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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2006

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2006| Volume 10 | Number 2


Graduate Admissions in Psychology: I. The Application Process

John C. Norcross, PhD, University of Scranton (PA)
Jessica L. Kohout, PhD, American Psychological Association
Mariene Wicherski, Cambridge (MA)

This article summarizes select characteristics of graduate programs and departments in psychology across the United States and Canada in an effort to assist students and their advisors to make informed, evidence-based decisions about graduate admissions. The data are drawn from the 2005 edition of Graduate Study in Psychology and are based on 495 institutions, 601 departments, and 1,970 programs. Here, in Part I, we focus on the application process, specifically student enrollment, application methods and fees, application deadlines, admission criteria, Graduate Record Examinations (GREs), and grade point averages (GPAs). Part II will appear in the Spring 2006 issue of Eye on Psi Chi and will focus on acceptance rates, tuition costs, and financial assistance.

Graduate education in psychology is large, vital, and thriving. Approximately 27% of undergraduate psychology majors enroll in further education within two years of receiving their degree (Tsapogas, 2004). More than 40,000 full-time students are enrolled in approximately 2,000 psychology graduate programs. The largest subfields of clinical and counseling psychology in the discipline are slated for continued growth (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2004), and graduate programs in health, cognitive, community, industrial-organizational, neuroscience, and neuropsychology are increasing. Psychology has become one of the top PhD-granting fields in science (National Opinion Research Center, 2003), and there are at least an additional 1,000 doctors of psychology (PsyDs) granted annually (APA, 2005).

Since 1967, the American Psychological Association's (APA) Graduate Study in Psychology has been a premier resource for graduate school applicants and faculty advisors alike. Graduate Study in Psychology presents comprehensive information on graduate programs in the United States and Canada that are publicly designated as psychological in institutional brochures and catalogs. Listed American institutions must have earned full accreditation by one of the six regional accrediting bodies, and all departments must meet a series of criteria to establish that they are, in fact, psychological in nature. All information is provided voluntarily by department self-report: "The American Psychological Association (APA) is not responsible for the accuracy of the information reported" (APA, 2005, p. v).

Periodic statistical analyses of the Graduate Study in Psychology data have illuminated the status of graduate education and chronicled changes in the discipline. Our need for updated information on graduate study has intensified in direct proportion to the growing number of graduate programs in psychology and their expanding diversity, such as the proliferation of PsyD programs (e.g., Norcross, Castle, Sayette, & Mayne, 2004) and neuroscience programs (e.g., Stricker, 2004).

This article, the first in a two-part series, summarizes select characteristics of graduate programs and departments in psychology and systematically translates this information into advice for prospective graduate students and their advisors. Our intent is to assist all involved in making informed, evidence-based decisions about graduate admissions.

Following a brief review of our methodology, we consider, in order, student enrollments, application methods and fees, application deadlines, admission criteria, and the ever-popular GREs and GPAs. We begin each section with a question that students typically ask about the graduate admissions process.

Our Methodology

Where did you get these numbers and percentages? Our data were drawn from the 2005 edition of the Graduate Study in Psychology (APA, 2005), which reports information from the 2003-04 academic year. Data were collected electronically for both entire departments and individual graduate programs on a structured questionnaire. The APA Research Office and the APA Education Directorate collaborate on the online instrument and the resulting database.

A total of 495 institutions, 601 separate departments, and 1,970 individual graduate programs in the United States and Canada were included in the analysis. These numbers represent a 79.4% response rate from graduate psychology departments (601 of 757 identified departments). The data set was large and inclusive: All 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and eight Canadian provinces were represented.

Student Enrollment

How big are graduate psychology departments? Table 1 displays the mean and median numbers of enrolled students in graduate departments in psychology for the 2003-04 academic year. Here and subsequently, we refer to "master's-only departments" as those awarding graduate degrees solely at the master's level and "doctoral departments" as those awarding solely doctoral degrees as well as those awarding both master's and doctoral degrees.


With regard to the size of the student body, doctoral departments average approximately 104 full-time students and 40 part-time students. Master's-only departments average approximately 39 full-time students and 33 part-time students. There is a far higher proportion of part-time students in the master's-only departments.

With regard to the ethnicity of incoming students, the percentage of first-year doctoral students who are ethnic minorities has steadily increased over the years, now reaching 27.3%. Likewise, the percentage of first-year master's students who are ethnic minorities has steadily increased to 21.4%.

These numbers represent a triumph for psychology and higher education. Psychology as a science and as a profession will be well-served by the rising percentage of ethnic minorities and women in graduate education. At 68%, psychology continues to be one of the science fields with the highest representation of women among new doctorates (Burrelli, 2004).

Application Methods and Fees

How do you apply to graduate school and how much will it cost? A slim majority of 51% of graduate departments in psychology offer graduate applications online. Specifically, 56% of doctoral departments and 41% of master's-only departments had online applications in 2003. Thus, you can expect to file approximately one-half of your graduate applications online.

The average application fee was $35 for master's departments (SD = 16; Mdn = 35) and $47 for doctoral departments (SD = 16; Mdn = 50; Canadian fees were converted to U.S. dollars). At the lowest end of the fee range were 4% of the departments that charged nothing; at the high end, 1% of departments charged $100. Thus, you can expect to pay handsomely for the privilege of applying to graduate school–$35 to $50 per application, on average.

Application Deadlines

When are the applications due? Our research has shown that three-quarters of the deadlines for submitting graduate applications fall between January 15 and March 1 (Norcross, Hanych, & Terranova, 1996).

However, there are a couple of systematic differences in deadlines that merit discussion. First, doctoral programs consistently require that application materials be received several weeks earlier than master's programs. The median deadline for doctoral programs is February 1 and for master's programs it is March 1. Second, APA-accredited clinical psychology programs tend to have the earliest deadlines. Practically all of these programs post deadlines between December 15 and March 1 (Mdn = January 15), notably earlier than other types of graduate programs.

Thus, you can expect to submit your applications between December 15 for doctoral clinical programs and March 1 for master's-level programs. Sooner is always better; do not procrastinate.

Admission Criteria

On what basis do graduate schools admit students? Departmental representatives rated the importance of various criteria in admissions decisions at their respective departments on a three-point scale where 1 = low, 2 = medium, and 3 = high. The average importance ratings of these admissions criteria are presented in Table 2 for both master's-only departments and doctoral departments.

As seen in Table 2, the top rated variables for doctoral programs are letters of recommendation, personal statements, GPA, interview, research experience, and GRE scores. All receive ratings of 2.50 and higher on the 3-point scale, indicative of high importance. By contrast, extracurricular activity, clinically related public service, and work experience receive mean ratings between low importance (1) and medium importance (2). They are valued significantly lower in the admissions decisions.


Thus, the implications for enhancing your application are clear: secure positive letters of recommendation, write compelling personal statements, maintain your GPA, ace the preadmission interview, secure research experience, and prepare thoroughly for the GREs. At the same time, being heavily involved in student organizations and campus activities does not carry nearly as much weight as these other criteria.

Several differences between master's departments and doctoral departments emerged in these results, as in previous editions. One striking disparity is the importance accorded to research experience. Research experience assumes far more importance in admission to doctoral-level departments than in master's departments. Thus, research experience is especially valuable if you intend to apply to a doctoral program.

GREs and GPAs

What sort of GRE scores and GPAs do graduate schools expect? As we have just seen, the two most heavily weighted numerical variables in the graduate admissions process are the applicant's GRE scores and GPA. (Only 3% of doctoral departments and 9% of master's departments required Miller Analogies Test scores, so we devote no additional attention to them).

Table 3 presents the minimum required and actual GRE scores and GPAs of incoming graduate students in psychology, separately for master's-only and doctoral departments. Note the two different standards here: the minimum required to even be considered for admission, and the scores of the incoming students. The minimum scores are always lower than the actual scores of incoming students.


