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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2008

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2008 | Volume 12 | Issue 4


Getting In: Finding Your Fit in a Graduate Program

Zachary Birchmeier, PhD
University of Missouri

Cecilia Shore, PhD
Miami University (OH)

Shana McCormick
Bowling Green State University (OH)

View this issue in PDF format.

Shana McCormick is completing her first year in the school psychology graduate program at Bowling Green State University. Her goals and experiences are unique, but she used a common process to select and gain acceptance to a graduate program in psychology. When choosing an undergraduate university, she felt visiting the campus was the most important criteria. Yet picking a graduate program required much more input.

As an undergraduate at Miami University, Shana knew that she enjoyed studying psychology and wanted to continue beyond the undergraduate level. After tutoring and working with children, she gravitated toward school psychology. Initial brainstorming sessions, web searches, and conversations with peers produced a list of prominent and ideal schools, including her undergraduate institution. She formed a list of criteria that included program accreditation status, faculty- student ratios, and potential advisors. Detailed reading of each program’s website allowed Shana to rank each program by its fit with her preferences. She began to narrow her choices after further discussion with her advisor and peers. After sending out applications, she received multiple offers. Ultimately, advice from faculty mentors and peers (i.e., other psychologists) was the most valuable tool in making her final selection.

The process and criteria that Shana used in making her decision are similar to those used by other psychology students who plan to continue on to graduate school. The relative importance of each factor, however, will be different for students with different goals (e.g., professional practice vs. research). Moreover, students might:

  1. First, use a set of initial, general criteria to identify programs that are potentially acceptable.
  2. Then, use another primary set of criteria to screen out some programs that do not fit one’s preferences.
  3. Finally, use a third set of criteria to rank programs.

There is some available evidence that graduate applicants use different sets of criteria for applying to programs than they use for choosing which program offers to accept. Walfish, Stenmark, Shealy, and Shealy (1989) reported findings from a survey of first-year clinical doctoral students. In that study, program prestige, emphasis on supervision, and emotional climate were ranked highest in making a final choice. Many other key criteria were ranked lower in importance, such as the geographic location of a program, financial aid packages, and the presence of a specific mentor. One explanation for this difference is that students might have sent applications only to programs that satisfied their primary criteria and used the other factors to decide among each offer.

Finding a fit that works for both you and the program will boost the chances of acceptance. Unsuccessful applications or mismatched choices are most likely to occur when students use only a small set of factors, such as focusing on one geographical area, to decide where to apply and which offer to accept. Based on Walfish et al.’s (1989) findings and our own experience in mentoring undergraduate students who have applied to graduate school in psychology, we have identified (a) the most important factors for selecting graduate programs, and (b) the process of decision-making that is commonly used by prospective graduate students and recommended by advisors of undergraduates. The criteria and decision process have been integrated into the following strategic plan for students who are considering graduate study in psychology. We have grouped the various criteria used in choosing programs into primary and secondary factors and have presented them in Table 1.

Identifying Programs That Potentially Fit
  1. Start by considering your preferences and capabilities.
    • Identify your goals, noting that specific goals (like working with special populations or focusing only on doctoral programs) can be limiting. Halpern (2002) offered questions that should be considered for students who are interested in clinical psychology.
    • Seek hands-on experiences that closely match the kind of work you might do once your training is complete (e.g., volunteer at a crisis center or conduct independent study with faculty).
    • Compare your record and experience to other graduate applicants. Read Keith- Spiegel, Tabachnick, and Spiegel’s (1994) article "When Demand Exceeds Supply” to see the criteria that programs use to select students. If you lack field or research experience, consider postponing your applications for a year to establish that experience. If your GPA is a concern, read the chapter "What If My Grades Aren’t So Hot” in Keith-Spiegel and Wiederman (2000).
  2. Seek advice and information.
    • Talk with professionals who are successful in your field of interest. Ask for their advice on the steps it took to get there.
  3. Pause and take stock of your findings.
    • Consider the fields of study that were recommended by your advisors after hearing your goals.
  4. Ask yourself if you are competitive for these types of programs and then, survey schools at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website (pay service) or through each program’s own website that are grouped by geography and topic on’s website (free).
    • Research many departments that offer program subjects that interest you (e.g., clinical and social) and take notes on each.
    • Try to avoid limiting yourself to one geographical region. Students may need to restrict their search to specific geographical regions for compelling reasons such as finances and personal circumstances (e.g., a partner’s job). Generally, however, applying to more places in more geographic areas maximizes your chances of getting accepted. In some cases, doctoral students receive financial support from their programs which could eliminate the need to live at home.
    • Consider the nature of potential programs. PhD programs tend to be more specialized, and a prospective student with specific interests might need to look far and wide to find a program with faculty who share that interest. Other degree programs (e.g., MSW, MA in counseling, PsyD) offer fairly standard training at most schools.
Selecting Programs to Send Applications

Once you have an initial list of possibilities, use these criteria to select schools to which you will apply.

