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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2014

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2014 | Volume 18 | Issue 2


Questions (and Answers) About Graduate School

Mitchell M. Handelsman, PhD, University of Colorado Denver
Scott W. VanderStoep, PhD, Hope College (MI)
R. Eric Landrum, PhD, Boise State University (ID)

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

The University of Hartford Chapter of Psi Chi is an active chapter that has chosen to focus on the theme of Psychology in the Media this year. The chapter hosted a daylong event highlighting the issue of bullying in the K-12 public schools. The documentary Bully was screened and David Long, who is featured in the film, and Jo Ann Freiberg, the Connecticut educational consultant in charge of school climate, were guest speakers. The chapter also hosted an event with To Write Love On Her Arms, a national organization that promotes awareness about mental health issues, self-harm, and suicide.

How long should a personal statement be? Can I include my personal experiences with mental health if that is what got me interested in psychology?

Landrum: About the length of a personal statement: The key answer is that, if the graduate school has dictated a length (such as 500–600 words), absolutely follow those directions. If there are specific prompts asked in the personal statement instructions, be sure to answer each and every one. If there are no word length instructions or specific prompts to answer, my generic advice is to go no longer than two pages, single-spaced (although my colleagues may have different advice on this point). Regarding the mentioning of your own mental health experiences: First, your desire to be completely honest and open is commendable! But the three of us all suggest extreme caution as we have previously written in Eye on Psi Chi (Handelsman, VanderStoep, and (Landrum, 2011). I recommend that you present this topic with a little more distance and objectivity. You might say something like "I am familiar with individuals who have received quality mental health care, and I understand how competent professionals can truly assist others.” If you want to reveal your personal history to someone later in the application process, that is fine, but get to know them first and try to have some sense of comfort that your revelation will not hurt your chances for graduate school admission.

Handelsman: The personal statement is NOT personal—it is a professional statement, as is everything you do in your application and interview process. In terms of length, follow the directions. If there is information you do not have room for, you may find room for it elsewhere in the application. I also suggest getting help from your campus writing center or other sources to help you edit.

VanderStoep: Yes, avoid reference to personal health experiences or any personal experience for that matter that is not directly relevant to your admission to graduate school. Your writing should be concise and tightly packed with a strong professional tone. Personal references run the risk of being intrusive and appearing out of place. This is especially true, in my view, for doctoral and research-intensive programs. Programs that focus on more holistic admissions criteria may allow for a bit more wiggle room on this issue. In the absence of a specified word length, I am inclined to limit the length to 250 to 300 words, which is roughly one double-spaced page.

What is the difference between a résumé and a curriculum vitae (CV)? If there is no preference from the school, which would be better?

Landrum: A résumé is the business model document that briefly presents your work history, relevant experiences, skills and competencies, and contact information in a 1- to 2-page format. A CV is the academic model document that presents your college-based academic life and can be as long as it needs to be. As a general rule, the longer the CV, the better, but I do not believe that is generally true about résumés. If there is no preference from the school, then I suggest a tightly focused CV. Make sure your CV presents your education history, out-of-classroom experiences (teaching assistant, research assistant, internship), honors and awards, publication history (including conference papers, conference poster presentations, and publications), and updated contact information. Sometimes I am asked if high school accomplishments can be placed on a résumé or CV. My typical answer is to leave off high school accomplishments with the exception of national awards; if you won a national-level award during high school, that might still be relevant for your post-college résumé or CV.

Handelsman: I agree that a CV is the way to go for graduate school applications. The key principle in formatting is accessibility, so design your CV so people can find what they want. And here is what a supervisor of mine said to me a long time ago: Spell out the names of months when you provide, for example, dates of employment. You never know when a committee member will say, "August 2008! Wow! My granddaughter was born then!” Check out the Internet for guides to writing a CV, including Hayes and Hayes (n.d.).

VanderStoep: I agree with Dr. Landrum that CV’s are longer and more exhaustive but I also think most undergraduate CV’s can fit on a page. A CV from a new or future scholar should include educational attainment, research experience, and professional skills (e.g., interviewing, data analysis). Extending beyond those items pads the CV with experiences that are probably not of interest to a graduate school.

When is the best time to take the GREs?