The minimum required Verbal plus Quantitative score averages 1066 for doctoral departments and 952 for master's departments. The actual Verbal plus Quantitative scores of incoming graduate students average 1183 for doctoral departments and 1055 for master's departments. (The Analytical Writing Test is still too new to collect data on it.) The GRE psychology subject test scores average 633 for incoming doctoral students and 577 for incoming master's students.

Inspection of this table reveals a number of important differences between master's and doctoral departments. Doctoral departments require higher minimum GRE scores and secure higher actual GRE scores among their incoming students than master's departments. For minimum scores on the GRE subtests, the average difference is on the order of 80 points; for actual scores on the GRE subtests, the average difference is approximately 70-75 points, again favoring the doctoral departments. Similar trends are evident on the GRE psychology subject test, with a difference of 56-57 points.

Of course, graduate departments also regularly require grade point averages in making admissions decisions. Most departments rely on the overall (or cumulative) undergraduate GPAs, and fewer departments require psychology GPAs and last-two-years GPAs.

Table 3 also displays minimum required and actual grade point averages for first-year graduate students in psychology. The mean overall GPAs required for admission consideration hover around 3.11 for doctoral departments and 2.92 for master's departments. The mean overall GPAs of incoming students are 3.54 for doctoral departments and 3.37 for master's departments.

These numbers translate into useful benchmarks when selecting graduate programs in which to apply. Master's programs will expect, at an absolute minimum, 950-1000 on combined GREs and a 2.9 or 3.0 cumulative undergraduate GPA. Doctoral programs will expect at least a 1050 GRE score and a 3.0 or 3.1 GPA. The actual scores of incoming students are much higher, of course: a combined mean GRE score of 1050 and a 3.4 mean GPA for master's students and a combined mean GRE of 1,200 and a 3.5 or 3.6 mean GPA for doctoral students. Keep these general benchmarks in mind as you compile a list of potential graduate programs.

Stay Tuned

Part II of this article will feature information about acceptance rates, retention figures, tuition costs, and financial assistance. Stay tuned for more data-driven assistance in successfully navigating the anxiety-provoking graduate admissions process in psychology.


American Psychological Association. (2005). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U. S. Department of Labor. (2004). Occupational outlook handbook, 2004-05 edition, Psychologists. Retrieved July 14, 2004, from ocos056.htm

Burrelli, J. (2004). Science and engineering doctorate awards (NSF 05-300). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

National Opinion Research Center. (2003). Doctorate recipients from United States universities: Summary report 2002. Chicago, IL: Author.

Norcross, J. C., Castle, P. H., Sayette, M. A., & Mayne, T. J. (2004). The PsyD: Heterogeneity in practitioner training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35(4), 412-419.

Norcross, J. C., Hanych, J. M., & Terranova, R. D. (1996). Graduate study in psychology: 1992-1993. American Psychologist, 51, 631-643.

Stricker, E. M. (2004). The 2003 ADNP survey of neuroscience graduate, postdoctoral, and undergraduate programs. Retrieved October 12, 2005, from the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs Web site:

Tsapogas, J. (2004). Employment outcomes of recent science and engineering graduates vary by field of degree and sector of employment. (NSF 04316). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, is Professor of Psychology and Distinguished University Fellow at the University of Scranton (PA), a clinical psychologist in part-time practice, and coauthor of 15 books, including the Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology.

Jessica L. Kohout, PhD, is Director of the American Psychological Association's Research Office. As such, she is responsible for overseeing the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data on education, employment, and demographics in psychology.

Marlene Wicherski is a research analyst located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has more than 25 years experience with APA databases.

Author Note. The data presented in this article are adapted with permission from our forthcoming article, "Graduate Study in Psychology: 1971 to 2004," to be published in the American Psychologist. Interested readers are referred to the homepage of the APA Research Office ( for complete statistical analyses of the 2003-04 Graduate Study data. The authors' observations and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Psychological Association.

Copyright 2006 (Vol. 10, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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