Leonard L. Martin, Ph.D.
is a Professor of Psychology and the former Chair of a Social Psychology program. He has reviewed and made admissions decisions about hundreds of Ph.D. student applications over 20+ years. In this interview, I asked him about what applicants should focus on in personal statements and what factors counts most towards positive admissions decisions. This is a MUST READ for those applying to Ph.D. programs in Psychology fields and those who are thinking about applying.
Grad School Guru: About how many Ph.D. students have you accepted over the years? About how many have been rejected?
Dr. Martin: We've averaged about 30 applications a year to our social psychology program and the number we've accepted on any given year has ranged from 0 to 5. We generally offer acceptances to 3 or 4 and actually end up enrolling 2.
Grad School Guru: Could you demystify what happens to applications once they are submitted? i.e., Can you describe the review process a little?
Dr. Martin: The application materials are passed among the members of the program and each faculty member looks over each application. After that, the applications are divided into three general categories: accept, hold, and reject. Applicants in the accept category are recruit immediately and actively. Those in the hold category are accepted only if our top candidates decide not to attend. Those in the reject category are notified immediately that they will not be receiving an offer from us. There was a time when we used to meet as a program and make these determinations as a group. More recently, we have been letting individual faculty members decide who they want to accept, reject, and hold.
Grad School Guru: What do you like to see in a personal statement? What do you not like to see?
Dr. Martin: Let me start with the biggest problem applicants make in their personal statements: they are too general. They tell us in very general terms how they like analyzing behavior and that they have always found psychology interesting. This is nice but it is uninformative. We need to know the extent to which the applicant's specific goals and interests are compatible with those of our program. Is there a fit between what you want as an applicant and what we want or can provide you? We like to hear about the research you have conducted and we want to know why you think our particular program is the one for you. And this is true for every program to which you apply. You should be applying only to programs for which you think there is a fit. It is also useful if you can point out individual faculty members with whom you would like to work and say what it is about their work that fits with your goals and interests.
Grad School Guru: Do you think faculty members in Psychology vary in what they look for in applicants or are they all basically looking for the same qualities?
Dr. Martin: Over the years, I have seen a surprisingly high agreement among the faculty members regarding which applicants to accept and which to reject. So, it seems that apart from any idiosyncrasies in individual faculty members, we are all judging the applicants by more or less the same criteria. The dimensions seem to relate to a sophistication of thought. Can you talk about your research in an intelligent way? We seem to determine this by a combination of grades, GREs, letters of recommendation, and letter of intent.
Grad School Guru: Please discuss the relative importance of each of the following factors in Ph.D. program admissions: GRE scores, GPA, Matching research interests, Letters of recommendation, Amount of research experience (i.e., number of years, number of projects, number of labs worked with), Publications/conference presentations.
Dr. Martin: It is difficult to say how these factors actually influence the decision making of individual faculty members. The subjective experience is of developing an overall impression of an applicant. My guess is that a weakness in any one of the factors can serve as a filter. If the grades are too low, a candidate is not accepted. If the GRE scores are too low, a candidate is not accepted. If the letters of recommendation are not encouraging, a candidate is not accepted. And so on. If a candidate is above threshold with regard to all of these factors, then the letter of intent seems to make a big difference.
The question is whether the applicant is right for our program - and vice versa. We do not want to bring in an applicant if the candidate is seeking training in an area in which our program is not strong or in which our faculty members have no interest. So, once it has been determined that an applicant is generally promising, we look for compatibility between the goals and interests of the candidates and the faculty. Conference presentations and papers also carry a lot of weight, but few undergraduates have these. So, it is not something we expect. In short, good grades and strong GRE scores will earn you serious consideration. After that, you will need enthusiastic letters of recommendation and a letter of intent that demonstrates your ability to think about your research in a sophisticated way and that demonstrates an overlap between your goals and interest and those of the program to which you are applying.
Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.