  1. Admissions data, including the percent of applicants admitted and those applicants’ average GRE scores and GPAs. This information is typically available on individual program websites, but is also archived in the APA’s annual publication Graduate Study in Psychology (2007).
  2. Program completion rates.
  3. Financial support offered, including percent of students who are offered tuition waivers and/or assistantship stipends. Note that the extent to which financing is competitive in a program can often breed a competitive peer climate.
  4. Program ranking from Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Report, Social Psychology Network, or other reliable source.
  5. Accreditation status for clinical, counseling, or other professional practice programs. Many internship and job opportunities might require that applicants possess degrees from accredited programs.
  6. Expectations for students, including program requirements for teaching and research productivity. These activities are often rewarded with assistantship stipends but are usually conducted in addition to course requirements. Teaching and research assistantships typically require students to commit 10-20 hours per week. Given the large time commitment, the extent of research and/or teaching expectations should be an important consideration in choosing a program that fits with your own training goals. Programs will also report the average number of years per degree and/or the time-to-degree expectation for new students. Many programs also advertise sample (or expected) course sequences and timetables for particular degrees.
  7. Presence of desirable advisors who share your interests. At least two faculty members should specialize in or teach courses on topics that are central to your interests. Lai and Ellison (2007) presented valuable tips for identifying desirable advisors.
Table 1

Criteria for Selecting Graduate Programs

PRIMARY CRITERIA (Where to apply)


  • Geographic constraints
  • Ranking of program nationally
  • Program

  • Type of program (e.g., clinical, counseling, developmental, or medical) and/or degree offered
  • Topic specialization of program (e.g., focuses on social cognition or child clinical)
  • Accreditation status (if applicable)
  • Selectivity of program (e.g., percent of applicants admitted and typical GRE/GPA scores)
  • Completion rate
  • Average time to acquire degree
  • Financial aid potential

SECONDARY CRITERIA (Choosing offers to accept)

Program and Advisor

  • University prestige
  • Placement rate in jobs or internships
  • Research agenda of prospective mentor/advisor(s) and personal compatibility
  • Relative training emphasis on teaching, research, and clinical practice
  • Size of program (number of students)
  • Cultural diversity of students in program
  • Active graduate student organization
  • Amenities like graduate student offices, parking, copies, secretarial staff, and kitchen
  • Travel and research seed grant money

Quality of Life

  • Peer climate
  • Cost and quality of living in the town
  • Health insurance

Applying to Programs That Fit

When applying to programs, communicating fit in your letter of intent is very important. Use what you learned in the first round of discovery to present yourself strategically in the letter. Discuss your professional experiences and how the programs’ specific strengths will help you to grow. Indicate your interest in working with specific faculty members and how you can contribute to their areas of study. Be sure to avoid the "kisses of death” outlined by Appleby and Appleby (2007). Also, seek letters of recommendation at this time. For tips on getting the most from faculty letters, see Rewey (2000).

Before applying, you might consider emailing current students in the program and scheduling a visit to the campus. During the visit, ask about specific criteria for that school’s program: peer and advisor climate, stories about past students who have graduated under current faculty, quality of life in the community (e.g., living costs, safe housing), and health insurance. Oudekerk and Bottoms (2007) offered a list of questions that you should ask during a campus visit (as well as helpful interview tips). The information you obtain in this phase of the graduate school search process should be valuable in making a final choice about a graduate program if you were to receive multiple offers of acceptance.


The process of finding a fit with a graduate program pays off long after admission. It’s not all about getting in, but also being happy once you get there and eventually getting a job that you like. If this whole process goes well, you will place yourself in a satisfying environment for your graduate study and hopefully, one that allows you to reach your full potential.


American Psychological Association. (2007). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2007, Spring). How to avoid the kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Eye on Psi Chi, 11(3), 20-21.

Halpern, L. F. (2002, Winter). Some pointers for students interested in applying to graduate programs in clinical psychology. Eye on Psi Chi, 6(2), 21-23.

Keith-Spiegel, P., Tabachnick, B. G., & Spiegel, G. B. (1994). When demand exceeds supply: Second-order criteria used by graduate school selection committees. Teaching of Psychology, 21, 79-81.

Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling and related professions. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Lai, B. S., & Ellison, W. D. (2007, Summer). Finding the right mentor: Gaining admission to and succeeding in graduate school. Eye on Psi Chi, 11(4), 16-18.

Oudekerk, B. A., & Bottoms, B. L. (2007, Fall). Applying to graduate school: The interview process. Eye on Psi Chi, 12(1), 25.

Rewey, K. L. (2000, Fall). Getting a good letter of recommendation. Eye on Psi Chi, 5(1), 27-29.

Walfish, S., Stenmark, D. E., Shealy, J. S., & Shealy, S. E. (1989). Reasons why applicants select clinical psychology graduate programs. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 20, 350-354.

Zachary Birchmeier, PhD, is a senior research analyst at the Institute of Public Policy in the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missour

Cecilia Shore, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Miami University (OH). She specializes in developmental psychology.

Shana McCormick is a graduate student in the school psychology program (MA & EdS) at Bowling Green State University (OH). When the ideas for this article began to form, Zachary was a doctoral student in the social psychology graduate program at Miami University, and Shana was an undergraduate psychology student at Miami.

Copyright 2008 (Vol. 12, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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