Applying to Graduate Schools
department of psychology
Here is some general advice for undergraduates who are thinking of applying to a graduate school.
Graduate applications in psychology often require a personal statement. Describe your background, and be sure to include any relevant research experience. Explain your motivation for pursuing graduate study in psychology, and try to convey something of your enthusiasm, and your drive to succeed in a psychology career. As far as you can, be specific about your plans. Many schools do what BC does: they admit students to work with a specific faculty member. You want to show these schools that you are thoughtful about your plans. So do your homework: Read what you can about the professors and their research. Then you can say which professor you hope to work under, and on what sort of project. It is always better, for you and the schools you apply to, if there is a good fit. Your personal statement is a place to make this clear.
The most successful applicants to graduate programs have strong GPAs, strong Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, strong recommendations, and some relevant clinical and research experience. A relative weakness in the above can sometimes be offset by some special strength or background.
GREs are very much like the Scholastic Assessment Tests (SATs) you took in high school as part of the college application process. This sort of standardized test can be very frustrating if you tend to test poorly, but remember that taking these tests is a learnable skill. Many people have found one of the commercially available preparation courses helpful, although these courses are expensive. At least buy or borrow one of the practice books. Plan to take the test only when you are well prepared; don't count on taking it three times just to see if you can improve your scores.
There are national administration dates for these exams and "special" administration dates that occur quite frequently. Consider taking the GRE on a "special" administration date if it will give you more time to prepare. (You may have to pay for this privilege.)
As a hint for the Psychology Subject test, re-read an introductory psychology book just before taking the test. Another hint is to take the test on a different day than the aptitude tests, just so you are not tired.
Some schools require other less well-known tests, such as the Miller Analogies Test.
Letters of Recommendation
Here are some hints concerning letters of recommendation:
- Get to know faculty (by doing research, serving as a TA, taking seminar courses, etc.) who might then write letters saying how wonderful you are.
- Discuss the matter with the person you want to write for you long before the deadline. A last minute request may annoy the person by making it difficult to meet the deadline. (Remember that a popular professor may be writing letters for several students.)
- Pick people who like you and whom you trust. Figure out some tactful way of asking the person whether he or she would be able to write a strong letter ("Do you think you know me well enough to write a letter in support of my application to a Ph.D. program in experimental/social (etc.) psychology?") By giving someone a graceful way to decline, you may save yourself a lukewarm letter that could weaken your application.
- Most recommendation forms have boxes to check to indicate whether or not you waive your right to see the letter. If you trust your recommender, then check the box that says you waive your right to see the letter. The confidentiality makes the letter appear more valid and honest. If you do not trust the recommender, then ask someone else to write for you.
- If a person agrees to write letters for you, give that person some background information: your resume, your personal statement about why you want to obtain a Ph.D. in psychology, your transcript, any other relevant experience you may have had, etc. This information will help the person write a more detailed letter. Programs are more impressed by a letter from someone who knows the applicant well.
- Be very careful about your application materials, including the recommendation forms. Be sure that you have filled out all parts carefully and completely. Use a typewriter to type your name and everything else on the forms and envelopes. Provide stamped envelopes with typed addresses to your recommenders. (Note: the return address on these envelopes should be that of the letter writer.)
- Be organized. Provide the recommender with all materials in a neat, easy to read package. Provide a list of all the schools to which you are applying and a list of deadlines. This will help the recommender keep track of things.
Some Words of Advice
BC undergraduate students considering a career in professional psychology should take the following suggestions into account:
- First, find out whether this is a career option you want to pursue. How do you determine whether or not you are interested in becoming, for example, a clinical or counseling psychologist? There is no easy, concise answer. One useful strategy is to obtain some relevant experience. You might consider volunteering for a suicide hotline, in a group home or school for children, in a psychiatric hospital, as a research assistant in a hospital, etc. This contact will help you know if you have the personality and interest suited to a career in this or a related field.
- Obtain research experience. This is very important for all specialty areas within psychology and critical for experimental psychology. Virtually all doctoral programs require research of their graduate students and like to see that applicants to their programs have some good research training. By the time you apply to graduate school, you should have a good sense of whether you want research to be a major or a minor component of your career.
- Every fall semester, our clinically trained faculty members run an informational workshop for students interested in applying to clinical psychology programs. The date and location of this workshop are announced in psychology classes and posted outside of the main office.
- There are more graduate programs than you can possibly apply to (and each application is expensive). To determine which programs are the best bets, find out which have faculty interested in your probable areas of specialization. The APA publishes a guide to graduate programs (which will also tell you whether or not a clinical program is accredited). You can also look up a department's faculty in the school catalogs in O'Neill Library. Read the descriptions of the graduate programs. Perhaps perform a quick literature search by author to see which faculty are working in areas you are interested in. Ask faculty at BC for suggestions. One approach is to identify schools that have at least a couple faculty working in whatever specialty area interests you. Perform a literature search to what these people have published recently to indicate the direction of their current research. Then, if there are faculty you think you would like to work with, mention that in your personal statement (or somewhere in your application).
- The application process is very time consuming. Most schools have application deadlines between December 1 and February 1. You should write to programs requesting application materials during the summer for several reasons: schools may take a while to mail you the material; some schools have a preliminary application that must be completed before they will send you a full application; and, most important, you will need time to complete the full applications.
- Seriously consider taking some time off after finishing at BC. Working in a related area, for example, as a research assistant for a year or two, is excellent preparation for graduate work in either clinical or nonclinical programs. These jobs are usually listed in the personnel (human resources) offices of universities, hospitals, medical centers, and medical schools. Working in a related setting will almost certainly strengthen your application: You will receive more research or clinical training (or both), and you will have more evidence of your commitment to psychology as a career. Also, the time away from school will give you time to reflect on your decision; you may decide to switch your focus on the basis of your work experience. Finally, graduate school is a very intense, focused existence. Taking a year or two off between undergraduate and graduate school helps give you a respite from the preceding 16 years of non-stop school before the start of another 4 to 6 years.
- Even though it is expensive, apply to at least a few programs. There is a large element of luck involved in the application process. If all the faculty members in your specialty area at a school already have several graduate students, you won't be accepted even if you are the world's best candidate. Or the best advisor for you may be on sabbatical for a year and for that reason is not accepting any new students.
- Clinical programs often require an interview as one of the final steps in the process. Flying to interviews can be very costly, so plan ahead. There is usually some flexibility in when you have an interview; you may be able to arrange to visit more than one school on a single trip. Even if an interview is not required, visiting a school in person may increase your chances of acceptance. If you plan on visiting, be ready to discuss whatever research you have done in a way that shows understanding of the theoretical issues being tested. (The first sentence of the description should be something like: "We were trying to understand ..." The first sentence should not be: "We tested 20 college students for 30 minutes each.").
- If you plan to visit, write or call ahead of time to schedule a convenient time for you to meet with some graduate students and with the faculty you are interested in working with. In a tactful way, ask the graduate students in a prospective doctoral program if they think they are receiving a good education; ask about the strengths and weaknesses of the program from the students' perspective; and ask what kinds of positions students get after leaving the program. No program is perfect, and not all graduate students are happy. You want to find out whether you as an individual are well suited to a particular program and a particular advisor. If you find that you really don't like a potential graduate advisor, think twice about spending four to five years working closely with that person.
- Plan ahead. Preparing yourself for graduate school—designing your education as if you were going to apply to graduate school—will not be wasted effort if you decide not to apply. Quite the contrary. Pursuing the serious, rigorous undergraduate curriculum that will impress a graduate program will guarantee that you receive a good undergraduate education.