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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2017
 
 

Conquering Graduate Application Dread:
Advice From Graduate Faculty

Shawn R. Charlton, PhD, Christina Ozanich, and Nikki Phillips
University of Central Arkansas
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There are few things in the life of an undergraduate psychology major that cause more dread than applying to graduate school. This dread leads to immense stress, occasional tears, and a huge amount of avoidance. Unfortunately, just as was true for Harry Potter when forced to face Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest, the dread must be overcome and the graduate application conquered in order to claim victory by defeating the Dark Lord: obtaining a graduate degree, a professional license, and becoming a very important muggle. Victory is not easy. The dread caused by the application process is so strong that many undergraduates would rather confront Voldemort—armed only with Ron Weasley’s wand—than to proceed into the arduous task of completing their applications.
So what is so foreboding about the application process? The smothering uncertainty of the whole thing. The graduate application process is complicated and requires work—a cause of procrastination and avoidance in itself—but, more than just the effort involved, it is unclear what exactly is needed for a competitive graduate application, as well as the odds of a successful one. Think about everything that is needed for a complete application. GRE scores and GPA? What is high enough for these scores? What is too low? Securing letters of recommendation? Who do I ask? When do I ask? Writing a personal statement? What do I say? Completing any required essays or writing samples. Really? And different essays for each program? And these are just the uncertainties that fit into our word limit!
Palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy? Blindly putting an application together, unknowing if it’s competitive enough for your program, can be a huge source of stress and potential disappointment! If only it were possible to talk with graduate faculty and ask them, “What are you really looking for in an application?” Unfortunately, a personal, direct interview that would provide this type insight is not possible for most applicants. So, we did it for you.
The National Survey of Applicant Expectations in Psychology (NSAEP; funded in part by a Mamie Phipps Clark grant from Psi Chi) surveyed graduate faculty from across the United States on topics related to the graduate application process. One question asked the respondents for the top piece of advice they would share with applicants. The question received 581 responses from faculty members across the nation.
After reading through the answers (yes, all of them), we categorized responses into six dimensions of the graduate application process. Figure 1 shows that the category with the most advice was “Goodness of Fit” (41% of the comments), followed by research experience (34%), and then (with a much smaller market share) writing a high-quality statement of purpose or cover letter (12%), the applicant’s GPA and GRE scores (8%), and the quality of letters of recommendation (5%). The following sections elaborate on the specific advice given in each of these categories.
Goodness of Fit
Graduate training is a completely different type of training from what is provided by undergraduate programs. Undergraduate programs offer generalized training in large classes. Graduate programs are more of a mentor model of training. Classes are smaller and graduate faculty spend more time with each individual student.
Admissions is not as much about picking students who can complete graduate degrees, but rather picking students who will benefit most from the program. The majority of students applying to graduate programs are intellectually capable of succeeding in graduate school and have the ambition to succeed. So, graduate programs tend to look most for students who will complement work they are doing in their labs and clinics. In short, graduate admissions are about fit. For example:
  Do your homework: Research the graduate program carefully so that you can talk specifically about the fit between your professional goals and the kinds of expertise they have to offer. 
And:
  Be thoughtful about what you’re applying to and why. What is your career goal and how will this program help you get there? Especially for psychology PhD programs, your fit with the graduate program (and often with a particular advisor/research supervisor) is essential. You could be the best applicant in an objective sense (scores, GPA, honors) but if you’re saying you’re really interested in XYZ and the program doesn’t do that, it’s not a good fit. You won’t get in and it’s a waste of time and money.
Both of these quotes speak directly to the “fit” between you and potential programs. In order to maximize fit, here are a couple suggestions for you to keep in mind as you research programs:
First, remember you’ll be working closely with faculty and other students in the program for several years.
  Apply to programs based on fit (professional goals, research interests) and not on aspects such as location. 
Make certain the programs you apply to are in areas that you can enjoy living in, but the first priority should be finding programs that will provide the experiences and the network that will get you into the career that provides you the lifestyle and opportunities that you want.
Second, pay attention to where students who graduate from particular programs are working after graduation. As commented by one respondent:
  Before you apply, check out where the students who earn their PHD with a particular program get jobs. Is that what you want to do? 
Where graduates are employed speaks highly to the type of training the program provides. Also, the alumni network of the program will become a major part of your professional network. If the graduates of the program aren’t working in the areas that you desire, they won’t be able to help open doors for you.
In researching graduate programs, remember it is about both the program as a whole, and the individual faculty members who are available to serve as mentors.
  Make sure there is at least one faculty member in the graduate program that you really want to work with and that you can explain why that person should be able to help you toward your goals.
And:
  We select based on interest match between our faculty and the applicant. So students need to learn about the faculty, choose potential advisors that truly match their interests, and do a good job articulating that match in their personal statement.
Choosing the correct mentor and graduate program is extremely important. As reflected in multiple responses to the survey, it’s important to initiate your relationship with programs before sending in applications. One of the best ways to do this is to e-mail the program directors and potential research advisors. As an applicant, it’s in your best interest to be open about your research interests and professional objectives when communicating with potential mentors. Ask the mentor if they and the program will be accepting new students and make these connections early!
Begin building relationships early with potential graduate programs because the week before applications are due is too late. Waiting until the last minute speaks poorly to your commitment to their program and preparation for graduate school.
Research Experience
Being engaged in research is a critical part of showing commitment to a professional career in psychology. Research, regardless if it’s in the same area you want to work in, shows: (a) the applicant is engaged beyond the classroom and (b) the applicant has developed critical thinking, time management, and interpersonal skills that are needed in graduate school.
In the NSAEP, forty respondents (7% of the total) started their response with the same three words: “Get research experience.” The consistency in this wording makes clear that it’s best to get research experience directly related to your future graduate plans. As much as possible, seek mentoring from psychologists well-known in your desired field. However, graduate admissions committees understand your experiences will be constrained by the faculty at your undergraduate institutions. The type of research you conduct is secondary to your level of involvement in the research. Consider these two answers:
  Get immersed in a research lab: develop your own ideas; don’t just show up and do the work. Better yet, conduct your own research and present/publish it somewhere. 
Along these same lines:
  Act as much like a graduate student as you can: initiate research or take an active role in shaping the direction of the research you are involved in, and take responsibility for submitting the research to conferences or for publication. Even if your undergraduate research is not exactly in the area you want to do your graduate work in, being involved with all aspects of the research process from start to finish shows me that you understand how research works and know enough about whether you enjoy it to be successful in a research-oriented graduate program.
The theme of these two responses—deep involvement in research—was reflected in dozens of responses. Several respondents mentioned that depth of involvement in research will become particularly evident during interviews as committees ask about your experiences. The interview is often where your enthusiasm and knowledge for previous research experiences is best evaluated.
Gaining valuable research experience is a major perk of membership in Psi Chi. The Psi Chi grants and awards programs are the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your enthusiasm for research. Applying for these grants and awards lets you write about your interests and shows initiative. Winning a Psi Chi grant/award speaks highly of the quality of your ideas, writing, and potential. Participating in Psi Chi regional conventions provides an opportunity to present your work, network with professionals, and practice skills necessary to be a successful graduate student.
Personal Statement
The personal statement is critical to your application because this is where you market yourself to the graduate committee. You have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in graduate school. The personal statement is your opportunity to explain this:
  Be clear, specific, and concrete in your personal statement. Address goodness of fit between applicant and the graduate program. Articulate clearly professional development and future career goals in terms of the graduate program that you are applying to. 
Most applicants will apply to more than one graduate program. It is very difficult (impossible?) to write a single strong personal statement that will apply equally well to each of these programs. It’s necessary to change the letter to match each program:
  Custom[ize] their statement to the program, show you’ve done your homework about our program and make as clear as possible the match between your interests and our expertise.
As you work on your personal statement, we would recommend keeping the following comment in mind:
