The three-headed panel of Drs. VanderStoep, Handelsman, and Landrum combine our expertise on graduate school admission. This installment of our column was inspired by the lively discussion we had this past August at a workshop the three of us conducted at the APA convention.
Some programs ask for three letters of recommendation, and some four. Can I send all four of mine to every program?
VanderStoep: Usually not. But if your fourth is either a very distinct kind of letter—a famous psychologist who knows you but doesn’t know you extremely well—or someone from your internship to complement three strong academic/research letters, it might work. But this is a risk. A selection committee member may think that if a person can’t even follow directions on the application, the person does not warrant admission.
If everyone sent four letters, it would increase the size of the e-stack of letters that the committee needs to read. So that fourth letter better be good. (And make sure it’s not from an athletic coach. As a former college coach, I can honestly say that I like coaches. But it’s usually not appropriate to have a coach write a graduate program recommendation for you.)
Handelsman: You want to follow directions, but you also want to convey important information. The purpose of letters is to give programs a three-dimensional picture of you as a person. If it takes four letters to provide those three dimensions, I say go for it. Five letters, however, is a bit much if the program only asks for three.
This is a personal bias as you can tell from my colleagues’ responses, but if a program is willing to reject a candidate when the only flaw in an otherwise perfectly crafted application (because you’ve followed all our other advice) is one extra letter, I’m not sure that’s the kind of program I want to attend!
You might get some clues about how persnickety programs are by the requirements presented in other parts of the applications. For example, you might only want to send the required number of recommendation letters if programs specify the font styles to use in the application, or that personal statements beyond the word limit won’t be read, etc.
Landrum: There is a good chance that my answer will vary from that of my learned colleagues. If a graduate program requires three letters of recommendation, I recommend you send three letters of recommendation, period. From my perspective, sending four letters means that you cannot follow basic instructions. If you can’t follow the instructions to apply to graduate school, then just how well would you do in graduate school? An additional unsolicited letter, which may be well-meaning on your part, can add a substantial amount of work for graduate admissions committee members who may choose to go ahead and read your fourth letter.
If your graduate program has 300 applicants for 10 clinical PhD slots and 50% of the applicants add a fourth letter, you have: (a) not set yourself apart, (b) demonstrated that you chose not to follow the directions, and (c) contributed to committee members having an extra 150 pages of reading. If you are truly passionate about providing four letters, contact the graduate program in advance to determine whether this deviation from the norm will be harmful to your chances. You do not want to give a graduate admissions committee an automatic reason to disqualify your application.
What are programs looking for in a personal statement?
VanderStoep: Two things. First, programs are most interested in how your undergraduate experiences have shaped you intellectually. Second, they want to know how your interests fit with their programs of research.
More specifically, programs are likely looking to determine if your background would fit the research needs of a particular professor. Avoid vague references such as "I want to help people,” or "I want to understand what makes people tick,” or "I like research,” or "I’m a good listener.”
Handelsman: You’d be surprised how much information readers can glean from a personal statement, including indications of writing ability, self-reflection, organization, depth and breadth of knowledge, intellectual sophistication, neatness, and the ability to follow directions (such as length, answering the questions asked, etc.).
One of the things I look for is the ability to talk intelligibly (if not intelligently) about research experiences. This is a variation of the important "show, don’t tell” adage in writing. For example: Rather than saying, "I worked with Dr. Bigwig on his research for six months,” you might want to say, "For six months I helped Dr. Bigwig (a) interview participants using structured questions, (b) code data, and (c) develop graphic representations of our results. I also sat in on meetings with the research team in which we discussed interviews and EEG methods to test the relative contributions of serotonin and employment history on double parking in large urban areas. I received course credit and a footnote for my contributions.”
Bottom line: First, read Sleigh (2009). Second, get started and write something. Third, get feedback from multiple people on multiple drafts.
Sleigh, M. J. (2009, Summer). Organizing your personal statement: An outline to get you started. Eye on Psi Chi, retrieved from https://psichi.site-ym.com/?134EyeSum09bSleigh
Landrum: A complete answer to that question could fill a small book. To summarize my answer to fit in this limited space, graduate admissions committees are assessing how well you are a match and fit with the program and its faculty. At the same time they are getting a sample of your written communication abilities.
Remember when you are writing your personal statement to avoid the "one size fits all” approach. Every graduate school will have a personal statement prompt that is slightly different from other graduate programs. You should not write your personal statement once and then use the copy-and-paste approach for all the rest. Be sure to customize each personal statement so that you are precisely following the instructions provided by the graduate program. One researcher looking at various personal statements identified 13 different themes that are sometimes asked for, so you can see that one generic statement would be rather unlikely to satisfy 13 specific themes.
The personal statement is also about match and fit with the program and its faculty. Faculty members on the graduate admissions committee will read your personal statement carefully to see if you did your homework. So, if you want to work with children as a graduate student—and you state this in your personal statement—but no one in the department you are applying to works with children, then you are probably not a good match (and you’ll have low odds of gaining acceptance into that program). Your personal statement will be viewed as a writing sample, as well as an early indicator of match and fit.
My GRE scores weren’t high. Should I retake them?
VanderStoep: Probably not. The GRE is a very reliable test. Unless something drastic happens between Time A and Time B, it’s unlikely you’re going to do a lot better. Ask yourself what occurred in the interstice (GRE word) to make you think that you’ll do better a second time? Did you study more? Were you very sick the last time? Take a practice test first and assess your progress. Do not take the GRE again unless you are very confident that you’ll do better.