Landrum: The answer to this is tricky because it depends on when your first graduate application that requires GRE scores is due. My generic answer is to take the GRE so that, if you need to take it again, you will have enough time for the second set of scores to reach your destination prior to your earliest deadline. These days, my students tend to take the GRE right around the end of summer or the very beginning of the school year, which typically leaves enough time to take it again prior to December 1 deadlines. The GRE is a big nut to crack, and planning to take it twice is not evil nor should that undercut your confidence (for tons of excellent advice about GRE test preparation, see previous issues of Eye on Psi Chi). Personally, I took the GRE twice. I took it in October, had the scores sent to the five graduate programs I had applied to, and I got feedback from one school that said "we like your overall application, and if your scores were just a bit higher, we would offer you admission.” So I took the GRE again in December, my scores were a bit higher, and I ended up attending the school that provided the positive feedback.

Handelsman: Summer of junior year sounds good. I am OK with the idea of planning on taking it twice, but that does not mean using the first time as practice! Prepare and give the GRE a good faith effort the first time.

Handelsman: I would back-date from when you can start intensive studying for the exam. Taking it in the summer is a good idea only if you will have enough time to study. I would allow four to six weeks to prepare. As for taking it a second time, be careful. The GRE has very high reliability, so unless you have done something to change your true score in the interim, you may be disappointed with your second score. So I agree with Dr. H that you should plan to do well the first time.

How many doctoral and masters programs should a student apply for?

Landrum: There is no magical answer to this. I can tell you from research I published a few years ago that the national average for students in the sample was about 4.5. There are so many variables that influence what your personal answer will be. First, do not apply to schools in geographic locations in which you will not live because you are just wasting your time and the schools’ time if you are only curious about if you can get in. Regarding geography, will you have any familial or social support structures nearby that you can rely on during difficult times? I do think applying for a mix of master’s and doctoral programs can be a good strategy, depending on your ultimate goal as well as your undergraduate performance. If that undergraduate performance was less than stellar, demonstrating your success in a master’s degree program often provides the stepping stone to success in a doctoral program. And you may discover that, with the skill set garnered from a master’s degree program, you can do the things you want to do without additional education. Ultimately, the number of programs you apply for will depend on your personal match and fit with geography, career expectation, past undergraduate performance, and a host of other factors.

Handelsman: Apply to as many as you can afford without driving yourself crazy, and enough that you will not kick yourself if you do not get into a program this year. Also, do not apply to any programs you would not go to if it turns out to be the only program that accepted you.

VanderStoep: For nonclinical, 10. For clinical, 15.

If there is a social event during the interview, should I drink if others are drinking?

Landrum: My advice would be no, do not drink. Even during a social event, you are still being interviewed. Alcohol might make you feel more relaxed, but other behavioral changes will occur as well. If you end up attending the graduate program you are interviewing with, there will be other social events in your future where you can responsibly share an adult beverage with your colleagues.

Handelsman: All of your behavior during the interview is professional behavior. I would invoke the why bother rule and politely refuse alcohol. You really need to get into a graduate program more than you need a drink. By the way, if you are applying to programs in Colorado or Washington, the same goes for pot….

VanderStoep: Just say no.


Handelsman M. M., VanderStoep S. W., & Landrum R. E. (2011, Fall) Questions (and answers) about elements of the graduate application. Eye on Psi Chi, 16(1), 14–15. Retrieved from

Hayes S. C., & Hayes L. J. (n.d.) Writing your vita. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from

Mitch Handelsman, PhD, is currently professor of psychology and a CU President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, where he has been on the faculty since 1982. In 2003–04, he was president of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. He is a licensed psychologist and a fellow of APA. His blog, "The Ethical Professor,” can be found at

R. Eric Landrum, PhD, is a former Psi Chi Rocky Mountain Regional Vice- President (2009–11). A professor at Boise State University (ID) and the chapter’s faculty advisor, Dr. Landrum often give talks about issues such as graduate school admissions. He has over 225 professional presentations at conferences and published over 20 books or book chapters, and has published over 65 professional articles in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals.

Scott VanderStoep, PhD, previously served as Psi Chi Midwest Regional Vice-President from 2002–06 and President from 2008-09. His educational journey began in the same place where he currently works—Hope College (MI)—and where he is associate professor and department chair. In his 18 years of college teaching, he has taught introductory, developmental, social, cognitive, industrial/organizational, research lab, psychology of religion, and advanced data analysis.

Copyright 2014 (Vol. 18, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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