  Beyond the obvious (good grades, good scores on GRE), students should be clear on their interests and goals and make it clear why they want to go to graduate school to study this HERE. In the personal statement, I see a lot of what students have done in the past, and that’s really useful when it’s in the service of where you are headed. We are making an investment in the student: It costs money to train you, it takes time too, and we are foregoing other students when we select you, so we need to know it is going to be worth your while.
Academic Success: GPA and GRE
GPA and GRE tend to be a sensitive subject. Members of graduate review committees understand that these scores can be influenced by a number of different factors (e.g., “I’m not a good test taker” or “It took me a couple of semesters to get my bearings as a college student.”), but they also know that these scores can be useful in understanding an applicant’s abilities and commitment to academics. Scores are frequently used by programs as a first filter of applications:
  Get your GREs and GPAs up to a level that your letters of recommendation and description of skills/experiences gets considered. The first pass of most review processes is to eliminate applications on the basis of minimum scores or GPA.
It’s important to understand that GPA and GRE scores won’t get you a spot in a graduate program, but they could cost you a spot in a program. For example:
  GPA and GRE scores are necessary but not sufficient. We consider only applicants who have a [specific GPA and GRE combination], but once you make that cut, we care about fit, research experience, and strong letters of recommendation.
What is a high GPA? What is a good score on the GRE? This is hard to answer directly. As with so much of the application process, this depends on where you’re applying. The more competitive the program, the higher they can set this bar. There are excellent resources for determining how your GPA and GRE scores compare to programs. For APA accredited programs, information on typical ranges for these scores are published in the APA’s annual publication, Graduate Study in Psychology (http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4270100.aspx). For programs that don’t publish their scores, contacting the admissions director for the program can usually net some useful information. What is important to remember here is this: strong academic scores can be pulled down by lack of experience while weaker scores can be brought up by solid experiences.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are an important element of the graduate application. The letter allows you to choose individuals that know you well to argue your case to the admissions committee. When selecting your letter writers, keep in mind the following advice:
  Be very careful in selecting individuals for your recommendation letters. I have seen lukewarm letters and wondered why the student selected this person to write a letter. If a person does not know you well, do not select them. 
The choice of letter writer says a lot about how you approached your undergraduate education. A student who has three letter writers who only know them from class was likely not engaged outside of the formal coursework. Part of getting involved in research is building the rapport with a faculty member that is needed to get a strong letter of recommendation:
  Build your research experience so that you can both describe in detail the work you have done and receive a strong letter from a faculty member who has supervised or observed your research work.
Conclusion
As you read through these comments and suggestions, we hope you took away one major lesson about the graduate application process: Be strategic! Remember:
  Make sure your packet communicates what distinguishes you from other applicants. Plenty of applicants will have good grades and research experience. What is unique within the classes you’ve taken, your background, or your personal experiences that can help illustrate your interests in a particular research area?
Harry would have no chance of defeating Voldemort without a plan and the right tools. The same is true of your graduate application process. You are now better prepared to develop and execute your graduate battle plan. So, get to conquering!

 

Shawn R. Charlton, PhD, earned a BA degree from Utah State University (2001) and a MS and PhD from the University of California, San Diego (2006). His research interests explore decision-making in a variety of contexts. Research on professional development in higher education is a growing emphasis for his Behavioral and Social Decisions Laboratory.

Christina Ozanich, is a graduate student in the mental health counseling program at the University of Central Arkansas. She graduates in Fall 2016 and will then begin working as a professional counselor. Christina’s motivation for her career and working on this article is the belief that the best way to handle life’s many obstacles/challenges is by working together.

Nikki Phillips, earned a BS in psychology from the University of Central Arkansas (UCA, spring 2017). She is the laboratory manager for the Behavioral and Social Decisions Laboratory at UCA where she manages a variety of decision-making studies. Her recent research explored political extremism and cognitive thinking styles.

 

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Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 
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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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