Handelsman: Judgment call. Do the programs you are applying to use GREs as a strict cutoff? Are your scores above the absolute minimums? Are they within a standard deviation of the averages for the programs? What do the other parts of your application look like? Is there a definable reason why you didn’t do as well as you could have the first time? Is there a reason to believe that you will do better next time (such as studying in different ways, dealing with life stresses, etc.)?
Landrum: If the graduate program you want to go to requires the GRE, and if you truly want to go to that particular program, then my answer would be yes. But don’t just retake the GRE without any additional study in-between GRE Time 1 and GRE Time 2; you might benefit from some test-retest bump in scores, but that outcome is something you probably don’t want to risk. Get as much detail as you can from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) about your scores, where your weaknesses are, and what you need to improve upon to make yourself a competitive graduate program applicant. Find tutoring on campus and be sure to check the many free online resources. Another strategy is to seek admission to a graduate program that does not require the GRE. However, researchers have data that leads to the conclusion that GRE scores are a very good predictor of graduate school success as measured by graduate schools, so there is a specific reason that graduate schools use the GRE as one of the application criteria.
Once again, perseverance can pay off. If you want graduate school admission bad enough, you will make the sacrifices for meaningful study so you can do well on the GRE, thus enabling you to pursue your career goals.
How important is having an undergraduate internship on my transcript?
VanderStoep: It depends. Internships are most important for clinical, counseling, and other helping professions. If you are interested in a research-oriented program you should focus less on internship and focus more on working with a faculty member on an empirical project.
The internship experience is more important than whether or not it is on the actual transcript; just make sure you describe the internship in your personal statement. Give specific details about the skills you acquired while on the internship and how those skills align with the needs of the program to which you are applying.
Handelsman: It’s important to have experiences as part of your background—research and/ or clinical, depending on the programs you are applying to. Those research or clinical experiences don’t have to be done for academic credit—or pay—to be an important part of your application. Some schools, though, have wonderful internship programs that make it relatively easy to secure valuable experience.
I’m a huge fan of internships in general. A 2010 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (http://www.naceweb.org/so2010/0818/intern_salary/) found that social science undergraduates who had internships received initial salary offers that were $6,000 higher than their fellow students without internships.
Landrum: It is very important for students to complete an internship, whether they plan to go to graduate school, or not. There are a number of great benefits that can be reaped from internship participation. First, you are showing initiative by getting out of the classroom, where you can start to apply lecture and textbook concepts in the real world.
Second, you are practicing workplace skills and abilities that you will need after you receive your bachelor’s degree. An internship is a realistic job preview in that you get to see what a particular workplace environment is really like (rather than a stereotyped workplace environment like we might see on TV or in movies).
Third, you are networking and building contacts in your community, and an internship supervisor is often a very good source for a letter of recommendation. Also, I’ve seen many undergraduate internships turn into job offers even before the student has formally graduated.
Fourth, an internship often helps a student "stand out from the crowd,” because many students do not take advantage of this opportunity for whatever reason. Internships take advance planning and time to arrange, so other students who do not think ahead about their undergraduate experiences will unlikely be able to arrange a meaningful internship at the last minute. If you are given this opportunity, be sure to make the most of it.
Should I include my personal struggles in my personal statement?
VanderStoep: Almost always no. Exceptions would be very specific experiences, such as a war veteran wanting to study the psychology of trauma. Stories of previous personal trauma are often just that—traumatic and personal. But it’s unpredictable how the readers of the letter will receive these stories. Unfortunately, you could be perceived as high maintenance, troubled, or lacking academic rigor. Given this risk, it’s best to focus on the basics (see previous question).
Handelsman: A personal statement is not personal. It’s a professional statement. Personal experiences might be relevant if you’ve learned professional lessons from them, but they are not, in and of themselves, credentials (Handelsman, 2011). If you’ve learned something from your struggles that translates into skills that are useful to graduate school, great. But you’ll most likely be able to talk about those skills and their application without much detail about what it took to learn them.
Avoid the temptation to think of your personal struggles as if they were professional training [see Handelsman column]. To say that you are qualified to work with all divorcing people because of your own experience with divorce is almost like saying that because you’ve had a cavity, you would make a good dentist. Your own struggles may have taught you invaluable lessons about yourself that you can use in graduate school, but those struggles usually do not provide enough professional information to become a qualification.
Handelsman, M. M. (2011, Summer). Two misconceptions about psychotherapy. Eye on Psi Chi, retrieved from https://psichi.site-ym.com/?154EyeSum11hHandelsm.
Landrum: If you must include a mention of your personal struggles, do it vaguely. In general, graduate admissions committees do not need to know the details of what lead to a traumatic event in your life; however, these faculty members will be interested in your coping skills in an adverse situation. Avoid being labeled as a "wounded healer”—that is, a student who faculty members think they will have to "fix” first before the student can learn to help others.
In my opinion, it would be much more valuable to provide details about how you deal with adversity when you are put in challenging situations. Even in the best graduate programs, there will be stress and adversity. As with anything worth doing, you may experience times where you want to quit. The graduate admissions committee wants to know that when the going gets tough, you won’t quit—so sharing examples of perseverance from your past, without too much intimate detail, is a good strategy to follow.