Requirements for admission vary greatly from program to program. You need to do your research before submitting your
applications, so you do not waste your time and money! This research will also help you tailor your applications to each program.
What does the typical application to graduate school in psychology include?
In addition to your background information, many applications require:
- Academic records (e.g., transcripts, GPA, GRE scores)
Typically, a minimum of a 3.0 GPA is required, but many Ph.D. or more competitive programs require a 3.5 GPA. Many committees will look at the courses students have chosen to take (e.g., avoided science core courses, taken more challenging courses). If a GPA is not stellar, they also look if there has been a positive trajectory where students have brought their grades up over time.
Many programs require the GRE and some will also require the Psychology Subject Test. Visit the GRE website to learn more about the tests and how to prepare. Plan to take the GRE for the first time at least 6 months
before the earliest application deadline. That way, if you are not satisfied
with your scores, you still have time to study and retake the test.
Note that all schools have different criteria, and some programs even weigh the GRE more heavily than your GPA. The APA publication, Graduate Study in Psychology,
reports the average GRE scores of students in all APA accredited
graduate programs. Come by the Advising Office during any drop-in hours to check out this book!
The purpose of the personal statement is explain who you are, your background, and why you are pursuing a particular degree at a particular program. However, the requirements for this statement will vary widely from program to program. Some will have standardized sets of questions; others will be more broad. It also serves as a way for committees to evaluate your written communication skills – a disorganized statement full of mistakes conveys that an applicant is unable to clearly communicate and thus, unprepared for graduate school.
The personal statement is probably most important as a way to help you stand out in a competitive program where many applicants have similarly high-level qualifications. Committees read anywhere from 100-250 applications so be specific and concrete as to why you belong with their program. A common mistake is for applicants to divulge about their own mental health problems. Also, avoid vague generalities like "I am a hard worker". If you are a hard worker, demonstrate it through your examples of what you have actually done. Committees are looking for evidence that applicants have engaged in a level of research, skills, and experiences that indicate that this person is prepared and knows where they want to go with their education.
The Career Services Center has a helpful Personal Statement handout and The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article with tips to keep in mind as you write and revise.
- 3-4 letters of recommendation
Your letter writers should be professionals very familiar with your academic and
research achievements – a professor, lab
instructor, or research advisor. These individuals should be able to comment in detail about your strengths, achievements, and your potential for success in graduate school. Do NOT get letters from individuals who only know you on a personal basis (e.g., relatives, ministers) or from professors who barely know you. Committees look unfavorably at letters that simply say, "This student received an A in my course".
You will probably apply to at least a handful of programs so make it easy on your letter writers. Give them an organized list of the schools you're applying to, the deadlines, the submission requirements (e.g., online or paper), and a summary of your accomplishments. Send reminder emails about a week before each deadline – it is your responsibility to follow up. Last, remember to thank each letter writer individually! (Hint: People love handwritten notes more than emails.)
A handful of programs will require a sample of your academic writing. It can take on multiple formats but most commonly in psychology programs, it will be an analytic paper you wrote in an upper-division course or your senior thesis. It is very important that you submit your highest-quality work – go back and polish it up! Remember to submit the sample exactly as requested (e.g., do not go over the page limit).
Although an interview is not a part of the initial application process, it can be an important part of making sure you get in. Note that not all programs require an interview, but if you are applying to Ph.D. programs, you should expect it. At this point, your qualifications "on paper" look good to the committee. Now, they are looking for indications of how well you would work with others, you ability to think quickly in challenging situations, how enthusiastic you are about the program and your work, and how well you can speak about your own background experiences. Basically, they are looking at if what you have written on paper translates to the person in front of them.
The Association for Psychological Science (APS) has a nice article that answers many frequently asked questions.
What if I do not get accepted to graduate school?
First, know that it is not the end of the world. You will be okay!
examine potential reasons why you were not selected:
- Graduate search committees look for
the goodness of fit between the prospective student and the needs of the
particular program and its faculty. You may not have been selected
because you applied to a program with a heavy emphasis upon research and
your interests were more applied. Make sure to find
graduate programs that align with what you want to learn. After additional research, you can submit applications to these better-suited programs.
- You may need to gain more experience. Taking a year or two to work in a research lab or in a field position to acquire
and deepen your skills can be time well spent in making your application more competitive the next time around.
- It may also be possible that graduate school is not right for you, at least not right now (this choice can always change in the
future though). If this is the case, you can still use your undergraduate
training to pursue fulfilling jobs within a wide range of
professions. Remember, always think of the training and the skills you
acquire as an undergraduate as transferable skills that likely apply to a wide
range of careers beyond your major.