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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2006
Relative Weighting of Admission Variables in Developmental Psychology Doctoral Programs
Steven Walfish, PhD, Georgia State University
Kara Turner, BS, Kennesaw State University (GA)

Directors of developmental psychology doctoral programs were surveyed regarding the relative weighting of 10 variables that may be considered in an application for admission to their program. The directors assigned a total weight of 80% to five variables. An applicant's GRE scores were considered the most important factor followed by letters of recommendation, the personal statement, amount of research experience, and overall grade point average. Of least importance were amount of clinical experience and work experience. These data may be helpful to students who want to bolster their applications to this particular type of doctoral program and to faculty members who serve in the role of advising their students and shaping their undergraduate experience.
Obtaining admission to a graduate training program in the mental health fields is competitive. While it is cyclical in nature, psychology is once again one of the most popular majors on college campuses and this trend is predicted to continue until at least 2010, if not 2020 (Walfish & Hess, 2001a). Developmental psychology doctoral programs represent a subset of doctoral programs that have an admissions process that is comparably competitive to that of doctoral training programs in the fields of clinical or counseling psychology. While the number of developmental doctoral programs is fewer than clinical or counseling programs, developmental programs comprise a large enough subset of the field of doctoral psychology programs to merit a review of the admissions process specific to this particular field.
Graduate admissions committees generally receive large numbers of applications from students who are vying for a relatively low number of available training slots. These committees develop either formal (e.g., a regression formula) or informal rules (minimal criteria followed by a subjective evaluation of the application) in making their decisions as to which students will be offered these coveted training positions. To date, studies have examined the admissions process in several areas of psychology (Alexander, Heineman, Zarin, & Larsen, 2002; Couch & Benedict, 1983; Eddy, Lloyd, & Lubin, 1987; Landrum, Jeglum, & Cashin, 1994) but none have focused specifically on the area of developmental psychology. Alexander et al. (2002) examined the area of counseling psychology doctoral programs and found a preference for an ethnic minority applicant ranking first, followed by the research publication of an applicant and experience in counseling diverse populations. Couch and Benedict (1983) reviewed all 702 graduate programs, dividing them up by degree and program area, and looked for differences in the mean GRE scores and GPAs accepted by each graduate program. Eddy et al. (1987) surveyed the 204 APA-approved professional programs. They concentrated on the program areas of clinical, counseling, and school psychology. The purpose of the present study is to fill a void in the literature by surveying directors of developmental psychology doctoral programs and asking them to identify what factors they consider to be most important in their evaluation of applicants to their programs.
We obtained a list of all 82 developmental psychology doctoral programs in the US and Canada from the APA Guide to Graduate Study in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2003). We sent a survey via email to the director of the developmental psychology doctoral program at each school and a follow-up survey through postal mail to nonreponders. A total of 82 surveys were sent out and 41 (50%) were returned.
We asked the directors to rate the relative importance of 10 separate variables within a student's application materials. Specifically, we asked the directors to indicate the percentage weight they would assign to each variable, with the total adding up to 100%. The survey was kept as short as possible in order to maximize the return rate but still generate meaningful responses.
The mean percentage weights that the directors assigned to each variable are presented in descending order in Table 1. Directors considered the applicant's GRE scores to be most important. Letters of recommendation, personal statement, research experience, and overall GPA are all highly important in the admission committee's decision-making process. The directors assigned a total weight of 80% to these five variables. Each director assigned at least some weight to the variables GRE scores and personal statement. However, the other eight variables all were assigned a relative weighting of zero by at least one of the directors.
It is of interest that clinical and work experience combined were assigned less than 3% of the total weight. Small consideration was given to the variables of interview performance, grade point average from the last two years of schooling, and specific courses taken (a combined total of 17.6% for the three variables).
Allred and Briggs (1988) pointed out one major challenge that faces graduate training programs is to know how to select superior students from those applying to their schools. In the present investigation of developmental psychology doctoral programs, the importance of 10 separate criteria was examined in making an admissions decision. It appears that from the perspective of the directors of training, in the aggregate, five of the variables are strongly weighted by graduate admissions committees, accounting for 80% of the decision. This is important information for students who want to maximize their chances of acceptance to one of these programs. In addition, this information is important for faculty members who are in a position to advise and possibly guide/shape students' undergraduate experience to place them in a position that will make them most competitive for admission.
The results from this survey of developmental psychology doctoral programs are different from the results of all the studies involving other areas of concentration. Alexander et al. (2002) found the two most important characteristics for counseling psychology doctoral programs were ethnic minority identity and research experience. Couch and Benedict's (1983) study concerned only the scores for the GRE and GPA and thus was limited in scope. Eddy et al. (1987) found the two most important characteristics for APA-approved applied psychology programs were research experience and a visit to the department.
The most important variable that emerged from these data is the applicant's GRE scores. Several strategies have been identified for students to improve their scores on this standardized test (Walfish, 2004). Several writers on the graduate school application process have presented advice on how to obtain excellent letters of recommendation, what should be contained in a personal statement, and how to obtain research experience (Keith-Spiegel & Weiderman, 2000; Kuther, 2003; Mayne, Sayette, & Norcross, 2006; Walfish & Hess, 2001b). It should be noted that while it was rated as an important variable, the student's overall GPA was not at the top of the list. It is possible to speculate that beyond a minimally acceptable GPA, graduate admissions committees will focus most of their attention on what they consider a student's potential to develop as a researcher (e.g., GRE scores, letters of recommendation, research experience) and the particular fit with the goals and interests of the student and the goals and interests of the particular training program (e.g., personal statement). We suggest that students may want to worry less about the difference between a 3.2 and a 3.4 GPA and spend focused time and attention on studying for the GREs and working with faculty members in order to earn valuable research experience and excellent letters of recommendation.
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Walfish, S., & Hess, A. (2001a). Choosing a career in psychology. In S. Walfish & A. Hess (Eds.), Succeeding in graduate school: The career guide for psychology students (pp. 3-10). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
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Steven Walfish, PhD, is in clinical practice at the Atlanta Center for Cognitive Therapy and is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University. He has previously been a visiting assistant professor at Kennesaw State University (GA). He received his PhD in clinical/community psychology from the University of South Florida. He is coeditor with Allen Hess of Succeeding in Graduate School: The Career Guide for Psychology Students published by LEA in 2001.

Kara Turner
received her BS in psychology from Kennesaw State University in 2005. Her goal is to pursue doctoral studies in the area of developmental psychology.

Correspondence related to this paper should be addressed to Steven Walfish, Atlanta Center for Cognitive Therapy, 1772 Century Boulevard, Atlanta, GA 30345 or via electronic mail at

Copyright 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 4) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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