What Extracurriculars Will Help Me Get into Grad School?

Beyond the classroom—how can you be a stronger graduate school applicant?

Posted Sep 01, 2015

Dear Data Doctor--

Are there certain extracurriculars I should involve myself in for graduate school? 

--Aspiring Grad Student

Dear Aspiring,

It's that time of year and I am getting a lot of questions about applying to graduate school. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the two most advantageous types of experience to get outside the classroom are research experience and some type of exposure to a practitioner setting, whether that be a mental health agency, hospital, school, or community program.  Research experience is most important for getting into a Ph.D. program.  Surprisingly to many students, this includes getting into Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology and often counseling or school psychology as well.  The importance of research experience is probably the number one criterion for getting into programs in neuroscience, social, developmental, cognitive, or other more academic or research-oriented degrees.   It is hard to stand out with good grades and good test scores alone—most people applying to graduate school will have those. 

However, other extracurricular experiences are valuable too.  Anything that shows that you are willing to go over and above.  What does "over and above" mean?  That means showing that you are dedicated to the work and the field and you are willing to do what it takes to make a project successful.  No one wants a graduate student who just goes through the motions or does the minimum required by a class or a degree program.  They want someone who loves being there and does not experience the thrill of learning and discovery as "work." 

As I mentioned in the other columns on graduate school, it is important to show that you are seriously interested in joining the community of psychologists by engaging in activities that have a psychological component.  However, there are lots of extracurricular activities that demonstrate you have the kind of skills and the temperament to succeed in graduate school.  Here are a few examples.

Many colleges are emphasizing "community engagement" activities that are directly related to psychology.  Almost all types of volunteering will allow you to experience the helper role.  Many types of community work will give you the chance to work with people who are in need, from helping to rebuild communities after natural disasters to volunteering at food banks or mobile health clinics.  Some of these experiences, such as tutoring at a school, also give you a chance to experience being in the role of an authority figure and a professional.  Not everyone likes being in such roles and it's good to get a taste of them before you go to grad school.  One person I knew in graduate school eventually left psychology in part because he didn't like giving up bar hopping.  It just doesn't work for people to run into their therapist drunk at a bar on a Saturday night.  That's often an adjustment for new faculty, too, who realize that part of the tradition from graduate student to faculty member means that their presence at frat parties is no longer appropriate.

In this same vein, resident assistants (RA's) in dorms, or, as we call them at Sewanee, proctors, provide similar experiences.  They involve taking on the mantel of authority and also gaining experience helping people cope with a wide range of difficulties.  There are other roles in dorms too that provide similar benefits, such as being in charge of programming at a themed house or dorm, such as a language house or a special interest house.

Participation in collegiate sports is a good way to show that you are self-disciplined and value excellence.  If you have ever been a team captain or had some similar role, such roles can also show leadership potential and that you have earned the respect of your teammates.

Participation in theater programs is another way to show self-discipline, because like sports committing to a play means committing to a regular schedule of rehearsals.  Both are also team events that mean that other people are relying on you and you are learning to live up to those commitments.  Any aspect of a theater program can provide this experience, including all of the behind-the-scenes roles such as lighting, sound, wardrobe, and set design. 

Campus ministry programs or other involvement in church programs share many of these elements too—dedication, reliability, helping others. 

Student government roles of any type also show that you are a person with these characteristics.  There are also other types of on-campus helping roles, such as writing tutors for first-year students or laboratory assistants in the sciences. 

Even some roles in sororities and fraternities can communicate these same abilities and interests.  Some of the leadership roles in Greek organizations have these same requirements in terms of individual and interpersonal skills. (I say even because, rightly or wrongly, these affiliations will also be associated with partying, which is not a big help on grad school applications.)

Honor societies are definitely worth joining if you qualify.  Psychology clubs or related interest groups can help show you spend time in your proposed field outside of the classroom.  Leadership positions in clubs have the same benefits as all of the others listed here. 

I know on some large campuses that competition for some of these positions can be fierce.  If that is the case at your school, then look to the community for opportunities.  Most volunteer organizations in most communities are always ready to have an extra pair of hands. 

It's not exactly an extracurricular activity, but one activity I cannot recommend strongly enough is attending a professional psychology conference.  Ideally, you will present a poster with your own research, but if that is not possible, then going as an attendee is still valuable.  I've had many, many students tell me that they learned as much in 2 or 3 days that they've learned in some entire semesters.  There is no better way to get a sense of what it is like to be a professional psychologist in a short period of time.  Plus, it looks great on a resume (or curriculum vita, also called c.v. in academia)!

Most importantly, explore and do what you love.  As these examples show, sincere, enthusiastic involvement in almost any activity will not only help you get into grad school but also enrich your college experience and your life.

--The Data Doctor

Notes:  Have a question for the Data Doctor?  Send an email to sherry.hamby@lifepathsresearch.org or sherry.hamby@gmail.com or put it in the comments.

The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays.