in each program with whom you want to work, expressing your knowledge of that professor's research and your interest in working with him or her. Asking an intelligent question about the methodology or the results of one of the professor's published research studies is an almost sure way to get a response. Remember, it isn't polite to simply read the professor's abstract; make sure you read the entire article or book.
Applying to Graduate Schools
You have carefully compiled a list of the schools to which you want to apply, and all of your application materials are gathered and organized. Now let's consider how to obtain and manage the many items to be included in your graduate school applications, and how to submit your applications in a timely and efficient manner.
Letters of Recommendation
When asking a professional for a letter of recommendation, you should not assume that this person is willing or obligated to write a letter. Ask the professors or employers with whom you are most familiar, making sure these individuals are comfortable doing so, and are willing to write a good, positive letter. You should ask courteously, allow plenty of time for them to write the letter, and be prepared to offer assistance. You can help by providing a resume or by setting up an interview. In addition, it is important to provide the program envelope and any supplementary forms that need to be completed by this person (these materials are provided by each school). Use paper clips to keep each school's envelope and forms together and to keep the materials organized for the person of reference. Make sure you clearly indicate the deadlines the materials are due in the program offices, and the correct names and addresses to whom the materials are to be sent; you can offer to e-mail this information or provide it on a disk to the person writing the letter. If you are applying to more than one type of program, include a list of the schools for which you need a letter and the corresponding programs to which you are applying. Some students find it more efficient to have their reference persons send the letters to their home address; other students pick them up personally to avoid the anxiety produced by not knowing where the letters are.
A similar procedure is advised for obtaining transcripts from your institution. First, make sure you request the correct number of transcripts for each school. Most schools request two official transcripts, and then once you are accepted, you will be asked to send a final transcript. Picking up transcripts personally from your institution can avoid the loss of transcripts in the mail or the misplacing of transcripts in the office. In addition, you can then ensure that you send the correct number of transcripts to the correct program addresses.
Request that your GRE scores and other necessary standardized test scores be sent to your programs of choice a few weeks before the application deadlines (check on this time frame to be safe!), making sure the scores are sent to the appropriate department for each school. Some schools request that students send scores to the specific department to which they are applying, and other schools request that scores be sent to the graduate admissions office. Double-check to make sure all materials are being sent to the correct department for each school.
The admission process for graduate school is more competitive today than ever before. The increase in applications has been dramatic during the 1990s. Schools are inundated with applications from many well-qualified candidates with similar entrance scores and undergraduate grades. Although GRE combined scores, undergraduate grades, and letters of recommendation are important, admission committees recognize that numbers do not tell the whole story about a potential candidate (APA, 1993; Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000). Schools are looking for more than talented test-takers. They are also looking for people who are interesting, articulate, and distinctive, with diverse points of view, ambitions, and backgrounds. Personal statements or admission essays are a fundamental part of the application process. This is your chance to make an impression on the graduate committee and to show your uniqueness, strengths, and versatility. In the admissions essay, you need not repeat what has already been included in your application. Instead, this is a chance to write about the extracurricular activities in which you were involved, or the leadership positions you hold (or have held) in various societies, organizations, or clubs. You should realize that this is an intensive, creative process that requires considerable time and dedicated effort (APA, 1993). Try to narrow down your research interests and tailor each letter to the specific graduate program to which you're applying. Admission committees look for individuals who are a good match for the program and have the ability to succeed. By means of the admission essays, graduate schools search for some insight into the applicant's persona.
Other materials to include in the application are a professional resume or curriculum vitae, a research paper, or an extra letter of recommendation from a volunteer organization. These items are another way of presenting your efforts and professional growth during your years as an undergraduate student. Finally, remember that it is your responsibility to ensure that the programs have received all the necessary application materials.
When reading this article, you shouldn't feel discouraged because you haven't presented research at a professional conference or haven't followed one or more of the other recommendations made by the authors. Some students have high GPAs and GRE scores, whereas other students who have less impressive grades usually find other means to flourish. For example, students can be involved with professors or graduate students in interesting or unusual projects to prove their skill and competency. Thus, different students find different means to shine and demonstrate knowledge in the field of psychology. Admission committees do not exclusively choose those students who scored at the top of the criteria (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000). However, the authors recommend that you should begin this process early in your undergraduate education and try to get involved in all these areas to maximize your chances of gaining admission into the graduate program of your choice.
Career Services. Most colleges offer services to students who need career counseling. Whether you need help finding an internship or writing a resume, curriculum vitae, cover letters, or admissions essays, career services can be instrumental in providing you with the means to accomplish your goals.
Internet. Use the Internet for graduate school searches and descriptions, information on financial aid, and the GRE:
- www.psychgrad.org—A great place to start, with a wealth of information and multiple links
- www.apa.org—APA has a list of all graduate programs in the U.S. categorized by the type of program (master's or doctoral).
- www.fastweb.com and www.scholarships.com—Provide free scholarship search services and financial aid resources.
- www.usnews.com—Offers information on financial aid and lists the top programs in each profession.
- www.petersons.com—Offers a number of online college search tools and also publishes a set of educational guidebooks including basic information on over 5,000 programs in the social sciences.
- www.gre.org—Provides information on how to sign up for the GREs, as well as further instructions and updates on test information.
Norcross, J. C., Sayette, M. A., & Mayne, T. J. (2002). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (2002-2003 ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Smith, R. V. (1998). Graduate research: A guide for students in the sciences (3rd ed.). Seattle: University of Washington Press.
*American Psychological Association. (1993). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.
Buskist, W. (1999). Teaching an undergraduate course in preparing for graduate study in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 286-288.
Chernyshenko, O. S., & Ones, D. S. (1999). How selective are psychology graduate programs? The effect of the selection ratio on GRE score validity. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 59, 951-961.
Dodson, J. P., Chastain, G., & Landrum, R. E. (1996). Psychology seminar: Careers and graduate study in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 23, 238-240.
*Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling, and related professions (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
*Kinder, B. N., & Walfish, S. (2001). Perspectives on applying to graduate school. In S. Walfish & A. K. Hess (Eds.), Succeeding in graduate school: The career guide for psychology students (pp. 61-73). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Peters, R. L. (1992). Getting what you came for: The smart student's guide to earning a master's or a PhD. New York: Noonday Press.
*Recommended for reading.